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Sea StoriesMr Midshipman Easy
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It was a famous dinner party that Captain William Bainbridge, Commander
of the Charlestown Navy Yard, gave on the night of the 31st of May,
1813. In those days gentlemen sat long at a table; they knew good wines
when they tasted them, and if they drank a great deal at a sitting,
they sipped slowly.
The cloth had been removed, and upon the shining mahogany rested two
or three cut-glass decanters filled with the best Madeira. Captain
Bainbridge sat at the head of the table, in a high-backed oaken chair;
he was dressed in a blue uniform coat, with the gold-braided lapels
thrown back over his wide chest. In his snow-white shirt frill there
nestled a sparkling jewel given to him by the Sultan of Turkey, upon
the occasion when Bainbridge had brought the old frigate George
Washington into the harbor of Constantinople and there for the first
time displayed the flag of the United States.
The candles had burned low in the candelabra, a silence had fallen upon
the company; it was evident that something had interrupted the easy
flow of wit and conversation. Captain James Lawrence, the guest of the
evening, was in full uniform, with epaulets and great gold buttons as
big as half-dollars. He sat opposite Captain Bainbridge, with both
elbows on the table, cracking walnuts and eating them as if to stave
off hunger; his face was flushed, and a frown was on his brow. A young
man of not more than twenty, with a gleaming mass of gold braid on his
left shoulder, the mark of the lieutenant, had the next seat to him; he
was nervously drumming on the table with his finger-nails. Occasionally
he would glance from Lawrence to Bainbridge, and then at the two other
officers who were sitting there in constrained silence.
Well did they all know how easy it was for the word to be spoken that
would fire the smouldering mine, and change what had been a jovial
gathering to the prologue of a tragedy. Men had to be careful how they
spoke in those days. There could never be any brawling or careless
flying of words; courtesy and gallantry limited their power of personal
offence; but epithets or implications once given expression could not
easily be withdrawn. Men who had been friends and who had fought for
the same cause would, with the stilted hat-tipping and snuff-offering
fashion of the time, meet one another in the gray of morning under
God's sky and do one another to the death.
At last Lawrence spoke.
"Are you not judging me harshly in this matter, sir?" he said. "You say
you doubt my caution." His gaze shifted from the brilliant jewel in
Bainbridge's breast to the frank, manly face above.
"Your caution; yes, Captain," was the return; "your courage, my dear
Lawrence cracked another walnut with a loud report. "Surely in my
little affair with the Peacock you have granted that I used judgment;
and in regard to the distribution of prize money, which has not seemed
to suit our mutual views----"
Bainbridge interrupted him. "That is a question apart from our present
discussion, sir," he said. "I pray that you will postpone it. But I can
only say for the benefit of all concerned that I do not doubt an easy
adjustment. For what you decide must perforce be agreeable to me."
"You are my senior----"
"And for that reason I have taken the opportunity, as you have brought
up the subject, to express my opinions. I cannot order you; it is
outside my province or my wish. Before the company you have brought up
this matter, and for that reason I have discussed it. Every one must
agree that the Department authorities at Washington have treated you
most unhandsomely. Had you been given the command of the Constitution,
as was first intended and promised you, and were she in a condition
to put to sea, I should say nothing but what would encourage you to
"Ah, if I but had the Constitution and her crew," put in Lawrence,
with a sigh; "if I but had them." Suddenly he brought his strong,
clenched fist down upon the table with a crash: "Then this English
captain would not be flaunting his flag at the harbor mouth, daring me
to come on and fight him; shaming us all here where we lie at anchor!
The Chesapeake is ready!"
"Ah, but she is the Chesapeake," interrupted Bainbridge.
"True enough; but why not give me the chance to wipe the stain from off
her name?" He suddenly arose, and leaning across the table spoke
quickly and vehemently. "Order two hundred of the Constitution's men
on board of her, and I will sail out and give battle to-morrow! I doubt
not, nor do I fear the consequences. I ask this of you as a proof of
In his excitement, Lawrence upset one of the tall wine-glasses. It
tinkled musically, and, reaching forward, he filled it to the brim, and
Bainbridge waited until this had been done.
"I cannot grant your request, Captain Lawrence," he said quietly at
last. "Your ship is in no condition to go out and fight at the moment.
She has a green crew. Her running-gear has not been tested."
"Then let me go into the yard and call for volunteers!" Lawrence
"I cannot prevent you taking men who are not busily employed; but I
shall not order men from work. 'Twould be sanctioning your action."
