Halifax’s role in a historic battle
The battle between HMS Shannon and USS Cheasapeake as depicted by Thomas Buttersworth (via the U.K.’s National Maritime Museum).
On June 6, 1813, St. Paul’s in downtown Halifax was midway through a solemn Whit Sunday service when parishioners began rushing out. A discrete messenger’s glad tidings had raced through the congregation, the 36-gun frigate HMS Shannon was sailing into Halifax Harbour tailed by the haggard and humbled USS Chesapeake, her captain having died of his wounds the day before and her surviving crew prisoners.
Days earlier, in less than a quarter of an hour, Shannon devastated the larger, faster, and better-armed American frigate, turning the tide on a string of Royal Navy defeats.
The celebratory mood only swelled as the crowds learned that temporarily in command of the Shannon was a local boy, Second Lieutenant Provo Wallis, the son of a clerk at the Halifax Naval Yard. (The captain was horribly wounded and incapacitated, the first lieutenant killed during the melee aboard the Chesapeake.)
Entangled in decades of confrontation with France that culminated in the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was loath to commit naval resources to the North American sideshow when the United States declared war in June 1812.
Two months after war broke out the USS Constitution bludgeoned the frigate HMS Guerrière so badly it sank having struck its colours. In the space of one week in October, the Americans captured the convoy escort HMS Frolic and frigate HMS Macedonian. In the final week of 1812, USS Constitution struck again, destroying the frigate HMS Java.
The fifth in this string of defeats occurred in February 1813. The USS Hornet, under Captain James Lawrence, sank HMS Peacock. Widely dismissed as the “Yacht” for its pompous focus on spit, polish, and protocol rather than fighting power, the aptly named Peacock fired multiple broadsides but managed just a single hit on the enemy.
Meanwhile, Peacock was so badly damaged it had to be sunk after the exchange. Such were the scores to settle when Shannon, under Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, took station off Cape Ann, keeping watch over the port of Boston in May 1813.
The science of gunnery and rudimentary ballistics obsessed Broke, which was rare for a British officer. At the time, battle doctrine focused on closing with the enemy, broadsides fired at pistol range, and boarding. Navies placed a premium on speed, not accuracy.
The bookish Broke turned this doctrine inside out. He emphasized accuracy, aimed fire at the enemy’s gun decks and marines exposed on open decks. He intended to disable his opponent by killing her crew.
He theorized that any ship without crew would be harmless and helpless. He had sights and elevation-scales fitted to his guns. He paid for additional shot and powder for practice firing and ordered 90 minutes daily at the “great guns” and another 90 minutes at close combat and boarding drill. This emphasis on gunnery and fighting power was unheard of in the Royal Navy.
On June 1, Broke issued a challenge to the captain of the American warship in Boston harbour: “As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags.”
Captain Broke’s career had been undistinguished and he was desperate to make his mark with a victory. He was convinced his study of naval gunnery and emphasis on combat drill at the guns and in preparation for boarding would lead to victory.
His opponent never saw the challenge, but did not need to. Captain James Lawrence, like his British counterpart, was looking for a fight. In the wake of his victory over the Peacock, Lawrence had been lionized in the press and given command of USS Chesapeake. He was convinced one more victory would assure him command of the flagship USS Constitution, and leadership of the American navy. While Broke’s challenge was en route, the Chesapeake set sail to challenge the Shannon.
Upwind of the Shannon, Lawrence inexplicably surrendered his advantage and closed for an exchange of broadsides. The Shannon was almost dead in the water and Lawrence could have, and should have, crossed its stern and raked it while largely untouchable by the Shannon’s guns. Instead, he simply paralleled its course, upwind and to the starboard.
The exchange of broadsides shattered the Chesapeake. Cannon fire swept the quarterdeck and destroyed the wheel. Marines and boarding parties on deck were ravaged. The Chesapeake turned into the wind, sails aback, its stern blown into the Shannon. During its approach the Shannon’s gunners smashed Chesapeake’s stern, wrecking the captain’s cabin.
When the ships collided, their rigging entangled. Boarding parties of Royal Marines and Shannons swarmed the survivors, quickly forcing them below decks and sealing the hatches. In less than 15 minutes, the Chesapeake was in British hands and 22-year-old Haligonian Provo Wallis was in command of both.
In 1844, Shannon became HMS St. Lawrence and in 1855 a new steam frigate was christened HMS Shannon. Even in this new incarnation the Shannon continued to be intimately linked to Nova Scotia. Under the command of Sir William Peel, Shannon sailed up the Ganges, landing a naval brigade which fought at the Siege of Lucknow.
Able Seaman William Hall won one of five Victoria Crosses awarded during the campaign. Hall was the second British North American to be awarded a VC, and the first Nova Scotian and first Black Canadian.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.