The American Revolution - Unfinished Business - Pirates - A New Navy - The War of 1812

Don't Give Up the Ship!

 The American Revolution created as many questions as it answered, 
 perhaps more. The United States was now free from the rule of Great 
 Britain. But what would it do with that freedom? How would it redefine
 itself internally and as a sovereign entity on the international stage?
 Indeed, how would it now protect itself in a world of nations that fought
 among themselves largely on the high seas?

 An answer to the question lay in the determination by president George 
 Washington and the Congress in 1794 to build six frigates that would
 defend American  interests at sea, and ultimately form the foundation of
 the U.S.  Navy. The Chesapeake was one of those six – along with
 Constellation Constitution, Congress, President and United States – but
 some called her the runt of the litter, the odd duck, the unlucky ship. Her
 name was the only one of the six not associated with a symbol of the 
 new  American  democracy. The two shipbuilders most responsible for 
 her design  and construction – Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox -
 despised each  other. She often found that building materials meant for  
 her construction were given instead to the other frigates. And all of the  
 bad attitude about her seemed to be confirmed when, in 1807, she was
 attacked without provocation by the British who, in perhaps a final insult,
 refused to take her as a prize of battle.

 But in the fullness of the history of the North Atlantic community into
 the present day, it may be that the USS Chesapeake accomplished
 more than the other five frigates in ways that are both symbolic  
 and real, and that the “unlucky ship” became the luckiest of them
When James Lawrence, mortally wounded in the War of 1812 in a
 battle with the HMS Shannon, uttered the words that would become
 the slogan of the U.S. Navy his intent was that the Chesapeake
 be burned before she could be captured.

                                                                                              Fortunately for history, his orders were not fulfilled.

September 5, 1781
In the Battle of the Virginia Capes, just outside of the Chesapeake Bay
French naval forces defeat the British, leading to the subsequent defeat of the British on Yorktown battlefields, and the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.

First Barbary War
At the end of the 18th century it is  the Barbary Coast pirates of the Mediterranean that most threaten American shipping and trade. The U.S. Navy is set in motion in 1794 with the construction of six frigates, including the Chesapeake. The most storied event of the Barbary War is Stephen Decatur's recapture and burning of the frigate Philadelphia on February 16, 1804 so that it can be kept from enemy hands.

When the British lost the Revolutionary War they also lost access to the large American naval labor force. The Royal Navy sailed worldwide and its labor needs were intense, solved by going into the streets, saloons and homes of port cities and capturing would-be sailors. It often categorized impressed sailors as British subjects, no matter their origins. The practice became an increasing point of conflict between the United States and Great Britain.

June 22, 1807
Even with impressment, general relations between the United States and Great Britain were civil. British ships regularly called at American ports for repair and supplies, and Americans were still in touch with their British origins. All of that seemed to change on a pleasant afternoon as the USS Chesapeake set out from Hampton Roads to the Mediterranean. Aside from her officers and crew, the frigate carried a family and their servants, an Italian Marine Band and their instruments, and a horse, all headed for the Mediterranean. Commodore James Barron had no reason to expect, and the ship was not yet prepared for, what happened in the same coastal waters as the Battle of the Capes in 1781. Officers of the HMS Leopard made a friendly approach to the Chesapeake and, once aboard, demanded that Barron give up four of his sailors believed to be British subjects. Barron refused, and when the British officers returned to their ship the Chesapeake was immediately shot across the bow, followed by four crushing broadsides. With no  means to fight back, Barron raised a flag of surrender, and, following the code of battle, offered the Chesapeake as a prize. The offer was spurned by the Leopard, but the four sailors were taken prisoner. The unprovoked attack on the USS Chesapeake awakened an anti-British rage among Americans, and was a catalyst for a new determination that their's was sovereign nation that needed to defend itself with a strong navy. The incident was also a psychological precursor to the War of 1812, though technically not one of its causes. 




The War of 1812
By 1811, the British had conceded that the 1807 attack on the USS Chesapeake had been a mistake and made reparations. But Great Britain was still interfering with American commerce on the seas, and impressment was still the practice. War with Great Britain was also seen by some, controversially, as
an opportunity for the United States to expand into British-controlled Canada. War was declared by the Congress and approved by president James Madison on June 18, 1812.
In the first year of the war the U.S. frigates scored victories over the Royal Navy that were surprising, even to the Americans, and dispiriting for the British, who sorely needed a victory at sea. That would come in one of the most storied, studied and debated battles in maritime history - the fifteen minute exchange of fire between the HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake.
They met off Boston Light on the afternoon of June 1, 1813. Captains James Lawrence of the Chesapeake and P.B.V. Broke of the Shannon were both much respected naval warriors by all parties in the United States, Great Britain and Canada. The battle, once opened, was finished in less than 15 minutes. The Shannon was triumphant, and both captains were gravely wounded. Second in command of the Shannon, Lt. Provo Wallis, took both ships north to the British naval headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The people of Halifax gathered at the piers as both ships came into the harbour. Out of respect for the Chesapeake and her now deceased captain James Lawrence, there was no cheering on the docks and wharves.

Library/Archives Canada

As she was taken to England she ceased to be the USS Chesapeake and became the HMS Chesapeake. She was studied by her captors and sailed under the British flag. The HMS Chesapeake was spotted back in her namesake bay on April 13, 1814 as part of a British flotilla. In subsequent years she was probably a stores ship at Portsmouth, England. The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, and the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France ended in 1815. England, an island nation, had always recycled its basic materials. Its fleets of wooden sailing ships were of better use broken up into timbers and boards for the building of houses, barns, churches and furniture. The USS/HMS Chesapeake, built in Portsmouth, Virginia was broken up in Portsmouth, England in 1819. Her timbers, cut from the forests of coastal North America, were advertised for sale in a British newspaper.

 The Battle 
 of  the


with the Algerine

Impressed!     Mariner's Museum


Officers of the HMS Leopard
Visit the USS Chesapeake
Mariners' Museum


      The Shannons meet the Chesapeakes
      on  board the Chesapeake June 1, 1813.
                                         Naval Historical Center

Hampshire Telegaph and Sussex Chronicle
April 17, 1819

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