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June 1, 2011

Chesapeake v. Shannon
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:15 AM *

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?” Starship Troopers cover

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?”

Dead silence.

“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.”

<em>Chesapeake</em> v. <em>Shannon</em>, Boston Harbor

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.

The events in Boston Harbor in 1813 marked the second time Chesapeake had struck her colors to the British. The first was 22 June 1807 during the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. HMS Leopard (Salusbury Humphreys, commanding) came upon USS Chesapeake (James Barron, commanding) off Norfolk, Virginia. Leopard desired to search Chesapeake for deserters; Chesapeake refused to allow the British to board her. Leopard fired three broadsides, Chesapeake struck after firing a single gun, but Leopard refused to accept the surrender, instead sending over a search party which found four alleged deserters and brought them back aboard Leopard. Of the four, one was hanged and the other three sentenced to five hundred lashes each.

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.

Chesapeake had always been an unlucky ship. She was the only one of the first six frigates that their designer, Joshua Humphreys, disavowed because of the alterations made to her plan during construction. Unlike the other frigates, which were rated 44 guns, Chesapeake was rated a 36. She was the only one of the first six frigates that was not named by President Washington. Not only had Barron been court-martialed and convicted while serving as her captain, her captain during the Barbary War, Richard Valentine Morris, had been censured and dismissed from service for “inactive and dilatory conduct of the squadron under his command” in 1804.

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. William S. Cox

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. Chesapeake vs. Shannon

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. Chesapeake v. Shannon

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:

  • USS Constellation v. L’Insurgente, 9 February 1799
  • USS Constellation v. La Vengeance, 2 February 1800
  • USS Constitution v. HMS Guerriere, 19 August 1812
  • USS United States v. HMS Macedonian, 25 October 1812
  • USS Constitution v. HMS Java, 29 December 1812

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.”

(Gleaves, page 185)

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.

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

Comments on Chesapeake v. Shannon:
#1 ::: Jim Millen ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 07:55 AM:

Fascinating to learn some of the facts behind this - thank you. I'm now eager to re-read O'Brian's The Fortune of War to see how closely history was followed in both the Java-Constitution and Shannon-Chesapeake battles. From memory, I think he took a certain degree of license with events...

Funnily enough, I grew up not 3 miles away from Chesapeake Mill and visited last year. "Gift Shop" doesn't entirely do justice to the place, it's a weird and wonderful collection of curios, antiques and other oddities. Well worth a visit if you're ever passing by.

#2 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 08:02 AM:

Chesapeake Mill is one of the places I intend to visit if I ever return to England.

The battle, while brief, was intense. One of the items recovered from Cheasapeake's side while she was being repaired in Halifax was a pump handle: The British gunners were shooting anything they could ram down the muzzle.

#3 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 08:35 AM:

I did just re-read The Fortune of War, within the last couple of weeks. I'm not brilliant at remembering maneuvers, but the action seems to track pretty closely (and O'Brian made a point of claiming to do that, in battles, to the extent that records were available). What I kept looking for, based on Jack's adventures, was Captain Broke's I-dare-you message to the Chesapeake, and his shocking head wound.

Also, naturally, O'Brian glossed over how little time the crew of the Chesapeake had had to drill together. No three broadsides in five minutes for them, I take it! With that disadvantage, no wonder the Shannon carried the day (even without Jack Aubrey there to help out with the gunnery).

Thank you for this. It's fascinating to read multiple descriptions of a battle.

#4 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 08:54 AM:

I left out a great deal from this account; one could go book-length on this action alone. My primary interest wasn't the fight, but the court-martials that followed. Broke did send a long letter to Lawrence, setting out why they should fight. But it's unimportant, since the letter didn't arrive before Lawrence sailed. Lawrence had publicly stated that he intended to sail on the first fair wind, and that's exactly what he did.

And Broke did take a head wound that exposed his brain. He could as easily have been killed in action as Lawrence. (Lawrence needed to be medevaced to Mass General in downtown Boston; his injuries were entirely survivable given a Level One trauma center.)

Lawrence was positioned for, and could easily have taken, a stern rake on Shannon. Broke had even passed the word to his crew to stand by to be raked by the stern. But (in my opinion), he didn't take the rake because that would have given Broke the weather gauge and gotten him into a prolonged gun duel, where Shannon would have the advantage. Instead, he came hard right to pass close aboard up Shannon's starboard side. I am convinced that he intended to come hard left, give Shannon a bow rake, and follow up immediately with a boarding action, where he would have the advantage. I suspect he figured that he could take the pounding during the time he was alongside in order to get into position.

Broke ordered his crew to hold their fire until all guns could bear on Chesapeake, then to concentrate their fire, all aiming for the second gunport aft of the bow.

Broke also had a nine-pounder on his quarterdeck whose sole assigned task was to take out Chesapeake's helm and clear her quarterdeck.

#5 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:41 AM:

What's always disturbed me about that bit of Starship Troopers is Heinlein's apparent acceptance of Cox being punished for things he didn't do on purpose, had no way of preventing, and in some cases didn't even know were happening. If I have it right, the handoff of command only happened while he was below decks because he'd been ordered to take the wounded man there, by the wounded man himself.

