We are rapidly approaching the bi-centennial of the War of 1812, a largely forgotten conflict which was, in many respects, a continuation of the American War of Independence from Great Britain. The war was characterized by American incompetence and bumbling on land and surprising success on the seas. The early days of the war were marked by American victories at sea in which three American heavy frigates defeated and burned or captured three British frigates in single-ship battles. In the battle between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake in March of 1813, however, the Americans would not be so fortunate. The Shannon captured the Chesapeake.
James Lawrence, the captain of the Chesapeake, is said to have given a dying command of “Don’t give up the ship!” The surviving officers aboard the Chesapeake immediately ignored their captain’s orders and surrender the ship to the British, who had boarded and were already in effective control of the American frigate in any case.
When word of the defeat spread, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a colleague and friend of Captain Lawrence, named the brig that would be his flagship, the USS Lawrence, in honor of the captain of the Chesapeake. He also had a large battle flag sewn, a blue banner with the words “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP” stitched in white letters.
In September of 1813, when Perry challenged British control of Lake Erie near Put In Bay off the coast of Ohio, British long guns did serious damage to the USS Lawrence before the Lawrence‘s carronades could be brought to bear. What did Perry do? He gave up the ship. Rather than surrender, Perry hauled down his colors and was rowed through heavy fire to the brig USS Niagara where he organized his remaining schooners to press the attack against the British ships. In command of the Niagara, flying the “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP” battle flag, Perry captured the entire British squadron of two ships, a schooner and a sloop, denying the British control of Lake Erie and thus cutting off supplies to British forces in the field. It was one of the few significant American victories in the war. A replica of the USS Niagara is now the official tall ship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Despite having originated in the defeat of the USS Chesapeake and the loss of the USS Lawrence, “Don’t Give Up the Ship” has remained a favorite battle cry in the US Navy. Oddly, in 2009, the Navy commissioned a “graphic novel” (essentially a comic book) as a recruiting tool. Titled “Bravo Zulu – Don’t Give Up the Ship” it features a group of naval cadets who encounter the ghost of John Paul Jones who leaves them with the advice, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” As John Paul Jones died over two decades before Captain Lawrence uttered his last command, this seems rather odd, though anything is possible in comic books. It also is not the first time that the Navy has put words he never uttered into the mouth of John Paul Jones.