USS Chesapeake, a 36-gun sail frigate, was one of the original six frigates built for the United States Navy in the late 18th century. Chesapeake was notable for the forced removal of several members of her crew in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807, as well as her loss to HMS Shannon during the War of 1812.
USS Chesapeake was built at the Gosport Navy Yard, at Portsmouth, Virginia. Commissioned during the first part of 1800, she operated off the southern United States and in the West Indies during the Quasi-War with France, capturing a French privateer on 1 January 1800. During much of 1802 and 1803 she was deployed to the Mediterranean as flagship during hostilities with Tripoli, then was laid up at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C.
In June 1807 Chesapeake, which had been refitted for further active service, sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, as flagship of Commodore James Barron. Bound for the Mediterranean after taking on stores and ammunition, she was as yet unprepared for action when the British frigate HMS Leopard stopped her and demanded that she be searched for Royal Navy deserters. When this was refused, Leopard fired on Chesapeake, killing and wounding several of her crew. The essentially defenseless American warship then surrendered, some alleged deserters were taken from her, and she was allowed to return to Gosport for repairs. This affair, which enraged the nation, was one of the incidents that led, some five years later, to war between the United States and Great Britain.
War of 1812
Following repairs, Chesapeake operated off New England under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur. During the last weeks of December and the first months of 1813, the frigate, which had been refitted for War of 1812 service, cruised in the Atlantic, taking as prizes a number of British commercial vessels. On 9 April 1813 she returned to Boston after a cruise against British commercial shipping. Over the next several weeks she was refitted and received a new commanding officer, the recently promoted Captain James Lawrence. Many of her officers were replaced and a large percentage of her crew was newly enlisted. Though the ship was a good one, with a well-seasoned captain, time would be necessary to work her men into a capable and disciplined combat team.
Battle with HMS Shannon
However, the time was not available. Blockading off Boston was HMS Shannon, commanded for the past seven years by Captain Philip Broke, whose attention to gunnery practice and other elements of combat readiness was extraordinary. Shannon and Chesapeake were of virtually identical strength, though the American ship's crew was rather larger, and a duel between the two was attractive to both captains. Broke even issued a formal challenge, though it did not reach Lawrence, whose previous experience with British warships had convinced him that they were not likely to be formidable opponents.
Chesapeake left Boston Harbor in the early afternoon of 1 June 1813. The two ships sailed several miles offshore, where Shannon slowed to await her opponent, who approached flying a special flag proclaiming "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" in recognition of America's prewar grievances against British policies. Though Lawrence had a brief opportunity to rake, he did not do so, but closed to place his port broadside against Shannon's starboard battery. Somewhat before 6 PM the ships opened fire, both hitting, but the British guns did more damage and produced crippling casualties on Chesapeake's quarterdeck. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded by small arms fire and had to be taken below, giving his final order "Fight her till she sinks, and don't give up the ship!"
The American ship was soon out of control. The two frigates came together. Captain Broke led his boarding party onto Chesapeake's quarterdeck, where they met fierce but disorganized resistance. Assisted by cannon and small arms fire from on board Shannon, they soon gained control above decks, though Captain Broke was badly wounded in the process. Some fifteen minutes after the battle began, Chesapeake was in British hands.
Casulaties were heavy: more than sixty killed on Chesapeake; about half that many on Shannon. The latter's cannon had made more than twice as many hits, and her boarding party demonstrated decisive superiority in hand-to-hand fighting. The action, which greatly boosted British morale, provided another of the War of 1812's many convincing examples of the vital importance of superior training and discipline in combat on sea and land.
On 10 September 1813 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry would engage a British flotilla in the Battle of Lake Erie. Flying from his masthead on his flagship USS Lawrence was a large blue flag bearing his friend's dying order: "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP".
Chesapeake was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her presence provided a major boost to British Navy morale. She later sailed to England and was sold there in 1820 for breaking up. Much of her material was subsequently used for building the Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire, England.
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