Clearly, "I didn't mean to" isn't a defense--but if "I was following a lawful order and circumstances beyond my control changed" isn't, I don't know how anyone ever makes it through a battle in which anything bad happens* uncashiered.

And Heinlein seems to be, as the meerkat said, "OK with that?!" Either my understanding of what it means to follow orders is flawed, or his was.

*: Perhaps this phrase is too long.

#6 ::: Dichroic ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:48 AM:

Well. I am shocked and disillusioned. I can deal with Heinlein being weird about sex, or politics, or wmoen. But I never thought I'd read of him being flat wrong on a matter of naval history, especially one that must have been in the news just a few years before.

#7 ::: Henning Makholm ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:56 AM:

Carrie S, given that there seems to be very few passages in Starship Troopers where anybody can agree whether or not Heinlein himself held the opinion they appear to express, I don't think you should beat yourself up too much about that one.

(I'm personally much more baffled by the notion of morals as a formal, deductive science. With no addressing the question of where one could possibly get axioms for that from and never have need to discuss whether they are appropriate or not. Judging by content, that HAS to be parody, but the form has no clues at all of its being less than deadly earnest).

#8 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:56 AM:

And then there is the unusual career of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo William Perry Wallis, Lieutenant in the Shannon and Acting Captain for six days after the engagement.

He was first on the books of a warship as an Able Seaman at the age of 4, and, because of a special provision made in 1870 when a retirement scheme was introduced, remained on the Active List until his death in his 101st year (He qualified as having been a ship's captain in the French Wars).

While promotion was by Seniority, he did command several ships in the peacetime Navy, and was appointed as Commander-in-Chief for south-east South America as a Rear-Admiral.

#9 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:57 AM:

I just pulled out The Fortune of War. It tracks in every detail.

Seems to me that Lt. Budd was a dreadful scrub, trying to shift blame in that manner.

And I don't doubt it, about Lawrence's wound being survivable with modern medical care. My housemate and I are terrible nuisances, watching movies and television, especially after your Trauma posts: "Quit making dramatic speeches and apply more pressure, dammit!" and, if it's a historical, "Gutshot. That's it. Dead of peritonitis," and, of course, "Okay, if he's got blood coming from his mouth, where did he probably get hit? Sure, it's TV shorthand for 'he's a goner,' but we'd like to know!"

#10 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 10:05 AM:

Henning Makholm: I don't think you should beat yourself up too much about that one.

I don't beat myself up, so much as it makes me sad. I started reading Heinlein (with Friday) at the age of ~12, and there's a lot about my current personality and ethics that can be laid at his door. Except that the older I get, the more it looks like that's...not a good thing.

If it were just this one passage in ST, too, it wouldn't bug me so much; that book's weird in a lot of ways. But Duty is a big deal in his books, and it happens fairly often that people get in trouble for circumstances like Cox's: here I am, doing the best I can with the info I have, and something I don't know about changes, and now I'm not only wrong, I'm responsible for being wrong, even though there was no way for me to be right.

#11 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 10:13 AM:

Henning Makholm @7, the obvious source for the idea of a scientific moral code has to be Ayn Rand, and Heinlein described her as "a bloody socialist".

I wonder what they taught at Annapolis, in Heinlein's time. The example of Cox facing court-martial is truth, the details might not come out in a lesson.

#12 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 10:28 AM:

Carrie, where do you think "Pour encourager les autres" came from? (That was the court-martial and execution of Admiral John Byng for losing the Battle of Minorca.)

See also the execution of Lieutenant Baker Phillips.

I forgive Heinlein everything. He was writing a novel and his point required that he go alternate-historical to do it. He was careful to footnote the action, and suggest that readers look it up.

(The other event Heinlein talks about in the excerpt was most likely USS Alwyn under Ensign Caplan at Pearl Harbor.)

#13 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 11:32 AM:

"But Duty is a big deal in his books, and it happens fairly often that people get in trouble for circumstances like Cox's: here I am, doing the best I can with the info I have, and something I don't know about changes, and now I'm not only wrong, I'm responsible for being wrong, even though there was no way for me to be right."

When authoritarians say "responsibility," they usually mean "blame."

The idea of a "science" of morals, when I encounter it in fiction, is invariably an author's dodge for shoehorning a particular set of rigid beliefs into the fictional world of a story, and placing it above criticism.

Heinlein was very fond of this. I don't know what to make of it. It is not simply a matter of making an abstract case of a moral idea for study: his ideas fall into patterns, and these patterns were set for much of his literary career. There is a clear path between the morals of "Gulf," Starship Troopers, and Friday. (Note, though, that by Friday Heinlein has Kettle Belly Baldwin repudiate the eugenic separatism of "Gulf.")

And yet...Heinlein in his life was, so far as I can tell, more compassionate than he was in his fictional worlds. Why did he feel a need to lay down the moral law, again and again, and do so in a situation where no-one, any more, knew what the law was? After two world wars, surely the world needed more compassion and more compassionate law?

As to the subject at hand, thank you for the account, Jim Macdonald.

