“Their want of practice will make them unskilful, and their want of skill timid. Maritime skill is like skill of other kinds, not a thing to be cultivated by the way or at chance times.”—Thucydides, i, 142.
Sail ho!” comes a long, tense cry from the masthead of the United States sloop of war Hornet. Men hurry across the deck to have a look. A magnificent viking of an officer, tall, majestic, commanding even in his walk, shades his eyes with his hand. Longing ambition and confidence flood his face as he stares eagerly across the blue vastness at the cloud of white on the horizon. Is it his chance at last? . . . long has he waited.
For months hopefully, anxiously, he had stared at each sail the Hornet sighted. Fate in the form of the timid captain of the Bonne Citoyenne had prevented his winning laurels long before. The British sloop had seemed a logical opponent, being both larger and stronger than the Hornet. Yet neither Lawrence’s challenges nor his dares had sufficed to draw it out of the Brazilian port where for seven weeks he had kept it blockaded until he himself had been chased away by an enemy ship of the line. Other weeks had passed. Still fame had discouragingly passed him by. Was this bit of cloud standing over the horizon another false hope?
At the moment he was beating up toward the British man-o-war Espiegle anchored off the mouth of the Demerara River in British Guiana. Immediately tacking, he ran down for the vessel that swiftly now rose over the horizon, a tall-masted sloop of war. It was H.M.S. Peacock—of the same class as the Hornet except that her 32-pounder carronades had been replaced by 24’s—returning to the anchorage she had quit that morning beside her consort. Fate had answered his prayers. On this warm, beautiful day over a dreamy sea, when war must have seemed far away and unreal, his opportunity had arrived. And he was ready.
In his report of the Bonne Citoyenne affair, Bainbridge, who had left the Hornet still on blockade off Brazil, stated that though the British vessel was stronger, “the high state of discipline and excellent order which the Hornet is in makes me feel confident of a favorable result in the issue of an action between them.” For nearly eighteen months Lawrence had been in command of his vessel. For several months now he had been at sea constantly, and in fact had been there, except for a refitting period in Boston, from the day in June when Rodgers’ squadron had sailed upon notification of war. Because Lawrence was not only brave but capable and thorough, the fitness of his ship improved every day that it kept the sea. The crew became a fighting unit of the highest order. Skilled in maneuvering their vessel, drilled constantly at their guns, shaped by discipline and association into a force capable of rising above the disasters that fill war and life, they were ready to win. Such long-disciplined men under such an audacious leader as Lawrence become the nearest thing to unconquerable fate that man produces.
Gradually the two vessels closed. The sun was dipping toward the steaming jungles of Guiana. No longer was the sea smooth with dreams of peace. Whitecaps were forming. As they grew, blue waves changed to angry green. The Hornet beat to quarters. Her decks were cleared for action, gun tackles laid free for running, matches lighted, swabs and tubs of water set along the deck, boarding weapons laid around the mast. Men at the guns removed their upper clothing, literally stripping for action, and the muscles of their bare torsos rippled lithely in the light of the dying day. Lawrence hauled close to the wind seeking the coveted weather gauge, beginning the tactics, indeed, that though limited by the nature and brevity of the engagement were as superior to the seamanship of his opponent as was his gunnery. Every factor was favorable, as is usually true for him who is both brave and well prepared. Good fortune is the offspring of courage and labor to be ready. Preparation ever breeds confidence; and confidence based upon skill produces the unerring precision of action that causes the bold strokes to victory of great leaders to seem so strangely simple.
Lawrence gained his objective, the weather gauge. Now but a few hundred yards of green sea separated the duelists. Now bow overlapped bow only a few yards apart. Now within close pistol shot, less than half a city block apart, both ships burst into a storm of ball and canister and grape. The effect on the English crew must have been staggering. For twenty years they had been accustomed to meeting enemies, who, though often fighting valiantly and sometimes winning, seldom laid their guns well enough to inflict more than nominal damage at the closest range. The loss on a British ship after an hour of fighting might well have usually been no more than that left on this one by the first American broadside. Splinters shot into the air; wounded men cried out; torn sail and rigging flapped fatefully inert; gaping holes opened at the water line; blood splashed on the white deck of the beautiful craft. The British captain was not used to this new deadly war in which the long glamour of chivalry slowly retreated over the horizon of past things and the cold, ruthless, devastating efficiency that war has become today began to take shape. Nevertheless, he doggedly wore ship and keeping off before the wind hurled his fresh starboard broadside into the American vessel. Lawrence, however, was as skillful in tactics as he had trained his crew to be at the guns. Putting up his helm, he wore too, and swinging close under the quarter of the Peacock commenced a steady, relentless cannonading to the death.
