Dueling Frigates


With a fleet of just six frigates (including three 44-gun “super-frigates”), five smaller sloops of war, two brigs, and a collection of small coastal gunboats, the US Navy could not face off against the British Royal Navy, which had more than 600 active vessels, about 100 of which were 74-gun ships of the line. While fleet actions characterized much of the naval war between the British and French, the US Navy vessels went out singly or in small squadrons to raid British commerce and engage lone British warships.

The strength of a warship was measured in several ways. First, the number of guns was telling, and the 44-gun American “super-frigates,” which sometimes carried 50 guns, were more heavily armed than all but a few British frigates, which usually carried 38 guns. Second was the weight of cannonballs. US vessels were commonly armed with guns firing 24-pound shot, whereas British vessels commonly carried guns firing 18-pound shot. Since a naval battle was often won by the crew that boarded the enemy ship and prevailed in hand-to-hand fighting, a large crew was an advantage, and American crews were generally larger.

Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke had such a well-trained crew on HMS SHANNON that he was looking for a fight with the USS CHESAPEAKE. Captain James Lawrence, formerly of the USS HORNET, was equally eager, although he and his crew were new to the CHESAPEAKE. Though rated at 38 guns, both frigates carried about 50, mostly 18-pounders. The CHESAPEAKE had a crew of 379, the SHANNON 330. On June 1, 1813, Captain Broke sent a challenge to Captain Lawrence, but Lawrence was already on the way out of Boston Harbor and did not receive it. Late in the afternoon, about 18 miles off Boston, the CHESAPEAKE—flying a large white banner reading "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights"—came down on the SHANNON and they exchanged two broadsides. When the ships became entangled, Broke ordered boarders onto the CHESAPEAKE. With more than a third of her crew killed or wounded—including the mortally wounded Captain Lawrence, who reportedly called out "Don't give up the ship!" as he was carried below—the CHESAPEAKE struck her colors just 15 minutes after the fight began. She became the first American frigate lost during the War of 1812. This painting of the early stage of the battle is attributed to John Schetky. © Mystic Seaport Collection, Mystic, CT, #1964.692

Proud of their vessels and eager to fight them, naval captains sometimes went to the extreme of issuing an outright challenge for a ship-to-ship duel. Perhaps the most famous battle of this type was the engagement between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon. Although Captain James Lawrence did not receive the challenge issued by the British master, he left Boston on June 1, 1813, seeking a fight with the Shannon, and he found it. Despite his dying plea, “Don’t give up the ship,” the Chesapeake surrendered to the Shannon after a fight of just 15 minutes.

The day of that battle off Boston, Captain Stephen Decatur led the 56-gun USS United States, 38-gun USS Macedonian, and the 20-gun USS Hornet into the Thames River when their route to sea appeared to be blocked by British warships. During the following six months, Decatur tried various schemes to break the British blockade. After the appearance of blue-light signals cancelled his plan for the ships to escape in the night, Decatur tried another approach.

Captain Decatur was at Brown’s Tavern in New London one evening in January 1813 when coasting captain Nicholas Moran arrived, having just been aboard HMS Ramillies. He reported that Captain Henry Hope of the 48-gun HMS Endymion had suggested that Decatur feared an engagement between the Endymion and the United States. Moran also claimed that Sir Thomas Hardy “remarked, that he should be delighted to see a match between the [HMS] Statira and [USS] Macedonian, as they were sister ships.” However, after the American victories in single-ship actions in 1812, the British Admiralty had ordered British captains not to engage the enemy ship-to-ship. To comply with this order, Hardy stated that he would not permit a challenge to be issued by a British captain.

On January 17 Decatur dispatched Captain James Biddle of the Hornet to issue an invitation to Hardy: “If Mr. Moran’s statement be correct, it is evident Captains Hope and Stackpoole have the laudable desire of engaging with their ships, the United States and Macedonian.—We, Sir, are ready and equally desirous for such a meeting forthwith.”  Hardy turned the matter over to his captains, and Captain Hassard Stackpoole of the Statira immediately replied, “It will afford her Captain, officers, and crew the greatest pleasure to meet Capt. Jones in the Macedonian to morrow, next day, or when ever such a meeting may better suit his purpose, let him only be pleased to appoint the day and place; say six or ten leagues [18 to 30 nautical miles] south of Montaug Point, or further if he pleases.”