#14 ::: xaaronx ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 11:35 AM:

Carrie S.:

For this particular instance, I think you can cut Heinlein some slack; it's pretty clear that his characters do not always speak for him, even when in his famous preaching mode. I'm actually of the opinion that even the narrator's voice is often (and perhaps usually) somewhat distinct from Heinlein's own opinion. And the more I read about the man the more convinced I am, as much as his writing influenced me growing up.

#15 ::: Columbina ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 11:47 AM:

This was fascinating. I do have one not-especially-pertinent question: What was Barron court-martialed for, post Chesapeake vs. Leopard? Did they feel he struck colors when he should have fought?

#16 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 11:55 AM:

"Henry P. Fleshman (or Fleischman)?"

"Imposition and unofficerlike conduct?"

No. It couldn't be ...

#17 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 11:56 AM:

So, Jim, I sort of feel like I've annoyed you; if so, I'm sorry, and I'd appreciate it if you'd explain how so I can not do it again. I'm nowhere near "on the spectrum", as current parlance has it, but I'm not great at interpersonal stuff either. :)

xaaronx: You're right. I'm pretty sure I shouldn't base anything on ST in particular, since it's such a weird book.

In general, the actual historical account is only slightly better than Heinlein's version, as far as I'm concerned; it still rather looks to me like Cox was doing the right thing according to what he knew and could have been expected to know, and only got in trouble because someone set out to shift blame onto him.

#18 ::: LizardBreath ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 12:35 PM:

If Budd was the senior officer in command of the ship, how could he have turned over command to a junior officer? I don't understand how sending the message saying that Cox was in command now could have legally had the effect of relieving Budd of his responsibilities. Did I miss some fact saying that Budd was incapacitated somehow?

#19 ::: Braxis ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 12:51 PM:

LizardBreath @ 18

I assume that it's the equivalant of Picard saying, 'You have the bridge, Number One.' before heading out on an away mission.

#20 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 02:23 PM:

It doesn't have to be the equivalent of anything in an over-simplified fictional universe; it's the complicated historical reality, in which, as is obvious now, Cox was shafted. But his shafting may well have been over-determined by social and cultural factors beyond his control. For a similar example, see the article by Scott Ashley, 'How Navigators Think; the death of Captain Cook revisited', in Past & Present 194, 2007, in which is told the tale of how the two ship's officers with the fewest social connections strangely turned out to be the ones who suffered the most recrimination for Cook's unfortunate demise, despite the fact that they had been furthest away from the events in question. To make it even more interesting, one of those two was the Sailing Master, William Bligh...

#21 ::: Dr Rick ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 02:30 PM:

I have nothing useful or interesting to add, but I do want to thank the author for an extremely interesting post that was clearly a lot of work. Thanks!

#22 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 03:24 PM:

Carrie #17,

Oh, dear, no. You haven't annoyed me in the slightest. You just gave me the opening to ride my hobby-horse a bit more, and bring in more material that didn't fit in the main article.

In the Chesapeake/Shannon affair, somone was going to be court-martialed, convicted, and cashiered. The only question was who, and "who" was Cox. This is a case of a famous miscarriage of justice; the president of the court-martial, Capt. Decatur, was prejudiced against Mr. Cox and said so. Bainbridge knew and disliked him. Lawrence was his mentor and protector in the Naval service, and Lawrence was dead. Who Mr. Budd's connections were, I don't know, but I do note that he was furloughed from the naval service at the end of the War of 1812 and never again held a commission.

This was a plain case of scape-goating. This isn't the way it usually goes; which is what makes this case important and interesting.

Decatur's position in matters of courage and combat tended to the position, If you'd done everything possible, why aren't you dead?

Columbina #15:

The charge against Captain Barron was:

"Negligently performing the duty assigned him; neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear ship for action; failing to encourage in his own person his inferior officers and men to fight courageously; not doing his utmost to take or destroy the Leopard, which vessel it was his duty to encounter."

The president of Barron's court-martial board was John Rogers; the members of the court were William Bainbridge, Hugh G. Campbell, Stephen Decatur, Jr., John Shaw, John Smith, David Porter, Jacob Jones, James Lawrence, Charles Ludlow, and Joseph Tarbell.

You will note some names you've already encountered.

Decatur had served as a midshipman on the United States when Barron commanded her.


It is also true that, had events turned out differently and Chesapeake triumphed, that Broke would have been court-martialed, even though all of his words and deeds were identical.


(What I used to tell my troops: "If something's going on, let me know. They're going to ask me about it at my court-martial, so I might as well see it for myself.")

#24 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 03:40 PM:

Hmm. I grew up around and on US Naval bases, and nearly every one had streets named after Bainbridge and Decatur. I need to reassess my opinions of those two ("if they named streets after them they must have been brave and honorable men").

Thanks, Jim.

#25 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 03:44 PM:

Linkmeister, 24: Agreed. Reuben James only got a ship and a Woody Guthrie song...he wuz robbed.

#26 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 03:50 PM:

#18 LizardBreath: Budd was wounded, but his injuries were not serious.

