Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Don't Give Up The Ship

Captain James Lawrence
These words, uttered by my 4th great grandfather, Captain James Lawrence, as he was carried below deck, mortally wounded during the battle between his ship, the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon during the War of 1812, became a popular naval battle cry after his friend, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, used them on his personal battle flag.    

Born in 1781, James entered  the navy on the 4th of September, 1798, when he was not yet seventeen years of age. He became a lieutenant in 1802, a Master Commandant in November, 1810, and a Captain in March 1813. 

"His mother died when he was still an infant, and he was left to the care of his sisters, to whom he seems to have been greatly attached, especially to his half-sister Elizabeth (Mrs. Michael Kearney, aka Madame Scribblerus), and it is doubtless to their influence Lawrence owed the gentleness of his disposition, which was one of his distinguishing characteristics."+  
'My brave, brave Jim's a sailor Jack. Upon the treacherous sea — A sailor who loves poetry. All taught to him by me.' ~Madame Scribblerus+ 

James' rise to celebrity began in early 1813. During a cruise of one hundred and forty-five days he captured one ship, two brigs, one schooner and one man-of-war. "His fame passed far beyond description by empty phrases and colorless adjectives, and he became one of the heroes of the day".+ When he died, he had three funerals: one at Halifax, Canada, one at Salem, Massachusetts, and the last at New York, New York. "The whole city of New York was in mourning, the bells were tolled, minute guns fired and the vessels in the harbor half-masted their flags. Not since the funeral of Alexander Hamilton had there been such demonstration of public grief."+ 

Julia Montaudevert Lawrence
 "Julia Montaudevert, a lovely girl of nineteen, the daughter of a New York merchant, gave her hand at the altar of Trinity (June 28, 1809) to Lieutenant Lawrence, then twenty-seven, and reputed the handsomest officer in the American navy, as he certainly was one of the bravest of any navy. She lived opposite the Bowling Green, near by, then the most elegant, quiet, and fashionable quarter of New York.” *

When appointed to captain the Chesapeake, James unsuccessfully appealed to his superiors, "NEW YORK, May 10, 1813. SIR:— I was yesterday honored by the receipt of your letter of the 6th inst., revoking your order of the 4th and appointing me to the command of the Frigate "Chesapeake...When I requested permission to go out again in the "Hornet" I conceived that I could with propriety leave my family, but have since found that Mrs. Lawrence's health is so delicate and her situation at this time so very critical that I am induced to request your permission to remain until the "Constitution" is ready"...+

In fact, Julia was pregnant with their second child, and little daughter Mary had turned three on May 5. "Her health was so delicate at the time of her husband's death that the event was concealed from her, though with great precaution and difficulty. Lawrence died in June, and his wife knew it not until September. Meantime, having given birth to a son (who lived but fifteen months), she constantly inquired as to the whereabouts and welfare of her husband, wondering why he did not write, and asked constantly to have the news read to her.”# 

On the fateful day of his death, June 5, 1813, James and Julia were just three weeks shy of their fourth wedding anniversary and James had been away on duty most of that time.

Although James is famous as the author of the words, "Don't Give Up the Ship", Julia was the one who lived them. She gave birth to their son, James Montaudevert Lawrence on July 8, 1813, which must have brought her great solace. Yet, once more, she was dealt a cruel blow when little James died on September 19, 1814. 

"Her affections, thus rudely despoiled, were centered on her daughter, the pride and comfort of her bereaved life."#

Mary Neill Lawrence Griffin
That daughter, Mary Neill, grew to adulthood, and married William Preston Griffin, also a Navy Lieutenant, on May 7, 1838 at the same place her parents had married 28 years previously, Trinity Church in New York. Just five years later, tragedy struck the family again, when Mary died on September  3, 1843, just days after giving birth to her only child, a daughter, Mary Lawrence Griffin. "...spent the summer of 1843 in a villa outside the walls of Florence. It belonged to the Marquis d'Elci. In the end of the summer a dear friend of my mother's died there, in the apartment adjoining mine. She was the daughter of Captain James Lawrence...We met them on the way to ltaly, and persuaded them to go with us to Florence for the summer. She died in child-bed at the villa September 3. It was like the falling of a sudden night about our path."** 

Lt. William Preston Griffin
Evidently, Julia accompanied her daughter and son-in-law to Europe. But, she became ill, "a milder climate was recommended, and in a few weeks Mrs. Lawrence returned childless to the United States. It was while passing the Summer of that year at Newport that she determined to make it her home. She occupied a small but eligibly located cottage...many of the old residents remember her then, with her beautiful grandchild and handsome Italian nurse, a mourning but dignified and urbane lady, who soon endeared herself to the people among whom she thenceforth lived."#

Mary Lawrence Griffin 
Mary's father, Lt. Griffin, devastated by his loss, had no choice but to place her in Julia's care, so that he could continue with his naval career. In 1849 he married Christine A.W. Kean, but died in 1851, leaving Christine a young widow, and Mary an orphan at the age of eight. 

An interesting side note that demonstrates her ongoing care for her family, is the letter that Julia wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of her nephew, Delaney M. Neill, who sought a commission in the Army during the Civil War. Because of his knowledge of American history and respect for Captain Lawrence, President Lincoln supported her request.

According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses, Julia's solicitude for others extended to her mother, Sarah, and her sister Mary, who lived with her in Newport.

Julia died on September 15, 1865, fifty-two years after James.  As her obituary stated, "Few women have passed through greater vicissitudes (a difficulty or hardship attendant on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one's control) of life. The death of one so connected and of such rare personal worth should not pass unnoticed...Her dark, expressive eye and thick, white hair, her agreeable manners and kindly self-respect, as well as the interest of her conversation, will not soon be forgotten by those who knew her in the prime of her old age, before infirmity had weakened her powers of mind and feeling of rare freshness and vigor."#

Truly, Julia never "gave up the ship", even though she became a widow at the age of 24, suffered the loss of her only son, raised her daughter, whom she outlived, took care of her granddaughter, her mother and her sister, and wrote a letter to the President on behalf of her nephew. 

* * * * * * * * * * 


+James Lawrence, captain, United States navy, commander of the "Chesapeake, (1904).Author:GleavesAlbert, 1858-1937. 

*People's book of biography: or, Short lives of the most interesting persons of all ages and countries. By James Parton, Published by A.S. Hale, 1868

#Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 30,Number 4544, October 14, 1865

**Memoirs of John Adams Dix