From Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein:
“…Mr. Rico! Have you ever thought how it would feel to be court-martialed for losing a regiment?”
I was startled silly. “Why—No, sir, I never have.” To be court-martialed—for any reason—is eight times as bad for an officer as for an enlisted man. Offenses which will get privates kicked out (maybe with lashes, possibly without) rate death in an officer. Better never to have been born!
“Think about it,” he said grimly. “When I suggested that your platoon leader might be killed, I was by no means citing the ultimate in military disaster. Mr. Hassan! What is the largest number of command levels ever knocked out in a single battle?”
The Assassin scowled harder than ever. “I’m not sure, sir. Wasn’t there a while during Operation Bughouse when a major commanded a brigade, before the Sove-ki-poo?”
“There was and his name was Fredericks. He got a decoration and a promotion. If you go back to the Second Global War, you can find a case in which a naval junior officer took command of a major ship and not only fought it but sent signals as if he were admiral. He was vindicated even though there were officers senior to him in line of command who were not even wounded. Special circumstances—a breakdown in communications. But I am thinking of a case in which four levels were wiped out in six minutes—as if a platoon leader were to blink his eyes and find himself commanding a brigade. Any of you heard of it?”
“Very well. It was one of those bush wars that flared up on the edges of the Napoleonic wars. This young officer was the most junior in a naval vessel—wet navy, of course—wind-powered, in fact. This youngster was about the age of most of your class and was not commissioned. He carried the title of temporary third lieutenant’—note that this is the title you are about to carry. He had no combat experience; there were four officers in the chain of command above him. When the battle started his commanding officer was wounded. The kid picked him up and carried him out of the line of fire. That’s all—make pickup on a comrade. But he did it without being ordered to leave his post. The other officers all bought it while he was doing this and he was tried for `deserting his post of duty as commanding officer in the presence of the enemy.’ Convicted. Cashiered.”
I gasped. “For that? Sir.”
“Why not? True, we make pickup. But we do it under different circumstances from a wet-navy battle, and by orders to the man making pickup. But pickup is never an excuse for breaking off battle in the presence of the enemy. This boy’s family tried for a century and a half to get his conviction reversed. No luck, of course. There was doubt about some circumstances but no doubt that he had left his post during battle without orders. True, he was green as grass—but he was lucky not to be hanged.” Colonel Nielssen fixed me with a cold eye. “Mr. Rico—could this happen to you?” …
[Later in that same scene…]
He turned to me, looked at my face and said sharply, “Something on your mind, son? Speak up!”
“Uh—” I blurted it out. “Sir, that temporary third lieutenant—the one that got cashiered. How could I find out what happened?”
“Oh. Young man, I didn’t mean to scare the daylights out of you; I simply intended to wake you up. The battle was on one June 1813 old style between USF Chesapeake and HMF Shannon. Try the Naval Encyclopedia; your ship will have it.”
I’m not the Naval Encyclopedia but I can tell you what happened. That was the court-martial of Mr. Midshipman Cox, during the War of 1812. And it didn’t go down quite the way Colonel Nielssen said.
The main source for this post is a book called Rocks and Shoals: Order and Discipline in the Old Navy, 1800-1861, by James E. Valle, US Naval Institute Press, 1980. Any otherwise unattributed quotes here are from there. Valle himself footnotes his extracts to JAG Records, case 161, and Hugh Purcell’s Don’t Give Up The Ship. Other works consulted include James Lawrence, Captain, United States Navy, Commander of the “Chesapeake”, by Albert Gleaves, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904.
When Barron returned to port he was court-martialed, convicted, and suspended from the naval service for five years without pay.
Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr., was on Barron’s court-martial board. Captain Decatur wrote to President Jefferson, requesting that he be relieved of the assignment on the grounds that he was hopelessly prejudiced against Captain Barron. Jefferson refused Decatur’s request. Some years later, Barron would challenge Decatur to a duel over certain remarks Decatur made about Barron’s conduct in 1807; Decatur would be killed in that duel.
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair was one of the causes, though not the direct cause, of the War of 1812.
Note Captain Decatur. He’ll be important later in this story.
Spring of 1813 saw Chesapeake blockaded in Boston Harbor. Her captain, Samuel Evans, was ill and requested to be relieved. Captain James Lawrence, fresh from his victory in the USS Hornet against HMS Peacock off South America that February, was directed to take command.