Yet more on the Chesapeake/Leopard Affair.

Y'all have to understand that the tradition that the captain goes down with the ship is a serious one. The captain is expected to die. Even if it isn't his fault. If for some reason the captain doesn't die, the Navy will make him wish to Ghod that he had.

And, in my opinion, based on quite a bit of reading about this case, Lt. Budd should have stood up and taken it. But he didn't. Even so, his Naval career lasted less than one year from the end of Chesapeake courts-martial.

Members of Mr. Cox's court-martial board:

President: Captain Stephen Decatur

Captain Jacob Jones
Master Commandant James Biddle
Lieutenants William Carter, Jr., John T. Shubrick, Benjamin W. Booth, Alexander Claxton, David Connor, John Gallagher, and John D. Sloat.

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 04:02 PM:

Please, all, don't think that Decatur and Bainbridge were anything other than honorable, capable, and courageous men. They did great things. They helped forge the customs and traditions that make the US Navy what it is today.

They were men of their times, and they found themselves, here, in a situation with no good solutions.

Recall too that these men all knew one another, and had been in enforced intimacy for months or years at sea. They relied on each other for their lives, and at the same time they fostered likes and dislikes for one another that no one who wasn't in their situation would understand.

It's a different world.

#28 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 04:21 PM:

TexAnne@#25: Having a ship named after you is much, much cooler than having a street named after you, trust me.

Reuben James didn't just get one ship named after him, he got three. The current Reuben James is a guided missile frigate, FFG-57.

(Little known trivia fact: Navy ships have relics aboard them of the heroes they were named after. USS Moinester had Robert William Moinester's medals; USS John Paul Jones has got Jones's dress uniform; and so on. What the Reuben James might have is hard to say, since a boatswain's mate wouldn't have left behind a lot of memorabilia in any case, and one of the ships named after him was sunk by a U-Boat in the North Atlantic. But they've probably got something.)

#29 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 04:42 PM:

@27: I'm not quite sure how upholding the conviction for leaving the deck can be conceived of as in any way honorable, when Cox was *ordered to do so by his superior officer*. Not cutting down the sailors fleeing down into the hold, according to the standard of the time, possibly, but being convicted of following orders, that makes the scapegoating terribly clear, and any member of a court martial who engages in scapegoating as opposed to sticking with the evidence and the law is not doing their duty or fulfilling their oaths.

#30 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Jim @ #27, I'm just reminding myself to be skeptical. Heck, there are probably streets named after Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, too.

The Navy decided to name a carrier after Senator John Stennis, whose record on civil rights was deplorable.

#31 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 04:52 PM:

Two songs (neither directly Chesapeake/Shannon):

The Press Gang

The Deserter (Fairport Convention)

My first acquaintance with the naval War of 1812 would have been a 78RPM shellac recording of Burl Ives singing "The Constitution and the Guerriere." I would have heard that in the early sixties, around '62 or '63.

#32 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:08 PM:

xaaronx @ 14: it's pretty clear that Heinlein's characters do not always speak for him, even when in his famous preaching mode

I'm sure that "not always" is true, but when I flipped casually through Grumbles From The Grave (his collected letters) in the bookstore, I saw several of his characters' hobbyhorses being ridden.

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:15 PM:

#29 Scott:

No one's 100% anything.

To be sure, this court-martial conviction was a miscarriage of justice. It was obvious scape-goating; Cox said as much to the officers' faces.

The question was, had Lawrence already turned command over to Budd before asking Cox to take him below.

Cox knew, before the first witness was called, that he was going to be convicted. Decatur made no secret of the fact that he was prejudiced. That gave Cox freedom to speak, and he was scornful of the charges, of the witnesses against him, and of the court that was hearing the charges.

It was a mess. What I don't know is whether Budd had a patron, and, if so, who it was.

Even so, Cox wasn't convicted for "deserting his post of duty as commanding officer in the presence of the enemy."

Incidentally, in the modern Navy, the captain's post of duty in combat is wherever he or she happens to be standing. If that's knee-deep in the bilges, that's the place.

And I wonder, if Lawrence or Budd or Cox had won the day ... would Broke have been court-martialed for "deserting his post of duty as commanding officer in the presence of the enemy" by leaping over Chesapeake's rail?

The short version: You can be court-martialed, and convicted, for being unlucky.

#34 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:30 PM:

Bird farms are generally named after politicians. Destroyers and frigates, though, get named after fighting sailors.

#35 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:41 PM:

Decatur also has (at least) two cities named for him, in Georgia and Illinois.

#36 ::: Braxis ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:43 PM:

alex @ 20

Apologies. On my first reading I had thought that Mr Budd had led a boarding party onto the Shannon. Leaving, in an exact parallel to the Star Trek example, Mr Cox in command of the ship.

Looking again at Mr Macdonald's excellent essay, I see that I was wrong.

My example should have involved Tom Paris handing command of USS Voyager to Harry Kim, who was carrying Captain Janeway to sickbay, just before the Borg boarded...

#37 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 05:55 PM:

Linkmeister #30: "Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport" deserves some sort of prize for chutzpah.

