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James Lawrence

      Captain James Lawrence was one of that band of chivalrous spirits who, concentrating all their life in the work, with insufficient means, in the face of powerful enemies, raised our infant navy in an instant, as it were, to an honored rank in the world. The force and energy of the free national development were felt in the spontaneous movement that placed so many ardent, courageous spirits at the service of the country. These men, Barry, Barney, Decatur, Bainbridge, Perry, Somers, and the rest--the list is a long one--were volunteers in the cause, fighting more for glory than for pay. Such spirits were not to be hired--theirs was no mercenary service. It was limited by no prudential considerations. They went forth singly or united, the commissioned champions of the nation, with their lives in their hands, ready to sacrifice themselves in that cause. Punctilious on all points of honor, they sought but one reward--victory. There was but one thing for them to do--to conquer; and, failing that, to die. Of these fiery-souled heroes, who carried their country in their hearts, the men of courtesy and courage, of equal humanity and bravery, true sons of chivalry, Lawrence will ever be ranked among the noblest.

      He was born October 1, 1781, at Burlington, on the banks of the Delaware, in New Jersey. His father, John Lawrence, was an eminent counsellor at law at that place. The death of his mother, shortly after his birth, threw the charge of the child upon his elder sisters, by whom he was tenderly cared for. His disposition answered to this gentle culture. The boy was dutiful and affectionate, amiable in disposition and agreeable in manners. Such a soil is peculiarly favorable to the growth of the manly virtues where nature has assisted by her generous physical gifts. The bravest men have often been the gentlest. It is the union of the two conditions which, as in Sir Philip Sidney, makes the perfect warrior.

      Young Lawrence early showed a liking for the sea, and would have led a life on the waters from the age of twelve, had not his father firmly turned his attention to books and education. It was his intention to prepare him for his own profession, the law, and his desire that he should enjoy the usual preparatory finished education. This was, however, prevented by his pecuniary misfortunes, and the youth passed from his primary school at once to the law office of his brother, John Lawrence, then residing at Woodbury. He spent two years in this situation, between thirteen and fifteen, or thereabout, vainly endeavoring to reconcile his humors to the onerous duties of the unwelcome position. The death of his father left him, in a measure, free to follow his own inclinations, and his brother, perceiving his strong bent for the sea, placed him under the care of a Mr. Griscomb, at Burlington, to study navigation, evidently with a view to enter the naval service of the country, for we find him, after a brief three months' instruction, in possession of a midshipman's warrant. This was dated September 4, 1798, the year when Congress seriously directed its attention to the protection of our commerce, then so wantonly pillaged by the two great belligerents of Europe, by the creation of a distinct navy department, and the enlargement of our naval force. The movement was specially directed to the French aggressions on the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. Indeed, in all but the name, war existed with France. It was called a quasi war.

      Lawrence's first service was a cruise to the West Indies, in the Ganges, a twenty-four gun ship, then commanded by Captain Tingey. He showed in this and other voyages such aptitude for his duties that he was made an acting lieutenant by his commander previous to his receiving his commission from Government. In 1802 he was appointed first lieutenant in the Enterprise, of twelve guns, one of the fleet of Commodore Morris, sent to the Mediterranean to prosecute the war with Tripoli. He particularly distinguished himself in that service, by his adventures with Lieutenant David Porter, of the New York, in an attack in open day on certain coasters or feluccas laden with wheat, which took refuge in Old Tripoli, where they were defended by a land force. The attack was made in boats, at close quarters, under a heavy fire of the enemy.

"Don't give up the ship."

      Lawrence had a second opportunity of distinguishing himself in this war in an action likely to be better remembered by the public, the glorious adventure of Decatur, in the destruction of the wrecked and captured Philadelphia, in the harbor of Tripoli, in February, 1804. Lawrence was the first lieutenant of that officer in this brilliant adventure, and shared its full dangers and glories.

      Lawrence was also engaged in the Enterprise, in Preble's bombardment of Tripoli, the same year. He returned in the winter to the United States, with that commodore, in the John Adams. In the following spring of 1805, Lawrence successfully carried across the Atlantic one of the fleet of gunboats, No. 6, of which he was commander, destined for service in the Mediterranean. It was a small vessel, mounting two guns, not at all adapted for ocean navigation. The voyage was looked upon as a marvel. When near the Western Islands, Mr. Cooper, in his "Naval History" tells, he "fell in with the British frigate Lapwing, 28, Captain Upton which ran for him, under the impression that the gunboat was some wrecked mariners on a raft, there being a great show of canvas and apparently no hull."

      After the war with Tripoli was ended, Lawrence returned to the United States, and in the interval, when the war with England, after the affair with the Leopard and Chesapeake, was daily becoming more imminent, we find him, in 1808, appointed first lieutenant of the Constitution. About the same time he married Miss Montaudevert, the daughter of a respectable merchant of New York. He was on duty in the Vixen, Wasp, and Argus; and, at the commencement of the war of 1812, was promoted to the command of the Hornet. While in this last vessel he sailed with Bainbridge, who had the flag-ship Constitution, on a cruise along the coast of South America, and, having occasion to look in at the port of San Salvador, found there the British sloop-of-war, Bonne Citoyenne, of eighteen guns, ready to sail for England with a large amount of specie. Lawrence, whose ship mounted an equal number of guns, was exceedingly anxious to engage with this vessel. He sent a challenge to its commander, Captain Green, through the American consul, inviting him to "come out," and pledging his honor that neither the Constitution, nor any other American vessel, should interfere, which Commodore Bainbridge seconded by promising to be out of the way, or at least non-combatant. The English captain, however, declined.

