The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake: Navigating the Common History of Three Nations

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"Fight 'til she sinks, boys. Don't give up the ship! Burn her."
James Lawrence's command, spoken as his final fighting words in the historic 1813 battle between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon, would endure as the motto of the U.S. Navy. He lost the battle, however, and a large portion of the Chesapeake was recycled by the ship breakers of Portsmouth, England, until her timbers gave form and size to a new water mill in the village of Wickham. Almost two hundred years later, the old mill sat derelict, an eyesore. What was it made of ? Where had it come from? Why should it be preserved? It was then that the sails of a long-forgotten fighting ship were seemingly unfurled along the Meon River in the County of Hampshire, and the old navy frigate--having crossed the waters of America, Canada and England--set off on the third century of her enduring journey.

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About the Author:

Chris Dickon is an Emmy-winning former public radio and television producer with extensive broadcast experience in local and international history documentary in Europe, the Mideast, Japan, and the Caribbean. His work has been broadcast statewide in Virginia, on PBS stations and National Public Radio nationwide, and internationally on the Voice of America. As a writer he has published three books within the last year: on the histories of the Eastern Shore Railroad, the Chesapeake Bay Passenger Steamers, and the College of William and Mary.

Review:

If you walked the floorboards of a certain water mill in England, you might, with a little imagination and a sense of history, be transported back to a scene of utter mayhem at sea.

That's how English writer George Brighton reacted when he stepped inside the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, a small town on the Meon River in the south of England. He realized that, "on one of these planks, on one of these floors, beyond all reasonable doubt, Lawrence fell, in the writhing anguish of his mortal wound." Many others lay "ensanguined," pouring out their life's blood.

This, to me, is the heart of a gem of a book, "The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake," by Chris Dickon of Portsmouth, a former WHRO-TV producer who has recently authored several books on local history. It sums up the amazing history of the planks and timbers of that star-crossed warship.

The Chesapeake, the only one of the original frigates of the U.S. Navy to be built at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, was twice clobbered before and during the War of 1812. She is best remembered by the line Cmdr. James Lawrence uttered as he lay dying: "Don't give up the ship!" The big here problem was the ship was given up.

And taken to England.

The story begins on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, where wind-toughened live oaks, as well as pines and cedars, attracted the attention of ship builders. It was during that nasty business with the Barbary pirates (remember the shores of Tripoli?) that the new nation decided to build six warships and start a navy.

The problem was that conditions on the island, a swampland thick with mosquitoes, were hellish. "If I am to stay here until all the timber has been cut I shall be dead...I cannot stand it...if you was here you would curse live oak," Boston shipwright John Morgan wrote.

But built they were, although much later than hoped for. Finally, the Chesapeake, the "runt of the litter," as many called the foreshortened 38-gun frigate, was launched in December 1799. She saw little action for six years, but then on a clear Monday morning on the Atlantic, June 22, 1807, everything changed. In a dispute over deserters, the British warship Leopard fired a series of broadsides at pistol-shot range that killed four, wounded many more and forced Commodore James Barron to run up the white flag.

This humiliating incident led to Barron's temporary loss of command and, ultimately, to the duel in which he shot and killed his chief critic, Stephen Decatur.

The Chesapeake had one chance at redemption six years later. On June 1, 1813, under the command of James Lawrence, she sailed out of Boston Harbor and challenged the British warship Shannon. The two exchanged savage gunfire, but the Chesapeake was badly outmaneuvered and doomed. Of the 150 men stationed on the quarter deck, 100 were killed or wounded, including nearly all the American officers.

Lawrence, "wearing resplendent clothing and a tall hat," was an easy target and was fatally shot in the abdomen. The officers who were still standing had no choice but to surrender. The battered warship was taken in tow and transported to England where, eventually, its timbers were sold and used to make the mill.

There, because of the brick outer walls of the building, the timbers endured. More than 200 years after being launched, the mill that houses the sister ship to the great warships Constitution and Constellation, was converted to an antique jewelry and gift mall.

But, even now, the timbers speak. -- Paul Clancy, author of Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor, Virginian-Pilot, November 16, 2008

Many Nova Scotians know the story of the famous ship-to-ship encounter between the Shannon and the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, the one bright spot in a string of shocking Royal Navy defeats by the upstart United States Navy. A few might even be aware that the captured Chesapeake was taken into British service as a Royal Navy warship. But very few will realize that perhaps as much as 35 percent of the Chesapeake still exists, more than the oldest and most famous ship of the United States Navy, the USS Constitution-"Old Ironsides".

Unfortunately, the Chesapeake's remains are not in the United States, nor in their original form. In the small English market town of Wickham, Hampshire, a few kilometres from the sea, Chesapeake's blood-stained, shot-riddled timbers today form a substantial part of an obsolete water mill on the River Meon. In The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake, author Chris Dickon, an Emmy-winning former public radio and television producer, chronicles the largely unknown story of the frigate after the battle. His tale blends American, British and Canadian history, which Dickon has cleverly emphasized in the book's subtitle: Navigating the Common History of Three Nations.

When the Chesapeake's sea-going days were over, she was sent to a ship-breaker in Portsmouth, England, who sold her timbers off to be reused in constructing buildings. Wood was scarce in nineteenth-century Britain, and such recycling was a common end for wooden ships in the age of sail. Chesapeake's stout timbers became beams and joists for the mill, protected over the years by the mill's roof and walls.

