Nov. 16, 2008

If you walked the floorboards of a certain water mill in England, you might, with a little imagination and a sense of history, be transported back to a scene of utter mayhem at sea.

That’s how English writer George Brighton reacted when he stepped inside the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, a small town on the Meon River in the south of England. He realized that, “on one of these planks, on one of these floors, beyond all reasonable doubt, Lawrence fell, in the writhing anguish of his mortal wound.” Many others lay “ensanguined,” pouring out their life’s blood.

This, to me, is the heart of a gem of a book, “The Enduring Journey of the USS Chesapeake,” by Chris Dickon of Portsmouth, a former WHRO-TV producer who has recently authored several books on local history. It sums up the amazing history of the planks and timbers of that star-crossed warship.

The Chesapeake, the only one of the original frigates of the U.S. Navy to be built at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, was twice clobbered before and during the War of 1812. She is best remembered by the line Cmdr. James Lawrence uttered as he lay dying: “Don’t give up the ship!” The big here problem was the ship was given up.

And taken to England.

The story begins on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, where wind-toughened live oaks, as well as pines and cedars, attracted the attention of ship builders. It was during that nasty business with the Barbary pirates (remember the shores of Tripoli?) that the new nation decided to build six warships and start a navy.

The problem was that conditions on the island, a swampland thick with mosquitoes, were hellish. “If I am to stay here until all the timber has been cut I shall be dead…I cannot stand it…if you was here you would curse live oak,” Boston shipwright John Morgan wrote.

But built they were, although much later than hoped for. Finally, the Chesapeake, the “runt of the litter,” as many called the foreshortened 38-gun frigate, was launched in December 1799. She saw little action for six years, but then on a clear Monday morning on the Atlantic, June 22, 1807, everything changed. In a dispute over deserters, the British warship Leopard fired a series of broadsides at pistol-shot range that killed four, wounded many more and forced Commodore James Barron to run up the white flag.

This humiliating incident led to Barron’s temporary loss of command and, ultimately, to the duel in which he shot and killed his chief critic, Stephen Decatur.

The Chesapeake had one chance at redemption six years later. On June 1, 1813, under the command of James Lawrence, she sailed out of Boston Harbor and challenged the British warship Shannon. The two exchanged savage gunfire, but the Chesapeake was badly outmaneuvered and doomed. Of the 150 men stationed on the quarter deck, 100 were killed or wounded, including nearly all the American officers.

Lawrence, “wearing resplendent clothing and a tall hat,” was an easy target and was fatally shot in the abdomen. The officers who were still standing had no choice but to surrender. The battered warship was taken in tow and transported to England where, eventually, its timbers were sold and used to make the mill.

There, because of the brick outer walls of the building, the timbers endured. More than 200 years after being launched, the mill that houses the sister ship to the great warships Constitution and Constellation, was converted to an antique jewelry and gift mall.

But, even now, the timbers speak.

Photo: Interior of the Chesapeake Mill, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Va.