Wednesday, February 20, 2008


USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon at battle

The Flag of the War of 1812

In the Trinity Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia there is a monument which bears this inscription.
“Neither the fury of battle, the anguish of a mortal wound, nor the horrors of approaching death could subdue his gallant spirit, his dying words were “

“Don’t Give Up The Ship”

Buried here is the famous Captain James Lawrence, who was mortally wounded in the combat that lost to the United States the Frigate Chesapeake to HMS Shannon.

But this is not the story of Captain Lawrence, but of a Schuylkill Countian who was onboard the Chesapeake and was the last remaining officer to put up a fight. This little story is about Francis B. Nichols.

To get a grasp on what happened on that June afternoon in 1813

The Chesapeake left Boston Harbor on June 1st, 1813. The two ships sailed several miles off shore, where the Shannon slowed to await the Chesapeake, who was flying a special flag that proclaimed “Free Trade and Sailors Rights” in recognition of America’s pre war of 1812 against British Policy. Around 6 PM the ships opened fire on each other, both getting hits, but the Shannon’s guns were doing more damage than the Chesapeake’s. Casualties were crippling on the quarterdeck of the Chesapeake. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded by small arms fire and had to be taken below giving his final order, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”
The two ships came to together; The British boarded the quarterdeck of the Chesapeake, where they meet a fierce resistance. Casualties were heavy, 60 killed on the Chesapeake and about 30 on the Shannon. The British showed great abilities in boarding and hand to hand fighting. The Chesapeake was captured and taken to Halifax Nova Scotia.

The story related by Nichols son Henry is another one of those great historical tidbits that seem to be lost and forgotten.


Francis Boude Nichols was the eldest son of Major William Nichols, of the Continental army. He was born November 5, 1793, in Pottstown, Montgomery county, Pa.; baptized Francis and adopted the middle name of Boude, being the maiden name of his grandmother Hillegas ; died at Pottsville, Pa., June 30, 1847. He was appointed a midshipman in the United States navy June 18, 1812; served in Perry's flotilla at New London, Conn.; also served under Captain Evans, and then transferred to frigate Chesapeake, Captain James Lawrence, and was in the engagement between that ship and the Shannon, off the Massachusetts coast, June I, 1813 ; was severely wounded in the breast by a musket ball, which he carried to his grave; was taken prisoner to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and paroled June, 1813. His wound compelled him to resign from the navy, when he took up the study of medicine. In 1820 he removed to Orwigsburg (then the county seat of Schuylkill county), when he was appointed by Governor Heister register and recorder of deeds, etc., to the county. He bought a large body of coal lands, where the present town of Saint Clair* now is, which he started to develop and became a miner of coal, and lost most of his property in the panic of 1837. He was the first president of the Miners' Bank, of Pottsville; first captain of the First Schuylkill County Cavalry, and district deputy-grand-master of the Masonic Order; a devout Episcopalian, and many years senior warden of Trinity Church, Pottsville. He married January 30, 1814, in Christ Church, Philadelphia, by Right Rev. William White, D. D., Anna Maria Nichols (his cousin), daughter of General Francis Nichols, of the Continental army. The following incident seems too romantic to put in print: but being directly connected with the affair, I can readily vouch * for it. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the last name of the party, as he always went by the name of " Billy," but I called him " Daddy Whitebeard," owing to the fact that his head and beard were snow-white. It was a very cold night in the winter of 1843, snowing terribly. I was sitting with my father in the parlor, where we were toasting our feet in front of the grate (in those days houses were not heated throughout), when the doorbell rang, and being so stormy my father directed me to answer the bell, not waiting for the servant. I went to the door and found a small man literally white from head to foot. I was so startled that I shut the door in his face and returned to the parlor. My father asked me who was there, and on my telling him, he directed me to admit the man at once, as the storm was very severe. I returned, and allowed the man to come in ; took him into the parlor just as he was, and then kept a respectful distance from him, as he looked much like Santa Claus. After warming him up, my father asked him what he was doing in Pottsville, etc. He replied that there were some of his connections working in the mines, and that he had left England to find them and obtain work. Father asked him what life he had led, and his reply was, " Been a sailor all my life." After questioning him, he stated he had been a sailor on the frigate Shannon, and was in the engagement against the Chesapeake. As my father was fully advised as to this particular fight, he questioned the fellow very closely, and he described the fight accurately. He said one thing he regretted was killing a little "middy," who had charge of the Chesapeake at the close of the fight, as all the higher officers were either killed or disabled. My father asked him to describe the position on deck that the " middy " had when shot, and where he was. He said: " I was in the shrouds and he was pretty well aft, giving orders to several sailors." The description tallied so accurately that my father laughingly replied : " The ' middy' still lives ;" and, taking the old sailor by the hand, told him that he was the boy that he had shot, and showed him the wound in his breast. "Billy" spent the night at our house, and the next day my father took him to the mines, put him in charge of the stables and mules, and kept him till he died.

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