      It was an unhappy precedent which Lawrence thus established, injurious to the service and destined to act fatally against himself in the end, when from the challenger he became the challenged.

      The Constitution meanwhile sailed away, to close the year with her brilliant engagement with the Java, leaving the Hornet engaged in the blockade of the Bonne Citoyenne. Eighteen days since the departure of the flag-ship had passed while her consort was thus engaged, waiting till her expected prize should issue from the harbor, when the Hornet was robbed of her chances of victory by the arrival of his majesty's seventy-four, the Montague. Escape now became the policy of Lawrence, who luckily managed to get from the harbor in safety, and turned his course to the northward, along the coast. While cruising in this direction, after capturing a small English brig, he fell in with, on February 24, 1813, off the mouth of the Demerara, two brigs of war, with one of which, the Peacock, Captain Peake, he speedily became engaged. The American vessel on this occasion had somewhat the advantage in armament. In the words of Lawrence's dispatch, which gives a modest and forcible account of the affair, after mentioning his attempt to get at the first vessel he discovered at anchor off the bar, he says: "At half-past three P.M., I discovered another sail on my weather quarter, edging down for us. At twenty minutes past four she hoisted English colors, at which time we discovered her to be a large man-of-war brig; beat to quarters and cleared ship for action; kept close by the wind, in order if possible, to get the weather gage. At ten minutes past five, finding I could weather the enemy, I hoisted American colors and tacked. At twenty minutes past five, in passing each other, exchanged broadsides within half pistol shot. Observing the enemy in the act of wearing, I bore up, received his starboard broadside, ran him close on board on the starboard quarter, and kept up such a heavy and well-directed fire, that in less than fifteen minutes he surrendered, being literally cut to pieces, and hoisted an ensign, union down, from his fore-rigging, as a signal of distress."

      The hull of the Peacock was so riddled that she sank, while every exertion was made by her captors to save her by throwing over her guns and stopping the shot-holes. Nine of her crew went down with her, and three of the Hornet's men. Captain Peake was found dead on board. The loss of the Hornet was trifling compared with that of her adversary; but one man killed and four wounded or injured, one of whom afterward died. This superiority is attributed by Cooper, who sums up the testimony, "to the superior gunnery and rapid handling of the Hornet."

      This victory brought Lawrence a harvest of honors, public and private. Before he sailed, he had felt called upon to protest to the Secretary of the Navy against what he thought an injustice done him in the promotion of a younger officer to a captaincy, while he remained simply lieutenant-commander. He now found that the promotion had been conferred upon him in his absence, and was offered the command of the Constitution. He would have been pleased to sail in this vessel, but, much to his annoyance, immediately after receiving the appointment was ordered to the Chesapeake, then lying at Boston.

      Captain Lawrence took the command of the Chesapeake at Boston toward the end of May, 1813. The Shannon frigate, Captain Broke, a superior vessel of the British navy, had been for some time off the port, and her commander, assured of his strength, was desirous of a conflict. "You will feel it as a compliment," he wrote, "if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by triumphs in equal combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect."

      It would be complimenting the valor of Lawrence at the expense of his judgment, if we were to pronounce him ardent for the fight, with the circumstances under which it took place. In fact, as Mr. Cooper states, "he went into the engagement with strong reluctance, on account of the undisciplined state of his crew, to whom he was personally unknown." The challenging vessel, on the contrary, carried a picked crew, with every advantage of discipline and equipment. The presumption, of course, is that he was fully prepared. The armament of the two vessels was about equal, mounting forty-nine guns each.

      At noon, then, on June 1st, Lawrence weighed anchor and left his station in the bay to proceed to sea with a southwesterly breeze. The Shannon was in sight, and the two ships stood off the shore till about half-past four in the afternoon, when the Chesapeake fired a gun, which was the signal for a series of manoeuvres, bringing the vessels within range of each other about a quarter before six. The Shannon hove to, and the Chesapeake bore down toward her. It was Lawrence's intention to bring his ship fairly alongside of the enemy for a full discharge of his battery. He consequently first received the enemy's fire from the cabin guns, as, the wind having freshened, his ship came up to measure her length with her antagonist, which lay with her head to the southeast. Then the Chesapeake poured in her full fire, inflicting considerable damage, which was repeated in the successive discharges for several minutes. In this commencement of the action it was considered that the Shannon received most injury, particularly in her hull. Unhappily, the Chesapeake in turn lost the command of her sails. The ship was consequently brought up into the wind, and fell aboard of the enemy, with her mizzen rigging foul of the Shannon's fore-chains. This accident exposed the Chesapeake to a raking fire, which swept her deck, and, as she was already deprived of the services of the officers who had fallen in the first discharges, her guns in turn were deserted by the men. Captain Lawrence had already received a wound in the leg; his first lieutenant, Ludlow, was wounded; the sailing-master was killed, and other important officers were mortally wounded. As the ships became entangled, Lawrence gave orders to summon the boarders, who were ready below; but unhappily, the negro whose duty it was to call them up by his bugle, was too much frightened to sound a note. A verbal message was sent, and before it could be executed Lawrence was a second time struck, receiving a grapeshot in his body. The deck was thus left with no officer above the rank of a midshipman. The men of the Shannon now poured in and gained possession of the vessel. As Lawrence was borne below, mortally wounded, his dying thoughts were of his command, uttering his order not to strike the flag of his ship, or some equivalent expression, which is handed down in the popular phrase, "Don't give up the ship!" He lingered and died of his wounds on board on June 6th. The Chesapeake was carried into Halifax, and there the remains of her gallant captain were borne from the frigate with military honors, with every mark of respect which a generous enemy could pay to a fallen hero.

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