James Lawrence

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James Lawrence

James Lawrence (1781-1813), American naval officer, was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on 1 October 1781. Though educated in the field of law, he joined the infant United States Navy in September 1798 as a Midshipman and served in the ship USS Ganges and frigate USS Adams during the undeclared Quasi-War with France. Commissioned in the rank of Lieutenant in 1802, he served in the schooner USS Enterprise during the War with Tripoli, taking part in a successful attack on enemy craft on 2 June 1803. In February 1804 he was second in command during the daring expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. Later in the conflict he commanded the Enterprise and a gunboat in battles with the Tripolitans. He was also First Lieutenant of the frigate USS John Adams and in 1805, commanded the small Gunboat Number 6 during a voyage across the Atlantic to Italy, a daring feat for the daredevil Lawrence, as the boat had only six inches of freeboard.

Subsequently, Lieutenant Lawrence commanded the warships Vixen, Wasp and Argus. In 1810 he also took part in trials of an experimental spar-torpedo. Promoted to the rank of Master Commandant in November 1810, he took command of the sloop of war USS Hornet a year later and sailed her to Europe on a diplomatic mission. From the beginning of the War of 1812, Lawrence and Hornet cruised actively, capturing the privateer Dolphin in July 1812. Later in the year Hornet blockaded the British sloop Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil, and on the 24th, still operating off northern South America, Hornet encountered HMS Peacock, a somewhat smaller and less powerful brig-rigged sloop of war. The two warships closed from opposite directions and, shortly before half-past five in the afternoon, opened fire on each other. Hornet's gunnery was so much more effective that Peacock surrendered within fifteen minutes, having lost her commanding officer and seven men killed or mortally wounded. Peacock was so badly shot up that she sank in shallow water shortly after the end of the action. Hornet, which had suffered one fatality among her crew, took aboard Peacock's survivors (except for a few who escaped to shore) and quickly repaired her own damages. Badly overcrowded, she then sailed for the United States, arriving at Martha's Vineyard on 19 March.

Upon his return to the United States in March, Lawrence learned of his promotion to Captain. Two months later he took command of the frigate USS Chesapeake, then preparing for sea at Boston, Massachusetts. She left port on 1 June 1813 and immediately engaged the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon in a fierce battle. Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded by small arms fire, ordered "Don't give up the ship" as he was carried below. However, his crew was overwhelmed by British boarders shortly afterwards. James Lawrence died of his wounds on 4 June, while Chesapeake was being taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by her captors. His body was later repatriated to New York for burial.

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