The end came swiftly, 11 minutes after the first shots hurtled across the green waves the Peacock surrendered. In another instant her flag mounted upside down in her fore rigging. She was sinking. Streams of water were pouring into her wounded hull. Despite strenuous efforts of both crews to plug the shot holes, and while the prisoners were still being removed, the Peacock shot to the bottom, her foretop projecting 5§ fathoms above the waves like a last defiance from the unconquerable soul of Britain. American gunnery had won the day. Preparation and valor, as they must always, had conquered valor alone.
Thus it happened toward the end of the first twelvemonth of the war that Lawrence, the toast of the American nation, was promoted and transferred to Boston to command the small frigate Chesapeake. It was a year that while mortifying to America in many respects had been amazingly glorious in one. From the day in August, 1812, when Hull had achieved the seemingly impossible by conquering a British frigate, American warships had been consistently victorious in single combat. A few men other than naval officers may have understood the true reason for such incredible success; but not so the mass of the surprised and delighted American public. Americans won, they bragged, because they were the bravest of the brave. Americans won because they were stouter of soul, fighters in a world of fighters. And Lawrence—dashing, brilliant, lovable, audacious—had become the epitome of this concept. After his victory, as after others, the nation had been filled with the booming of guns, fervent addresses, parades extending long into nights made brilliant by “illuminations,” wherein houses in cities and hamlets all over the country set lamps burning in windows until each was an altar of victory. The Captain of the Hornet had become a national hero. The swift fatality of his conquest electrified common men who dream greatly but go forward blunderingly. Here was not only a dare-devil who could follow Decatur into the dark harbor of Tripoli, but a resourceful leader capable in planning and swift in execution. It was Lawrence’s fortune, as well as his final tragic misfortune, to be a knight from other years. He who had eagerly sought action; who had conquered so unerringly, so effortlessly, when his chance came; who had treated his prisoners with such humanity that even the enemy praised him—this Ulysses of a later age at once wrote another Odyssey in men’s hearts that never weary of seeking after the wonder and grandeur that is sometimes man.
In a measure the American public was correct in believing that these qualities of dash and boldness it adored in Lawrence had given American vessels consistent victory. As a group Yankee seamen had exhibited the high type of physical courage necessary for success. As a group their officers had supplemented physical courage with that primary element of leadership—moral courage, willingness to accept responsibility by putting one’s theories to the test in vigorous activity. Whatever else had led to consistent American victory, nothing had been more essential than courage. The brave often win through that virtue alone. The fearful rarely ever win by any virtue at all.
Yet will or moral courage of the highest type is not enough when pitted against equal will. This was a truth American naval officers had not only realized but had acted upon through years of careful preparation. It was a truth not generally understood by their countrymen as bubbling over with patriotic fervor—or perhaps more quickly intoxicating spirits— they unmelodiously shouted such broadsides as:
Oh! Johnny Bull, my Jo John, your Peacock keep at home,
And ne’er let British seamen on a Frolic hither come.
For we’ve Hornets and we’ve Wasps, John, as you surely know,
With stingers in their tails, Oh, Johnny Bull, my Jo.
Unfortunately, it is a truth that Americans as a nation have never sufficiently comprehended.
It was a truth, however, very clear to Lawrence as he made his way northward by uncomfortable land conveyance forced upon him because of English control of the sea. He was carrying out his orders to the Chesapeake. In the midst of his glory they had come to him like a cloud lifting across the sun on a golden day. He had dreamed he would be placed in command of the Constitution. Since he could not have her he had asked to retain the Hornet. He knew the little ship perfectly, how she would answer to his touch, what wings she had under his hand; he knew the crew, understood their soundness of preparation, their splendid organization, their trained fighting qualities that complemented his own like a setting worthy of its jewel. The Constitution, prepared by Hull, would have been similar. Both vessels were proved warriors; both were splendid weapons for conquest; both were consequently lucky ships. The Chesapeake was none of these things. He attempted to avoid the promotion; but the very fame he had coveted forced him into it. Although he was too junior for the Constitution, his new rank deserved better things than a sloop; the American people would have seen to that for their hero. Hence, obeying orders, though reluctantly, he assumed command of the frigate on May 20. For ten days he endeavored with dwindling hope to effect a change, meanwhile vigorously completing final arrangements for an extended cruise off Nova Scotia and across the Atlantic. On the 30th, he shifted out to President Roads to lie there a few days shaking down before going to sea. The next afternoon, while he was dining ashore, vibrant information came—a single British frigate without her usual consort had been sighted off the harbor. Hasting back on board, he began to get his ship in shape for action on the morrow.
