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Captain James Lawrence


James Lawrence (October 1, 1781 - June 4, 1813) was an American naval officer. During the War of 1812, he commanded the USS Chesapeake in a single-ship action against HMS Shannon (commanded by Philip Broke). He is probably best known today for his dying command "Don't give up the ship!", which is still a popular naval battle cry.

Lawrence was born in Burlington, New Jersey but raised in Woodbury, New Jersey, the son of John and Martha (Tallman) Lawrence. His mother died when he was an infant and his Loyalist father fled to Canada during the American Revolution, leaving his half-sister to care for him. Though he studied law, he entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1798.

During the Quasi-War with France, he served on USS Ganges and the frigate USS Adams in the Caribbean. He was commissioned a lieutenant on April 6, 1802 and served aboard USS Enterprise in the Mediterranean, taking part in a successful attack on enemy craft on 2 June 1803.

In February 1804, he was second in command during the expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. Later in the conflict he commanded Enterprise and a gunboat in battles with the Tripolitans. He was also First Lieutenant of the frigate Adams and, in 1805, commanded the small Gunboat Number 6 during a voyage across the Atlantic to Italy.

Subsequently, Lieutenant Lawrence commanded the warships USS Vixen, USS Wasp and USS Argus. In 1810, he also took part in trials of an experimental spar torpedo. Promoted to the rank of Master Commandant in November 1810, he took command of the sloop of war USS Hornet a year later and sailed her to Europe on a diplomatic mission. From the beginning of the War of 1812, Lawrence and Hornet cruised actively, capturing the privateer Dolphin in July 1812. Later in the year Hornet blockaded the British sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil, and on 24 February 1813 captured HMS Peacock.

Upon his return to the United States in March, Lawrence learned of his promotion to Captain. Two months later he took command of the frigate USS Chesapeake, then preparing for sea at Boston, Massachusetts. He left port on 1 June 1813 and immediately engaged the blockading Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon in a fierce battle. Although slightly smaller, accurate gunfire from the British ship disabled Chesapeake within the first few minutes. Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded by small arms fire, ordered his officers to "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks." as he was carried below. However, his crew was overwhelmed by a British boarding party shortly afterwards. James Lawrence died of his wounds on 4 June 1813, while Chesapeake was being taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by her captors.

He was buried with military honors in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but reinterred at Trinity Church in New York City. He left behind a wife and daughter.

His death would be reported to his friend and fellow officer Oliver Hazard Perry, who would order a large blue battle ensign stitched with the phrase "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP" [sic] in bold white letters. The Perry Flag would fly from his flagship during his victorious engagement against the British on Lake Erie in September, 1813. This flag is now displayed in Memorial Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

 


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