The War of 1812 is one of America’s least understood military conflicts. Though it was ignited by a number of ostensible causes, at its core that war was about eradicating British influence in North America. For decades after the American revolution Canada remained a British colony, allowing England to contend for settlement of the upper-Midwest of America. By the early 19th Century Britain still remained the world’s greatest colonial power, but its military might was being stretched thin. The war started over the issue of the British Navy’s “impressment” of personnel on American merchant vessels. On the high seas, Britain would not hesitate to stop and search American ships in hopes of recovering sailors they viewed as deserters, which included many naturalized American citizens. Britain, long at war with Napoleon’s France, was in desperate need of sailors for their fleet to the degree of even “press-ganging” native-born Americans. Due to the conflict in Europe, the United States Congress cut-off all trade with European nations, a move very unpopular in New England. In an attempt to further foment dissention, the British Navy didn’t interfere with New England merchant vessels violating the trade ban, a policy that lasted until New England trade was seen as benefiting France as much as or even more than Britain.
By 1813, frigates of the British Navy were patrolling outside harbors along Massachusetts Bay. Henry Edward Napier, a lieutenant on the H.M.S. Nymphe, wrote in his diary segment called Prizes at Halibut Point of “laying in wait, like a spider for flies, for coasters from northward and southward.” The citizens of Sandy Bay (now Rockport) finally extracted a measure of revenge on the Nymphe in the battle of “Sea Fencibles,” leading to an eventual negotiated stand-off where the captain of the Nymphe agreed to vacate the waters off Cape Ann.
The War of 1812 is most remembered for the burning of the White House, the writing of The Star Spangled Banner and the concluding Battle of New Orleans. It brought Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight, made heroes of “Tippecanoe” Harrison and Oliver Hazard Perry, and gave us some well-remembered slogans such as, “We have met the enemy and he is ours.” The War of 1812, fought mainly on the sea and in the Great Lakes, is said to have “made” the American Navy. One of the pivotal naval battles from the War of 1812, the encounter of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake and its British counterpart the H.M.S. Shannon, took place in the waters off Cape Ann. The Chesapeake left Boston Harbor on June 1, 1813 flying a special flag proclaiming “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” in recognition of America’s grievances against British policies. Before the end that day, the Chesapeake found itself in one of the most famous battles in the history of the US Navy. Though James Lawrence, captain of the Chesapeake, had a brief opportunity to rake the Shannon, he did not do so, instead boldly placing his port broadside against the Shannon’s starboard battery. Both ships opened fire, but the British guns did more damage, producing crippling casualties on the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck. Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded by small arms fire, gave his final order, uttering the immortal words, “Don’t give up the ship!” Here are the later words of one witness to the encounter:
“At 0.55 p.m. Cape Ann bearing N.N.E½E distant 10 to 12 miles Shannon filled, and stood out from the land under easy sail. At 1 p.m. Chesapeake rounded the lighthouse under all sail, and at 3.40 hauled up and fired a gun. Presently Shannon hauled up and reefed topsails. At 4.50 Chesapeake took in her stunsails, topgallant sails and got her royal yards on deck. At 5.30 to be under command, and ready to wear if necessary, thinking it not unlikely that the Chesapeake would pass under Shannon’s stern, Captain Broke divided his men, and to be prepared to lie down as the enemy’s ship passed. But Captain Lawrence, at 5.40 gallantly luffed up, within about 50 yards, and squaring his main yard, gave three cheers. The captain of Shannon’s 14th gun (William Mindt ?) and was fired, in a second or so the 13th gun was fired, then the Chesapeake’s bow gun went off, and then the remaining guns on the broadside of each ship as fast as they could be discharged. At 5.56, her helm, probably from the death of the man stationed at it, being for the moment unattended to, Chesapeake came so sharp to the wind as completely to deaden her way, with her stern and quarters exposed to her enemy’s broadside. The Shannon’s aftermost guns now took a diagonal directon along the decks of the Chesapeake, beating in her stern ports, and sweeping the men from their quarters. At 6.p.m. Chesapeake fell on board the Shannon, with her quarter pressing upon the latter’s side, and hooking with her port quarter the fluke of Shannon’s anchor stowed over the chess-tree. Captain Broke ordered the ships to be lashed together, the maindeck boarders and the quarter deck men, under Lieut. G.T.L. Watt to be called away. Mr. Stevens the boatswain, and Mr. Samnell, midshipman, were mortally wounded. At 6.2 Captain Broke stepped from Shannon’s gangway rail on to the muzzle of Chesapeake’s aftermost carronade, and over the bulwark, upon the quarterdeck. Here not an officer or man was to be seen. Upon Chesapeake’s gangway made slight resistance 25 or 30 Americans but the remainder laid down their arms and submitted. The act of changing Chesapeake’s colours proved fatal to a gallant British officer, as owing to the halliards being entangled he commenced to hoist with the American Ensign above instead of below the British ensign. Observing the American stripes going up first the Shannon’s people re-opened their fire, and killed their own first-lieut and four-five of their comrades. Between the discharge of the first gun and the period of Captain Broke’s boarding (9 ?) minutes only elapsed, and in 4 minutes afterwards the Chesapeake was completely his. Captain Lawrence was killed in the action, and buried at Halifax with military honours such as a post-captain in the British Navy would be entitled to.”
The battle between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, lasting about fifteen minutes, had total casualties of nearly one hundred dead and one hundred and fifty wounded. Details of this incredibly dramatic encounter and the events leading up to it are best detailed in Kenneth Poolman’s book, Guns off Cape Ann. The other significant source material for information about the events off Cape Ann and Halibut Point in the War of 1812 is The Journal of Henry Edward Napier, Lieutenant in the H.M.S. Nymphe, published by the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, MA in 1939. Some great resources for information about the War of 1812 are this Wikipedia article, the US Naval Historical Center site and Benson J. Lossing’s 1869’s Book of the War of 1812, which you can view here.
This is but the latest information we at Halibut Point have gathered in research of our site’s military history. You will be able to learn much more in the new exhibit debuting inside our Visitors Center on Saturday, September 29, 2007. This permanent installation, titled, The Military History of Halibut Point, is the result of efforts by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, its Bureau of Ranger Services Park Interpretation and Environmental Education Program and the Friends of Halibut Point State Park. The Military History of Halibut Point, with information and artifacts ranging from the War of 1812 through the early 1960’s, is dedicated to all the men and women who have served in the United States armed forces. Everyone is invited to this unveiling. More details will be posted in August. We hope you all will consider attending.