The youngest of eleven children, James Lawrence was born in Burlington on October 1, 1781. His parents were Tories who had entertained the Hessian commander as a dinner guest at their home during the Revolution, but when the war ended, they remained in America. James was sent to study law at the age of 13, but proved an uncooperative student. Eventually, he was permitted to join the Navy as a midshipman in 1798, and gained experience in action against the Barbary pirates.
Commissioned a Lieutenant in 1802, he was a member of Stephen Decatur’s raiding party which destroyed the U.S.S. Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor after it was captured by the Tripolitans in 1804.
During the War of 1812, Lawrence commanded the U.S.S. Hornet, which captured the H.M.S. Peacock, and was promoted to Captain as a result. On June 1, 1813, commanding a new and untrained crew on the 49-gun frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake off Boston, Lawrence accepted a challenge from Philip Bowes Vere Broke, captain of the 38-gun H.M.S. Shannon. Four years Lawrence’s senior, Broke had commanded the Shannon for six years, and had the best trained crew in the Royal Navy.
In less than 15 minutes, Lawrence’s crew was overwhelmed. Mortally wounded, Lawrence shouted, “Tell the men to fire faster and not to give up the ship; fight her till she sinks!” True to his words, every officer in the Chesapeake’s chain of command fought until he was either killed or wounded. Even so, the battle was lost in under an hour, the Chesapeake was captured, and Lawrence died four days later, leaving his wife and a daughter.
In honor of Captain Lawrence, a group of women stitched the words “Don’t Give Up The Ship” into a flag. The flag was presented to Oliver Hazard Perry, commander of the U.S.S. Lawrence – named for Captain Lawrence – in the summer of 1813. Perry went on to capture an entire squadron of British ships in the battle of Lake Erie, on September 13, though not before every officer on the Lawrence – except for Perry and his 13-year-old brother – was either killed or wounded.
Lawrence’s words became the motto of the U.S. Navy, which has named numerous ships in his honor, and Perry’s flag now hangs in a place of honor at the United States Naval Academy. Copies may be seen at other Navy installations and, of course, in Burlington. Far less well known is Lawrence’s last command to his crew – “Burn her!”