The mine was on the point of being fired; the fatal word was trembling
on Lawrence's lips. The boy lieutenant half rose from his chair; but
Lawrence controlled himself with an effort. He may have realized how
senseless it would have been to impute to William Bainbridge lack of
courage. He may have thought of the wicked consequence of such a
speech. But he was obstinate. His nature was not one to be thwarted
easily. Throwing back his shoulders and looking around the table, he
raised the brimming wine-glass to his lips.
"Then, here's to the success of the Chesapeake!" he blurted, and
drained it to the bottom. "I shall go out and fight this fellow
to-morrow," he added sullenly. "You gentlemen," turning to the others,
who were all officers of his luckless ship, "shall share with me the
honor." Turning, he walked to the side of the room and picked up his
cloak and heavy bullion-edged cocked hat.
"Sir, to you good evening."
Bainbridge was about to speak; but on second thought he remained silent
and bowed slowly. Without a word Lawrence, followed by three of his
officers, left the room. The young Lieutenant lingered. His face had
flushed when his captain had spoken the word "glory," and yet the calm,
dispassionate judgment of Bainbridge had appealed to him. He was a
beautiful lad, this officer, with long-lashed eyes like those of a
young girl. His light brown hair curled softly over his white forehead.
One would expect nothing but laughter and song from those lips, and it
needed the strong, square-cut jaw to give the note of decision and
character to his face. It redeemed it from being too classical; too
beautifully feminine. He loved James Lawrence, his commander, and truly
a boy's love for a man who excites his admiration is much like a
woman's in its tenderness and devotion. Lawrence had been a father to
him, or better, an elder brother, for the Chesapeake's commander was
but thirty-two years of age.
Young William Cox had been much at Captain Bainbridge's house since the
Chesapeake had dropped her anchor in the Charles River, and the
Commandant had watched with approval the mutual attraction that existed
between the young officer and the beautiful Miss Hyleger, who was the
sister of Bainbridge's wife. He probably knew what was going through
the young man's mind. As he followed after the others Bainbridge
"Good night, James; may God watch over you. You will do your duty; of
that I am well assured."
"Thank you, sir," the lad returned, flushing as he took Bainbridge's
hand in both of his.
When left alone, the Commodore sat there in his great armchair, and on
his face was a great shadow of sorrow.
Lawrence did not go on board his ship that night; but Lieutenant
Ludlow, Mr. White, the sailing-master, and Lieutenants Cox and Ballard
repaired on board at once to make ready for the approaching conflict.
All night long James Lawrence walked alone under the trees in the river
park, and at early dawn, still dressed in his resplendent uniform, with
his silk stockings and white knee-breeches, he made his appearance at
the Navy Yard. Some sixty men responded to his call. But the older
sailors wagged their heads. It was not necessary. Ah, that was it! Had
it been a case of do or die, there was not a man who would not have
thrown down his work and jumped at the chance to fight. But the
Chesapeake! she was an unlucky vessel. Sailors avoided her. Her crew
was riffraff in a measure; men not wanted on other ships; many of
foreign birth; Portuguese and Spaniards; a few Danes, and without doubt
some renegade servants of King George.
As the morning mist cleared away from the water, there in the offing
was the English frigate that had been hovering and flaunting her
challenging flag for the past three days.... Boston was all agog with
the news. The whole city had flocked to the water front. Before nine
o'clock the Chesapeake was surrounded by a flotilla of small craft.
Men cheered themselves hoarse. Flags floated from the buildings, and
women waved handkerchiefs from the docks. But yet, some of the wise
ones wagged their heads.
The bulwarks and top sides of the Chesapeake had been freshly
painted, and the paint was not yet dry. As her crew stretched out the
new yellow hempen running-gear, they smudged everything with the
pigment. There was no time to be careful; it was a hurly-burly haste on
every hand. The officers were reading the lists of the men at the guns.
They did not know them by name or sight, and were trying to impress
their faces on their minds at this short notice. There was bawling and
hauling and shouting and confusion. How different from the clockwork
methods on board the Constitution! But at last everything was as
ready as it could be. Lawrence, after his sleepless night, pale but
nerved to tension by excitement, came from the cabin. As he looked down
the deck, his spirits must have sunk. Things were not shipshape--at
this very instant he may have regretted that he had formed the decision
to go out and fight. But it was too late to withdraw! He gave the
orders, and, to the tune of Yankee Doodle, they began getting in the
anchor. The pilot was on board, standing beside the helmsman. Lawrence
went back to his cabin and wrote a letter that has only recently been
given to the public. It was addressed to James Cox, the uncle of young
Lieutenant Cox, of his own ship. The whole tone of the missive displays
the despondent attitude of mind under which Lawrence was now laboring.