All his efforts, however, could not in 24 hours make the Chesapeake ready as she had need to be. There off Boston Harbor, blockading him as he once had the Bonne Citoyenne, was the most efficient frigate in the British Navy. From the day he had taken over his new ship in 1806, Broke had been pointing toward this conflict. For nearly as many years as Lawrence had been in his ship in days, he had handled the Shannon and drilled her crew, many of whom were veterans like himself, until they had become a fighting machine superb. At a time when most of the British Navy was agreeing with Nelson that if one had courage to get close enough he need not trouble about gun sights, Broke became interested in them. Gunnery was the raison d’être for a warship. Anything that made one shoot better made her more fit. In a battle with all other elements equal, such preparation would lead inevitably to victory. Hence with his own money he bought dispart sights and quadrants for each gun on the Shannon. Behind every one, that it might be trained accurately, he cut arcs in the deck with putty-filled notches for degrees. Twice a day during the week the watch below went to their stations at the great guns, not merely to haul them in and out with the side tackles—as was the custom on most English ships that did devote much time to guns—but in firing at beer kegs and beef casks. Broke, enthusiastic leader that he was, constantly supervised, and added to the stimulation of his own presence the award of “a pound of tobacco to every man that put a shot through the bull’s-eye.”
This methodical and tireless training had been climaxed by a strenuous year of blockading off the American coast, that had seasoned and unified the crew. They had become at least the equal of the best American crews in skill both with muskets and the great guns. But far greater benefits from the long discipline were the habits of obedience and firm activity in face of disaster that cause trained men to dare past fear to victory. Such is the highest reward of military training. Undisciplined bodies of men are but masses of sheep swayed by every whim and fear. A slight setback causes them to falter; a deadly blow sends them fleeing with all the wild dispersing madness of terror. Then even a little discipline is worth armies; and years of it acquire uncountable value. Men who came in conflict with the Shannon would have to be ready indeed.
In the Chesapeake, Lawrence had a frigate equal to his opponent in guns, and carrying about 50 more men. Some were British deserters—in Halifax 36 went back to the victor’s service. A few were foreigners. But by far the majority were good New England seamen bearing such names as John Smith, Eliphalet Carr, Darby Lee, Michael Twee, Enoch Hacket, Peter Frost, and Ebenezer Day. Some had come from the Constitution, a few from the Hornet, many were of the old crew re-enlisting for another cruise. As a whole the material was good. But even good men are poor when untrained. These men had not been whipped into shape by so much as a day, much less years of intimate contact at sea. Undoubtedly they had been put through some drill in the weeks of fitting out and the two days they lay in the Roads. But to be good gunners they needed weeks together at sea firing at targets. They needed even more time to gain that wholeness of action and greatness of group courage known as morale, esprit de corps, soul of a unit. They were to all effects a half-trained and half- disciplined body of men with all the foreboding possibilities such terms imply.
To make matters worse, they had no proper leaders. We say this despite Ludlow, and Budd, and Lawrence, the last one of the finest officers in the little American Navy. But no leader can be suitable until he knows his men and is in turn understood by them. What was the weapon that Lawrence had? He could not know. How the ship handled, what men were to be most depended upon, the names of petty officers that he might call on them in time of stress—he knew none of these things. Nor did most of the subordinate officers. Indeed, in them was a vital weakness. Some had held their positions long and were acquainted with the ship; but for various reasons four of the most important were absent, including the first lieutenant. To fill this place second only to Lawrence, brave Ludlow was promoted. Although just 21, he had experienced a long, full life at sea and in those days of young commands was certainly capable of handling the job. On the other hand, it was unfortunate that the change had to occur just before this crisis in the frigate’s destiny. It was a time when the last shred of experience would not be too much. To replace absent lieutenants in command of the waist and after gun deck divisions, Midshipmen Cox and Ballard were promoted. Along with other midshipmen on board they were valorous enough, no doubt, but lacking in experienced judgment and the resulting intelligent resolution necessary in great crises. Not only were some of the officers thus unproved to themselves, but since they were unacquainted with the crew they failed likewise in forging the invisible but powerful bond of recognition of leadership. Men who are known by and in turn admire the qualities of their superior officer are so eager to attain distinction in his eyes that they will give their lives before dishonoring themselves.