#38 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:05 PM:

For a moment I misread the title of this thread as "Shakespeare vs. Cannon."

#39 ::: Robert Glaub ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:08 PM:

In USS [i]Bonne Homme Richard[/i] (John Paul Jones, commanding) vs HMS [i]Serapis[/i] (Richard Pearson, commanding) Pearson was knighted for the fight he put up against Jones and actually sank the American ship. There were a number of instances in the Napoleonic Wars where British captains, after surrendering their ships to overwhelming odds, were knighted and promoted after being acquitted at their courts-martial. The scene in [i]Flying Colors[/i], one of C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels, was taken from actual events.

#40 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:24 PM:

David Harmon @ #37, I'd call that a direct slap at PATCO and its descendants by Republican Reagan-worshippers.

#41 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:26 PM:

Robert Glaub: #39: Interesting info, but (1) BBCode doesn't work here. (2) Preview, dude, preview! That would've saved you from #1. (3) There is no number 3.

#42 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 06:47 PM:


Pray note, all, that in each of those cases Robert mentions, the captains were court-martialed.

#43 ::: MsAnon ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 07:04 PM:

"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. " .... Liz Lemon!

#45 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 07:41 PM:

#44 --

As I understand it: Liz Lemon is a white-liberal character on 30 Rock who has ... conflicted ... views on race in modern America.

#46 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 08:00 PM:

What stands out in my memory from the last time I re-read Starship Troopers was that in a short list of resistance heroes (e.g., Francis Marion) whose names were used for a particular class of craft was Sandino!
Reconfirming for me that any interpretation of Heinlein which is simple is wrong.

#47 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 08:33 PM:

Sloat rang a bell.
He was the one who later claimed California as US territory in 1846. (The residents seem to have had a different opinion, as the formal annexation wasn't until 1848.)

#48 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:08 PM:

PJ @ 47,

I don't think that was Sloat. He just ordered a couple of midshipmen to raise the Stars And Stripes at Monterey. It was General John Frémont and Commodore Robert Stockton who did the major conquesting in California, such as it was. Reading Bidwell's account, though, I've always been struck by how much of a farce the operation must have been in actuality.

The first conquest of California, in 1846, by the Americans, with the exception of the skirmish at Petaluma and another towards Monterey, was achieved without a battle. We simply marched all over California, from Sonoma to San Diego, and raised the American flag without opposition or protest. We tried to find an enemy, but could not.

Read the whole thing, as the kids say... it comes off like a Monty Python film.

#49 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:31 PM:

Sloat reportedly was in on the flag-raising. (He was territorial governor for all of a week, right before the short-lived Bear Flag Republic that gave us our current state flag.)

#50 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 01, 2011, 09:50 PM:

Captain Jacob Jones was on both Barron's court-martial board and Cox's court-martial board.

Jones had served under Bainbridge in the first Barbary War, and had been captured with him on the Philadelphia.

Later, during the War of 1812, in command of the US Sloop of War Wasp he captured HBM Sloop of War Frolic.

Still later, Jacob Jones served as captain of both USS Guerriere (ex-HMS Guerriere) and USS Macedonian (ex-HMS Macedonian).

James Biddle, on Barron's court-martial board (but not Cox's) also had a long and interesting career. He eventually became the fellow who didn't open Japan to Western trade (four years before Perry managed the trick).

He had sailed with Bainbridge in Philadelphia and, like Jacob Jones, had been captured by the Dey of Algiers.

Biddle was Jacob Jones's first lieutenant in Wasp when they took Frolic. He was the man who relieved Lawrence as captain of Hornet, and, in Hornet captured HMS Penguin.

#51 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 06:33 AM:

Even though I called this a "famous" miscarriage of justice in #22 above, this case is rather obscure. The version of the court-martial of William S. Cox that Heinlein gives is, I suspect, the US Naval Academy analog of The Man With A Hook For A Hand that the midshipmen whisper to each other late at night in Bancroft Hall.

I don't think that Heinlein actually looked it up himself when he was writing Starship Troopers.

#52 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 06:40 AM:

JDM @51

There is a certain verisimilitude in using the Naval Academy oral-tradition version of the story, in the context Heinlein used it. I don't imagine he'd have done so in quite the same way if he had done your research, but another author might have done the reading and decided to use the version they heard after lights-out anyway.

#53 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 08:04 AM:

Dave Bell @ #11:

Or a whole slew of philosophers (the field of 'moral philosophy' delves deep into 'what constitutes a system of ethics and how can we judge if such a system would be acceptable by most?').

I can't comment on how applicable this is in daily life, however.

#54 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 08:55 AM:

re 51: Well, that immediately raises a question that I've asked myself a bunch of times: if you are ostensibly reporting real history as background to a work of fiction, what obligation do you have to get it right? You can get a lot worse than this, after all: consider the collected works of Dan Brown.

