Don't Give Up the Ship!
The American Revolution created as many questions as it answered,
perhaps more. The United States was now free from the rule of Great
Britain. But what would it do with that freedom? How would it redefine
itself internally and as a sovereign entity on the international stage?
Indeed, how would it now protect itself in a world of nations that fought
among themselves largely on the high seas?
An answer to the question lay in the determination by president George
Washington and the Congress in 1794 to build six frigates that would
defend American interests at sea, and ultimately form the foundation of
the U.S. Navy. The Chesapeake was one of those six – along with
Constellation, Constitution, Congress, President and United States – but
some called her the runt of the litter, the odd duck, the unlucky ship. Her
name was the only one of the six not associated with a symbol of the
new American democracy. The two shipbuilders most responsible for
her design and construction – Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox -
despised each other. She often found that building materials meant for
her construction were given instead to the other frigates. And all of the
bad attitude about her seemed to be confirmed when, in 1807, she was
attacked without provocation by the British who, in perhaps a final insult,
refused to take her as a prize of battle.
But in the fullness of the history of the North Atlantic community into
the present day, it may be that the USS Chesapeake accomplished
more than the other five frigates in ways that are both symbolic
and real, and that the “unlucky ship” became the luckiest of them
all. When James Lawrence, mortally wounded in the War of 1812 in a
battle with the HMS Shannon, uttered the words that would become
the slogan of the U.S. Navy his intent was that the Chesapeake
be burned before she could be captured.
Fortunately for history, his orders were not fulfilled.
September 5, 1781
In the Battle of the Virginia Capes, just outside of the Chesapeake Bay
French naval forces defeat the British, leading to the subsequent defeat of the British on Yorktown battlefields, and the beginning of the end of the Revolutionary War.
First Barbary War
At the end of the 18th century it is the Barbary Coast pirates of the Mediterranean that most threaten American shipping and trade. The U.S. Navy is set in motion in 1794 with the construction of six frigates, including the Chesapeake. The most storied event of the Barbary War is Stephen Decatur's recapture and burning of the frigate Philadelphia on February 16, 1804 so that it can be kept from enemy hands.
When the British lost the Revolutionary War they also lost access to the large American naval labor force. The Royal Navy sailed worldwide and its labor needs were intense, solved by going into the streets, saloons and homes of port cities and capturing would-be sailors. It often categorized impressed sailors as British subjects, no matter their origins. The practice became an increasing point of conflict between the United States and Great Britain.
June 22, 1807
Even with impressment, general relations between the United States and Great Britain were civil. British ships regularly called at American ports for repair and supplies, and Americans were still in touch with their British origins. All of that seemed to change on a pleasant afternoon as the USS Chesapeake set out from Hampton Roads to the Mediterranean. Aside from her officers and crew, the frigate carried a family and their servants, an Italian Marine Band and their instruments, and a horse, all headed for the Mediterranean. Commodore James Barron had no reason to expect, and the ship was not yet prepared for, what happened in the same coastal waters as the Battle of the Capes in 1781. Officers of the HMS Leopard made a friendly approach to the Chesapeake and, once aboard, demanded that Barron give up four of his sailors believed to be British subjects. Barron refused, and when the British officers returned to their ship the Chesapeake was immediately shot across the bow, followed by four crushing broadsides. With no means to fight back, Barron raised a flag of surrender, and, following the code of battle, offered the Chesapeake as a prize. The offer was spurned by the Leopard, but the four sailors were taken prisoner. The unprovoked attack on the USS Chesapeake awakened an anti-British rage among Americans, and was a catalyst for a new determination that their's was sovereign nation that needed to defend itself with a strong navy. The incident was also a psychological precursor to the War of 1812, though technically not one of its causes.
Officers of the HMS Leopard
Visit the USS Chesapeake.
The Shannons meet the Chesapeakes
on board the Chesapeake June 1, 1813.
Naval Historical Center
Hampshire Telegaph and Sussex Chronicle
April 17, 1819