Parading the Colors
"Don't Give Up the Ship!"
1 June 1813: USS Chesapeake engages HMS Shannon off Boston (painting by Geoff Hunt). In this famous battle the US Navy suffered a painful defeat, the inexperienced captain and crew of Chesapeake proving no match for Shannon, one of the Royal Navy’s crack frigates. Nevertheless it was a hard-fought engagement with heavy casualties on both sides. Shannon’s captain, Philip Broke, patrolling off Boston, had issued a formal challenge to Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake, though as it happened the US frigate sortied from Boston Harbor on Lawrence's own initiative. After a brief gunnery duel in which both ships suffered damage but Chesapeake got the worst of it, Shannon came alongside and dispatched a boarding party. By this time Captain Lawrence had already been fatally wounded by a sharpshooter in Shannon’s rigging and was carried to his cabin. As he lay dying, his last words were: “Don’t give up the ship!” But after a brief melee the British cleared the Chesapeake’s upper deck and compelled her surrender. During the hand-to-hand fight Captain Broke received a bad cutlass wound to the head in payment for his challenge. The entire battle lasted no more than fifteen minutes, during which time Shannon had 23 men killed and 56 wounded while Chesapeake had 50 killed and 99 wounded. Among the American dead were the captain, four lieutenants and several other officers. The British put a prize crew aboard Chesapeake and both ships proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia. As the two frigates entered Halifax harbor, the Royal Navy ships at anchor manned their yards, bands played martial music, and each ship that Shannon passed saluted her with cheers. Though Captain Lawrence had lost his ship and his life, his dying words rang true and they were inscribed on the flag that flew from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship during the victorious Battle of Lake Erie (10 September 1813).
Geoff Hunt’s painting depicts the initial stage of the battle and clearly shows the ensigns and pennants flown by both ships on 1 June 1813: for Shannon a single Blue Ensign, the corresponding narrow pennant and the Union Jack; for Chesapeake three ensigns, the narrow pennant, and a white topmast flag emblazoned with the slogan FREE TRADE AND SAILORS’ RIGHTS—an allusion to one of the causes of the War of 1812. The US ensign was the 15-star, fifteen-stripe version in use between 1797 and 1818. The canton of the Blue Ensign was the post-1801 version of the Union Jack, combing the crosses of SS. George, Andrew and Patrick.