Among the U.S. Navy and Marine heroes confronting Tripoli’s Muslim Barbary pirates was Captain James Lawrence.

The Real Story Behind The ‘Don’t Give Up The Ship!’ Phrase

In 1804, Captain Lawrence was second-in-command of an expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia held in Tripoli’s harbor. Lawrence also commanded the USS Enterprise which fought gunboat battles with Muslim pirates. Later, during the War of 1812, Captain James Lawrence commanded the USS Hornet.

He won fame by capturing the British packet brig Resolution, which was carrying $20,000 in gold and silver. Captain Lawrence and the USS Hornet then captured the British privateer HMS Dolphin, blockaded the British sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil, and sank the British HMS Peacock.

President James Madison wrote May 25, 1813: “The brilliant achievements of our infant Navy, a signal triumph has been gained by Captain Lawrence … in the Hornet sloop of war. … The contest in which the United States are engaged appeals … to the sacred obligation of transmitting … to future generations that … which is held … by the present from the goodness of Divine Providence.”

On June 1, 1813, 31-year-old Captain James Lawrence sailed his 38-gun frigate USS Chesapeake out of Boston’s Harbor. His ship was suddenly attacked by the British ship HMS Shannon. For over an hour, the 38-gun USS Chesapeake fired away, hitting the Shannon 158 times, but the Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, killing nearly every American officer.

As Captain James Lawrence lay dying on the deck the Chesapeake, his last words were “Don’t give up the ship!”

The Real Story Behind The ‘Don’t Give Up The Ship!’ Phrase
An artistic depiction USS Chesapeake in battle

So inspiring was the courage of Captain James Lawrence that Captain Oliver Hazard Perry named his flagship the USS Lawrence.

A little over three months later, Captain Perry defeated the British squadron on Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813.

Defeating the British in Lake Erie

Theodore Roosevelt
(who later became the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909) wrote in “Hero Tales from American History,” 1895: “Lawrence, dying with the words on his lips, ‘Don’t give up the ship’ and Perry … with the same words blazoned on his banner … won glory in desperate conflicts and left a reputation hardly dimmed.”