DGUTS and the story of Captain James Lawrence

I was recently sent an article by Boston Globe Writer Tom Halsted entitled “The real shameful story behind ‘Dont give up the ship’!”, about the iconic American slogan that is attributed to Captain James Lawrence. His recounting of that fateful June 1st day casts an ugly shadow on Lawrence, Perry’s hero, albeit not the resulting slogan that emerged. While it was a terrible Naval/military loss—Halsted’s article puts forward the idea that is was a PR win for the US. I might add that from that perspective is was perhaps the most important propaganda message to emerge from the early part of the War of 1812.

searchYou can read his Boston Globe article online:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/05/18/the-real-shameful-story-behind-don-give-ship/AVYGogGB9gtXrydeyRx1BP/story.html#

Mr. Halsted offers up an “official” recounting of the day: “200 YEARS AGO, on June 1, 1813, in the midst of a bloody sea battle between an American and a British frigate a few miles north of Boston, one of America’s most memorable wartime slogans was born. As the mortally wounded Captain James Lawrence of the US frigate Chesapeake lay dying in his cabin, his crew locked in hand-to-­hand combat on the quarterdeck above, he is alleged to have uttered the memorable words: “Don’t give up the ship!” His rallying cry, published a few weeks later in a Baltimore newspaper, became the unofficial motto of the US Navy.

But he quickly goes on to paint a much bleaker picture. The events that day, according to Mr. Halsted were a combination of James Lawrence not following orders, bad decision making, poor strategy and a lack of crew training. Some say that Captain Lawrence was goaded into battle by bold editorials whipping up local fervor in local newspapers, patriotic crowds standing watch and an early over confidence among American leaders and the military.

It was just a year into the war and the British were still pretty preoccupied with Napoleon and the French. American privateers, and the USS Constitution had all been quite able to defeat and or outwit many of the British ships. So why not think Captain Lawrence could defeat the British. He had been a stand out leader and had led his past commands with valor and success. A young OH Perry had been aboard with Lawrence and valued his expertise and good judgment. There was no reason to think that this would be a devastating loss.

What Mr. Halsted brushed over is that Lawrence had just taken over command of the Chesapeake. He had a green, untested, untrained crew and officers with little actual battle experience. He had expressed his concern to his superiors that his ship was not ready to engage in battle and he was the only ship in Boston Harbor at the time. It would be easier to try a avoid conflict. But the British blockade, commanded by the very experienced Captain Block and the HMS Shannon was an opponent to be very wary of. But we also know that public opinion, hype and bravado sometimes cause us to make ill-fated decisions. And so it was for Captain Lawrence that day

According to Mr. Halsted, in late May 1813, Captain Philip Broke sailed the HMS Shannon, flagship of the blockading British squadron, into Massachusetts Bay alone, knowing the Americans had only one frigate ready for sea in Boston. On June 1, the Chesapeake rose to the challenge. Unlike most sea battles, which take place far from land, the whole encounter was staged for public viewing. “Spectators lined the rooftops in Boston and along the North Shore, and commanders of both ships repeatedly had to warn a boisterous spectator fleet of yachts and small boats to stay clear,” wrote Halsted.

The battle commenced, Lawrence not only put his ship in harms way, pulling aside HMS Shannon but he loses the battle in a record 11 minutes. There was tremendous carnage and casualties on both sides with nearly 40 dead on the USS Chesapeake and 34 on the British ship HMS Shannon. The worst of it was that according to Mr. Halstead’s account Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded and taken below to be attended to by the ships surgeon. From there he was unable to command his ship allowing the British to board and seize control. A total disaster at sea with an audience!

As Napoleon is credited with saying “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” There is no question that on that day the engagement between the Chesapeake and the Shannon should never have taken place. Halsted observed that not only did Lawrence’s surviving crew give up the ship almost immediately, but some historians believe that Lawrence had disobeyed orders to avoid combat in the first place, then committed a series of tactical blunders that all but guaranteed he and his ship would lose. So what was won that day?

Mr. Halsted concludes that “Rather than a heroic stand, what took place that day and after was one of the most spectacular—public relations coups in American military history. It was carried out with the full support of the public. And to look back on what really happened, as it has been pieced together by historians since, is to appreciate how little has changed about one aspect of war: our need to transform even the most pointless losses into a noble, defiant message.”

We do know that a few months after the battle, a dark blue almost black banner, was commissioned by OH Perry with Lawrence’s words sewn on. It was hoisted to the masthead of his namesake vessel, the Brig USS Lawrence. Its captain, Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, then won the most decisive victory in the War of 1812 on Sept. 10 over British naval forces in the Battle of Lake Erie. That original “Dont give up the ship” banner now graces the US Naval Academy main hall. So as Winston Churchill once may have said “History is written by the victors”.

Note: Tom Halsted is a Gloucester Massachusetts writer and sailor and the great great grandson of James Curtis, a midshipman who, as a 15 ­year ­old, was Lawrence’s aide ­de ­camp on the Chesapeake.

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