The most fatal defect, however, was the lack of organization and military discipline. Without them a body of men cannot act resolutely before the unexpected misfortunes that more surely in war than anywhere else set man’s plans awry. Not trained into a conquering unit, the crew of the Chesapeake would attain to a miracle should they in the moments of stress ahead make the invariably correct decisions necessary to defeat their crack opponent. It was as if this contest were laid to teach America the very lesson England was learning, if tardily, from the little Yankee navy. For it was not the Chesapeake that was unprepared, but the United States. Opportunity for the ship to get to sea to build up all the strength we have seen to be lacking was denied her because the nation had failed to provide the means of defending its own shores. It was a pitiful weakness that a small squadron could blockade America’s long coast line, shut off her foreign trade, force her few warships, when they could escape, to sneak out to the free sea like pirates. To offset the miserly sums saved in naval construction she saw most of her lucrative commerce cut off, felt the weight of armed forces along her shores, suffered the ignominy of having her capital burned, almost experienced the disaster of being divided into separate countries. It was America’s fault that the few craft she had were unable to venture even beyond the harbor entrances to drill their crews. It was her unhappy shortsightedness that prevented her Navy from being large enough to have won and kept the western ocean from England, or, more likely, to have prevented the war, for strength is the surest deterrent to insult and aggression. The United States then, as too long thereafter, was blind to the greatness that has ever been potentially hers at sea.
“All fog and rain these days and chance sight of strangers through the gloom,” wrote Broke on May 31 off Boston Light. “Fog again . . . however, we hope better fortunes. Chesapeake is not gone.” Swiftly the words must have formed under his pen, for he was eager to engage the American frigate. Preparation gives this supreme self-confidence to a brave man. When one is fully ready he thrills with the sensation of complete mastery of self, of that rhythm of perfection in movement that at some time for all men fills them with the knowledge they can control fate itself.
Lawrence was not equally anxious for combat. He sought it bravely and swiftly, but not for the same reasons as Broke. About nine o’clock on the blue first of June his officer of the deck sent word of a sail in the offing that might be the British warship reported on the 31st. Lawrence quickly hurried on deck and mounted the “main rigging himself to look-out.” It was a frigate, apparently alone. There lay the call to battle. Whatever his degree of readiness he could not refuse. Beloved of Americans for his valor, he who had bearded the Bonne Citoyenne could not fail his countrymen by declining to meet a like challenge.
Slowly he descended from the rigging. But whatever doubt was in his mind he did not show it to his men. At once he set them to rigging ship for sea, meanwhile sending a passing pilot boat to see if the enemy frigate was alone. As the crew gathered to unmoor, Lawrence had them mustered on the quarter-deck. Then by words he attempted, as all good commanders do, to instill in his men the will to victory. “There is your flag,” he said, pointing to the peak where it floated in soft undulations against the blue, depthless sky, “love it as your lives; prefer death before dishonor to it and the name of Americans. What the Hornet did, can be done again. Remember the Hornet, and when you close, Peacock her, my lads, Peacock her!”
But what the Hornet could do the Chesapeake might not be able to match. As Thucydides says of the Lacedaemonians, “They had learned that true safety was to be found in long previous training, and not in eloquent exhortations uttered when they were going into action.” Exhortation is good both when and when not ready for battle. To stir the spirits of men so that they will follow a leader to the edge of life, and beyond, is highly needful. Among the strongest forces guiding man are the ideals by which he lives. Great leadership develops and depends upon these. Yet, and inevitably, “true safety” lies in “long previous training.”
It was a truth inescapable. Lawrence knew it. As toward noon his beautiful ship filled her sails and slowly headed outward, as the sun crossed the meridian and dropped down through the long, blue afternoon, what thoughts throbbed through his mind there in the silence of his cabin? Sometime during the day he wrote the last letters of his life. In one to the Navy Department stands this sentence: “My men appear to be in fine spirits and I trust will do their duty.” In another to his brother-in-law, this request: “An English frigate is close in with the lighthouse, and we are now clearing ship for action. Should I be so unfortunate as to be taken off, I leave my wife and children to your care.” Are these gleams of light into his mind? They may be only the natural thoughts of a man who deliberately and resolutely seeks out danger. That the crew appear to be in spirits and that he trusts they will do their duty may be only modesty for are and know; that there is no exuberance in the letter to his brother-in-law but almost a tone of fatality may be the mature Lawrence instead of the knight in search of golden honor, but both, with other proofs, point to what chronicles of the time aver: that Lawrence went into this battle with reluctance. So doubt reared its ugly head as he sat there alone; indecision clutched at him with fatal fingers! His courage was not gone, because that could never be taken from him; but his confidence was shaken, and that is terrifying. “As danger is the general element in which everything moves in War,” writes Clausewitz, “it is also chiefly by courage, the feeling of one’s own power, that the judgment is” influenced to cool, reasoning audacity instead of fearful inaction. Lawrence had one of the requisites of high achievement: dauntless, resolute will that could ride high over even this black hour of mental fear, for he did not falter in his plans. He lacked the other: preparation to the fullest extent possible; and knowledge of that must have weakened him almost as much as the lack itself. Material deficiencies do not end with themselves but with terrible sureness destroy one’s moral forces.
