This historic depiction of the Battle of Boston Harbor illuminates one of the most famous sea battles in both American and British Naval history. On the afternoon of June 1, 1813 the U.S.S. CHESAPEAKE sailed out of Boston to meet the challenge of the waiting H.M.S. SHANNON.
Although a British victory, by a supreme irony, the Americans would emerge from the defeat with the greater benefit. For it was in this battle that the gallant young American Commander James Lawrence spoke the immortal words "Don't Give Up The Ship" as he lay mortally wounded on CHESAPEAKE's deck. This famous phrase infused the fledgling U.S. Navy with an even more vigorous determination to fight and win.
The battle was brief but intense. In about fifteen minutes, 252 men were killed or wounded between the two sides, a large number of casualties for such a conflict. Though the ships were evenly matched, CHESAPEAKE's crew was primarily made up of men new to the ship, who, while themselves well trained, had had little time to drill together or with Captain Lawrence, also new to the ship. In contrast, SHANNON's Commander, Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was an expert in naval gunnery who had modified his cannons for greater aim and maneuverability and then spent a long voyage with his crew training them to fire on key targets to quickly disable opposing ships.
CHESAPEAKE took more serious hits in their early exchanges of cannon fire, the fatal blow being the loss of her ship's wheel. With no way to maneuver, the wind and waves carried CHESAPEAKE into SHANNON's starboard side where she took another barrage of heavy fire before the British crew lashed the two ships together. When the smoke cleared, Broke gave the command to board CHESAPEAKE.
After taking relentless fire across his decks, Captain Lawrence remained the only officer on CHESAPEAKE's quarterdeck, his lieutenants wounded below. Lawrence also gave the order to board, and it is this moment where the two crews met in pitched hand to hand combat that Buttersworth has so brilliantly depicted here.
Figures line the decks of each ship, trading musket fire as the cannon flash below. Sailors climb the tangle of fallen rigging to reach their opponents, swords raised in the charge. The fading light of day illuminates both ships, damaged but still deep in the fight, neither ready to give way.
Detail is outstanding, but it is the drama of the conflict that Buttersworth so skillfully portrays. The cannon smoke surrounds the ships, but off to the right it clears to show us Boston Harbor busy with trade- capturing the essence of America's freedoms won just a few decades before. It was America's desire for self-determination as a nation and continued independence from Britain that led to the conflict here.
The white flag shown on CHESAPEAKE is historically accurate, though not as a symbol of surrender. CHESAPEAKE was known to have left harbor flying a large white flag at the foremast inscribed "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights" – representing America's main grievances in the War of 1812.
By all accounts both sides fought bravely and with distinction. Lawrence was hit in the first wave of fire by the British coming aboard, and it was while members of his crew carried him below that he would give the infamous order, "Tell the men to fire faster! Don't give up the ship!"
Lawrence's last command to his crew became a rallying cry for the American Navy throughout the war. Later, Lawrence's peer, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry would take his friend's words and emblazon them on his battle flag, winning the day at the Battle of Lake Erie, a significant turning point to the overall American victory. The motto has inspired U.S. Naval sailors from that time until today and Perry's original flag is on display at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Captain Broke led the charge onto CHESAPEAKE and in the battle to follow would also sustain a serious injury and, while he survived and went on to receive many honors for this victory, he would never again serve at sea.
A brilliant portrait of one of the most important naval actions ever fought, this painting embodies the fighting spirit of the great naval sailors of history.
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