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HMS Shannon was a 38-gun Leda class frigate of the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1806 and served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. She won a noteworthy naval victory on 1 June 1813, during the latter conflict, against the American Navy's USS Chesapeake.

Career

Construction and commissioning

Shannon was built by Josiah and Thomas Brindley, at Frindsburymarker in Kentmarker, and was launched on 5 May 1806. She was to spend her first seven years under the command of Captain Philip Broke, who was transferred from HMS Druid, and took command of Shannon in June that year. Shannon was one of the largest frigates built by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, at a time when the Admiralty concentrated on building them in larger numbers but to smaller builds and less heavy armament.

Home waters

Shannon was quickly put into service. She formed part of a squadron under Commodore Owen which was patrolling off the French port of Boulognemarker, and on 8 October took part in the bombardment of the town using Congreve rockets. Her next task was sailing in 1807 with HMS Meleager to protect the whale fishery off Greenlandmarker. Despite encountering ice on 7 May 1807, they were able to push through, reaching the southern part of Spitsbergenmarker on 17 June. There the two ships surveyed the Bay of Magdalena, at a latitude of 80 deg N. They eventually reached a latitude of 80 deg 6min N before being stopped by ice. They then turned westwards, and reached the coast of Greenland on 23 July. The island of Shannonmarker was named after the ship. Early autumn was spent cruising from Shetlandmarker, and Shannon then left, returning to Yarmouthmarker by the end of September, where she cruised off the Downsmarker. She put into Spitheadmarker on 28 September to undergo a refit.

By the end of 1807, the Portuguesemarker had declared war on Britain. Shannon joined Sir Samuel Hood's expedition against Madeiramarker. The island was taken without a shot being fired after a show of force, and Captain Broke was ordered to escort the transports that had accompanied the fleet back to England, where they arrived on 7 February 1808. She then put into Plymouthmarker before returning to patrolling in the Channel. In November 1808, the Shannon took the French frigate Thetis in tow. The Thetis had been captured shortly before by HMS Amethyst, and later entered service as HMS Brune. Shannon spent 1809 with the Channel Fleet, and on 27 January captured the French 14-gun privateer cutter Pommereuil. Broke sent the prize into Plymouthmarker. On 1 June 1811, Shannon returned to Plymouth and was put into the dock where her hull was re-coppered. After this was completed, she sailed for Portsmouth to complete her refitting and resupplying in preparation for being assigned to foreign service.

The American coast

Broke and the Shannon were ordered to sail for North America as tensions between Britain and the United Statesmarker deteriorated in the run up to what would become the War of 1812. The Shannon sailed from Portsmouthmarker and arrived in Halifaxmarker on 24 September 1811 after a journey of 45 days. On 5 July 1812 Broke was given command of a squadron consisting of Shannon, HMS Africa, HMS Belvidera, HMS Aeolus and later HMS Guerrieremarker. He was then ordered by Vice-Admiral Herbert Sawyer to carry out a blockade of American ports. Broke's first success came on the 16th, when he captured the 16-gun American brig Nautilus off Sandy Hook. The Nautilus had been on a cruise from New Yorkmarker. Later in the evening, the squadron spotted and gave chase to the USS Constitutionmarker as she sailed from Chesapeake Bay to New York. The chase lasted some 65 hours, during which both pursued and pursuers had to tow and warp. The Belvidera eventually managed to come within gun shot of the Constitution on the afternoon of the 17th, but a lucky breeze blew up, and the fact that the Constitution had a clean bottom allowed the fleeing American to make good her escape.

The Shannon’s next duty was to meet a convoy homebound from Jamaicamarker. An American squadron under Commodore John Rodgers had sailed to intercept it. Broke and the Shannon ensured the convoy safely passed the Great Banksmarker, before returning to the American coast. She put into Halifax on 20 September to take on provisions. Sir John Warren arrived whilst she was in port, and took up the post of Commander in Chief of the North American and West Indies Station. Shannon was then despatched with the schooner HMS Bream to rescue the crew and offload the money being carried by the frigate HMS Barbadoes, which had been wrecked on Sable Islandmarker. Whilst carrying this out, Shannon encountered and subsequently captured an enemy privateer, which she took back to Halifax with her.

