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War of 1812: Two Hundredth Anniversary—Battle of HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake

 

Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, today we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of a momentous victory during the War of 1812. On June 6, 1813, 200 years ago this very day, the HMS Shannon, following a magnificent victory at sea, sailed into Halifax Harbour with her prize in tow, the American frigate USS Chesapeake.

Five days earlier, in the late afternoon of June 1, 20 nautical miles off the coast of Boston, the Shannon and the Chesapeake met in what would become one of the shortest and fiercest naval encounters of the war and, in light of the total number of combatants, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Age of Sail. The confrontation lasted about 11 minutes, with over 100 killed and nearly twice as many wounded.

The captain of the Chesapeake, James Lawrence, had been confident of victory, as the Americans had been quite successful in naval engagements during the early months of the war. Soon after the fighting commenced, the commander of the Shannon, Captain Philip Broke, led a boarding party aboard the American frigate. In the ensuing melee, Captain Lawrence, who had been fatally wounded by sniper fire during the battle, uttered his immortal dying command to his American crew: "Don't give up the ship!"

Yet, honourable senators, they did give up the ship. The Shannon's crew quickly overcame the remaining American resistance, capturing the Chesapeake. Captain Broke was incapacitated by a severe sabre wound to the skull, and with his second in command killed, it was left to a young Halifax-born naval officer by the name of Provo Wallis, the ship's third in command, to bring the Shannon home.

Provo Wallis, the Nova Scotian son of a naval dockyard worker in Halifax, would later rise to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, a post he held until his death at the age of 100, the only Canadian to ever hold the highest position in the Royal Navy. The recently retired vessel CCGS Provo Wallis was named in his honour.

The HMS Shannon's bell is currently on display at the Maritime Command Museum in Halifax. Nearby, the graves of the crew are marked at the Royal Naval Dockyard cemetery and St. Paul's Church in downtown Halifax. Cannons from both vessels are situated outside of Province House, the oldest legislature in Canada. Captain Lawrence was buried with full military honours in Halifax, with six British naval officers serving as pallbearers.

As for the USS Chesapeake, she served the remainder of her days under a new name, the HMS Chesapeake.

The Shannon's victory, amidst our many military triumphs of the War of 1812, was an important chapter in the evolution of Canada from colony to sovereign nation. Had the British and Canadian forces not emerged victorious, Canada as we know it would almost certainly not exist today.

Let us always remember those who fought for Canada so that we could have a country to call our own.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.