By Dr. Daniel Worthington
Nineteenth-century America reveled in heroic tales of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Americans coming of age prior to the Mexican War particularly venerated the War of 1812 — America’s “second war of independence,” as many came to view the conflict. Seeing the war as completing the unfinished work of the Revolution, Americans celebrated the soldiers and sailors who defended American honor and sovereignty and vindicated America’s national identity. Towns and cities honored veterans with monuments, and Congress lavished them with pensions and grants of public land. Veneration of war heroes vaulted both Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison into the presidency.
Count Abraham Lincoln among those who appreciated the sacrifices of the War of 1812 generation, evidenced by his answer to a letter from Julia Montaudevert Lawrence, widow of a renowned War of 1812 naval officer, who in the winter of 1861 asked the president to give her nephew a military commission.
Julia Montaudevert Lawrence was the widow of Captain James Lawrence, commander of the Chesapeake, who perished on June 6, 1813, in battle with the British frigate Shannon. Lawrence’s dying injunction, “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” uttered while he was being carried below deck, mortally wounded, immortalized him in the hearts and minds of the War of 1812 generation, personifying for Lincoln and others the never-say-die attitude of America’s experiment in democratic self-government. It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Chesapeake’s defeat and Lawrence’s tragic demise on the psyche of the young Republic.
Detail from a painting showing Lawrence mortally wounded
“I remember,” Richard Rush, a U.S. attorney general, wrote years after the event, “at first the universal incredulity … At last when certainty was known, I remember the public’s gloom, funeral orations and badges of mourning bespoke of it. ‘Don’t Give Up the Ship’ — the dying words of Lawrence — were on every tongue.”*
*Quoted in Henry Adams, The War of 1812, edited by Major H. A. DeWeerd. (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999), 147.
Buried initially in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with full military honors, Lawrence’s remains were eventually interred in a tomb in Trinity Churchyard, New York City, where a monument was erected in his honor.
Writing from Newport, Rhode Island, on December 29, 1861, Mrs. Lawrence petitioned the president on behalf of her nephew, who desired a commission in the United States Army. In her letter she evoked her husband’s sacrifice for his country if not his famous exhortation.
Honor’d and respected Sir,
Some weeks since, I took the liberty to address a letter to you in behalf of my nephew Mr. Delaney M. Neill, a youth of highminded Noble quality, who wishes a lieutenancy in the regular Army. and I am proud to say, will be a credit to the Profession. He is now reenacting in his native state New York as first lieutenant of his Regiment and I would esteem it a personal favor if he receives the Appointment thru my influence, having never asked a favor from the Government but as widow of the late Captain James Lawrence who fell in the War of 1812 with England while defending the Flag of his Country, aboard the ill-fated Frigate Chesapeake, I feel entitled to some consideration, and to hope that you will hereby grant my request.
Most respectfully yours
Julia M. Lawrence
Overwhelmed with the burden of raising an armed force and mobilizing public opinion to quell the rebellion and restore the Union, Lincoln sent most such applications and petitions to the War Department without comment. Those he personally approved were endorsed in only terse, official language. He was more receptive to letters from descendants of America’s Revolutionary past, but the sheer volume of the correspondence precluded anything other than a cursory retort and then only in rare cases. Not so on this occasion:
The writer of this I understand to be the widow of Comodore Lawrence, whose dying words “Dont give up the ship” are so well known, She should be obliged, if possible.
Jan. 16. 1862
Part of Mrs. Lawrence's letter and Lincoln's note on the back.
Evidence suggests that Mrs. Lawrence’s nephew never received an appointment; he spent the remainder of the war serving as a first lieutenant in the 101st New York Infantry Regiment. Julia M. Lawrence lived in Newport until her death on September 15, 1865. She was buried in Trinity Churchyard, next to her husband.
Citing her marriage to one of America’s heroes of the past garnered Julia M. Lawrence something that hundreds of commission-seekers and their sponsors sought in vain: the attention of a distracted Lincoln and a personal endorsement. It also revealed something even more fundamental: the power of memory and legend on a man sworn to preserve what the Founding Fathers had wrought and to ensure that James Lawrence and other soldiers and sailors who had given their lives in the service of their country had not die in vain.
Portraits of the doomed captain and his wife (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy Museum)
Daniel Worthington is director of the ALPLM's Papers of Abraham Lincoln.