Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812 - Tim Voelcker


Perhaps one of the most evenly matched single ship engagements, at least on paper, with broadside weights of 538 lbs (Shannon) compared to 590 lbs (Chesapeake) and crew numbers of 330 men (Shannon) and 388 men (Chesapeake), has to be the action fought in Massachusetts Bay off Boston on the 1st of June 1813 between HMS Shannon 38-guns and the USS Chesapeake 38-guns; during a war between Great Britain and the United States that even today has the ability to create different interpretations for those in the three nations, Great Britain, Canada and the United States and perhaps four nations, if you include the native Americans intimately caught up in the struggle, and then only among those who know or remember this war within the wider 'Great War' against Napoleon.

Broke (pronounced Brook) of the Shannon is a collection of essays that make up its seventeen chapters that sets out to not just look at this significant, for the time, clash between two evenly matched ships but also to put the impact of the action into the context of the wider world in which it was fought from the national to the personal perspective and to include academic voices from the three principal nations involved to help give an added perspective for, as the quote might have said, 'victory is in the eye of the beholder'.

I have to say from my own, and probably a typically British perspective, the War of 1812 is one of Britain's forgotten wars and if you stopped the average Brit in the streets and asked about it, you would most likely get a bit of a blank expression, although given the state of history teaching in the country today that might not be so surprising to many of my countrymen.

My early interest in the conflict was enthused because I have family living in Canada and at the tender age of seven or eight can recall my maternal uncle who was ex Royal Naval Air Service and who emigrated to Canada in the late forties regaling me with the tales of battle fought out around the Great Lakes and the importance of the War of 1812 in the story of an independent Canada quite distinct from either the mother country or the United States.

That early introduction to another national story was to leave its mark and I can well remember eagerly opening up my first edition copy of the War of 1812 block game from Columbia Games and eventually visiting some of the battlegrounds in the late eighties on my honeymoon to the States and Canada.

This book published in time for the bicentenary of the battle had been on my 'to-read list' early on and thus with my current focus on all things 'age of sail' naval, I was very interested in reading a modern interpretation which started with perhaps for me one of the more interesting chapters looking at the battle and the war from an American perspective with Chapter One written by Dr John B Hattendorf, a very renowned US Naval historian and former naval officer and, more recently, Professor of Maritime History at the US Naval War College in Newport, entitled 'The War of 1812: An American Perspective'.

In a very well constructed and thought through analysis, Dr Hattendorf set out to explore the various interpretations of the war put on it by Americans with a common theme of constructing a narrative around the second war for independence, with little attention to what the war had originally been about but a great focus given to a very selected set of events often taken out of context.

Thus he lists these accomplishments to include Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the early war frigate victories, the burning of Washington and 'the rocket's red glare' showing the flag still flying over Baltimore, neatly emphasised by the ringing phrase 'Don't give up the ship!' much as any Brit would quote back 'England expects . . . .'  

Perry's Victory on Lake Erie - William Henry Powell 1865

Of course the list very often omits the war changing naval victory by Commodore Thomas Macdonagh  that stopped the British invasion in its tracks around Lake Champlain in 1814 in favour of the strategically lesser important victory of Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry fought the year before on Lake Erie, together with the flag he carried bearing the immortal phrase dedicated to his friend Captain James Lawrence killed commanding the USS Chesapeake and since reproduced on US postage stamps, in portraits depicting Perry transferring his flag during the Battle of Lake Erie, to museum keepsakes such as facsimile flags, women's scarves, men's neckties and mugs, seemingly and ironically to forget that that is exactly what the crew of the USS Chesapeake did do, give up the ship.

Captain James Lawrence commander of the USS Chesapeake and killed in the action with HMS Shannon. A disappointed man, he had been expecting the prestigious command of the 44-gun Constitution following his impressive victory over HMS Peacock, however the falling sick of Chesapeake's previous captain and the Constitution still being in repairs conspired to cause him to be offered command of the lesser ship, which he considered beneath his merit and seniority. 

Dr Hattendorf then poses the question why? In the light of all the American frigate actions being of no strategic consequence and James Lawrence no Horatio Nelson, to quote;

'To the rational mind, the American viewpoint appears to make no sense beyond nationalistic bombast.'