Lawrence knew he was not ready; his mind was assailed by fears; yet he had courage enough to hold to his purpose. Even in realizing the cause of his failure, we must admire his strength of soul and constancy of ideals. To have remained true to his character he could not have acted other than he did, and to have been untrue would have meant for him the end of all ambition. Like a hero of an ancient Greek tragedy his fate seemed foredoomed and inescapable. The very nobility of his character proved his downfall. His disdain for the captain of the Bonne Citoyenne; his brilliant, effortless victory over the Peacock, which he knew to be the result of the splendid preparation of the Hornet, but which his countrymen did not; the wholehearted faith in him of the American nation; his promotion and greatness of name, too great for a sloop, a step yet from one of the big frigates; the urging of the Navy Department and many lesser circumstances that made it inevitable both that he should stay in the Chesapeake and that he should sail quickly; Broke’s decision at this particular moment to seek single combat, for he had deliberately sent away his consort and had written a challenge that was still on its way to Boston when the ships clashed—all that happened to him seemed to lead to this gray crossroads.
A lesser or greater man might have avoided combat; not so Lawrence. What would have been the feeling of Americans had he slipped out to sea; how would his crew have felt; what would have happened to his own morale? So, as the Chesapeake glided silently out of the harbor toward the white-winged Shannon, Lawrence dressed himself carefully, as one might for a wedding, or a long journey. Shining top boots covered the bottom of his white trousers. On the shoulders of his laced blue coat, epaulets glinted in the sun- shafts sifting through the cabin window. A cocked hat, from under which his hair fell in a braided queue tied with black ribbon, added to his height making him a veritable king of men as, later, he stood on deck skillfully guiding the Chesapeake that she might not be raked in closing.
At 5:30 the Shannon, having lost way, put on sail and headed S.S.E., but shortly having way enough she “shivered the main topsail and lay to again under topsails, jib and spanker,” waiting for her enemy to close. The Chesapeake now stood directly for her, “with the yards braced sharp up and the sheets flat aft.” In admiration of her boldness, or from fear of losing the quarry, Broke gave the order “not to fire whilst the gallant fellow kept his head toward us.” Oddly enough, the hour was almost exactly the same as when the Hornet bore down on the Peacock in a dying afternoon months before.
Broke, supremely confident, as a chivalrous gesture not only refused to damage the Chesapeake as she drew near, but left his own ship open to raking. Before the Shannon could have gathered way, Lawrence might have swept her with a volley from astern or forward. Instead, as chivalrous as his opponent and disdaining any maneuver except death grapple, to the surprise of his own crew as well as the British, when only 40 yards from the Shannon he put his helm down and ranged alongside her, yardarm to yardarm. Knowing his deficiency in gunnery training, he was taking the boldest and at the same time the most possible chance of victory. Amazed, the Chesapeake's crew nevertheless cheered lustily, no doubt stirred by the valor of the deed. The British manned their starboard guns, having been exhorted by Broke in this fashion:
Shannons, you will let them know today that there are Englishmen in the Shannon who still know how to fight. Don’t try to dismast her, fire into her quarters; main deck into the main deck; quarter-deck into the quarter-deck. Kill the men and the ship is yours.
Both vessels held their fire. At 5:55, as the long shadow of the Chesapeake's foremast lay across the Shannon, a British gun commenced the action and was immediately answered, each gun being touched off in rapid succession as it bore. A veritable sheet of death sliced across the spar deck of the Chesapeake, and especially the quarter-deck where Lawrence and his officers were gathered, for he had misjudged the two ships’ relative speed so that his fore guns were passing beyond the enemy and his quarter bearing the brunt of her fire. As that first rain of iron struck the American frigate it is claimed to have mowed down 100 men. This is doubtful; but the havoc was terrible. The English topmen could barely make out the deck of the Chesapeake through the cloud of splinters, hammocks, and other wreckage flying across it. Lawrence was wounded under the knee almost immediately by a pistol ball. A round shot tore off the head of the sailing master. Two midshipmen fell dead; another and the boatswain were mortally hurt. The first lieutenant, Ludlow, was severely wounded. On the main deck, 8 men were thrown overboard from the two most forward guns alone soon after the first fire. Acting Lieutenant Ballard in charge of the after division fell wounded to death with one of his legs shot away.
