Captain Lawrence Dies For The Flag



THE United States navy had its Hornet as well as its Wasps. And they

were well named, for they were all able to sting. The captain of the

Hornet was a noble seaman named James Lawrence, who had been a

midshipman in the war with Tripoli. In the War of 1812 he was captain in

succession of the Vixen, the Wasp, the Argus, and the Hornet.

The Hornet was a sloop-of-war. I have told you what that means. She

had three masts, and carried square sails like a ship, but she was

called a sloop on account of her size. She had eighteen short guns and

two long ones. The short guns threw thirty-two pound and the long ones

twelve pound balls.

Of course you have not forgotten the fight of the Constitution with

the Java. When the Constitution went south to Brazil at that time

the Hornet went with her, but they soon parted.

In one of the harbors of Brazil Captain Lawrence saw a British ship as

big as the Hornet. He waited outside for her, but she would not come

out. He had found a coward of a captain, and he locked him up in that

harbor for two months.

Then he got tired and left. Soon after he came across the Peacock, a

British man-of-war brig. The Peacock was as large as the Hornet and

its captain was as full of fight as Captain Lawrence. He was the kind of

man that our bold Lawrence was hunting for. When two men feel that way,

a fight is usually not far off. That was the way now. Soon the guns were

booming and the balls were flying.

But the fight was over before the men had time to warm up. The first

guns were fired at 5.25 in the afternoon, and at 5.39 the British flag

came down; so the battle lasted just fourteen minutes. Not many

victories have been won so quickly as that.

But the Hornet acted in a very lively fashion while it lasted. Do you

know how a hornet behaves when a mischievous boy throws a stone at its

nest? Well, that is the way our Hornet did. Only one ball from the

Peacock struck her, and hardly any of her men were hurt. But the

Peacock was bored as full of holes as a pepper-box, and the water

poured in faster than all hands could pump it out. In a very short time

the unlucky Peacock filled and sank. So Captain Lawrence had only the

honor of his victory; old ocean had swallowed up his prize.

But if Captain Lawrence got no prize money, he won great fame. He was

looked on as another Hull or Decatur, and Congress made him captain of

the frigate Chesapeake. That was in one way a bad thing for the

gallant Lawrence, for it cost him his life. In another way it was a good

thing, for it made him one of the most famous of American seamen.

I have told you the story of several victories of American ships. I must

now tell you the story of one defeat. But I think you will say it was a

defeat as glorious as a victory. For eight months the little navy of the

young Republic had sailed on seas where British ships were nearly as

thick as apples in an orchard. In that time it had not lost a ship, and

had won more victories than England had done in twenty years. Now it was

to meet with its first defeat.

When Captain Lawrence took command of the Chesapeake, that ship lay in

the harbor of Boston. Outside this harbor was the British frigate

Shannon, blockading the port.

Now you must know that the American people had grown very proud of their

success on the sea. They had got to think that any little vessel could

whip an English man-of-war. So the Bostonians grew eager for the

Chesapeake to meet the Shannon. They were sure it would be brought

in as a prize, and they wanted to hurrah over it.

Poor Lawrence was as eager as the people. He was just the man they

wanted. The Chesapeake had no crew, but he set himself to work, and in

two weeks he filled her up with such men as he could find.

It was a mixed team he got together, the sweepings of the streets. There

were some good men among them, but more poor ones. And they were all new

men to the ship and to the captain. They had not been trained to work

together, and it was madness to fight a first-class British ship with

such a crew. Some, in fact, were mutineers and gave him trouble before

he got out of the harbor.

But the Shannon was a crack ship with a crack crew. Captain Broke had

commanded her for seven years and had a splendidly trained set of men.

He had copied from the Americans and put sights on his guns, had taught

his men to fire at floating marks in the sea, and had trained his topmen

to use their muskets in the same careful way. So when Captain Lawrence

sailed on June 1, 1813, he sailed to defeat and death.

Captain Broke sent a challenge to the Chesapeake to come out and fight

him ship to ship. But Lawrence did not wait for his challenge. He was

too eager for that, and set sail with a crew who did not know their

work, and most of whom had never seen their officers before.

