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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Don't Give Up the Ship!

Today, June 4, is the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of James "Don't Give Up the Ship!" Lawrence, the commander of the USS Chesapeake in the War of 1812. Even if you've never heard of Lawrence, his dying command has filtered down to us as a great American saying. Lawrence is prominently buried at Trinity Church, Wall Street, near the southern entrance to the churchyard.

Lawrence, born in New Jersey, joined the fledgling United States Navy in 1798, just in time for our two-year, undeclared war with France. He rose through the ranks quickly and in 1810 was put in command of the USS Hornet. When war broke out with Great Britain in 1812, the Hornet was used as blockade runner and helped squelch British privateering. In 1813, Lawrence was given command of the Chesapeake; on June 1, they left Boston and immediately ran afoul of a British blockade and the HMS Shannon. This was no surprise--the Shannon's captain, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, had personally challenged Lawrence to a fight.

The Chesapeake was quickly overwhelmed; in the first fifteen minutes of fighting over 200 people were killed, and Lawrence lay fatally wounded. He ordered his men fight until the ship sank. "Don't give up the ship!" he exhorted. The wounded Chesapeake was no match for the British, however, and the Americans were soon captured and taken to Nova Scotia, where Lawrence died of his wounds three days later as his captured vessel was being towed to Halifax.

After Commander Oliver Perry heard of his friend Lawrence's bravery, he had a battle ensign sewn with the words "Don't Give Up the Ship" emblazoned across it. Perry flew the flag during the Battle of Lake Erie, a major American victory. Perry's ensign now hangs at the Naval Academy Museum.

Lawrence was buried in Halifax, then transferred to Massachusetts, and ultimately sent to Trinity. Lawrence's original marble grave marker now resides in the collection of the New-York Historical Society; the current, monumental grave marker, was erected after the Civil War.

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Read more about New York's role in the War of 1812 in

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