On 13 October aboard Shannon, and whilst cruising with HMS Tenedos, HMS Nymphe and HMS Curlew Broke captured the American privateer brig Thorne. Sir John Warren was at Bermudamarker during the winter of 1812, and left Broke in command of the Royal Navy squadrons operating on the coasts of Nova Scotiamarker, New Brunswickmarker and New Englandmarker. In December Broke took the Shannon and escorted a homebound convoy half way across the Atlanticmarker, returning to North America by sailing round the Azores. In 1813, Captain Oliver arrived on the station aboard the 74-gun third rate HMS Valiant, and took command from Captain Broke. Broke continued to deploy with his squadron, until the Shannon and Tenedos became separated from them in a gale. They decided to steer for Bostonmarker, reaching the port on 2 April. Having observed the activity in the port, they returned to their squadron and reported the presence of the American frigates USS Congress, USS President and USS Constitution. In their absence, the USS Chesapeake had entered the harbour through the eastern channel.

Captain Capel aboard HMS Hogue ordered the Shannon and Tenedos to watch the port from close inshore, while the rest of the squadron cruised in the offing. On 16 May they chased a large armed ship under American colours, and force her to run aground near Cape Ann Town. Shannon anchored close to the grounded ship and fired a few shorts to disperse a number of militiamen who were assembling. Lieutenant George Watt then managed to bring the ship off the shore without loss. She was discovered to be the French corvette-built privateer Invincible. She had already been captured in the Bay of Biscaymarker by HMS Mutine, but had been retaken by the American privateer Alexander. The Invincible was sent into Halifax. On 25 March Shannon took on stores of water and provisions from Tenedos, which was then detached, with orders to rejoin the Shannon on 14 June.

Fighting the Chesapeake

Issuing a challenge

During his long period in command of Shannon, Broke had drilled his crew to an extremely high standard of naval gunnery.
"The weekly routine at sea was for the watch on deck to be exercised at the great guns on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and in the afternoons the first division of the watch was exercised at small arms.
Wednesday and Thursday forenoons saw the watch on deck at the carronades, and in the afternoons the second division of the watch at small arms.
Friday was reserved for the Midshipmen – great guns in the morning, small arms in the afternoon.
Thus each man had one morning at the 18-pounders, one morning at the carronades and two afternoons with musquets in every week.
Saturdays were reserved for washing clothes and scrubbing the berth deck in the afternoon.
Sunday, apart from Church service and any necessary evolutions with the sails, was free."
In addition to these gunnery drills, Broke was fond of preparing hypothetical scenarios to test his crew. For example, after all hands had been drummed to quarters, he would inform them of a theoretical attack and see how they would act to defend the ship. He would also arrange on occasion for a wooden cask to be sent over the side so competitions could be held to see which crew could hit it and how fast they could do so. A game called 'singlestick' was also devised and practised. "This was a game employing roughly similar thrusts and parries as were used with cutlass, but as it was played with blunt sticks, hits, although painful, were not often dangerous. It soon developed quickness of eye and wrist."

Eager to engage and defeat one of the American 'super-frigates' that had already scored a number of victories over the Royal Navy in single ship confrontations, Broke prepared a challenge. The USS President had already slipped out of the harbour under the cover of fog and had evaded the British. The Constitution was undergoing extensive repairs and alterations and would not be ready for sea in the foreseeable future. However, the Chesapeake appeared to be ready to put to sea. Consequently Broke decided to send his challenge to the USS Chesapeake, which had been refitting in Bostonmarker harbour under the command of Captain James Lawrence, offering single ship combat. Whilst patrolling offshore, the Shannon had intercepted and captured a number of American ships attempting to reach the harbour. After sending two of them off to Halifax, he found that his crew was being dangerously reduced. Broke therefore resorted to burning the rest of the prizes in order to conserve his highly trained crew in anticipation of the battle with the Chesapeake. The boats from the burnt prizes were sent into Boston, carrying Broke's oral invitation to Lawrence to come out and engage him. He had already sent the Tenedos away in the hope that the more favourable odds would entice the American out, but eventually began to despair that the Chesapeake would ever come out of the harbour. He finally decided to send a written challenge.
"As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags.
The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her main deck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarter-deck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately.
I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation.
We have both noble motives.
You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect.
Favour me with a speedy reply.
We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here."


By now the Shannon had been off Boston for 56 days and was running short of provisions, whilst the extended period at sea was wearing the ship down. She would be even more at a disadvantage facing the Chesapeake, fresh from harbour and a refit. A boat was despatched carrying the invitation, manned by a Mr Slocum, a discharged American prisoner. The boat had not reached the shore when the Chesapeake was seen underway, sailing out of the harbour. She was flying three American ensigns and a large white flag at the foremast inscribed 'Free Trade and Sailor's Rights'. Shannon carried 276 officers, seamen and marines of her proper complement; eight recaptured seamen; 22 Irish labourers who had been 48 hours in the ship, and of whom only four could speak English, and 24 boys, of whom about 13 were under 12 years of age. Broke had trained his gun crews to fire accurate broadsides into the hulls of enemy vessels, with the aim of killing their gun crews, rather than shooting down the masts. Lawrence meanwhile was confident in his ship, especially since she carried a substantially larger crew. Meanwhile the previous American victories over Royal Navy ships left him expectant of success. Just before the engagement, the American crew gave three cheers.