However, as he then goes on to point out, when national identity becomes a focal point for a nation at war, a certain rationality takes second place to national honour, pride and achievement neatly summed up in the first American biography of Captain Lawrence by Washington Irving in 1813 when he concluded;

For our part, we conceive that the great purpose of our navy is accomplished. It was not to be expected that with so inconsiderable force, we could make any impression on British power, or materially affect British commerce. We fought, not to take their ships and plunder their wealth, but to pluck some of the laurels where with to grace our own brows. In this we have succeeded; and thus the great mischief that our little navy was capable of doing to Great Britain, in showing that her maritime power was vulnerable, has been affected and is irretrievable.'

On reading this perspective I found myself reflecting on the response of the British public to the news of the Shannon's victory which as Dr Hattendorf emphasises had quite a different effect on the course of the naval war, combining as it did with the blockade of Decatur's squadron (United States 44-guns, Macedonian 38-guns and Hornet 20-guns) at New London and seeing nearly half of the US naval force removed from operations in a single day.

Action off New London 1st June 1813 - Irwin John Bevan
HMS Acasta fires on USS United States and flagship of Commodore Stephen Decatur

However that was not what inspired the British to adopt the national toast;

'To an Irish river and an English brook'

No it was the dent to pride and national honour represented by the unending victories achieved by the Royal Navy from the Glorious June 1st 1793 onward, that seemed unstoppable, suddenly to seem to be threatened by such a small force of American small ships and its seemingly endless series of single ship victories likely to turn the world upside down. All that doubt and frustration was ended on the Glorious June 1st 1813. 

Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke RN.
The letters quoted, written to his wife Sarah Louisa referred to as 'his beloved Loo' reveal a very humane man, keen to resume his familial duties at home once his war was concluded and when he had done his duty by the country, contrasting with an officer who took very seriously the requirements of a fighting captain, particularly in the discipline and science of naval gunnery which he took to new levels of proficiency and made HMS Shannon one of the most effective units in the Royal Navy and a model for others in the service to imitate.    

However in the revealing of the American perspective and the similar response generated in the British public for pride in the effectiveness of their military forces, the fact that the war is so vague in the British psyche is probably down to the consideration that the British focus was and has been historically on the defeat of Napoleon and the existential threat to the British way of life he and his Imperial aspirations represented and thus the war with America was viewed very much as a side show and never the national defining war that it became for Americans or Canadians, hence the achievement of Captain Philip Bowes Vere Brook RN and the pride his victory stirred at home at the time, in the wider navy and in restoring national confidence, is somewhat lost to later generations and the British public memory and this book goes a long way to allow later generations to take a more considered look at the achievement of him and the crew of HMS Shannon.

Action between HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake, 1st June 1813 - National Maritime Museum
USS Chesapeake would likely have contrasted in her newly fitted out condition to the battered Shannon, described as 'a little black dirty ship' following years of blockade duties under Broke since her commissioning in 1806 but with a captain more focussed on fighting efficiency over appearances having a crew now honed to be a frighteningly effective fighting unit superbly drilled in his scientific gunnery methods.

Subsequent chapters go on to further outline how the war was viewed in other parts, the wider conflict and its relation, the characters of the two captains and their previous experience, the battle and its consequences, not to mention the ballads and poetry that came to be, eulogising the victory, but what most grabbed my interest was the detailing of Captain Broke as an expert in naval gunnery and his ingenious improvements in equipment and training that he introduced that lead to the success HMS Shannon achieved in between eleven and fifteen minutes* from the first guns firing to the USS Chesapeake striking. * Broke himself, in a letter to his wife claims the action lasted fifteen minutes but according to the official timings recorded by Lieutenant Wallis of the Shannon the firing started at 17.50 and the action concluded at 18.01.

Martin Bibbins, one of the contributors to the book, an expert in naval gunnery of the period who has advised on films such as, Master & Commander, Far Side of the World, The TV series of C.S. Forester's character, Hornblower and assembled the 52-gun broadside staged on HMS Victory for the 2005 Trafalgar bicentenary commemoration wrote the chapter entitled 'A Gunnery Zealot: Broke's Scientific Contribution.

In a twelve page chapter accompanied by five illustrations, Bibbins recounts a most remarkable series of adaptations, improvements and new techniques and equipment modifications coupled with organisational improvements that Broke introduced the crew of the Shannon to with much of the equipment modifications financed out of Broke's own pocket.