What could be expected of such mad courage as that? It is one thing to

be a brave man; it is another to be a wise one. Of course you will say

that Captain Lawrence was brave; but no one can say he was wise. Poor

fellow, he was simply throwing away his ship and his life.

It was in the morning of June 1 that the Chesapeake left the wharves

of Boston. It was 5.50 in the afternoon that she met the Shannon and

the battle began.

Both ships fired as fast as they could load, but the men of the

Shannon were much better hands at their work, and their balls tore the

American ship in a terrible manner. A musket-ball struck Lawrence in the

leg, but he would not go below. The rigging of the Chesapeake was

badly cut, the men at the wheel were shot, and in ten minutes the two

ships drifted together.

Men on each side now rushed to board the enemy's ship, and there was a

hand-to-hand fight at the bulwarks of the two ships. At this moment

Captain Lawrence was shot through the body and fell with a mortal wound.

He was carried below.

As he lay in great pain he noticed that the firing had almost ceased.

Calling a surgeon's mate to him, he said, "Tell the men to fire faster,

and not give up the ship; the colors shall wave while I live."

Unfortunately, these words were spoken in the moment of defeat. Captain

Broke, followed by a number of his men, had sprung to the deck of the

Chesapeake, and a desperate struggle began. The Americans fought

stubbornly, but the fire from the trained men in the Shannon's tops

and the rush of British on board soon gave Broke and his men the

victory. The daring Broke fell with a cut that laid open his skull, but

in a few moments the Americans were driven below.

The Chesapeake was taken in just fifteen minutes, one minute more than

the Hornet had taken to capture the Peacock.

The British hauled down the American flag, and then hoisted it again

with a white flag to show their victory. But the sailor who did the

work, by mistake got the white flag under the Stars and Stripes.

When the gunners in the Shannon saw the Yankee flag flying they fired

again, and this time killed and wounded a number of their own men, one

of them being an officer.

The gallant Lawrence never knew that his ship was lost. He lived until

the Shannon reached Halifax with her prize, but he became

delirious, and kept repeating over and over again his last

order--"Don't give up the ship!"

With these words he died. With these words his memory has become

immortal. "Don't give up the ship!" is the motto of the American navy,

and will not be forgotten while our great Republic survives. So Captain

Lawrence gained greater renown in defeat than most men have won in


The capture of the Chesapeake was a piece of wonderful good fortune

for the British, to judge by the way they boasted of it. As Captain

Pearson had been made a knight for losing the Serapis, so Captain

Broke was made a baronet for taking the Chesapeake. A "baronet," you

must know, is a higher title than a "knight," though they both use the

handle of "Sir" to their names.

The work of the Shannon proved--so the British historians said--that,

"if the odds were anything like equal, a British frigate could always

whip an American, and in a hand-to-hand conflict such would invariably

be the case."

Such things are easy to say, when one does not care about telling the

truth. Suppose we give now what a French historian, who believed in

telling the truth, said of this fight,--

"Captain Broke had commanded the Shannon for nearly seven years;

Captain Lawrence had commanded the Chesapeake for but a few days. The

Shannon had cruised for eighteen months on the coast of America; the

Chesapeake was newly out of harbor. The Shannon had a crew long

accustomed to habits of strict obedience; the Chesapeake was manned by

men who had just been engaged in mutiny. The Americans were wrong to

accuse fortune on this occasion. Fortune was not fickle, she was merely


That is about the same as to say that the Chesapeake was given away to

the enemy. After that there were no more ships sent out of port unfit to

fight, merely to please the people. It was a lesson the people needed.

The body of the brave Lawrence was laid on the quarter-deck of the

Chesapeake wrapped in an American flag. It was then placed in a coffin

and taken ashore, where it was met by a regiment of British troops and a

band that played the "Death March in Saul." The sword of the dead hero

lay on his coffin. In the end his body was buried in the cemetery of

Trinity Church, New York. A monument stands to-day over his grave, and

on it are the words:

"Neither the fury of battle, the anguish of a mortal wound, nor the

horrors of approaching death could subdue his gallant spirit. His dying

words were

'Don't give up the ship!'"

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