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Posted on Nov 7, 2005 in Front Page Features, War College

The Fate of USS Chesapeake

Armchair General



"USS Chesapeake" by F. Muller, Navy Art Collection

To the uninitiated out there, military history isn’t necessarily all battlefields and old relics, sometimes the strangest stories can pop-up – like this one.

So, just what does an old watermill in the middle of an English village have to do with a mighty American warship from the 18th century? Well, apart from the water connection, more than you might think. But first, we need some background…



USS Chesapeake, launched in 1799 was built at Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Navy Shipyard) and was one of the United States’ six original Frigates, authorised by Act of Congress in 1794. Along with her sister ships, USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Congress and USS President, she mounted 36 guns but spent her early career being taken in and out of commission as needs required.

Unfortunately for the fledgling US Navy, USS Chesapeake would prove to be a rather fated vessel, and on the 22nd of June 1807, she found herself on the wrong end of a brief engagement with the British warship HMS Leopard, a ship-of-the-line mounting 50 guns. This encounter resulted in the death of three of Chesapeake’s crew and 18 further men injured, amongst them the Captain. HMS Leopard had been tailing the smaller vessel since the previous day, but when the Chesapeake’s Captain refused to allow the British to search for deserters amongst his ranks, the British warship opened fire, severely damaging the Chesapeake and forcing her to return to port for repairs.

This type of incident was just one of several which prompted the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom, a war which was fought both at sea and on land in North America itself. And so it was that USS Chesapeake found herself pressed into service where she served with distinction, capturing five British merchantmen and evading pursuing British warships.

Alas, Chesapeake’s bad luck returned to haunt her and it was on the 1st of June 1813 that she encountered HMS Shannon, a British Frigate of comparable size, off of Cape Ann. Unfortunately for James Lawrence, Captain of Chesapeake, his own crew were brave but inexperienced and the resulting engagement saw the Chesapeake suffer badly, losing manouevrability early in the engagement. Lawrence was mortally wounded and with battle raging, the crew carried him down below, his final words ringing in their ears, "Don’t give up the Ship!".

Unfortunately, the outcome was inevitable and despite the valiant efforts of the Chesapeake’s crew, the ship was once again captured by the British, this time for good. The battle had lasted for less then twelve minutes, with both sides suffering remarkably heavy casualties. Captain Lawrence would be mourned as a tragic hero in the US, his remains buried at the Trinity Churchyard in New York.

USS Chesapeake was taken back to Halifax in Nova Scotia where she was repaired and then sailed to England. The capture of the Chesapeake was a great morale boost for the Royal Navy at that time, since they had so far lost three of their own ships to US Navy vessels thus far in the war. Furthermore, the hull of the Chesapeake would provide valuable intelligence on the construction of the new type of American Heavy Frigates which were proving to be so successful in action.

Following examination, USS Chesapeake found herself commandeered by the Royal Navy with whom she briefly served as an Escort before being relegated to a stores ship.

In 1819, she was sold and broken up at a commercial shipyard in Portsmouth. It is ironic that she should be broken up within sight of the town of Gosport in Hampshire, a town with the same name as that where she was originally built.

But her story does not end there…


Following the breaking of the ship, many of her timbers were found to be in serviceable condition and they were advertised for sale in the Sussex and Hampshire Gazette. A local Miller, Mr John Prior, purchased the timbers and took them to the small village of Wickham less than ten miles away. Those same timbers that used to form the hull and decking of USS Chesapeake were incorporated into a new watermill that Prior was building, an older mill on the same site having been torn down to make way for a newer construction.

Completed in 1820, this building became known as the Chesapeake Mill and it still stands to this very day, 185 years after it was built. I took a trip to see for myself what remains of the USS Chesapeake.


All pictures in this article were taken using a Sony DSC-H1 at 5.0 Megapixels, since resized for this piece. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

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  1. Looking forward to visiting this historical site on the weekend as part of the commemoration party, I feel very honoured to be taking part in remembering those from both sides of the Atlantic who fought and died in what must have been a horrific and bloody encounter.

  2. Great post: I am an English blogger writing on the mill in Hampshire where the timbers from the Chesapeake ended up. I’d like to use your image, complete with watermark, credit and link: please let me know if you’d rather I took it down – regards, Kate Shrewsday

    • Hi Kate, By all means use any image of your choosing,vital to keep alive the memory and indeed the history of this frigate and how its fate brought it to our shores.

  3. HiKate,Please feel free to use any image of your choosing, Its vital to keep alive the memory and indeed the history of this American frigate, and how its fate brought it to our shores. Regards Wayne.