During the War of 1812 (1812-1815) between Britain and the United States, Britain’s Royal Navy encountered a formidable opponent in the United States Navy. With newer, faster and more heavily armed ships than their British counterparts, the Americans inflicted a series of defeats at sea in the first year of the war.
On 1 June 1813 however, the British 38-gun frigate HMS Shannon engaged the heavier, but similarly armed USS Chesapeake off Boston, Massachusetts. Shannon’s Captain Phillip Broke had focussed the training of his ship’s company on gunnery and as a result was able to disable Chesapeake, before coming alongside, boarding and capturing her. The action was over in just 15 minutes, but it took a heavy toll on both sides. Chesapeake’s Captain James Lawrence died along with about 50 sailors killed and 90 wounded; on board Shannon, Broke was severely wounded, with 23 killed (including Shannon’s first lieutenant) and 56 wounded. One of the bloodiest single ship actions of the age of sail, it would mark a turning point in the war for the Royal Navy.
After the battle Shannon escorted the captured Chesapeake to the British naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving on 6 June 1813. Lieutenant Provo Wallis of Halifax, the senior survivor of Shannon’s officers, assumed temporary command of Shannon and her prize for the journey to Halifax. Today the street that runs alongside the Naval Dockyard in Halifax is named Provo Wallis Street in his memory. He would later rise to be Admiral-of-the-Fleet. Captain Lawrence was buried with naval honours initially at the Old Burying Ground on Barrington Street; his body was later repatriated to Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan. Chesapeake’s survivors were interred at Melville Island military prison for the duration of the war; a number of her crew were buried at nearby Deadman’s Island. Some of Shannon’s dead were buried at the Royal Navy Burying Ground, now part of Canadian Forces Base Halifax.
A cairn with a bronze plaque stands today at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax commemorating the victory. Additionally, an 18-pounder cannon, purported to be one of Shannon’s, stands on the north side of Province House, the home of Nova Scotia’s provincial government, on Hollis Street in Halifax. The cannon on the building’s south side is thought to be from Chesapeake, although it has no discernable markings. At the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Lower Water Street a number of artefacts from the battle can be seen, including Shannon’s bell and an officer’s chest and mess kettle from Chesapeake.