Not a single senior officer remained unwounded on the upper deck of the Chesapeake. The Shannon's shooting was in truth a rain of death. But the American frigate had also been delivering punishment. Although her fire had not been as accurate, especially topside, it had been devastating. Grape, bar, and round shot filled the hull of the Shannon. The record of injuries shows that the two vessels were almost equally damaged by gunfire. Indeed, although only a little more than half as many 18-pounder shot struck the Shannon, more 32-pounders went home in her than in the Chesapeake, indicating probably that the American fire even from the exposed spar deck was directed largely at the hull and the more accurate British fire, as Broke had urged, at the men. Consequently, on the main deck the casualties must have been as severe on the Shannon as on the American ship. Only on the spar deck was there a true difference of effect. Here it was a hell of death for the Chesapeake alone, partially because Lawrence’s maneuver had gone awry exposing the quarter-deck, partially because of the splendid British gunnery. The American morale was shaken. Yet for a briefly trained crew they had held to their guns so manfully that we can be proud of them as Americans, and of the noble will of Lawrence which must have been magnificent to have held them to such slaughter. Could they, shaken in spirit and body, continue to stand up to such a fire? If they could, there was still a chance for victory in that they might yet so shatter the Shannon’s hull as to sink her.
Fate and British gunnery, however, did not so will it. As Lawrence tried to check the Chesapeake’s headway the foresails were much shot away; the sailing master, as we have seen, was killed, the boatswain wounded; three men in succession fell at the wheel; now it too was shattered and the tiller ropes cut. The ship was out of control. Fatefully she paid up into the wind and hung there with sails aback in the most desperate of positions exposed to a raking fire. In a moment she was gathering sternway toward the Shannon. Now the latter’s carronade fire was probably redoubled; all but one of the 32-pounder shot that struck the Chesapeake landed aft of the beam. The great guns crushed in the American frigate’s stern ports, smashed her boats, swept her spar deck with a hurricane of grape and round. The blasts from them drove clouds of splinters mingling with the smoke across the unfortunate ship’s deck until it was obscured from the men in the tops “with a mist of debris, as a mist of spoon-drift in a pelting gale.”
The Chesapeake was almost on the Shannon despite Broke’s efforts to avoid her, for he believed supremely in his gunnery. It was apparent her stern would strike the British vessel about amidships. Up to now, under the eyes of Lawrence and the other officers remaining, the American crew had stayed at their stations. In fact, the forward guns, where the officers were still uninjured, were so well laid that they were cutting up the Shannon’s hull severely. If they persisted in such fighting, now that the British superiority in gunnery was to be lost, the American flag might yet be victorious.
Lawrence, who was hanging on the binnacle to support his wounded leg, had faced the growing disasters with noble courage. Now in a loud, clear voice he called away boarders. Broke saw the Americans speeding from their after guns. Were they running towards the masts where the boarding weapons were laid out? Or were they, as he exultantly thought, flinching from the superb fire of British musketry and carronades?
Up to this time the Americans had fought nearly as well as the British, but the effect of their inferior marksmanship had been cumulative. Not so much chance as British gunnery had caused the Chesapeake to lose her headsails, wheel, and officers, whereas the Shannon lost none of these. Now the other and greater weakness of Lawrence’s crew was to be tested, for the crisis was approaching. This was the moment when discipline, inculcated as it can be only by long training, was to show its value. Evidence of lack of it appeared at once: there was no bugler to sound the call for boarders. He was hidden in terror. One of Lawrence’s midshipman aids ran below to pass the word. Ludlow shouted it down the main hatch. Another aid sought and found the bugler, but unable to get him to sound the call, likewise hurried below.
That we may realize the tremendous strain on these battered men, we should note that this was only the ninth or tenth minute of action. In war events occur with a mad, frantic violence appalling in its terror. What can hold men to face such frenzied death? Passionate loyalty or excitement will lead them to it. Only fanaticism to a degree of insanity, or long, stern practice will hold them there. When nothing else is left to cling to in the hail of death sweeping across a body of men, habit resulting from training is the one force that overcomes their blind and heedless fear.
When the boarders were called, the quarter-deck men ran forward, probably to get their weapons. But there was an intense relief in the running. Their longing to escape death was being gratified. What was to stop their flight? “When every man is his own master in battle, he will readily find a decent excuse for saving himself,” writes Thucydides of raw levies. The comment aptly fits these men in the Chesapeake. Imperfect organization broke down in the emergency. There was no one to lead, or to drive the men back, apparently for two reasons: (1) with her initial shortage of officers added to by heavy casualties, the ship lacked senior ones; (2) the junior and petty officers were not from habits of discipline forced to lead. It is doubtful if boarding drill had been held in the Chesapeake. According to Gleaves, Lawrence had once said that owing to the “immense superiority” of American gunnery “he would never board an enemy until his own masts were disabled.” But even if he had favored boarding he would not have been better off, for there had been no time for drills to insure that the men would maintain the conflict when there was none left to lead and they were fighting from discipline alone.
