Chesapeake and Shannon

The following is a ballad from the War of 1812 (1812-5). The victory of HMS Shannon over USS Chesapeake in June 1813 was significant in that it kept the American navy from becoming the dominant power in the Atlantic.

Sung by Catherine Gallagher of Chebucto Head, NS in October 1943.

Helen Creighton notes:

As far as I can learn, Mrs. Gallagher is the only person who knows this song. She recalled the words stanza by stanza over a period of years. The part telling of the wounding of Captain Broke is missing, and she thinks there should be a verse at the end about the Chesapeake being towed into Halifax Harbour. The engagement took place off the Boston Light House after a sharp conflict of twelve minutes. Captain Broke was highly commended, and tribute was also given the Yankees, who fought well. The captain’s wound prevented him from bringing the prize to port, so Mr Wallis, the second lieutenant, took over from him on the Shannon, and brought in the prize. The Acadian Recorder gives the date as June 1st, 1813. On Sunday morning June 6th, Halifax was agog with excitement when the shabby and war-torn Shannon, towing the beautiful new vessel she had captured, sailed up the harbour. There were horrible scenes upon the decks of both vessels. People living along the coast tell me that their fathers seldom sang or talked of this engagement because of the sights they had witnessed.Traditional Songs from Nova Scotia, Collected by Helen Creighon and Doreen H. Senior (1950), p. 266.From the double CD recording Songs of the Sea,
Traditional folk songs and and narratives from the Dr. Helen Creighton Collection

Listen to: The Chesapeake and Shannon

Lyrics from Traditional Songs of Nova Scotia (Creighton and Senior 1950, p.266)

1. ‘Twas on the glorious fourth of June
At ten o’clock in the fore-noon
That we sailed out of Boston Bay,
That we sailed out of Boston Bay
For to fight the Chesapeake boys.

2. The Chesapeake mounted forty-nine guns
With four hundred and twenty of Columbia’s picked sons,
The Yankees thought they would never run,
The Yankees thought they would never run,
They being all picked Yankee heroes

3. The Shannon mounted guns the same
With less men but of better fame,
To beat those Yankees it was their aim,
To beat those Yankees it was their aim
To show them, Rule Britannia.

4. Up spoke our gallant Captain Broke,
To beat those Yanks it is no joke,
Your guns sponge well and make them tell,
For Yankees they don’t like the smell
Of British balls and powder.

5. [Missing stanza]

6. Bold Wallis being next in command,
So boldly on the deck did stand,
Saving, “Fire on brave boys, the day’s our own,
Since Bunker Hill brought forth a groan,
The Chesapeake is falling. “

7. But ten minutes work we had to do
While Yankee bullets around us flew,
We boarded her down, her colours drew,
We boarded her down, her colours drew
And stuck her to the Shannon.

Additional Modern Verses
composed by members of the Helen Creighton Folklore Society

Last verse by Jay Perry:

8. To Halifax we sailed our prize,
And dazzled all her citizens’ eyes,
To see old Shannon so shabby and torn,
To see old Shannon so shabby and torn,
With the brand new Chesapeake in tow, boys!

Verses by Rosalee Peppard, with commentary by Rosalee:

The first of the verses follows Mrs Gallagher’s verse [4]…I continue to give Chesapeake’s Capt. Lawrence his due (as we are wonderful allies now, after all), including his immortal dying command, “Don’t give up the ship!”:

5. Our guns and grape were well deployed
Her wheel and head sail we destroyed
Their captain cried his final noise
Saying: “Don’t give up the ship me boys!”
And our own brave captain fell wounded.

My last verse draws on Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s eyewitness account (when he was a young King’s student of 17) of how how he joined so many cheering people lining the harbour to see the great ships approach. Bands came and played. However, Haliburton and his young friend were permitted to board Chesapeake and found “…it was a scene of devastation…one of the most painful reminiscences of [his] youth.” for “…it was steeped in gore as if in a slaughterhouse…” with human blood, body parts, hair and gore hanging and staining the entire ship. The battle of the Chesapeake and the Shannon was one of the Golden Age of Sail’s bloodiest naval battles.

8. To Halifax Harbour we hauled our prize
And all recall the cheers, the cries
For blood and gore stained both broadsides
Aye, blood and gore stained both broadsides
Of the Chesapeake and the Shannon.

For a transcription of the music, see Peter Fielding’s 2013 article in Canadian Folk Music, “New Encodings for Select Helen Creighton Historic Field Recordings.”

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There are also three other ballads about the engagement, all published as broadsides in the 19th century. Variants of the first two songs listed below were collected in Nova Scotia by W. Roy MacKenzie and published in his books (1919, 1928):

  • On board the Shannon frigate, in the fine month of May…
  • The Chesapeake so bold, out of Boston, as we’re told…
  • She comes, she comes, in glorious style!…

See Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries.
Hear Alan Mills sing The Chesapeake and Shannon (The Chesapeake so bold) on Canada’s Story in Song.