Although a small number of people were aware of the Chesapeake's fate, Dickon has done an impressive job in bringing this intriguing story to a wider audience. He traces the Chesapeake's beginnings from her construction (only a few kilometres from where he wrote the book), through her service as a warship (where she gained a reputation as an unlucky vessel) to her final battle (which gave the United States Navy a lasting legacy).

In the celebrated sea duel off Boston Light on June 1, 1813, the Shannon's captain, Philip Broke, ended a humiliating series of five British defeats at American hands. The Chesapeake's captain, up-and-comer James Lawrence, had participated in one of those victories, and confidently expected that another would soon be his. But Lawrence hadn't reckoned with Broke, acknowledged throughout the Royal Navy as its most proficient gunnery expert.

It was Broke's insistence on continuous gunnery training that won the day, one of the shortest, sharpest, bloodiest ship-to-ship battles in history. It also ended the careers of both men. Lawrence was fatally wounded and died as the Shannon was about to enter Halifax Harbour with her prize. Broke was also wounded and, although he survived, never served at sea again. Among Lawrence's last words was the memorable phrase, "Don't give up the ship!" which became the motto of the United States Navy.

Dickon relates the history of the Wickham mill, from its construction in 1820 to its abandonment in 1988, when it had outlived its usefulness and was facing potential demolition. Fortunately, after several unsuccessful proposals and failed rescue attempts to create a museum or heritage centre, developers stepped in and saved it. Today it houses antique, jewellery and gift shops.

A thoroughly modern aspect of the book is two interactive websites created by Dickon, which contain links, sources and discussions related to the story. The author paints on a large canvas, and along the way we learn about wooden ship construction methods, the fate of American prisoners at Halifax's Melville Island prison, the burials of their deceased comrades on nearby Deadman's Island and recent successful attempts to prevent their graves from being covered over by a condominium complex.

But throughout the book, it is the tale of the Chesapeake that remains front and centre, at times assuming an almost mystical significance as Dickon traces a voyage that has already touched four centuries. Combining history, detective work and heritage preservation, The Enduring Journey is a fascinating story about the amazing survival of an American icon. John Boileau is the author of Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812. -- John Boileau, author of Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812, Halifax (NS) Daily News

It is quite possible, indeed probable, that no other ship in the UnitedStates Navy has traveled on so interesting a journey and for so long a period of time as the USS Chesapeake. The author of this book that describes the journey, Chris Dickon, has done a thorough and interesting job while takingthe readers along on the trip.

The Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates that were built to form the real beginnings of the American navy. Given the political storms that swirled around their creation it is somewhat surprising that they were built at all. There were strong agrarian interests in the south that were decidedly not navy-oriented. Those views were opposed by the equally powerful interests in the north that took the position that America needed to be a mercantile and trading nation and that trade on the oceans required not only a merchant fleet but a navy to protect it and to provide credibility.

The most famous of the warships, classified as heavy frigates (the cruisers of their day) was the USS Constitution which survives as a tourist attraction in Boston. The Constellation, another of the frigates, served until 1853 and a replica of her exists as another tourist site in Baltimore.

As for Chesapeake, she was, indeed, a fighting ship. After being launched in 1799, she captured a French privateer during the undeclared war with France and then, as was the American naval practice of the time, laid up in ordinary (the equivalent today of being mothballed) as an economy measure. A year later she was returned to active fleet service to battle the pirates of Tripoli, and having successfully completed that mission, was again placed in reserve. When relations between the United States and Great Britain became tense over the issue of freedom of the seas, Chesapeake was back in action and, in an 1807 controversial naval action, was attacked by a British warship, HMS Leopard, but was not taken as a prize.

The unhappy incident with Leopard was not the end of Chesapeake's naval combat. During the War of 1812 she was again involved in actions at sea. Her final battle was fought against the 38-gun frigate, HMS Shannon in June 1813. Shannon was the victor after a mutually punishing fight but the US Navy gained a hero when the commander of the Chesapeake, Captain James Lawrence issued his final and famous order, "Don't Give Up the Ship."

Despite the order, Chesapeake was taken by the British, sailed to England, was broken up and her timbers eventually used in the construction of a water mill. The story of the efforts to save the remains of Chesapeake and the equally interesting examination concerning science and historic preservation generally are well set out by the author. For anyone with an interest in history and in preserving it, Chris Dickon's book is well worth reading. --Jack Gottschalk, author of Jolly Roger with an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy

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Book Description History Press (SC), United States, 2008. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. Fight til she sinks, boys. Don t give up the ship! Burn her. James Lawrence s command, spoken as his final fighting words in the historic 1813 battle between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon, would endure as the motto of the U.S. Navy. He lost the battle, however, and a large portion of the Chesapeake was recycled by the ship breakers of Portsmouth, England, until her timbers gave form and size to a new water mill in the village of Wickham. Almost two hundred years later, the old mill sat derelict, an eyesore. What was it made of ? Where had it come from? Why should it be preserved? It was then that the sails of a long-forgotten fighting ship were seemingly unfurled along the Meon River in the County of Hampshire, and the old navy frigate--having crossed the waters of America, Canada and England--set off on the third century of her enduring journey. Seller Inventory # BZV9781596292987

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