The story of the American Navy motto goes back to the War of 1812. Sometimes called the second American Revolution, it was probably one of the world’s most unsuccessful wars. Poorly planned; it was carried out in a haphazard fashion by a country that was inadequately prepared for it. Nevertheless into this quagmire would stride a fearless naval officer burning with the desire to be a hero.

The axiom exhorts one to never surrender. To keep on trying at all costs. It’s a favorite motto of the United States Navy. Although Oliver Hazard Perry is frequently linked with the phrase and, it did in fact appear on his battle flag, it was Perry’s friend, Captain James Lawrence who first uttered the expression. What led up to this most famous flag and phrase is a rich saga that goes even further back and has its early beginnings in the first half of the 1600s.

Sea borne trade from New England began when Thomas Mayhew and John Winthrop sent a small sloop to Bermuda laden with corn and smoked pork. After a thirty-day passage the craft arrived with oranges, lemons, potatoes - and a nice little profit. Two centuries later American ships would draw closer to leading the nation's import and export traffic, taxing Britain for the global maritime crown. The swift cutters, topped with sails, became symbolic of American determination and shipbuilding craftsmanship. By 1812 a war erupted between Britain and the United States that would last for three years.

It started over alleged British infringements of American shipping rights, such as the impressments of seamen or the compelling of American trade sailors to work on British ships. While the American soldiers fruitlessly assailed Canada, the British retaliated by burning the White House and other buildings in Washington, D.C.

Two, six, HEAVE! Two, six, HEAVE!

Because of President James Madison's cost cutting administration, it was no great surprise that the outbreak of war with England in June 1812 found the Chesapeake in an appalling state of construction. One leading historian has called the Norfolk-built frigate USS Chesapeake an "odd duck." From her refusal to go down the ways on her initial launch to her capture by HMS Shannon, the frigate was a hard-luck ship.

The original plans of the Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard were that she would be seaworthy by October, but it wasn’t until mid December that she was able to get underway. In early April the Chesapeake made a few uneventful patrols of the Atlantic between the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil on the look out for British merchant ships. She returned to Boston May and Captain James Lawrence relieved her original captain. Born in Burlington, Vermont Lawrence was the youngest of eleven children. His parents were Tories who had hosted the Hessian commander as a guest it their home during the Revolution. When the war ended the Lawrence family decided to stay in America and James was sent to study law at the age of 13. He lacked any interest in the legal vocation and eventually he was allowed to join the Navy as a midshipman in 1798 where he honed his skills in battles against the Barbary pirates.

Wind, gunnery, and commanders.

Four years later Lawrence received his commission of Lieutenant and was part of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur's raiding party. With volunteers from the frigate Constitution and the schooner Enterprise they entered the harbor of Tripoli under the cover of darkness in the ketch Intrepid. Their objective was to burn the captured frigate Philadelphia. Decatur's raid succeeded with no American losses and England's Lord Nelson dubbed it "the most daring act of the age."

By the onset of the War of 1812, Lawrence commanded the USS Hornet capturing the HMS Peacock and earning his promotion to Captain. On June 1, 1813, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, captain of the 38-gun HMS Shannon challenged Captain Lawrence now the commander of a new and inexperienced crew on the 49-gun frigate USS Chesapeake off the shores of Boston. Broke had commanded the Shannon for six years and had the best-trained crew in the Royal Navy. The family of one of the Chesapeake crewmen, Pollard Hopewell records an eyewitness account of the conflict:

    Pollard Hopewell entered the Navy as a Midshipman in June 1812, and reported to frigate Chesapeake (on) August 21sT...and was killed when the British frigate Shannon overtook their ship on 1 June 1813.

    He appears to have been on the quarterdeck of Chesapeake when she passed forward alongside Shannon and the first broadside from Shannon killed or wounded nearly everyone on the quarterdeck. Of the two men at the wheel, Daniel Burnham and Jefferson Griffiths, the first fell dead, James Woodbury took his place and was killed almost immediately and Griffiths was badly wounded by grape shot. James Lewis tried to control the wheel but fell to the deck wounded and no one took his place.

    Capt. Lawrence was struck on the right knee by a pistol ball and fell against the binnacle with blood pouring down his leg. At the same time the first Lieutenant, Augustus Ludlow, was hit and badly wounded, Midshipmen John Evans and Courtlandt Livingstone were killed outright and Lieutenant Broome of the marines and Midshipman Pollard Hopewell were mortally wounded. The wounded Ludlow was struck by a splinter and brought down leaving no officers on the upper deck.

    At this point Midshipman Cosnahan in Shannon’s maintop hurled down a grenade which exploded in a box of ammunition on Chesapeake's quarterdeck, killing and wounding more men and starting a fire which raced over the whole upper deck.

It was a short and bloody battle, the Chesapeake’s captain lay mortally wounded and she was heavily damaged. Reportedly, Lawrence died with his last command still on his lips:
“Tell the men to fire faster and not to give up the ship; fight her till she sinks!”

