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Invitation to a duel at sea

Jan 1, 2003

While most sea battles during the War of 1812 were the result of chance encounters, at least one engagement was an invitation-only affair. In the case of His Majesty's Frigate Shannon, her captain, Sir Phillip Broke, wrote a very polite invitation to his adversary, Capt. James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, proposing a ship duel. In late May 1813, Shannonwascruisingoff the Massachusetts coast harassing U.S. shipping, while Lawrence was provisioning Chesapeake in Boston harbor. Law-rence, a naval hero who had progressed rapidly through the ranks, received orders only weeks before to join Chesapeake and was under considerable pressure from the citizens of Boston to drive the British menace from the coast. Broke penned an extraordinary letter to Lawrence (sent via a fishing boat) that began, "SirI request you will do me the favor to meet the Shannon with [Chesapeake], ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags." Incredibly, Broke described the number and size of Shannon's guns and her crew size, and ended the letter with "favor me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water and cannot stay long here." At 1750 on June 1, Chesapeake and Shannon engaged at 42° 25' N, 070° 34' W, before a flotilla of sightseeing yachts from Boston. Shannon's first broadside disabled the U.S. frigate, and, in the chaos of boarding Chesapeake, Broke was struck on the head by a razor-edged cutlass wielded by one of his own men and fell to the deck unconscious. Law-rence,mortally wounded in the fight, was taken below uttering those memorable words that are now part of U.S. Navy tradition: "Don't give up the ship!" In the end, Broke and HMS Shannon prevailed and the defeated Chesapeake was towed to Halifax.