Our History: Remembering a Lawrence family naval hero

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Lawrence was related to the family of that name so well-connected with the history of Flushing and Bayside. His high hopes for victory ended in his death, but he has remained an American hero, winning his greatest fame in defeat. That his name continues in the annals of history, has much to do with the efforts of Dr. Eugene H. Poole, Captain Lawrence's great nephew. Until his efforts Lawrence's biographers had difficulty locating personal information about their subject.

In 1908 there began an international rivalry when collectors competed at an auction in London for the battle flag of the Chesapeake, Lawrence's ship. The prized object was acquired by an American who then presented it to England, "the victorious nation." This action made Dr. Poole determined to hunt down any and every artifact or material about Captain Lawrence and his ship. He did so as a labor of love for 30 years. In the end the collection he amassed contained 329 items plus Dr. Poole's letters concerning how he acquired them and photos of items he had collected.

Among this extensive collection are commissions for Captain Lawrence signed by John Adams (1798), Thomas Jefferson (1803), and James Madison (1810), and the "Diary" embodying the research of Rear Admiral R. H. King in 1830 concerning the Chesapeake, as well as a number of records of official honors bestowed on Captain Lawrence.

There are a number of prints, paintings, engravings, and etchings of naval battles important in Lawrence's career, scenes of his death, and several political caricatures of the War' "Biography of James Lawrence."

The richness of the collection was later enhanced by personal family memorabilia. For example, after many months of negotiations in Wyoming, Dr. Poole acquired the silver presented to Captain Lawrence by New York City and Philadelphia. When he canvassed the Lawrence descendants nationwide he gained six Lawrence household chairs in their original condition.

In the collection is also a table made of oakwood of the victor ship the Shannon, which was broken up in 1860. The captured Chesapeake was sold in England for five hundred English pounds and much of its lumber was used in 1820 to construct a mill at Wickham, England.

Records kept by the ship's bursar show that all the personal property in Captain Lawrence's storeroom had been "appropriated by the enemy." Four buttons from the Captain's coat saved by the bursar are all that were returned to Lawrence's widow.

Lawrence was buried at first at Halifax on June 8, 1813, a week after the battle, with, it was said, "every honor that could be bestowed by a generous and admiring foe." On July 28, Secretary of State Monroe instructed the agent for American prisoners in Halifax to facilitate the removal of Lawrence's body to Salem, Massachusetts where it was reinterred with military honors.

A month later it was moved again, this time to New York City. Burial took place on Sept. 16, 1813 with great ceremony in Trinity Churchyard. Not since the funeral of Alexander Hamilton had there been such a wide demonstration of public grief.

When Captain Lawrence was buried in Trinity Churchyard the committee for arrangements, the mayor, the common council and the clergy met in the room of the New York Historical Society in Government House, their headquarters located opposite Bowling Green, and from there joined the funeral procession. When the original tomb fell into decay a group of patriotic citizens organized in 1844 as a board under the motto, "Don't give up the ship," and sought a subscription for a new monument. In 1847 Lawrence's remains were moved to a more prominent location in the churchyard.

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, whose flagship was named in honor of Lawrence, ordered a battle flag inscribed with the famous words, "Don't give up the ship" to be flown from her main mast.

The Poole Collection is held by The New York Historical Society.

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