Midshipman William Sitgreaves Cox had been assigned to USS Hornet, but he missed Lawrence’s victory in the duel with Peacock; he was commanding a prize crew at that time, bringing a ship that they had captured into port. No, Midshipman Cox was not “green as grass.” He was a combat veteran who had had command at sea. Lawrence was a personal friend. Now, Lawrence called for Cox to assist him in a sticky situation. Cox arrived aboard Chesapeake a few days later, and was appointed acting fourth lieutenant. (“Fourth Lieutenant” here is a job description, not a rank.)
When Lawrence came aboard Chesapeake on 20 May 1813, he found morale was low. The crew was near mutiny due to prize money that had not been paid from a previous cruise. Sailors were nearing the ends of their terms of enlistment and were deserting on a daily basis. Lawrence decided to sail on the first day with favorable winds.
On the night before Chesapeake sailed to meet Shannon, it was Cox, rather than any other officer, who accompanied Lawrence to dinner with Commodore William Bainbridge, then commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, the senior officer present. Lawrence requested sufficient sailors from USS Constitution (then being refitted and repaired at the yard) to fill out the Chesapeake’s crew. Bainbridge refused to provide them. Lawrence then asked if he could call for volunteers. Bainbridge replied that he would not grant permission, but would not prevent Lawrence from doing so.
The next morning, with Shannon’s sails in sight from Chesapeake’s deck, Lawrence paid off the prize money out of his own pocket. Then he sailed out to confront Shannon. He had arrived on board just ten days before and now he commanded a crew that had neither sailed nor drilled together. The men barely knew each other, nor did they know their new captain.
Some days before, Lawrence had told a brother officer that he would rather face HMS Shannon and HMS Tenedos (another ship in the squadron blockading Boston) together after twenty days at sea than Shannon alone on the first day out of port. He was about to be proved right.
Meanwhile, over on Shannon, Captain Philip Broke had been in command since 1807. He held daily gunnery drills and sword drills, and rewarded his crew for speed and accuracy in gunfire. He was fond of presenting hypothetical situations to his crew, to see how they would react. Broke was a vigorous and efficient officer, well-liked by his crew.
The battle between Shannon and Chesapeake began just before 18:00 (6:00 pm) on the 1st of June, about 20 miles off Boston Light. The two ships closed to within a pistol shot before Shannon fired. Mr. Cox was at his assigned station on the gun deck, in charge of a division of guns. Since his battery was on the disengaged side, he called on his men to go up to the main deck to join the boarding party that was being mustered in the waist, though few (if any) followed. At that same time, Lawrence gave the order to come left (I suspect he was planning to come across Shannon’s bow and rake her, following up immediately with boarding), but the helmsman, for reasons not entirely clear, came right instead, putting Chesapeake’s bow dead into the wind, bringing her to a halt and presenting her stern to Shannon’s rake.
We cannot ask the helmsman: He was killed at his post. So was the man who replaced him. So was the next man to take his place.
Shortly before Cox arrived on the main deck, grapeshot from Shannon struck the massed boarding party. Small arms fire from Shannon struck Captain Lawrence, wounding him. Other fire killed most of the principal officers. Then a musket ball took Lawrence in the body. Lawrence gave his famous order: “Don’t give up the ship; fight her ‘til she sinks,” and asked Cox to take him below, leaving Lieutenant George Budd, the ship’s acting third lieutenant, in command.
Chesapeake was taken aback and drifted down onto Shannon. She gained sternway and struck stern first into Shannon’s side. The two ships became entangled, with Shannon in position to rake Chesapeake. The first ship to send over a boarding party seemed likely to prevail, and here Chesapeake had an advantage, for she had a larger crew. Captain Broke recognized the situation. He shouted “Follow me who can!” and leapt over the rail onto Chesapeake’s quarterdeck. In modern parlance, he had just gotten inside Chesapeake’s decision cycle.
Aboard Chesapeake, things were not going smoothly: The helm had been shot away, the rigging was damaged; the ship was no longer controllable. Most of the senior officers were wounded or dead. The great guns could not be brought to bear on Shannon. The bugler who should have sounded “Away Boarders” could not be found. And Philip Broke (a physically imposing man), sword in hand, at the head of a band of British tars bent on avenging Guerriere, was crossing the deck at a dead run. Broke was moving so fast that Shannon’s boarding party was taking friendly fire.