Presumably if at least one of the American frigates won its battle she might be able to escape, since the rest of the blockading fleet would be held back from chasing her in the name of good sportsmanship. Although the Endymion was the largest and most heavily armed British frigate, Hardy reconsidered and decided that she was not the equal of the United States in gunpower, and he informed Decatur: “I must consider it my duty (tho’ very contrary to the wishes of Captain Hope) to decline the invitation on his part.” But Hardy was the soul of naval etiquette, remarking, “The Captains of his Britannic Majesty’s ships under my orders, as well as myself, cannot too highly appreciate the gallant spirit that has led to the communication from you, sir, and are equally convinced that no personal feeling towards each other can ever influence a laudible ambition to add to the Naval renown of our respective countries.”

Richard Coote, the active commander of the brig Borer, brought Hardy’s reply to New London. According to the Connecticut Gazette, “Com. Decatur offered to dismount till their force was precisely equal; but Capt. Coote replied, that they did not consider two or three guns of any consequence—‘the difference was in the men’—‘the crews were every thing’”—because battles were commonly won by boarders swarming aboard the enemy vessel.

Then it was Decatur’s turn to baulk: “But sir, if the Statira is to avail herself alone of this concession [of adding crew], it must be obvious to you and every one, that I should be yielding to you an advantage I could not excuse to my government; and in making the crew of the Macedonian in any degree equal to such a conflict, I should be compelled to break up the crews of this ship and the Hornet, and thus render a compliance with my orders to proceed to sea utterly impracticable.” Like Hardy, he saved face for his subordinate: “You will have the goodness sir, to inform capt. Stackpoole that his letter was shewn to capt. Jones according to his request, that capt. Jones is extremely desirous that a meeting should take place between the Statira and the Macedonian, but is controlled by me for the reasons I have stated.”1

The British had played a bit of psychological warfare in June 1813 when HMS Loup-Cervier (French for the Canadian Lynx) joined the squadron off New London. When the war began, she had been the US sloop of war Wasp, part of Decatur’s squadron at Hampton Roads. Commanded by Jacob Jones—now captain of the former British frigate Macedonian—she had captured HMS Frolic in October 1812, but was then captured and put into Royal Navy service. Perhaps when Captain Biddle of the Wasp’s sister ship Hornet (formerly Jones’s lieutenant in the Wasp) was sent to HMS Ramillies to arrange the challenge, he met Captain William Bowen Mends of the Loup-Cervier. Mends suggested that he would make his crew equal to the Hornet’s and they could have their own ship-to-ship duel if Biddle would tell him the size of the Hornet’s crew. Biddle forwarded the proposal to Decatur, who replied that “the Hornet shall meet the Loup-Cervier, under a mutual and satisfactory pledge,” but with their normal crews. Since the Hornet outnumbered the Loup-Cervier 167 men to 103 men, another duel was averted, and Decatur soon moved his vessels back upriver to Gales Ferry.2

Two of these officers who lived by the code of dueling also died by it. Captain Hassard Stackpole of HMS Statira held a four-year-old grudge against Lieutenant Thomas Cecil of HMS Argo, who had said that Stackpoole “drew a long bow“ (lied, or exaggerated). Three months after the frigate challenge at New London, Stackpoole and Cecil met on the beach at Port Royal, Jamaica, in April 1814, and the crack-shot Stackpoole was felled by the diffident Cecil.3

Captain Stephen Decatur himself died after a duel in 1820. As a military officer, Decatur believed he was obligated to accept a challenge from anyone who was his equal socially or professionally. He had survived a 1799 duel, and he actually opposed dueling among midshipmen under his command. However, Captain James Barron had taken offense at Decatur’s role in Barron’s court-martial after the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard affair, and he grew increasingly bitter, finally challenging Decatur and mortally wounding him at Bladensburg, Maryland, in the US Navy’s most famous duel.4

By Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT



1. Connecticut Gazette, January 19, February 9, March 23, 1814.

2. William James, Frederick Chamier, The Naval History of Great Britain, From the Declaration of War by France in 1793, 6 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1837), 6:324; after his successful raid on Pettipauge, Richard Coote was promoted to captain and given command of the Loup-Cervier, which was renamed HMS Peacock in honor of the vessel sunk by the USS Hornet in 1813. In August 1814 the new Peacock sank off the Carolinas with the loss of all hands.

3. “The Progress of Dueling,” The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art 7 (January-April 1839): 22.

4. Charles O. Paullin, “Dueling in the Old Navy,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 45, No. 4 (): 1162, 1159, 1178-84; two junior-officer duels took place in 1813 regarding credit for the Battle of Lake Erie, Paullin, “Duelling,” 1169; while the USS Constitution wintered at New London in 1811, Midshipman Charles Fowle was killed in a duel and is buried on Groton Heights, Paullin, “Dueling,” 1168; “Packer Rocks’ Cemetery, Groton Heights,” Mystic Pioneer, May 14, 1859.