Our recent trip to the US included some great sightseeing opportunities, and one of them was a wander around lower Manhattan, looking for traces of the original New Amsterdam colony. One unexpected but fascinating by-product of this was the discovery of Trinity Church and its graveyard, and virtually the first monument we came across bore a familiar name – that of Captain James Lawrence, USN, commanding officer of USS Chesapeake in its heroic but doomed battle against HMS Shannon in 1813. For the British, of course, this was essentially the one redeeming naval action of the War of 1812 after a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of big, powerful American frigates like USS Constitution, but Lawrence’s defeat at the hands of a bigger ship, manned by perhaps the Royal Navy’s best-trained gunnery crew, was certainly no disgrace, as his large tomb, in what would then have been one of New York’s most prestigious locations, suggests. Moreover, Lawrence’s famous last words, ‘Don’t give up the ship!’, have become mythic in the United States Navy.
Lawrence lies a few feet from the grave of Alexander Hamilton; I’m sure I could hear distinct sounds of spinning below ground over there, presumably the occupant expressing his ongoing displeasure about that musical.
I thought I’d complement the images of Lawrence’s tomb with the memorial at Nacton church, Suffolk, to the victor of the action, the gunnery fanatic Philip Broke. It couldn’t be a more different location, or a more different memorial – a relatively small, understated wall tablet in a quiet, obscure country church, far from London and well off the beaten track. But it was adjacent to Broke’s ancestral home, and another memorial in the same church records his ancestor Packington Brooke, one of those whom I’ve always called ‘my officers’, who was killed in battle in 1665.
The contrast between the nature and location of the two memorials provides an unwitting insight into the different attitudes of the two countries to the War of 1812. In the US, of course, the war is iconic, providing the country with both its most revered historic ship, USS Constitution, and its national anthem (we saw the original ‘Star Spangl’d Banner’ at the Smithsonian, where it has its own large room and is treated with awed veneration). Washington still makes much of the burning of the Capitol and the White House by British forces – and it has to be said that the destruction of the original Library of Congress was hardly Britannia’s finest hour. In Britain, though, I suspect that only a tiny minority of people know that the two countries fought each other in 1812-15, and an even smaller number know what was done to Washington. After all, the war wasn’t against the French and/or the Germans and it didn’t involve Spitfires, so as far as the average Brit is concerned, it’s probably not worth knowing about.
But then, if the current President of the United States is hazy on the difference between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, maybe I won’t judge my fellow countrymen too harshly…