. . . of The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake
Two centuries after her launch in Portsmouth, Virginia the USS Chesapeake was posing the most basic questions about the preservation of history .  .  .

Hampshire Mills Group


 In 1807 the American 
 USS Chesapeake 
 was  attacked by the  
 British  HMS
 Leopard  and some of her crew  were taken prisoners  to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The event brought America face up against it’s place as a sovereign nation that needed to defend itself. 190 years later the Chesapeake brought citizens in all three places to  fundamental questions about the very essence of history: why do we preserve it, what do we preserve of it, and how?

In 1997, as the Chesapeake Mill sat idle on the River Meon, its future was anyone’s guess. Some had designs on the mill as a commercial place, perhaps a boutique restaurant or a condominium conversion. Those who appreciated the mill’s history wanted to save it as the historic building that it was. It could be an interpretive museum devoted to the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy frigate of which it was built and the environmental history of the Meon River Valley and its many watermills. They also wanted to be sure that its timbers would not be cut up to accommodate the structure of a redesigned interior. 

 “It is crucial,” said Geoffrey Morell, the Vicar of Shedfield, in a fundraising letter, “ that we act quickly to enable this building to be shared as part of our heritage and to be an important resource for future generations .  . . We hope that you will want to be part of this significant project of local, national and international importance.” The effort could not find sufficient funding, but it raised interesting questions worthy of continuing discussion.

  • Are pieces of wood recycled over 200 years from one purpose to another still attached to their original purpose, and in which cases are they worthy of costly preservation? How should that need be prioritized?

The international history of the mill was given as another reason for its preservation, but the argument failed to excite potential supporters. British Heritage had more applications for solely British projects than it could handle, and there was no interest in financial support from American sources. The American ambassador to Britain at the time, William J. Crowe, said only “I found the story fascinating . . . You are involved in a very worthwhile endeavor and I wish you the best for its success.” The U.S. Navy kept the matter at arm’s length. Questions for discussion:

  • The United States had lost the USS Chesapeake in battle. Why would American interests want to support a reminder of that failure? Why would two contemporary allies want to commemorate a war that was a past mistake?


                                                  Mariner's Museum     

The USS Constitution, shown here at the Navy Yard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1858, has undergone a number of restorations since her launch in 1797. Each restoration replaced old materials with new and evolved her purpose from a fighting frigate to a national monument, now residing in Boston Harbor. Estimates of how much of her orginal building materials are retained range from negligible to 15%. The estimate of the amount of the USS Chesapeake that was built into the Chesapeake Mill ranges up to 30%. The true figure is not known. That material, however,  is just as it was in 1820, and protected since that time within the structure of a sturdy building.

  • Is there more of the Chesapeake in England than there is the Constitution in Boston? Is it important to know the answer?


At the same time that the fate of the Chesapeake Mill was being debated in England, a similar deliberation was taking place in Halifax, also related to the USS Chesapeake. After the defeat of the Chesapeake by the Shannon in 1813, the captured ship was brought to Halifax, the body of her Captain, James Lawrence, shrouded on-deck in an American flag for all to see. Though they were the enemy in the War of 1812, Lawrence and the Chesapeake were treated with respect by the citizens of Halifax. Lawrence was buried in a full British military ceremony, and some of his crew were marched over Citadel Hill to the prison at Melville Island. Eleven of them died, and were buried along with 177 other American casualties of the War of 1812  in a forested hillside on a spit in Halifax Harbour known as Deadman’s Island.

In the last years of the 20th century, a developer gained possession of Deadman’s Island and proceeded with a plan to develop condominiums. It took time for those opposed to the development on environmental principles to fully understand the history of the Island, and its potential to help their cause. At first, the developer pointed to the collection of nameless bones as something that could be respectfully worked around in development of the condominiums, but when meticulous records kept by the British Admiralty of the identities of Americans buried in the hillside were found development plans came to a quick end. The city of Halifax bought back the land and vowed to protect it. The questions that arose:

  • Why are named bodies more powerful than anonymous burials? What is the responsibility of citizens of one country to safeguard the dead of another country?




 The Chesapeake Mill
In England,  the decision was made by the County of Hampshire that if a well-funded and long-term plan to save the mill as a museum could not be found it could not afford to support it in that way on its own. The county leased it to a company that would continue its use as the commercial building it had been since 1820, and invest in its repair and maintenance without altering its historic timbers and structure. Preservationists were not totally pleased with the result, but most agreed that it was an acceptable outcome. The questions at play:

  • What is the role of government in historic preservation? Or can it be more effectively supported in some cases by commercial enterprise?

In 2003 the mill was given a new roof at a cost of £ 100,000. The preservation of the timbers of the USS Chesapeake would continue.
                                                  Peter Hartnett

In Canada, Deadman’s Island came to the attention of members of the Tennessee Air National Guard as they were involved in exercises near Halifax. Under Senior Master Sergeant Henry Posey of Memphis, guard members joined with officials from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and the city of Halifax in a ceremony of memorial for the fallen, parts of it broadcast in the United States and Canada. The cover of the ceremony’s printed program held the famous painting of the Chesapeake and Shannon coming into Halifax Harbour in 1813. On American Memorial Day 2005, a similar service was held on Canadian soil, and a monument naming all of the buried veterans of the War of 1812 was placed on the Island by the U.S. Veteran’s Administration.


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