Initial engagement

The two ships met at half past five in the afternoon, east of Boston lighthouse, between Cape Annmarker and Cape Codmarker. Shannon was flying a rusty blue ensign and her dilapidated outside appearance after a long period at sea suggested that she would be an easy opponent. Observing the Chesapeake’s many flags, a sailor had questioned Broke: "Mayn't we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?" "No," said Broke, "we've always been an unassuming ship." The two ships opened fire just before 18:00 at a range of about 35 metres, with Shannon scoring the first hit, striking the Chesapeake on one of her gunports with two round shot and a bag of musket balls fired by William Mindham, the gun captain of one of Shannon’s starboard 18-pounders. Two or three further broadsides followed which swept the Chesapeake’s decks with grape and roundshot from Shannon’s 32-pounder carronades. The Chesapeake fell on board Shannon, lying athwart her starboard bow, trapped by one of Shannon’s anchors.

Shannon now opened fire on the Chesapeake’s maindeck with her after guns firing through the Chesapeake’s port holes. Many of Chesapeake’s crew were killed or wounded, with two thirds of her gun crews already casualties. The Chesapeake’s wheel was then shot away and her helmsman killed by a 9-pounder gun that Broke had ordered installed on the quarter deck for that very purpose. Trapped against the Shannon and unable to manoeuvre away, the stern now became exposed and was swept by raking British fire. Her situation worsened when a small open cask of musket cartridges abaft the mizzen-mast blew up. When the smoke cleared, Captain Broke judged the time was right and gave the order to board. Lawrence had also tried to give the order to board but the British were faster.

The British board

Captain Broke leads the boarding party aboard the Chesapeake
Mr Stevens, the boatswain attempted to lash the two ships together to prevent the Chesapeake from disengaging and escaping, and lost an arm as he did so. A party of small-arm men rushed aboard the Chesapeake, led by Broke and including the purser, Mr G. Aldham, and the clerk, Mr John Dunn. Aldham and Dunn were killed as they crossed the gangway, but the rest of the party made it onto the Chesapeake.
"Captain Broke, at the head of not more that twenty men, stepped from the rail of the waist-hammock netting to the muzzle of the after-carronade of the Chesapeake, and sprang from thence upon her quarterdeck."
The main-deck was found to be empty, having been swept clear by Shannon’s broadsides. Broke and his men quickly advanced forward along the deck, whilst more British reinforcements leapt aboard.

Meanwhile, the First lieutenant, Mr George T. L. Watt, had attempted to hoist the British colours over the Chesapeake, but was hit in the forehead by grapeshot as he did so. Fighting had now broken out along the top-masts of the ships as rival sharpshooters fired upon the their opponents in their rival's masts, and on the sailors on the exposed decks. The British marksmen, led by midshipman William Smith, who had command of the fore-top, stormed the Chesapeake’s fore-top over the yard-arm and had killed all the Americans there. Captain Broke himself led a charge against a number of the Americans who had managed to rally on the forecastle. After four minutes of fierce fighting, the Americans called for quarter, but finding themselves superior in numbers to the British, they rallied and counter attacked. Three American sailors, probably from the rigging, descended and attacked Captain Broke. Taken by surprise, he killed the first, but the second hit him with a musket which stunned him, whilst the third sliced open his skull with his sabre, knocking him to the deck. Before he could finish Broke off, he was cut down by William Windham, and the Shannon’s crew rallied to the defence of their captain and carried the forecastle, killing the remaining Americans.

Broke handed over command of the Shannon to Lieutenant Wallis. Though wounded, Broke was able to save the life of a young American midshipman who had slid down a rope from the fore-top. With American resistance weakening, Lieutenant Charles Leslie Falkiner who had commanded the boarders who had rushed the main-deck, took command of the prize. Whilst the two yard-arms had been locked together, Mr Cosnaham, who had commanded the main-top, had crawled out on the main yard-arm where he could fire down onto the Chesapeake, killing three of her men.