Faithful to his words, every rookie and officer in the Chesapeake's chain of command fought until he was either killed or injured. Still the battle was lost in less than an hour the Chesapeake was captured. At the age of thirty-two Captain Lawrence died four days later leaving his wife and a daughter. Forced to surrender the Chesapeake her commander was laid to rest in New York City. The American loss was bitter and poignant. His words inspired a group of women to sew white letters paraphrased “Don’t Give Up the Ship” onto the blue field of a battle flag. Far less well known is Lawrence's last command to his crew – ‘Burn her!’

There have been six American vessels commissioned in Lawrence’s honor. The first one was commanded Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who is regularly and mistakenly credited with being the source of the phrase. Perry would later coin his own phrase: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The following the summer as America floundered Perry went on to capture an entire squadron of British ships in the Battle of Lake Erie but not before every officer on the USS Lawrence - except for Perry and his 13-year-old brother - was either killed or wounded. Lawrence's words became the motto of the United States Navy and Perry's flag now hangs in a place of honor at the United States Naval Academy. Copies may be seen at other Navy installations and, of course, in Burlington, Vermont.
(There’s a picture of the flag on my homenode.)

The War of 1812 was the first war the new United States of America declared and Captain Oliver Hazard Perry was an ambitious and patriotic 27-year old. Obsessed with self-perfection and self-promotion he joined the Navy as a 13-year-old midshipman. After serving well in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean he was given command of a fleet of ships that was being built on Lake Erie in 1813. His mission: break the British stranglehold in the Northwest. It was an arduous job, but he drove the shipbuilders hard and in a few months they had built a small fleet of nine ships ready to go up against British commander Robert Barclay for control of the lake. But adversity would meet Perry at every turn. The theater commander wouldn’t give Perry enough men to man the boats. The two largest gunships, the Lawrence and the Niagara were stuck in the shallow waters of the shipyard. Meanwhile the British commander waited just off shore ready to blow his stationary brigs out of the water.

Fortune favored Perry with the advantage of firepower, but Barclay's fleet had the advantage of range. Perry was finally able to set full sail towards the British, but the American captain of the Niagara remained out of effective battle range. Deserted the Lawrence was pounded to a smoking hull yet Perry hoisted his blue flag banner emblazoned with the motto: ‘Don't Give Up The Ship.'Then in a bold maneuver he took one of the ship's cutters and rowed across to the Niagara where he:

    "...sailed her into the midst of the enemy ships, raking them with crippling broadsides. Less than an hour later the British surrendered. To receive the surrender formally, Perry returned to the shattered deck of the Lawrence. His terse message to the local army commander, Gen. William Henry Harrison, summed up the action: "We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop."
The American Navy carried the day and the War of 1812 ended with the battle weary British as a stalemate. Young Perry was distinguished as a hero and Lawrence’s watchwords for the battle, "Don't Give Up the Ship," would turn out to be a national call to rally.

Shipmates Forever

In 1935 a song by the title Don't Give Up The Ship was written featuring verses for American and British choruses. The title of the musical is Shipmates Forever and was performed by Dick Powell & Studio Chorus. Harry Warren composed the music and the lyrics includes valuable input by both British and American writers. The choruses reflect the battle from both the British and American point of view:

American chorus:

    Shipmates, stand together,
    Don't give up the ship;
    Fair or stormy weather,
    We won't give up,
    We won't give up the ship!
    Friends and pals forever,
    It's a long, long trip;
    If you have to take a lickin',
    Carry on and quit your kickin',
    Don't give up the ship!
British chorus:
    Whate'er fate may send us,
    Don't give up the ship;
    Though the gale may rend us,
    We won't give up,
    We won't give up the ship!
    Fear shall not transcend us,
    Let the storm gods rip!
    Life's a passage, you can make it,
    Let your chin stand out and take it,
    Don't give up the ship.

In 1959 Norman Taurog and Paramount studios released a so so comedy called Don’t Give Up The Ship starring Jerry Lewis and in 1997 Chatham Hill Games released an adventure game bearing the famous slogan which pits players in a game of battle ships as 15 American and British fleets clash in Perry’s infamous battle.

The British are coming! The British are coming!

Two centuries after the infamous battle cry was coined the British presented apiece of wood from the historic frigate of the captured American USS Chesapeake to the Portsmouth Historical Society. After a stint in the Royal Navy the Chesapeake was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia and after repairs, on to England. She served in the Royal Navy until she was sold in 1819. Taken apart her gun decks were used to build an early English factory at Wickham in Hampshire, England called Chesapeake Mill. The framed "boring" of wood came from that mill which today is an educational center for the study of ecology and local maritime history.

A special note of thanks to kalen who offered his kind assistance in rewriting portions of this story.


The Battle of Lake Erie: issues95/jan95/erie.html

British Return Captured US Chip:

Boys, don't give up the ship:

Captain James Lawrence

Don’t give up the ship:

Don't Give Up The Ship:

Don't Give up The Ship - Chatham Hill Games:

Expired Nautical Theme License Tags:


Isil, Olivia A. When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay: Seafaring Words in Everyday Speech, International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, McGraw-Hill, 1996.

People to Meet City of Burlington NJ USA Historic District:

Who was Pollard Hopewell?:

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