The carnage was enormous. In less than 15 minutes, 40 members of the Chesapeake’s crew were killed and 96 wounded, while the Shannon had 34 killed and 56 wounded.
The Chesapeake’s headsail sheets and wheel were quickly shot away and she drifted helplessly downwind toward the Shannon, where sharpshooters in the Shannon’s fighting tops could rain down fire on the American frigate’s deck. A shot felled Captain Lawrence, who was taken below, where he uttered the famous words, according to the doctor who was attending him.
As the ships collided, Broke seized the opportunity to lead a boarding party onto the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck. In the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, Broke, too, was badly wounded by a saber cut to his skull. But the Americans’ colors were soon hauled down, the Royal ensign raised above them, and the battle was over.
By any normal measure, Lawrence should have been held responsible for a costly and unnecessary defeat. He had had strict orders to avoid contact with the enemy and instead to slip through their blockade in order to harass enemy merchant ships in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. These he totally disobeyed, losing a frigate and his life in the process.
His famous exhortation, too, was breached immediately. With no American officers on deck to formally surrender, the British officers now in command of the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck simply declared the fighting over, raised the British colors over the American flag, and imprisoned the surviving American crewmen below decks. The two ships sailed off in tandem to the British naval headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving the American spectators dumbfounded.
No American heroes emerged from the engagement. The first and second lieutenants were wounded, the fourth lieutenant killed. Third Lieutenant William Cox was never able to regain the deck after taking Lawrence below, and was therefore made the scapegoat, convicted of leaving his place of duty, and dismissed from the Navy in disgrace. (His family and descendants tried for years to clear his name. Finally, in 1952, President Truman pardoned Cox and posthumously restored him to his former rank.)
Lawrence died en route to Halifax. Having committed a succession of bad decisions that all but guaranteed the loss of his ship and many of her crew, he should have been disgraced. Instead, he was lionized: given a funeral in Canada with full military honors, buried there, then disinterred and brought back to Boston for another funeral, reburied in Salem, dug up once more, and finally buried for good at Trinity Church in New York.
Though the true disgrace was Lawrence’s, the American public would not allow it. They had wanted a victory on June 1, and if they could not have a victory, at least they wanted a hero—and a story that helped them find nobility in defeat. The details of the war might seem distant, but the impulse to create heroes in the wake of pointless loss is as familiar as Custer’s Last Stand or the saga of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Two centuries ago, we were already seeing the picture we wanted—and, in that spirit, Lawrence’s failures were forgotten and his memory reshaped to position him as the hero he always wanted to be.
Tom Halsted, a Gloucester writer and sailor, is the great-great-grandson of James Curtis, a midshipman who, as a 15-year-old, was Lawrence’s aide-de-camp on the Chesapeake.