The Chesapeake is taken

The British then secured the ship and took her surrender. The engagement had lasted just eleven minutes. Shannon had lost 23 killed, and had 56 wounded. Chesapeake had about 60 killed, including her four lieutenants, the master and many other of her officers, and about as many wounded. Captain Lawrence had been mortally wounded by fire from Shannon’s fore-top and was carried below before the Chesapeake was boarded. His last order upon being wounded was "Don't give up the ship!". A large cask of un-slaked lime was found open on Chesapeake’s forecastle and another bag of lime was discovered in the fore-top. British sailors alleged the intention was to throw handfuls into the eyes of Shannon’s men in an unfair and dishonourable manner as they attempted to board, though that was never done by the Chesapeake’s crew, and the historian Albert Gleaves has called the allegation "absurd," noting, "Lime is always carried in ship's stores as a disinfectant, and the fact that it was left on the deck after the ship was cleared for action was probably due to the neglect of some subordinate, or petty officer." Shannon’s midshipmen during the action were Messers. Smith, Leake, Clavering, Raymond, Littlejohn and Samwell. Samwell was the only other officer to be wounded in the action. Mr Etough was the acting master, and conned the ship into the action. Shortly after the frigate had been secured, Broke fainted from loss of blood and was rowed back to the Shannon to be attended to by the ship's surgeon. After the victory, a prize crew was put aboard the Chesapeake and the Shannon escorted her and her crew into Halifax, arriving there on 6 June. There the sailors were imprisoned and the ship was repaired and taken into service by the Royal Navy. The Chesapeake was sold at Portsmouth, England in 1820 and broken up.

Aftermath

Newspaper announcing the Shannon’s victory
The victory in closely-matched combat raised the shaken morale of the Royal Navy, and the Americans honoured the heroism of Captain Lawrence. After setting out on 5 September for a brief cruise under a Captain Teahouse, the Shannon departed for England on 4 October, carrying the recovering Captain Broke. They arrived at Portsmouthmarker on 2 November. After the successful action Lieutenants Wallis and Falkiner were promoted to the rank of commander, and Messrs. Etough and Smith were made lieutenants. Captain Broke was made a Baronet that September. The Court of Common Council of Londonmarker awarded him the freedom of the city, and a sword worth 100 guinea. He also received a piece of plate worth 750 pounds and a cup worth 100 guineas.

The Shannon was placed in reserve as a receiving ship at Sheernessmarker in 1831, was renamed HMS St Lawrence in 1844, and was finally broken up at Chathammarker, a process completed on 12 November 1859.

Legacy

Graves of Shannon's crew are marked in the cemetery of the Naval Dockyard and Saint Paul's Church in Halifax. A plaque was erected to commemorate the battle in Halifax in 1927. Museum displays include Shannon's bell at the Maritime Command Museum in Halifax and an exhibit about the battle which includes USS Chesapeake's surgeon's chest and mess kettle the Maritime Museum of the Atlanticmarker in Halifax.

Because he was able to claim six days as acting captain of the Shannon, Provo Wallis became senior to many others who had been lieutenants in the Napoleanic-era Royal Navy. It was an advantage that, combined with his longevity, eventually propelled him to the post of Admiral of the Fleet.

Fictionalised accounts of the battle appear in The Fortune of War by Patrick O'Brian and The Key to Honor by Ron Wattanja.

Coin struck in Halifax honouring Broke's victory


Folk song

The battle became the subject of a British ballad:

The Chesapeake and the Shannon

The Chesapeake so bold, out of Boston, I am told,

Came to take a British frigate neat and handy, O!

It allowed immigrants to lambast the critical events

that unfolded during the Kentucky resolutions, O!

Yankee doodle, Yankee doodle dandy, O!
The people of the port came out to see the sport,
With their music playing Yankee doodle dandy, O!

The British frigate's name, that for the purpose came

To tame the Yankee's courage neat and handy, O!

Was the Shannon, Captain Broke, with his crew all hearts of oak,

And in fighting, you must know, he was the dandy, O!

Yankee doodle, &c.

The fight had scarce began when the Yankees, with much fun,

Said, we'll tow her into Boston neat and handy, O!

And "I'll kalkilate" we'll dine, with our lasses drinking wine,

And we'll dance the jig of Yankee doodle dandy, O!

Yankee doodle, &c.

But they soon every one flinched from the gun,

Which at first they thought to use so neat and handy, O!

Brave Broke he waved his sword, crying, "Now, my lads, let's aboard,"

And we'll stop their playing Yankee doodle dandy, O!

Yankee doodle, &c.

He scarce had said the word, when they all jump'd on board,

And they hauled down the ensign neat and handy, O!

Notwithstanding all their brag, the glorious British flag

At the Yankees' mizzen-peak it looked the dandy, O!

Yankee doodle, &c.

Then here's to all true blue, both officers and crew,

Who tamed the Yankees' courage neat and handy, O!

And may it ever prove in battle, as in love,

The true British sailor is the dandy, O!

Yankee doodle, &c.

References

  • Rif Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. 2008 (2nd edition), Seaforth Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84415-717-4.
  • HMS Shannon's career
  • The original despatches reporting the capture of the Chesapeake, as printed in the London Gazette.


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