My gut reaction is that a lot of people are getting their understanding of the world from reading fiction this way; indeed, that's the point of much of the fiction that kids are made to read in school (Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird...). It seems to me that unless one has a plainly unreliable person delivering the data, the obligation to write accurately is no less than it would be in a general nonfiction work (e.g. a summary in an encyclopedia). One of my issues with Heinlein in this regard is that as a matter of course he puts these words in the mouths of people who are, in the context of the story, authority figures who are intended to be heeded by the protagonist. So as they teach the protagonist, they teach us; it's difficult to maintain a distance from this without maintaining a distance from the work which for me, at least, tends to ruin the story.

#55 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 09:27 AM:

For myself, I try to be as accurate as possible, unless the story absolutely demands otherwise. (My recounting of the battle of Shiloh in our recent Lincoln's Sword, for example, relied heavily on a number of first-person accounts of the battle, primarily that of Henry Morton Stanley.) Way back in Planet Builders, when we put tanks and airplanes into the battle of Waterloo (a mere 100 year error, which is nothing compared to what you see involving military tech being used in movies set in the Middle Ages), we were careful to have characters question it and state that it was contra-factual.

Any time you write something in a novel, that item may be the first time the reader sees it, and many will believe it.

Now for the non-fiction part of this comment:

Lists of US Navy officers during the War of 1812 and where they were stationed as of 1 August 1815:

Commissioned officers:

Masters Commandant
Surgeon's Mates

Warrant Officers:

Sailing Masters

#56 ::: MsAnon ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 12:20 PM:

@44, 45

It's a joke about 30 Rock, but not about Liz Lemon. The star of 30 Rock's show-within-a-show is "a movie star with a reputation for unpredictable, highly erratic behavior" (wikipedia) called Tracy Jordan (played by an actor called Tracy Morgan). Tracy Jordan is always coming up with ridiculous excuses that end with ", Liz Lemon!"

This joke has been picked up by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his commenters, as so:

Basically, it's a joke to add "...Liz Lemon!" to an excuse to highlight how lame or bizarre said excuse is.

#57 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 02:14 PM:

@56: Thanks. I thought at first you were a drive-by.

I actually watch 30 Rock regularly. Didn't know the name was being used like that.

#58 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 03:31 PM:

Thanks for this, Jim. When I first read Starship Troopers some 30 years ago, I assumed that passage was based on real events, but in those pre-intarweb days there was no easy way for me to go and chase it down other than what standard not-American encyclopaedias might have to say on the subject. The real story's even more interesting than Heinlein's spin on it.

#59 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 02, 2011, 03:42 PM:

Hey, Julia -- When I first read that passage in Rocks and Shoals, some thirty years ago, my first thought was "Hey, Heinlein, WTF?" or words to that effect. But in pre-intarweb-days, how could I get the word out?

I thought about doing a novel, much like The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, but who the foo had ever heard of Cox?

Then when I wrote up the thing about the Quasi-War with France, the comment thread convinced me that it was time to write something up about it.

Hurrah for Making Light!

#60 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2011, 02:23 AM:

Jim: I loved the Court Marshall of George Armstrong Custer, among other things it led me to the Manhattan Cocktail.

#61 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2011, 02:24 AM:

re History and Moral Philosophy: First, it's history, things get lost in the telling.

Second: you can get all that deterministic crap from Kant (really, this is a guy who said it was immoral to lie to an ax murderer to save the vicitm, and then spun a song and dance about how the situation could end up that you; by lying, would be to blame if the as murderer managed to kill your grandmother).

Third: The point being made was that the role of a commander is to be in command. That should things fall out badly, you might gert shafted by events, and being prepared to accept that is part and parcel of asking for the role of commander.

P J Evans: And there is a statue to Sloat at the Presidio of Monterey. As I recall, when we did annex Calif, he was sent to carry it out.

j h woodyatt: No, Sloat took it upon himself, to invade Calif. in support of the rebellion. He invaded Monterey (then the capital) took the Customs House and damn near did start a war.

#62 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2011, 08:42 AM:

I should mention that whether Captain Lawrence did, in fact, ask Mr. Cox to help him below was one of the questions that faced the court-martial board. Mr. Cox said he had, Mr. Budd said he hadn't, no one else present could recall one way or the other, and Captain Lawrence himself wasn't available to set the matter straight.

Tending to show that Lawrence had, indeed, asked Mr. Cox to help him below was the fact that Lawrence allowed him to do so.

#63 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2011, 07:38 AM:

Jim --
Thank you for the caveat about what you write, and how people may depend on the accuracy of the background. I think it's even more acute an issue in television and movies than in print fiction.

My wife goes all grumbly and grumpy about medical issues ("no, no, NO! that is *not* how an oxygen line for use in bed is placed!") for me it's technology, especially computer "action" that is supposedly set in the present day, or matters of simple physics or chemistry.

Usually when the question is raised of "But that's just plain wrong -- it doesn't work that way! Why are they saying/doing that?!" the invulnerable giant killer of an answer is "It's in the script."

#64 ::: Craig R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2011, 07:46 AM:

On reading this post I'm afraid that my first thought was extremely snarky - "now the legions of RAH cultists who revere Saint RAH for his insight into culture, human nature, the efficacy of libertarianism and his historical analysis are going to go spare."

The one that always stick in my craw was the bald assertion of "an armed society is a polite society."