As well as building on the gunnery standards of leaders such as Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's second in command at Trafalgar and a leader in gunnery tactics, which introduced the idea of speed in loading and firing with the necessary teamwork and practice to achieve a rate of fire equivalent to three broadsides in three and half minutes, Broke introduced his ideas which created tables of recommended loads of projectiles and powder for achieving specific results against different targets, aiming to either dismast, disable, rake or silence the target and the variations to be accounted for with range, sea state and swell.

To help with these refinements, he had his guns fitted with locks and tangent sights, with the former using quill primers in the touch hole allowing the gun to ignite almost as soon as the gunner pulled the lanyard to fire, thus overcoming shooting too high or low because of the delayed ignition coupled with the roll of the ship.

The sights added to the process for the gunner to pick out masts by aiming along the gun using the tangent site to allow for range and knowing the horizontal pitch of the gun precisely and being able to look along the barrel using the sight even as it was fired with its subsequent recoil; all these aspects being difficult if not impossible for guns fired simply by pointing in the general direction and using a lighted match with its consequential delayed ignition.

Broke could now have his gunners set up their guns according to how he wanted to direct the horizontal fire of his battery and, with arcs in degrees marked out on the deck behind each gun, all or some, in specific groups, could now be angled under command to focus their fire in any particular direction with the arc laid out, permitting him and his officers to direct their gunfire like never before.

One final rather unique modification was Broke's addition of his 9-pounder barbette guns, having his 9-pdrs on the forecastle and quarterdeck mounted on higher brackets that not only allowed the guns to fire over the bulwarks instead of through them via a gun port, but also to be able to elevate up to 33 degrees and able to combine their cross fire to sweep an enemy deck or shred its shrouds and rigging.

Alongside these changes Broke worked his crew up to a high state of efficiency with constant training on the great guns and small arms throughout the week except weekends, given over to the housekeeping of the ship and the spiritual requirements of the men.

The tracks of the Shannon and Chesapeake as depicted by Captain A.T. Mahan in his book 'Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812'
Broke addressed the crew of the Shannon just before the action commenced at 17.50 at pistol shot range (40-50 yards);
'Throw no shot away. Aim every one. Keep cool. Work steadily. Fire into her quarters. Don't try to dismast her. Kill her men, and the ship is yours.' 

After reading this particular chapter the events described in the next one looking at the battle and its short but conclusive outcome suddenly fell into place as the action described illustrated this killing machine in its dreadful work as HMS Shannon dismantled her opponent with precision with her barbette guns wreaking havoc in Chesapeakes tops and rigging raised to maximum elevation, whilst other 9-pdrs targeted her helm. The top deck was soon cleared in the maelstrom of metal from cannon and muskets seeing Captain Lawrence carried below, hit by two musket rounds and leaving the way clear for the Shannon's to board during which Captain Broke would sustain a sabre slash to the head that might have killed most men.

The melee on the forecastle of the Chesapeake in which Captain Broke, wearing his typical top hat, was wounded by a cutlass cut to the head leaving a three inch wound. Parrying a pike thrust and slashing the man across the face with his sword, a second man dealt him the blow with the cutlass whilst a third clubbed him with the butt of his musket. One of the Americans was about to finish him off but was stopped when marine John Hill ran the attacker through with his bayonet.

The difference in firepower exchanged in just ten minutes is staggering, with Shannon hitting Chesapeake with 44 round shot and with Shannon receiving just 10 or 11 in return, with much of the American shots hitting the coppers around her waterline.

Chesapeake's crew were not raw or inexperienced as three quarters of her crew, 279 men had sailed before with her previous commander, with 32 recognised on capture as British.

The casualty rate was another staggering consequence of this battle with Chesapeake losing nearly as many men in eleven minutes than HMS Victory (159 casualties - 57 killed and 102 wounded) at Trafalgar in several hours of fighting, seeing the USS Chesapeake receiving 146 casualties (69 dead and 77 wounded) and HMS Shannon 83 casualties, (34 killed and 49 injured) in return, with the action as a whole seeing more men killed per minute than in both Nelson's and Villeneuve's fleets combined.

Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812 is 237 pages and contains the following:

List of Illustrations and Maps
Preface and Acknowlegements
Notes on Contributors
Introduction - Tim Voelcker
Historical Note and Brief Family Tree

1. The War of 1812: A Perspective  from the United States, John B. Hattendorf
2. Sideshow? British Grand Strategy and the War of 1812, Andrew Lambert
3. Canada and the War of 1812, Chris Madsen
4. Prize Laws in the War of 1812, Gabriela A. Frei
5. Victories or Distractions, Honour or Glory?, Tim Voelcker
6. Broke - His Youth and Education, John Blatchly
7. In Arctic Waters, Michael Barritt
8. Letters to his Wife 'Loo', Ellen Gill
9. A Gunnery Zealot: Broke's Scientific Contribution to Naval Warfare, Martin Bibbins
10. The Battle, Martin Bibbins
11. Broke's 'Miraculous' Recovery, Peter Schurr
12. Representing Nations: Caricature and the Naval War of 1812, James Davey
13. Halifax and its Naval Yard, Julian Gwyn
14. HMS Shannon's Later Commissions, Martin Salmon
15. Chesapeake Mill, John Wain
16. Ballads and Broadsides: The Poetic and Musical Legacy of the Shannon and the Chesapeake, Richard Wilson
17. The Peace and its Outcome, Colin Reid

Broke's Rewards
Selected Bibliography

This book is a very good read and with an all encompassing range of contributions that helps to put the action between the two ships into the historical context of the war as a whole and the legacy from it in terms of the art and literature that followed together with the advancement of the science of naval warfare it generated.

The book in hard cover has a recommended retail of £19.99 but new copies can be picked up for under £8.00 including P&P


  1. I've always loved frigate actions since reading James Henderson's (?) The Frigates. It reads like a boy's own adventure stories. I'll put this book on my Christmas list.

    I suppose the defining book on The Naval War of 1812 is the one by Franklin Roosevelt - was it his thesis for his PhD? That's also a great, must have book. I believe the ship on ship action diagram in this post is from that book.

    Thanks for the heads up.


  2. Hi James,
    Yes me to, and once I can get back to face to face gaming I intend to pick up on my series of games I started at the beginning of the year where we refought a few actions from the history book.

    Interestingly I noted that we played the Shannon v Chesapeake in a game at the DWG played in the bicentennial year, the link is below for interest.

    I have Roosevelt's book and agree it is a pivotal study and a good read. I hope you enjoy this one.


    1. I'm sorely tempted to buy a few frigates, brigs and such to do small actions. It would be my third collection of 'age of sail' ships. I always end up selling them for want of good rules that give a good, reasonably historically accurate game, that everyone can follow. IMHO, rules for this period tend to be too simple, or too complicated, or written orders. The latter drive me crazy, especially when playing ditherers - God Bless 'em.

    2. You don't have time to get into frigates and brigs, what with all those Napoleonic 28mm Spanish you have to do! Nice collection of French and British by the way.

      Yes I know what you mean about rules which is why I started to look at War by Sail and doing a bit of tweaking with them which has come to a stall with the current situation but I expect to pick that back up once things return to normal.

  3. Perhaps the most significant aspect was that this was the first naval contest of the war between equally matched combatants - previous American successes had been against inferior opponents - and it resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Royal Navy.

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Yes indeed. The suggestion that was made that the Chesapeake was not a sound ship ready and able for her mission is covered in Chapter 5 where Tim Voelcker goes through the various claims, that first she was an unlucky ship and that she was not fit for purpose.

      Lawrence was a very experienced captain and Voelcker lists the work he did over the ten days following his appointment, resolving disputes about payments of previous prize monies, recruiting men to bring the ship up to strength with a strict selection criteria based on experience and knowledge of gun drill. In deed her log book records ten days of exercising with the great guns, small arms and boarding practice, together with her reconnaissance of the harbour entrance prior to her sailing to find out what British ships were operating locally, which rather puts paid to a claim by Admiral Chadwick in 1913 that 'Not a gun crew had been exercised, not a sail had been bent before the day of the action'

      The fact that she caused the Shannon to suffer 83 casualties is indicative of the training and experience displayed by the Chesapeakes and helps to illustrate the high level of ability and courage of the Shannons to overcome in the face of that return fire.