Rare campaign medal won by British sailor in War of 1812 still in hands of his great-great-grandson

Rare campaign medal won by British sailor in War of 1812 still in hands of his great-great-grandson

A rare Naval General Service Medal, which has been in a family’s proud possession for 5 generations, was won in a famous naval engagement during the War of 1812 between Britain and the USA.  It was won by John Gifford, an ordinary seaman on board HMS Shannon, which engaged the USS Chesapeake in Boston Harbour on 1 June 1813.  The 15 minute pitched battle left 71 British and American sailors dead and 155 wounded.

The English captain of HMS Shannon, Philip Broke, having been off Boston for 56 days, was itching to take on an American frigate in battle and raise the morale of the Royal Navy, which had yet to score a major victory in the war.  Aware that the USS Chesapeake, under the command of Captain James Lawrence, had been refitted in Boston Harbour and was ready to put to sea, Broke sent a written challenge to Lawrence which reflected the conduct of warfare in that era:

“As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags.  The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her main deck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarter-deck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately.  I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation.  We have both noble motives.  You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect.  Favour me with a speedy reply.  We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.”

In the event, Lawrence did not receive Broke’s written challenge as the Chesapeake had already set sail to engage the Shannon before it could be delivered.  As a further sign of the times, several pleasure boats accompanied the Chesapeake out of the port as their owners were anxious to see the action from close by.

The two ships were closely matched in firepower, though the Chesapeake had the advantage of a larger crew and fresh supplies, while the Shannon had the advantage of more experienced naval gunners.

The 2 ships met and opened fire at 5.50pm at a range of 100 feet.  The Shannon hit the Chesapeake on one of her gunports, then swept her decks with further broadsides.  The Chesapeake fell on the Shannon, trapped by one of her anchors.  The Shannon opened fire on the Chesapeake’s maindeck and shot her wheel away, killing the helmsman.  With the Chesapeake trapped and unable to manoeuvre away, Captain Broke led a boarding party to rush on and capture her.

Desperate hand-to-hand fighting broke out as the rival crews came into contact, and over the following few minutes the Shannon’s losses mounted to 23 killed and 56 wounded, while the Chesapeake lost 48 killed and 99 wounded.  Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded before the Chesapeake was boarded, while Captain Broke had his skull sliced open by an American sabre – though he survived.  Broke’s deputy took the Chesapeake’s surrender after an engagement that had lasted less than a quarter of an hour.  The decks of the Chesapeake were, according to one contemporary description, “steeped in gore as a slaughterhouse.”

One man who survived unscathed that day was John Gifford.  Native to the Shetland Islands, he had apparently been working on a whaler in Greenland when he was pressed into service with the Royal Navy.  He had joined the crew of the Shannon in 1810 at the age of 22.

Gifford lived at least long enough to claim his Naval General Service Medal, which was approved in 1847 for issue to surviving officers and men of the Royal Navy.  The medal was retrospectively awarded for naval actions during the period 1793-1840, which included the Napoleonic Wars as well as the War of 1812.  Each battle or action covered by the medal was represented by a clasp on the ribbon and only 44 ‘Shannon with Chesapeake’ clasps were awarded.

John Gifford’s medal is now in the hands of his direct descendant, 69 year-old Canadian Mike Gifford.  Mr Gifford told the Globe and Mail that his son, Dane, will inherit the medal when the time comes.

Hand-to-hand fighting between the crews of HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake – 1 June 1813

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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015