'Don't give up the ship'

In my job as Curator of Antiquities I have the great pleasure of looking after the Museum's fascinating collection of flags. The museum's collection includes part of an early US ensign, 1600.2 x 1676.4 mm in size. The fifteen star canton survives with two stripes still attached to it. Its construction would appear to be improvised, the bunting being a silk and cotton mixture, the stars linen and the hoist silk. It is all that survives of a flag believed to have been captured by the British in the famous action between Shannon and USS 'Chesapeake' on 1 June 1813. The ensign was sold by Debenham, Storr & Sons in 1900 and was said to have been handed down through the family of Lieutenant Samuel Grandy RN who died in 1856. Although Grandy was actively employed in the Navy in 1813, he was not on board 'Chesapeake' at the time of the action. After a period in a private museum run by T.G. Middleton at the Edinburgh Castle public house, Regent's Park, the ensign appeared on the market again in 1908 when it was bought by anglophile American millionaire, William Waldorf Astor for 850 guineas and presented to the Royal United Services Institute Museum. It remained there until the museum closed in 1963 and was then transferred to the National Maritime Museum.
L0158.jpgUSS 'Chesapeake' ensign flag
The capture of 'Chesapeake', which took place during the War of 1812, ended a series of actions in which larger and more heavily armed American frigates had captured British opponents.
Fired on by the British in 1807 and scarcely able to retaliate on that occasion, 'Chesapeake' already had a reputation as an unlucky ship. At Boston in May 1813, she had just been refitted and had a new commander, James Lawrence. Philip Broke, who saw his chances of promotion dwindling as the war progressed, detached his sister ship to even the contest and issued a challenge to Lawrence. In the event, Lawrence came out of port before he received it. He had been ordered to proceed to the mouth of the St Lawrence and intended to deal with that enemy frigate on the horizon en route.
PU5837.jpgBoarding and Taking the American ship 'Chesapeake' by the Officers & crew of HMS 'Shannon'
'Chesapeake' was wearing three American ensigns in case one or more was shot away and a white flag with the words: "Free trade and sailor's rights" - a reference to the grievances that had provoked the war.
A seaman asked Broke: "Mayn't we have three ensigns sir, like she has?"
Broke replied: "No we've always been an unassuming ship".
The 11-minute action ended with the capture of 'Chesapeake', not because of Broke's enthusiasm for long range gunnery, but because of 'Shannon's' superior rate of fire at close quarters and the successful boarding of the US ship by the British. The fact that 'Chesapeake' had an inexperienced crew may have decided the issue. Casualties were very heavy on both sides - both Lawrence and his second in command Augustus Ludlow were mortally wounded. Broke, left literally with a hole in the head, and surprisingly survived until 1841. Lawrence's injunction: "Don't give up the ship" was widely reported in the press and reproduced on a flag flown at the battle of Lake Erie a few months later.
The museum also holds 'Chesapeake's' signal book, bound with a bar of lead in the spine so it could be thrown overboard and prevented from falling into enemy hands.
On 1 June there was no time to do this.
F3562-3.jpgSignal book of USS 'Chesapeake'.
Nasty, brutal and short (to misquote Hobbes), this dramatic confrontation between two ambitious commanders ended in personal tragedy. However it became a great focus of patriotism on both sides of the Atlantic during a war in which the United States Navy emerged as a force to be reckoned with.