The postscript that he added, after referring to the possibility of his
untimely end, reads as follows:--
"10 A.M. The frigate is in plain sight from our decks, and we are now
getting under way."
It was the last sentence he ever penned. As soon as he had sealed the
letter he came on deck and delivered it to the pilot, who left the ship
within half an hour.
Now came the ordeal. The small boats that had surrounded the vessel
were being left behind as she gained headway. But some of the faster
sailers among them managed to keep pace, and cheer after cheer sounded.
A crew of rowers in a whaleboat kept abreast of the Chesapeake's
bows, shouting words of encouragement to the crew. But the men did not
appear eager. The officers could not help but notice it, and the
impression must have been most heart breaking.
"Muster the crew," Lawrence ordered at last, turning to young Ludlow;
"I will say a few words to them." The men gathered in the waist,
whispering and talking among themselves.
"James," said Lawrence, to Lieutenant Cox, before he began to make the
customary address that a ship's captain in those days made before going
into action,--"James, I know that I can trust you--you will do your
duty." The young man at his side touched his cap. "You will find me
here, sir," he replied, "unless my duty is elsewhere." Lawrence stepped
a few feet forward.
"Men of the Chesapeake," said he, "it is our good fortune to be able
to answer the call that our country has made upon our honor. We will
answer it with our lives if necessary. Do your duty; fight well and
nobly. Your country's eyes are on you, and in her heart she thanks you
in advance. Yonder British frigate must return under our lee. Let no
shots be wasted. To your stations."
There was some low grumbling off to one side of the deck. A
black-visaged, shifty-eyed fellow came pushing to the front. A double
allowance of grog had been already served; but many of the men had been
imbibing freely, owing to the proximity of the shore and the ease with
which liquor could be obtained. The man strode out before the crowd and
stopped within a few paces of the Captain. He spoke in broken English.
Lawrence listened in anger and almost in despair. The man complained in
insolent tones that he and his messmates had not been paid some prize
money due them now a long time. Lawrence's hand sought the hilt of his
sword. He would have run the fellow through as he well deserved, did he
not see that among the crew he numbered many followers. Their surly
looks and gestures proved their evil temper. The man declared that
unless he and thirty of the others were paid at once they would decline
Here was mutiny at the outset! A fine state of affairs to exist on
board a vessel going to fight a battle.... There was nothing for it but
to acquiesce. He could not treat the cur as he deserved.
"Take these men to the cabin and pay them what they say is due them,"
said Lawrence, bitterly. There was not money enough on board the ship,
and he was forced to go to the cabin himself, and sign due bills for
the amount. And all this time the enemy was in the offing prepared and
The English frigate hauled her wind and put out to sea as she saw the
Chesapeake approach. Her flag was flying, and now Lawrence unfurled
his. At the main and mizzen and at the peak he flew the Stars and
Stripes, while at the fore he displayed the motto flag: "Free trade and
sailors' rights." On the two vessels sailed over the bright, sunlit
sea. The day was almost without a cloud. One or two small sailing
vessels still followed in the Chesapeake's wake. At four P.M. she
fired a challenging gun.
There were no seamen of the good old school that could not if they
had seen the English ship but admire her. With calm precision the
Shannon--for it was well known who she was--braced back her
maintopsails and hove to. In silence the two manoeuvred. At every point
the English vessel had the better of it. Which would fire first? There
was one moment when the Chesapeake had the advantage. Owing to her
clumsiness more than to her agility, she came about within pistol-shot
distance under the enemy's stern. But her commander held his fire. A
minute more and they were on even terms, sailing in dead silence beside
one another, nearing all the time--who would have thought that they
were craving each other's blood? The orders on board one ship could be
heard on board the other. The word "Ready" was passed at the same
moment; but the discharge of the Englishman's broadside preceded that
of the Chesapeake by a perceptible moment. How well those guns must
have been trained! Every one was double shotted and heavily charged.