While Cox was below decks, a messenger reached him from Budd, informing him that he, Cox, was now in command. Cox attempted to regain the quarter deck, but discovered that the British boarding party already possessed it. He ran forward below decks, but was unable to gain the main deck against the stream of men who were coming down the ladders to escape the musket fire from the tops and Shannon’s boarders on the main deck. Shannon’s boarding party pulled gratings across the hatches imprisoning the Americans below and hauled up the Union Jack before Cox could get topside. The entire battle, from first shot to last, had taken eleven minutes. That scant quarter-hour was a compressed horror: Man-for-man it was the bloodiest single-ship engagement in the age of fighting sail.
Down below in the surgeon’s cockpit, Captain Lawrence, shot behind the knee and in the groin, asked why the firing had stopped. On being informed that it was because the British had carried the deck, he ordered that the powder magazine be exploded. His order was not attempted.
Shannon took Chesapeake as a prize back to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Captain Lawrence died of his wounds four days after the battle. He was buried with full military honors. Six Royal Navy officers were his pallbearers. He was praised for his gallantry.
When the prisoners from Chesapeake were returned to the United States under a cartel, a court of inquiry to discover the facts surrounding the loss of Chesapeake was formed under Captain William Bainbridge.
Mr. Budd, the senior surviving commissioned officer, brought charges against Mr. Cox, the senior surviving unwounded officer, of desertion. Bainbridge recommended that Cox, among others, be censured for his actions, but, since a court of inquiry did not allow for the accused to defend themselves, recommended that a court-martial be empaneled.
The fact of a court-martial would be unsurprising, then or now, any time a ship is lost. A court-martial compels testimony, allows cross-examination, and produces written and material exhibits and investigatory reports. It ascertains facts, and creates a complete record of the event. When USS Constitution (Issac Hull, commanding) took another ship from Broke’s squadron, HMS Guerriere (James Dacres, commanding), Captain Dacres was court-martialed for the loss of his ship when he returned to Halifax in a prisoner exchange. He was acquitted of any wrong-doing or lapse of judgment by the court.
On Bainbridge’s recommendation, a court-martial was convened on 14 April 1814, with Stephen Decatur as the senior officer, aboard USS President (then lying blockaded in New London, Connecticut). Bainbridge and Decatur were old friends. Decatur had led the daring raid that burned USS Philadelphia after Bainbridge ran her aground off Tripoli during the Barbary War, before the Dey of Algiers could re-float her.
Decatur, who had been in close touch with Bainbridge during the board of inquiry, made statements that indicated that he would not be an impartial judge. He was determined to hold Cox responsible for the loss of Chesapeake.
Cox was charged with cowardice, disobedience of orders, desertion from quarters, neglect of duty, and unofficerlike conduct.
The trial commenced, and it soon became obvious that, for most of the charges, there was only a single witness against Cox: Lieutenant Budd. Mr. Budd, despite being on the quarterdeck, senior surviving officer and acting captain in the midst of a hot action, had been able to observe and remember every one of Cox’s words and deeds regardless of where on the ship Cox might have been, words and deeds that Cox denied and no one else could recall hearing or seeing.
This troubled Decatur. He wrote to the Secretary of the Navy:
These charges appear from the summary alone to be founded in several instances on the testimony of a single witness. It is certainly desirable if these facts are provable that they should be established by more than one witness if there be more to the same facts….
It was not unnoticed at the time that Budd had good reason to want Cox to be declared the commanding officer at the moment of Chesapeake’s surrender, because if Cox wasn’t, Budd certainly must have been. Nor did Cox fail to bring that possibility up in his own defense, that Budd was attempting to evade responsibility and had only sent his messenger handing off command when it became clear that the ship would soon be taken.
Chaplain Livermore, who had been in the thick of things on Chesapeake’s quarterdeck, stated at the court-martial that had Budd had twenty or thirty more men on the quarterdeck, that the Americans would have prevailed. “Had the events of the contest been different,” Cox stated at his trial, “many of these very acts [of which he was accused and for which he was being tried] … would have enhanced my merit in the public estimation.” No one, Cox pointed out, had censured Hardy for helping Nelson below at Trafalgar. Instead, Captain Hardy had been generally praised.
