The Americans and the British were engaged in a fierce battle on June 1, 1813 a few miles north off the coast of Boston, Massachusetts. On the US frigate Chesapeake the Captain James Lawrence was mortally wounded and lay dying in his cabin below deck. His words allegedly were “Don’t give up the ship”.
This command was published a few weeks later in a Baltimore newspaper and became the unofficial motto of the US Navy, continuing for several decades. A few months after the battle at sea near Boston, a bright blue banner with the now well known motto upon it was hoisted up the masthead of the vessel, USS Lawrence, named in honor of Captain James Lawrence. Its Captain, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won an important victory on Sept. 10th over the British naval forces in the Battle of Lake Erie.
Lawrence’s plea was echoed throughout history of America’s armed forces; therefore one could believe that it was uttered during an historic event in history. To the contrary. Not only did the crew give up the ship shortly after the famous words were said to be uttered, but military analysts later concluded that Lawrence had disobeyed the orders to avoid combat with the British. He then proceeded to commit several tactical blunders that ensured that he and his ship would lose.
The skirmish took place about a year into the War of 1812. The British Royal Navy had begun to prevent American trade by blockading ports, including Boston, using ships based in Nova Scotia. In late May 1813 Captain Philip Broke sailed the HMS Shannon into Massachusetts Bay knowing the Americans had only one frigate ready for sea in Boston.
The first shot was fired at 6 p.m. and the last at 6:11 p.m. The colors were struck at 6:15 p.m. Americans watching from the shore were certain that the Americans would win as they were aware of the repeated defeat of British naval ships having occurred in recent months. A banquet was planned to celebrate the anticipated victory of the Chesapeake over the Shannon. Places were set for the defeated British officers. None of the guests appeared.