(I see my previous comment must contain a Word Of Power. I wonder what it was)

#65 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 04, 2011, 11:53 AM:

Craig R., you should hear me when I see EMS being done wrong (which is usually) in TV/movies.

The word of power was ... a need to adjust the filters. I hope they're working better now.

#66 ::: John Wilmer ::: (view all by) ::: June 05, 2011, 01:33 PM:

Here's an eye-witness account recorded in the Essequebo and Demerary Gazette of Dec. 22, 1813:

To the Editor of the Essequebo and Demerary Gazette.
Being convinced that you will be equally delighted with myself, of the brave spirit and noble disposition which my son ROBERT is possessed of, i have great pleasure in forwarding to you a copy of his letter (verbatum) to his sister, Mrs. H. Sale, in Lonodn, leaving to your discretion to make it public; as i only wish that the natives of Demerary may see what noble lads their country produces, even in his situation, who had no other chance than a colonial education, polished for a couple of years under the tuition of that worthy master Mr. A. CART.
Your's truly,

H.M.S. Shannon, Halifax, June 23, 1813.
My Dearest Sister - I received your letter: and happy I was to hear from you and my good friends. I suppose you have heard of the capture and likewise the brilliant action between the Shannon and Chesapeake, an American States frigate, I had the honour to be in that affair, which only lasted 17 minutes, when we had full possession of our enemy. - After I left Gibralter in my own ship, the Spartan, we took a prize, and I happened to be one that was sent in the vessel to take her to our port (Halifax), when unfortunately I got taken by an American privateer, and was prisoner of war on board of her nine days, when she was retaken by one of our British cruisers, and I was again at my liberty; and my own ship not being at hand, I was by the order of Capt. Broke of the Shannon taken on board of her, untill an opportunity offered to join the Spartan, and during that time we went to cruise in Boston bay; and on the glorious first of June, in the morning, our enemy was seen in his own harbour, to get under weigh and stand out towards us; we, then ready and willing to receive him with hearts full of joy - beat to quarters at 11 o'clock in the morning, and went through the manœuvres of our exercise - and then down to our dinners, and eat hearty. At half past four, seeing our enemy nearing us very fast, went to our grog, and drank round chearfully; at twenty minutes past five in the afternoon, the action commenced with furry [sic] on both sides, the enemy then within twenty yards of us, and continued about ten or eleven minutes, when the two ships came yard arm to yard arm, (that is) to close, that we stepped from our own ship, on board the enemy, sword in hand, and like Britons, we drove the proud Yankees before us, and took possession of their ship; - but after a dreadful slaughter of twenty-seven of our brave fellows, who unfortunately fell, and upwards of thirty wounded - The enemy 185 killed and wounded. Our first Lieutenant, Mr. Watts, was killed in the act of hauling down the American colours; our Capt. is also severely wounded, but is recovering fast * * * * * * *
I must now thank God for my narrow escape this time. - My dear Sister, it was most dreadful to see my shipmates fall in every direction around me, and the decks dyed with the blood of the unfortunate fellows; and the poor wounded, with some the loss of legs and arms, others with the loss of both. - O! - Henrietta, I shall ever remember your song (the disabled seaman,) wich [sic -which] you often sung to me. I am very happy &c.

I'm happy to see this topic and discussion.

#67 ::: Roger Marsh ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2011, 09:46 AM:

Glad to see that someone posted about the also amazing case of Provo Wallis on whom, as junior lieutenant of Shannon, command also devolved, his captain having been cut down on the foredeck and the first lieutenant killed on the quarterdeck of Chasapeake.

Don't under-rate the effectiveness of Chesapeake's own gunnery or stress too much the lack of training. She inflicted proportional losses on Shannon's crew which would in many circumstances have been deemed sufficient to justify Broke's own surrender - except that Shannon's gunnery was even better, her crew having been trained over years by one of the best gunnery officers in the RN.

And interesting, the comments on the accuracy of the background when using real actions in fiction. I shall certainly attempt to keep the real ones as accurate as I can make them in my own fiction, from the Battle of Chesapeake Bay (Battle of the Virginia Capes), 1781, to single-ship actions in the Mediterranean in the 1790s, the siege of Toulon, Hotham's actions, Corsica etc., and the Jan-Feb 1797 attempted invasion of Ireland. We have the original officers’ logs and other records available for consultation in the National Archives at Kew, fortunately, and I have had similar original French documents out at the Service Historique de la Défense at Vincennes and elsewhere. But I shall feel free to invent two or more fictional single-ship engagements, as necessary.

I picked this link up from the Patrick O'Brian discussion group 'The Gunroom', and shall post there (on the short-term gallery) a great picture by Montague Dawson - one of a series he painted of the Shannon - Chesapeake action. This one depicts the moment when Chesapeake lost her jib-boom, subsequently rounding up into the wind out of control, unable to pay off to bring her larboard broadside to bear again. I used the pic in an article on the surviving Leda-group ('class') frigate Trincomalee, still afloat in Hartlepool, England, a sister of Shannon; you'll find it in the current (May/June) edition of the US magazine 'Seaways' Ships in Scale'.


