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USS Chesapeake versus HMS Shannon

Name of Corresponding Unit Plan: War of 1812

Grade Level: 6-12

Common Core Standards
RI.6. Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.
W.9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
RH. 6. Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
RH. 9. Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

Content Areas: Reading, History

Recommended Length/Duration: Two 45-60 minute periods

Learning Goals: Students will compare the similarities and differences between a first hand, secondary, and literary account of the same historic event.


  1. Introduce the lessons with a description of the naval engagements during the War of 1812. At this point in the war, the United States had won a series of surprising victories over British warships of similar power. The British had been humiliated and the Americans encouraged by these engagements. Captain Broke, commander of HMS Shannon, composed a challenge to Captain Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake to entice him to come out and fight a ship to ship duel.
  2. Have student’s read Captain Broke’s challenge letter. Discussion might include:
    • What is the tone of the letter challenging Captain Lawrence to fight?
    • What has Captain Broke done to encourage Captain Lawrence to come out?
    • Do you think Captain Lawrence should or should not have accepted the challenge?
  3. Have students read the official report of the battle written by Lt. Budd, the senior surviving officer aboard the USS Chesapeake. Have students take notes on their worksheet so that they can recall the key elements of the account. Have students share their notes to identify the key elements of the battle that were presented.
  4. Have students next read the official report of the battle by Captain Broke, commanding officer of HMS Shannon. Have students add to the notes on their worksheets. Discussion might include:
    • What new information was provided by this account?
    • Are there any contradictions or differences in the facts presented?
    • How do the points of view of the opposing reporters differ?
  5. Have students read the account of the battle from the Naval Heritage Command. Have students add to their notes on their worksheet. Discussion might include:
    • What new information was provided by this account?
    • What information was left out, simplified, or altered?
    • Does this summary have a particular point of view?
  6. Have students read, or read aloud, a literary account of the battle in The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brien (pages 300-329). Have students compare the factual information concerning the battle with their notes from the non-fictional accounts. Discussion might include:
    • Which of the historic facts were included in the story?
    • What was added that is not in the historical record?
    • What was added for dramatic effect?
    • Did the fictional account accurately describe the battle? Was it a fair account?
    • Which account was most thorough, accurate, easy to understand, fair, engaging?

Assessments: Informal assessment based on completeness of notes and participation in discussion.
Alternately, students could answer the last discussion question in writing to be assessed as a short essay question.

Letters and Analysis Worksheet (pdf), which includes:

Copies of Patrick O’Brien’s book The Fortune of War

Special Considerations: The battle reports include many naval terms and archaic language. Weaker readers may need extensive support to understand their meaning. The Budd and Broke letters have been provided in both script and print fonts. Teachers may choose to use this activity as an opportunity for students to practice reading script text.

For those teachers not familiar with Patrick O’Brien’s popular 20 book series about naval life during the age of fighting sail, at this point in The Fortune of War, his main character, Captain Aubrey, has escaped from captivity in Boston and has been taken aboard the Shannon patrolling outside the harbor. He and Captain Broke are old friends and he offers advice and assistance during the battle with the Chesapeake. The fictional characters are interwoven with the events of the actual battle.

Extensions: Interested students may want to find primary sources and literary references to other famous naval and land battles or events. An account of the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Java is also included in O’Brien’s The Fortunes of War (pages 110-124).