James Lawrence lived only 31 years and may not have been a man of few words. But he is best remembered for just a few words spoken at the very end of his life.
On June 1, 1813, Lawrence was Captain in the fledgling United States Navy. In fact, he had just been promoted to Captain in March. When the captain of the USS Chesapeake, a 38-gun frigate, took ill and requested relief, James Lawrence was selected as the replacement. As you know, 1813 put him right in the middle of the War of 1812, so action wasn’t far away. In fact, it was right in front of him and his crew of more than 300. The British frigate HMS Shannon was blockading Boston Harbor (where Chesapeake was docked) and, the night before, had moved in closer. Captain Lawrence decided to respond and immediately prepared to engage.
The two ships were fairly equal in terms of size and strength (the Shannon being slightly smaller), and Lawrence’s prior experience against British vessels led him to believe this single frigate wouldn’t be a tough opponent. But the Shannon had a more experienced crew and was commanded by Captain Philip Broke, who drilled his soldiers to a razor’s edge, while constant gunnery practice made them, relatively speaking, high-seas sharpshooters with their cannon.
The guns were unfurled in the late afternoon and each ship managed a pair of broadsides, but the Shannon’s superior gunnery got the better of it, causing serious casualties aboard the Chesapeake. Among them was Captain Lawrence, who was severely wounded by sniper fire from the Shannon. As Captain Broke’s men prepared to board, Lawrence was carried below decks, and he uttered the words that would make him famous…“Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”
Of course, the Chesapeake didn’t sink. In this battle, lasting a total of 15 minutes, she was captured by her opponents and was eventually renamed the HMS Chesapeake. Captain Lawrence would die of his wounds three days later, but his last commands of defiance would pass into legend and make Lawrence a hero.