The Chesapeake quivered from the shock. In that second, in the time
it takes a man to catch his breath, the whole aspect of affairs had
changed. Mr. White, the sailing-master, was immediately killed; Mr.
Ballard, the Fourth Lieutenant, was mortally wounded. Ten sailors fell
dead to the decks. Twenty-three were badly hurt. The bulwarks were
crushed in, and the cabin was torn to pieces.
"Steady!" roared Lawrence. "Steady, boys, have at them!"
There was a marine with a musket in one of the Englishman's tops. He
was aiming at the resplendent figure in gold epaulets, carefully as one
aims at a target, and at last he pulled the trigger. Lawrence fell down
on one knee; but leaning against the companionway, he pulled himself
erect again. Not an expression or exclamation came from him; but his
white knee breeches were streaked and stained with red. Nearer yet the
two ships drifted. Their crashing broadsides scorched each other. The
Englishmen cheered, and the Yankees answered them--the volunteers from
the Charlestown yard were giving a good account of themselves. But
several times the Chesapeake yawed and fell off her course as if she
had lost her head, like a man dizzy from a blow that deadens the brain.
And good reason why: three men in succession were shot away from her
wheel. The expert riflemen placed in the Shannon's mizzentop were
doing their work well. A puff of wind took the American all aback, she
fell off and swung about. Her anchor caught in the Shannon's after
port. And now not a gun could be brought to bear! Whole gun's crews
left their places and plunged down the companionway to the deck below.
But the Shannon was taking advantage of her opportunity. Charges of
grape and canister raked and swept the decks.
Lawrence looked in despair at the frightful havoc. He knew what now
would happen. Every minute he expected to see the English boarders come
tumbling on board. Lieutenant Cox had been sent below to take charge of
the second division. Lawrence looked for an officer. The only one in
sight was Lieutenant Ludlow. Had it not been for his uniform no one
would have known him. He was blood and wounds from head to foot. He
could not stand erect, and was dragging himself about the deck, one
useless leg trailing behind him.
"The bugler! call the bugler!" thundered Lawrence. "To repel boarders
on the spar-deck! Where is the after-guard?"
Ludlow fell, better than clambered, down the main-hatch. "Pass the word
for the bugler!" he cried. "Boarders away!" But the bugler could not be
found. And good reason why. He was down in the deep hold hiding amid
the stores. Young Lieutenant Cox heard the order. "Boarders away!" he
shouted. As he started to rally his men and rush up from below, he was
met by the crowd fleeing from the terrible slaughter that was taking
place above. But at last he managed to work his way up the companion
ladder. He too was wounded and bleeding--a splinter had gashed him in
the neck and another in the shoulder. What a sight he saw! Lawrence,
his beloved friend, his idol, weakly holding fast to one of the
belaying-pins, still repeating his fruitless cry for the men to rally
on the deck. As Cox leaped toward him a second bullet from the
mizzentop struck the captain in the abdomen--Cox caught him as he fell.
Lawrence grasped his hand.
"Don't give up the ship!" he cried weakly. "Don't give up the ship!" He
placed one arm about the boy's shoulder. He was so young; he loved his
leader so much. He was faint from loss of blood. It was his first
action. Never before had he seen dying men, or listened to the groans
and shrieks of the wounded. Who would expect him to break away from
that last fond grasp that had not relaxed? He did not know that he was
now commander! Almost carrying his wounded leader, he staggered down
the ladder to where the surgeon and his mates were busy at their
direful work. He did not see, just as he left the deck, the English
boarders headed by their own Captain, the brave and gallant Broke,
spring over the railing. He did not know that he and the wounded Ludlow
were the only officers now left to handle ship.... As the surgeon
hastened to Lawrence's side, Cox knelt down upon one knee. He could not
control the tears of sorrow and bitterness. The whole scene of the
previous night flashed through his mind. Lawrence, his beloved, eager
for glory, now shattered with the hand of death upon him. The Captain
released the boy's hand.
"You are a brave lad, James," he said. "But stay here no longer, though
I would have you with me."
There was more rushing and shouting from the decks above. Cox hastened
up as fast as his weakened limbs would carry him. It was hand to hand
now; cutlasses plying, men stabbing on the decks, growling and
grovelling in their blood like fighting dogs. There was a party making
an onslaught toward the bows. Cox drew his sword and joined them. The
first thing he knew, they were slashing at him with their heavy blades.
