The Battle of Boston Harbor

In maritime warfare, has there been a case where a United States Navy Midshipman was promoted to commanding officer? And then, upon losing a battle, was court-martialed? The answer is yes to both questions.

It was the War of 1812. The battle itself was very short and resulted in the deaths of many of the American crew and capture of the American vessel. Captain Philip Broke, commander of HMS Shannon challenged Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake – he had been her commander less that 2 weeks. The Chesapeake got underway to meet the Shannon and in the short conflict her masts and steering were damaged by the British warship and became inoperable. Two hundred-fifty of her crew were killed. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded, and as he was taken below, he promoted the only surviving officer, midshipman William S. Cox to the rank of Third Lieutenant. Though ordered to continue the fight until sunk, she was captured, and the Chesapeake‘s remaining crew were imprisoned in Nova Scotia. After the war, a court martial found Third Lieutenant Cox guilty of briefly leaving his post during the engagement. He was stripped of rank and discharged. William Cox died in 1874, but 75 years after his death, in August 1952, President Truman signed a legislation posthumously restoring Cox’s rank of Third Lieutenant.

2 thoughts on “The Battle of Boston Harbor

  1. Lou Carreras August 4, 2022 / 9:40 am

    Scapegoating is an ugly part of the Navy heritage. A Middie still learning to take noonday sights, and gun decking the answer may have been the only choice to command, but a court of inquiry was more appropriate that a courts Martial


    • Eric Saretsky August 4, 2022 / 12:52 pm

      Thanks for responding Lou! It does seem that assigning blame is a human trait. The Navy is pretty consistent in holding the Commandinf Officer accountable for mistakes, egregious errors in judgement and simply bad conduct under his/ her watch. Lately, the Navy has been holding the chain of command responsible – vis a vis the poor training and judgement regarding the loss of the Bon Homme Richard.


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