“Don’t give up the ship!”—attributed to mortally wounded James Lawrence, captain of the U.S.S. Chesapeake, by his attending physician, June 1, 1813
What amazes me about military history is how often defeat—no, even a downright debacle—can be converted to something inspirational. Dunkirk, transformed into a triumph of the human spirit with a blast of Churchillian oratory, narrowly averted a decimation of the British army. In perhaps the first attempt of a Yale man in the field of intelligence, Nathan Hale botched perhaps the only mission he ever had, but became a byword of patriotism for a gallows statement he probably didn’t make in the form we know it. ("I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country" sure sounds much better than "I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.")
Likewise with Captain James Lawrence, who has come down as one of the heroes of the War of 1812, even though his career was shorter and his judgment considerably lesser than many colleagues in the fledgling U.S. Navy. Accounts vary on his exact final words—some believe it was “Don't give up the ship; fight her till she sinks"; others think it was "Tell them to fire faster--don't give up the ship."
But you get the idea—and so did his friend, fellow naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry, who flew a bright blue banner emblazoned with Lawrence’s words at the masthead of a vessel named for the fallen sailor, USS Lawrence, at the Battle of Lake Erie.
Perry’s brilliant victory—and his dramatic use of the flag in the battle (he took it with him when the Lawrence was put out of commission in the fighting, then when he rejoined the fight unexpectedly)—did much to shine a kinder light on his friend. In his estimable The Naval War of 1812, Theodore Roosevelt noted: “I doubt if ever before a nation gained so much honor by a few single-ship duels.”
But the contest between the Chesapeake and its British counterpart, the Shannon, was a notable exception. Tom Halsted’s recent article in The Boston Globe on the circumstances surrounding the battle had to have been a hard pill for many to swallow, but most historians—including Roosevelt—have long concluded that, at very least, the British commander, Captain Philip Broke, used better tactics during the contest.
But it also appeared that Lawrence took an unnecessary risk. He had been ordered to slip out of Boston Harbor at the first opportunity and to begin picking off British merchant ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as the opportunity presented itself. He was not authorized to take on the Shannon, or any ship, mano-a-mano—particularly when he’d only been given command of the frigate a mere two weeks before, and he was helming a crew as untrained as it was demoralized (understandably, since they hadn’t been paid in weeks).
But Lawrence, seeing the enemy hanging out in the harbor, couldn’t resist taking the bait. It was all over shockingly fast. His famous plea notwithstanding, there simply was no officer at the conclusion of the battle to continue the fight. Fifteen minutes after the battle was joined, to the shock of the crowd of spectators on shore, the Chesapeake had struck its colors, with the ship and its crew—including the fatally wounded Lawrence—being hauled up to Halifax.
Eventually, Lawrence’s remains—already buried by the enemy with full military honors—were returned to the United States. He is now laid to rest in the burial ground of New York’s Trinity Church, along with other notables such as Alexander Hamilton, Robert Fulton and Albert Gallatin. In its understandable zeal to honor the brave, Americans might well have questioned how much to honor occasions such as Lawrence’s last battle, when daring outweighs good judgment.