But Cox was aware of which way the wind was blowing. He openly declared, on the record, that his court-martial was an example of scapegoating, “a sacrifice to heal the wounded honor and reinstate the naval pride of the nation.” Both in his cross-examination and final summary, Cox pointedly (and sarcastically) questioned Budd’s courage and motives for wanting to turn over command at the very climax of the battle.
One of the specifications of unofficerlike conduct accused Cox of:
…not doing his utmost to aid in the capturing of the Shannon by animating and encouraging, in his own example, the inferior officers and men to fight courageously and in denying the use of coercive means to prevent the desertion of the men from their quarters, and not compelling those who had deserted from their quarters to return to duty.
This was the only charge for which a second witness existed. Midshipman Delozier Higgenbotham had been standing beside Cox at the bottom of the forward ladder as the men came tumbling down from the forecastle. He asked whether Mr. Cox intended to kill them with his sword, to which Mr. Cox replied, “No, it is no use.”
It is worth noting that killing men who fled in battle was the common and expected usage of the day: During the engagement between USS Constellation and L’Insurgente during the Quasi-War with France, two American sailors were killed; one of those two was a member of a gun crew who was cut down by his own officer for leaving his post.
Could Chesapeake have gained the day at this point? Perhaps. By this time Chesapeake had come broadside to the wind, and her sails had pulled her ahead and away from Shannon about a hundred yards, cutting Broke off from reinforcements. A determined push by the numerically superior Chesapeake crew might have captured or killed him and his boarding party. Both ships had taken damage, but Shannon had been holed below the waterline and was in a sinking condition. Lots of things could have happened. In the event, they did not happen; the United States had suffered its first loss in ship-to-ship combat of the war.
In the end, Mr. Cox was only convicted of unofficerlike conduct for failing to do the Britishers work for them by killing Americans himself, and neglect of duty for leaving the deck when he knew, or should have known, that a boarding action was imminent. He was exonerated (pace, Colonel Nielssen) of all charges of cowardice, disobedience, and desertion. He was sentenced to be “cashiered and rendered forever incapable of serving in the navy.” President Madison approved the sentence.
Cox wasn’t the only person from the Chesapeake to be court-martialed. Two other midshipmen, a petty officer, and two sailors, were also brought up on charges.
Midshipman James W. Forrest was court-martialed for cowardice, neglect of duty, and drunkenness while in captivity. The charges were tenuous at best; he was convicted of drunkenness alone, and he was only convicted of drunkenness because he confessed to it. Like Cox, however, he was sentenced to be “cashiered with the perpetual incapacity to serve in the Navy of the United States.” President Madison approved the sentence.
Acting Midshipman Henry P. Fleshman (or Fleischman), who had spent the battle in the main top directing the snipers, was charged with “Imposition and unofficerlike conduct after capture by the enemy” for his activities in Halifax, which allegedly included “prowling” about the town under an assumed name. Mr. Fleshman explained that he had previously been captured by the British and held in Halifax. He was concerned that if he were recognized he might be imprisoned for life as a parole violator, which forced him to disguise himself. The court-martial directed Captain Decatur “to reprimand Midshipman Henry P. Fleshman upon the quarterdeck of the United States Ship President in such a manner as he may deem most impressive and effectual.” The Secretary of the Navy approved the sentence.
Exactly what kind of public chewing-out Decatur delivered is unknown by me.
Joseph Russell, captain of the second gun, was charged with cowardice, and with deserting his quarters. He was found not guilty of the charges against him, but the court-martial found him guilty of gross misconduct for which he had not been charged. He was sentenced to loss of pay. The Secretary of the Navy approved the sentence.
Peter Frost and John Joyce, seamen, were no longer to be found in the jurisdiction of the United States, and were not tried.
The last court-martial stemming from Chesapeake v. Shannon is perhaps the most interesting. William Brown, the ship’s bugler who should have sounded “Away Boarders,” was absent from his post and subsequently found hiding under a boat. He was court-martialed for cowardice. Brown, a free Black, had a civilian attorney who offered a unique defense: Since a Black man is incapable of courage, he cannot be convicted of cowardice:
I would suggest as a subject worthy of some enquiry whether the negro is not naturally inferior to the white man in those qualities which go to make up courage. If so the shipment or enlistment of every negro is presumed to be made with a knowledge of the fact, and no other duties should be required of them than such as nature has qualified them to discharge.
