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Digital Subscriptions > BBC History Revealed > March 2019 > Shannon v Chesapeake

Shannon v Chesapeake

The Royal Navy needed a victory to boost flagging morale, and in a brief, violent battle, it got one. Julian Humphrys tells the story of how HMS Shannon captured USS Chesapeake in less than quarter of an hour


The ships were evenly matched in size and weapons, but the battle was far from a close contest

For a British public accustomed to hearing regular reports of naval triumphs over the French, the opening year of the war against the young United States came as a profound shock. When the Americans declared war on Britain in 1812, they had no great ships of the line and instead relied on privateers and a small fleet of heavy frigates to take the war to the British.

Frigates were smaller, faster types of warship normally used for attacking or protecting commerce, raiding or scouting. But America’s were the best in the business, stronger than their British counterparts and manned by welltrained crews. What’s more, the Royal Navy had grown complacent after years of victory and had let their standards slip, particularly when it came to gunnery.

The British burned Washington in 1814

They soon paid the price. America’s powerful frigates proved far superior and in a series of single-ship actions, the USS Constitution captured the British ships Guerriere and Java, while the USS United States seized the Macedonian. In reality as humiliating as these setbacks were for the British, they had little impact on the war as a whole. By March 1813, the Royal Navy had no fewer than 50 warships and frigates blockading the American eastern seaboard. They trapped most of the enemy in their harbours and gradually stifled American maritime trade. Even so, the string of individual defeats had dealt a severe blow both to the prestige of the Royal Navy and to the morale of the British public. Something had to be done.

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About BBC History Revealed

The mystery of the Princes in the Tower has haunted history for centuries. Did Richard III really steal the throne by murdering his nephews? Plus: We uncover the story of Rome’s first lady – Agrippina the Younger, the naval battle of Boston Harbor as well as the top 10 cats that made history.