How vital the will of a leader is! But when he is stricken what strength there lies in firm organization! Even without it there was a possibility that such officers as remained might have aided the wounded Lawrence to rouse the men to victory. When the tide of defeat sets, however, it runs strong. About the time the crew ran for their boarding weapons, a hand grenade thrown by one of the Shannon topmen set off a box of ammunition on the Chesapeake's poop deck. The explosion “spread a fire on her upper deck from foremast to the mizzenmast as high as the tops”; and enveloped both ships in smoke. The frigate was not only in confusion but covered in a cloud of smoke that made flight from death unseen, and ordered control almost impossible. At this same disastrous instant the one man who might have rallied the crew fell mortally wounded. Just before or just as the ships came together Lawrence sank to the deck struck by a musket ball deliberately aimed at his tall, commanding figure.
Men were coming from the Chesapeake's gun deck to join the boarding party, though woefully few. Some of the midshipmen, including Acting Lieutenant Carr, rushing on deck called to their divisions to follow; apparently no one tried to organize and force them up. Without knowledge of their men, these boy officers were lost in the uncertainty of their own bewildered minds. Where was a leader, where discipline? Either would have been enough at the moment, for despite the confusion the word for boarders had been heard in time to have made effective resistance. With proper organization the amidships and forward divisions, which had suffered less than the 3d, could have rushed to the spar deck an overwhelming force instead of the handful at the most that followed each officer. For that matter, there were men enough on the spar deck to begin with to have coped with the first British party. But Lawrence was down, who or what could take his place? Just as Cox, whose division received the call for boarders first, reached the quarter-deck, Lawrence fell. The young acting lieutenant was then the senior officer on the upper deck. The British were massed ready to leap on the Chesapeake as the ships ground together. One man at least, with maybe more, was ready to oppose them, for as the British boatswain attempted to lash the ships together someone slashed off his arm with a cutlass. Had a score of resolute Americans been there at the stern, they could have stopped the enemy as by one’s and two’s they boarded.
But Lawrence was down. With him on deck, the ship might still have gone unconquered. His noble soul might have held the fleeing crew. Perhaps any brave officer at this minute, but not later (for the break in the levee grows swiftly) might have stayed them. Cox was the only one there. Instead of leading the men on deck to the danger spot, with four seamen he carried his beloved commander below. It was an act of love, no doubt, an act of youthful inexperience; but it was a miserable act. As he and four men, enough to have rallied a larger force, carried their protesting leader below, the enemy must have been coming over the after guns.
“Follow me, who can,” shouted valiant Broke, leaping to the Chesapeake's aftermost carronade. And about 20 men near by clambered after him. Where were just five brave Americans to cut down the captain and other foremost Britons? That would have stopped the onset. With Broke gone, as with Lawrence for the Chesapeake, half the British strength would have been lost. The attack would at least have been retarded, giving the Americans a breathing spell. The topmen were already reaping execution among the boarding party. Their fire continued only a little while, to be sure, for the Shannon topmen soon drove them out; yet while it lasted there was needed in addition only a stout resistance on deck to have checked the enemy.
The men were there, but were more like a herd than a strong fighting unit. Ludlow had been wounded again. Lawrence was being taken below, angered at going, angered more by what he saw of disorder and confusion on the gun deck where the divisions were getting out of control of their young officers. With him, the men saw, went another officer. Why should they stay to fight; was not the day already lost? And these were only the more courageous of them; the remainder of the two score or more who must have been topside were already caught in the panic of fear. Although the British carronade fire had ceased, most of the Americans did not stop where their weapons were stored but, stimulated to flight by the very act of running, sped on to the forecastle. Not a soul except the chaplain was on the quarter-deck, and only 25 or 30 in the gangways to meet the British rush.
Lieutenant Budd of the 1st Division now reached the upper deck. He had received word of the call for boarders perhaps two minutes after Lawrence had given it; in so short a time, as is the way of war, were compressed all the fateful events just related. There on the quarterdeck starting for the forecastle he saw a score of men in strange uniforms. The British had already boarded! Understanding the moral values of swiftness, Broke had not let up for an instant the furious succession of hammering blows that had shattered the American morale.
Collected in the starboard gangway was a handful of his own men, frightened and leaderless. Sixty or seventy more of the enemy were in the act of boarding. Only a miracle could change the tide of victory. Yet even now Budd saw that hope was not entirely gone. Shouting orders to cause the Chesapeake to shoot clear (orders which could not be executed because of the wounded rigging), he attempted to rally the crew. Just then, or a little afterwards, the Chesapeake did break free. Here was another chance! There were less than 100 English on board. The Americans had them isolated against a superiority of 3:1 in numbers, but not in effectiveness. It was too late for anything to save the Chesapeake. The tide of fear had not been checked by the only forces that could have stayed it, and now it was setting in all its sickening, pitiful, growing force; for it is like an avalanche that after a time, and very swiftly, becomes irresistible. Now mad, unreasoning, frantic fear filled the ship. What if they were 3:1 over the enemy, death was in the air and in their minds. Self-control as well as the control of discipline was gone. There was no reason, no thought, probably not even any considered cowardice; for what was driving the men was the old, old, the very primeval urge of life to seek safety in flight. The dispersion of panic swept all ideals aside. Instinct drove the men in a pitiful animal-like herd. There were no officers to stop them, for the young midshipmen below were in almost as bad a state; and it was too late, anyhow. It was a wild stampede. The fore hatch and scuttle soon became too crowded. So men clambered over the bows and tumbled into the gun deck by the bridle ports. Those who were crowded out threw down their arms. The crew still on the gun deck were caught in the wave of fear. It is infectious —just as are courage and hope, and the calm confidence of veteran troops. Electrically it had charged the ship. These men had scattered from their divisions when their superior officers went on deck. Now they too rushed to the forward hatches in desperate attempt to reach the berth deck— a wild flight not to safety but to where they could hide their heads.
