Sea Stories

The Scapegoat

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limited their power of personal offence; but epithets or implications once given expression could not easily be withdrawn.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 sir, never." 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 exercise despatch." "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 friendship." 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 interrupted hotly. "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 stopped him. "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 to fight. 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 eager. 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." 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 prizes. 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 surgeon:-- "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 woman's hand? 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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