They were Englishmen! He did not know his own crew by sight. The firing
had stopped; the summer breeze was blowing the smoke away. But what a
sight and what a sound! The battered, reddened hulls, and the groans
that rose in chorus! Of the further details there is little to relate.
Poor Ludlow was killed at last by a cutlass in the hands of a British
sailor; for after the flag had been hauled down, a second action had
been started by a hot-headed boy firing at a British sentry placed at
the gangway. The English, by mistake, had hoisted the captured flag
uppermost, but it was soon discovered and hauled down again--the fight
was over. The Chesapeake has been reckoned one of England's dearest
The sorrowful news of her defeat was carried quickly into Boston. The
wise ones wagged their heads again. At the house of the Commandant of
the navy yard at Charlestown, Bainbridge paced the room alone, deep
lines of grief marking his rugged face, and on the floor above, a young
girl lay insensible, for the word as first brought was that with the
other officers James Cox had had his death. Captain Broke, the
Englishman, had fought a gallant, manly fight, all honor to him! He was
badly wounded, and, like poor Lawrence, it was thought that he would
die. The latter, when he had heard the firing cease, had said to the
"Run to the deck. Tell them not to strike the colors! While I live they
shall wave!" Brave Lawrence! They were the last words he ever spoke.
Although he lingered four long suffering days, not a sound passed his
lips. Broke, on the contrary, was raving in a delirium, and these were
the words he kept repeating--words he must have spoken before the
action had begun:--
"See the brave fellow! How grandly he brings his ship along! How
gallantly he comes to action!"
Ah, how Halifax rejoiced when the Shannon sailed in there with a
Yankee frigate under her lee. How the guns boomed, and how the city
went mad with joy! And how England rejoiced, and the "Thunderer"
thundered and the king clapped his hands! And how much they made of it!
How proudly they preserved every relic of the captured ship! How they
cherished her figurehead and exhibited her logbook! And they builded
her timbers into an old mill, where they can show them to you to-day,
scarred with cannon shot.
Yes, and how America lamented! Aye, and grew angry in her distress and
cried for vengeance! Many times during the trial which followed in the
investigation of the causes for the vessel's loss and capture, must
have young James Cox wished that he were dead, that it had been he the
British cutlasses and musket-balls had hacked to pieces. The navy had
lost a ship in single combat,--the press and the authorities did not
like that,--some one must suffer. What excuse was there that could hold
good? said they--the great public which clamored for a reason. And so
in the flush of the hot feeling he was sentenced by court martial;
sentenced and disgraced. The charge of cowardice was disproved. From
that he was exonerated--he had been wounded. But why had he not cut
down the men as they left their guns? (one man against fifty,
forsooth!) Why had he left the deck and gone below? Why had he stayed
for one moment's time at the side of his dying friend and leader? And
so he was made the scapegoat, although if he had been six men or ten,
he could not have prevented what had happened. What is the use of
"ifs"? The best ship had won. But when the trial was over, two hearts
were broken. The young officer was execrated by those that did not
know, and yet who talk and write. Could he dare just then to ask a
The navy pitied him, the scapegoat of the Chesapeake. How he
petitioned to be given a chance to win back his fair name, and how
often it was denied him! The members of the court that sentenced him
wrote kindly letters almost without exception. But even the brave
Decatur did not dare to help him--public opinion is more formidable to
face than an armed ship. And so James Cox, maybe in the hope that an
honorable death would visit him, shouldered a musket and fought as a
common soldier in the ranks on land.
And when the war was over, he sought refuge in the new country of the
west, where perhaps they would not know. And there he lived and died;
died an old man, honored and respected by his neighbors. But those that
loved him marvelled at one thing; he never smiled. And even his
grandchildren (for he married late in life) knew not that he had once
been a gay young lieutenant with a shining epaulet on his left
shoulder. They never heard that he had started one fine June day to
find glory and fame; and that death had come near to him but passed him
by, which he had more than once regretted bitterly.
After he had been laid to rest letters and papers were found showing
that to the last he had been trying to have his name placed back upon
the navy lists. But if they were too angry to listen before in their
deep chagrin, they were too busy now; they had other things to think
about. And people who wrote history, aye and taught it in the schools,
did not search dispassionately for what had occurred to view the
facts. They took the feverish verdict of the times and applied
adjectives to his conduct that were out of place; some called it
"pusillanimous"--"cowardly." We can look at things differently now,
and judge them for their worth. There is proof enough to clear his
name, so be it cleared if these few words can help to do it.
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