God has made the prisoner too insignificant a being on whom to visit the loss of the Chesapeake. If his accidental exertions might have saved the ship, he would not have had the credit of it, nor would he have been entitled to it. And if you decide otherwise, and charge the whole misfortune to one who could barely comprehend his simple duty, other nations will laugh at the little subterfuges to which we resort, instead of enlarging our naval fame we shall belittle our national character.
Decatur didn’t buy it. Among other reasons, he knew personally that Black men could be as courageous as any others; during the raid on the Philadelphia, a Black boatswain’s mate, Reuben James, had blocked a sword blow meant for Decatur with his own body.
The court-martial sentenced Brown to 300 lashes and loss of pay. President Madison commuted the sentence to 100 lashes and loss of pay.
Prior to the engagement between Chesapeake and Shannon, the American heavy frigates had racked up an impressive score against European frigates:
In addition, there were fights between smaller vessels. Hornet v. Peacock was only one example among many. Up to that point in the War of 1812, the United States had not lost any of its single-ship duels. Captain Broke was aware of that record, and he used it when addressing his crew just before the battle:
“Shannons, you know that from various causes the Americans have lately triumphed on several occasions over the British Flag in our frigates; this will not daunt you since you know the truth. The disparity of forces was the chief reason, but they have gone further; they have said, and they have published in their papers that the English have forgotten the way to fight. You will let them know to-day that there are Englishmen in the Shannon who still know how to fight. Don’t try to dismast her, fire into her quarters; main-deck into the main-deck; quarter-deck into the quarter-deck. Kill the men and the ship is yours. Don’t hit them about the head for they wear steel caps, but give it to them through the body. Don’t cheer. Go quietly to your quarters. I feel sure you will all do your duty, and remember that you now have the blood of your countrymen to avenge.”Perhaps the lesson here is: Training and drill count; superior rate of fire and accuracy can overcome any amount of gallantry. The loss, in the first few minutes, of Chesapeake’s captain, first lieutenant, second lieutenant, and sailing master, seemingly by bad luck, can be attributed instead to Broke’s planning. One critical failure: Only having one bugler.
(Gleaves, page 185)
USS Chesapeake became HMS Chesapeake. She was eventually broken up, her timbers sold, and incorporated into the Chesapeake Mill in England. The building is now a gift shop.
Before the War of 1812 ended, Decatur would surrender USS President to HMS Endymion and HMS Pomone. USS President became HMS President.
Captain Lawrence’s body was returned to the United States; he is buried in Trinity Churchyard, New York City.
In 1820 Bainbridge would be Decatur’s second in Decatur’s fatal duel with Barron.
Bainbridge Avenue and Decatur Avenue in the Bronx are named for those respective captains.
Due to wounds sustained in the Chesapeake/Shannon action, Captain Broke never again commanded at sea. He was awarded a medal, promoted to rear admiral, and created a baronet. He continued to serve the Royal Navy as an instructor in gunnery. He died in 1841 at age 65.
Lieutenant Budd was assigned to the sloop of war Ontario. From there he was assigned command of the Naval Battery at Fort Look-Out, Baltimore Harbor, where he and his sailors helped repulse the British invasion fleet on 14 September, 1814, the night memorialized by “the rockets’ red glare.” George Budd left the navy in 1815 and died in 1837.
It fell on Cox’s descendants to pursue his vindication. His son, William Cox, was once expelled from Lafayette College for striking a professor who called his father a coward. When Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his book The Naval War of 1812 (1882) that Cox had acted “basely,” family members protested so vigorously that the future president apologized and corrected his account in later editions. Moreover, for the next 134 years they wrote Congress and the Navy Department seeking to overturn the conviction and have his rank restored. Finally, in 1952 E. D. Litchfield, Cox’s great grandson, succeeded in bringing the matter to the attention of the House Armed Services Committee. Rear Adm. John D. Heffernan then outlined the historical facts for the committee and recommended his reinstatement. On April 7, 1952, Congress passed legislation to that effect and, once signed by President Harry Truman, Cox was formally, if posthumously, restored to the rank of third lieutenant.
—American military leaders: from colonial times to the present, Volume 2 By John C. Fredriksen, page 171