Although Budd, who was twice wounded and hurled to the deck below, and a few others made a brave resistance, it was ineffectual. The battle was lost as surely as if every American were dead. To look at this concluding phase, one would not realize it had been lost by a narrow margin, but it was. Preparation and valor had again conquered valor alone.
Lawrence was mourned nationally, men who had never seen him grieving for him as for a friend. Although his defeat did not teach the one great lesson to be learned from it-—at the time Americans assigned many causes but the unpalatable truth— it was then and has been since a deep fount of inspiration to valor. In his failure we see clearly the difficulty in knowing when to act, and come to feel, almost, that Lawrence could not have done otherwise. For it was not he, with no choice, in that tragic June twilight who erred, but America. As this hero was borne bleeding into the hold of the Chesapeake, he was not only the voice of one of America’s noblest watchwords of courage but a sacrificial victim to her tragic unreadiness. It was her disregard and lack of strength at sea that made it impossible for him to prepare. He had to accept battle with the weapon at hand. That it was not what he would have it to be was no excuse. When battle comes, one must fight. Then the bolder the blows, the surer the victory; the more the vacillation, the surer the defeat. Against any other 38 frigate he would have won. Such was British gunnery on the average, and such he knew it to be. By a narrow margin he lost to England’s best drilled frigate—so close lies victory to failure.
If one must choose between fearful hesitation and valor, he should ever take Lawrence’s course. It fails less often. In war, “He who greatly deserves, must greatly dare. . . .” Should man seek after courage all his days, he has not sought too long, for it is the shield supreme of life. Yet even he who has earnestly acquired it, in war finds it shaken by fear. How much more so does ordinary man when in the chaos of battle all the props of the world he has known have been literally shot away. There is no one who does not fear for and long to preserve his life. Men are not brave in battle from disdain of danger but from heat of emotion or habit born of discipline. What will a crew do when its leaders are killed and the ship shattered? Who will fill the empty stations, what lesser officers lead, what hold them firm against death and terror?
Habit alone will then sustain. Habit gives freedom from the awful dispersion of fear that in disaster terrifies and destroys man’s mental unity. Habit insures the correct reaction when all the faculties are temporarily paralyzed. Habit, which is merely the result-name for discipline, organization, and preparation, is one of the strongest forces that guide man’s destiny. There are others, moral and material, uncountable in their effect. But when equal will meets equal will, as with Broke and Lawrence; when equal valor shatters against equal strength of soul, as with the British and American crews; when equal force meets equal force, as with the Chesapeake and Shannon; when well-armed determination hurls against its like, then a potent factor will decide— and its name, for men and nations, is preparation.
“The Americans were wrong,” truthfully says De la Gravière, “to accuse Fortune on this occasion. Fortune was not fickle, she was merely logical. The Shannon captured the Chesapeake on June 1, 1813, but on September 4, 1806, when he took command of his frigate, Captain Broke had begun to prepare the glorious termination. . . .”
When pitted against an equal, even the highest courage must be supplemented by the most sincere preparation. In the end, disastrously or gloriously, the sea teaches this lesson to those who venture out into her far, gray mists.
A man whose sole quality is courage is not capable of commanding an army. The qualities needed for this honour are far above courage, which is often superficial and one-sided in its views, and never penetrates down to the foundations. It requires genius, talents, good sense, an active prudence, prompt and just intuition, and coolness which enables the mind to remain unaffected even when the danger is greatest. All these qualities must be coupled with profound theoretical knowledge and wide experience; with which last two conditions by themselves a man may well be a very good fellow, but he never will make a general.—Turpin De Crisse, “Com- mentaires et observations sur les Memoires de Montecucculi.”
 V. 69.
 Gleaves, James Lawrence, 175.
 On War, i, 101.
 Gleaves, 179.
 iv, 126.
 Vol. II p. 190.
 Guerres Maritimes, ii, 272.