Roger Marsh
at single anchor at 51° 4' 27.77"N; 1° 47' 33.57"W but preparing to weigh again to make flying Passidge under Captain Ryan on a westerly course bound for his Shannon mooring at 52° 48' 23.0"N; 8° 26' 29.7"W

#68 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2011, 11:11 AM:

Hi, Roger. You write for Seaways' Ships in Scale? Too cool! (You might find some of my posts here dealing with model-making, particularly as it bears on writing, interesting. Or not.)

I do most of my reading for 18th/19th c. sail at the library of the Mystic Seaport museum.

We came very close, once, to writing a set of novels from the point of view of a French captain in the pre-Napoleonic era. (And still may do so.)


On the Chesapeake/Shannon casualty figures, quoting Gleaves:

"The total loss of both ships was only forty-five less than the combined losses of the French and English fleets at Cape St. Vincent where forty-two ships were engaged." (Gleaves p. 210)

#69 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2011, 02:31 PM:

Craig R. and Jim, the Ur Doin It Rong tendency of TV and movies also extends to physical therapy (with some notable exceptions). At least they finally admitted House was using the cane in the wrong hand. Not that that stopped him for more than 1 episode.

Books tend to do better (though not always). For example, if you ever run across a little book called Rise Up and Walk by Turnley Walker, grab it and read it (it is, alas, out of print). Walker, at the time he contracted polio, was an ad writer who went on to write TV scripts (mainly Westerns) and book reviews (he won a Peabody Award for his PBS book review series). The title led me to expect Guideposts-like inspirational stuff, but not so--it's direct, spare, and vividly told in very plain language. I wish we'd teach this stuff in schools.

#70 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: June 06, 2011, 03:29 PM:

Lila @69 -- many copies available at under $5 net on

#71 ::: John Desmond ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2011, 08:59 PM:

It may be noted that LtCdr Bruce McCandless, senior surviving* officer above deck (the Chief Engineer, of course, took over command on the morrow) on the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco, Nov 13-14 1942, was the father of the first US astronaut to make an untethered spacewalk.

IMHO, the best account of the battle is in Fletcher Pratt's _Fleet Against Japan_. Good luck finding a copy.

*LtCdr McCandless was wounded but 'functioning', other officers may have been more seriously wounded, can't look it all up right now.

#72 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2011, 08:40 AM:

Ye Parliament of England

Ye Parliament of England,
Ye Lords and Commons too,
Consider well what you're about,
What you're about to do.
For you're to war with Yankees,
And I'm sure you'll rue the day
You roused the Sons of Liberty
In North America!

You first confined our commerce,
And said our ships shan't trade,
You next impressed our seamen,
And used them as your slaves,
You then insulted Rodgers,
While plying o'er the main,
And had we not declared war,
You'd have done it o'er again.

You tho't our frigates were but few,
And Yankees could not fight,
Until brave HULL your GUERRIERE took
And banished her from your sight.
The WASP then took your FROLIC,
We'll nothing say to that;
The POICTIERS being of the line,
Of course she took her back.

The next, your MACEDONIAN,
No finer ship could swim,
Decatur took her gilt work off,
And then he sent her in.
The JAVA by a Yankee ship
Was sunk, you all must know;
The PEACOCK fine, in all her plume,
By Lawrence town did go.

Then next you sent your BOXER,
To box us all about,
We had an ENTERPRISING brig
That boxed your BOXER out;
She boxed her up to Portland,
And moored her off the town,
To show the sons of liberty
The BOXER of renown.

The next upon Lake Erie,
Where Perry had some fun,
You own he beat your naval force
And caused them for to run;
This was to you a sore defeat,
The like ne'er known before -
Your British squadron beat complete -
Some took, some run ashore.

There's Rodgers, in the PRESIDENT,
Will burn, sink, and destroy,
The CONGRESS, on the Brazil coast,
Your commerce will annoy;
The ESSEX, in the South Seas,
Will put out all your lights;
The flag she waves at her mast-head -
Free Trade and Sailor's Rights.


USS Chesapeake isn't mentioned, for some reason.

The last stanza is what you'd call "a forward-looking statement."

USS President ended the war as HMS President. USS Essex was disassembled by long-range gunnery after she ran aground off Valparaiso. (One of the young midshipmen on Essex was David Glasgow Farragut, who, years later at Mobile Bay, took his squadron through a known minefield rather than go against aimed gunfire again.) USS Congress had an undistinguished record in the War of 1812, and finished the war in ordinary due to lack of supplies needed to repair her.

#73 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2012, 02:50 PM:

Apparently, a recent painting of this encounter is up for auction.

#74 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2012, 12:29 AM:

Gorgeous. Thanks for the link.

#75 ::: OverTheHill ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2013, 08:36 AM:

At age 82 I've read a lot of Heinlein and IMHO everything after "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"
is all downhill with the rate of descent ever increasing.

#76 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2013, 08:58 AM:

I think it may be a new visitor. Overthehill, are you still around? Welcome. It's fine to post to old threads, but the active discussion is usually on more recent topics. Click the "Go to Making Light's front page" link at the top left of the page to see what's up now.

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