James Lawrence was born in New Jersey in 1781 to John and Martha Lawrence, but was abandoned as an infant. Martha died when James was young, and Loyalist John fled to Canada because of escalating tensions with the American Revolution. James was raised by an aunt, and with few other options available to him joined the United States Navy in 1798.
Lawrence worked his way up in the ranks during peace and during the Quasi War with France. He was commissioned as a lieutenant, and served as second-in-command with Stephen Decatur on the USS Enterprise during the raid at Tripoli harbor in 1804 to sabotage the frigate Philadelphia. Lawrence served on several other warships for the next decade, promoted to Master Commandent in November of 1810 and taking control of USS Hornet.
During the War of 1812, Lawrence distinguished himself through several high-profile victories, including seizing $23,000 in gold from HMS Resolution and sinking HMS Peacock. These successes earned him a promotion to captain in 1813 and command of the frigate Chesapeake, one of the Navy’s most elite vessels.
However, this power and prestige proved intoxicating. Sailing out of the port of Boston in June 1813, Lawrence foolishly engaged HMS Shannon commanded by Captain Philip Broke which was at the time blockading the harbor. Although Lawrence’s team was largely inexperienced, the crew of Shannon was well-seasoned, and guided by one of the Royal Navy’s most accomplished captains.
This mistake ended up costing Lawrence both the frigate and his life. Chesapeake was badly damaged and seized by the British, with Lawrence mortally wounded in just a few minutes of gunfire. As he was carried below deck to die, he famously called out a final order to his sailors: “Don’t give up the ship!” These supposed final words were immortalized by friend and fellow naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry, who stitched them onto a flag and used it to lead his troops victoriously at the Battle of Lake Erie.