“Charge the Can Cheerily”


"Now coil up your nonsense 'bout England's great Navy, And take in your slack about oak-hearted Tars, For frigates as stout, and as gallant crews have we." The singer boasts of the successes of the War of 1812


This is about as accurate as the German claim to have won the Battle of Jutland based on tonnage sunk: It's true -- and completely ignores the broader facts. The American frigates of the _United States_ class (which included among others the _Constitution)_ were much stronger and heavier (and more expensive) than the standard British 38-gun frigate. Thus they won most of the ship-to-ship battles they fought. (Most, but not all; Donald R. Hickey, _The War of 1812_, p. 216, notes how the _President_ ran aground and lost her speed, and not even Spephen Decatur could save her from the _Endymion_, the _Pomone_, and the _Tenedos_, which captured her on January 15, 1815. Hickey, p. 217, also notes the defeat of three smaller American ships -- _Frolic_, _Syren_, and _Rattlesnake_ -- and the disappearance, for unknown reasons, of the _Wasp_).

Good as the American frigates were, they were not ships of the line, and survived the war only by fleeing when a major British battleship came in sight (or failed to flee and were defeated, as in the case of the _Wasp_ in another context). By the end of the War of 1812, nearly every American ship was blockaded in port (John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, Da Capo, 1972, p. 122, gives a catalog). They had hurt the British about as much as a stinging fly -- and, if the war had kept on, the British (with Napoleon safely on Saint Helena) would doubtless have turned and swatted them.

The Americans could perhaps console themselves with the fact that they made the British merchant fleet miserable; Hickey, p. 218, notes that their privateers caused a spike in insurance rates for ships sailing between Britain and Ireland; according to one paper at the time, the rates were three times higher than during the Napoleonic Wars!

The song itself quotes "of Lawrence the spirit, 'Disdaining to strike while a stick is left standing.'" The dying captain James Lawrence said, "Don't give up the ship!" Why did he say it? Because H. M. S. _Shannon_ was blowing Lawrence's _Chesapeake_ to fragments -- something the poet fails to note. (For details, see the various "Chesapeake and Shannon" songs, especially "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]. For additional background on the naval aspects of the War of 1812, see also "The Constitution and the Guerriere" [Laws A6].)

Among the people mentioned in the song:

Dacres - James R. Dacres (1788-1853), commander of the _Guerriere_.

Carden - John Surman Carden, commander of the _Macedonian_.

Hull - Isaac Hull, commander of the _Constitution_ in the fight against the _Guerriere_

Decatur - Perhaps the greatest American naval hero of the early part of the century; he commanded the _United States_ against the _Macedonian._

Jones - John Paul Jones, America's first significant naval captain, dead 20 years by the time of the War of 1812.

Lawrence - James Lawrence, who commanded the _Hornet_ when she beat the _Peacock_, but then led the _Chesapeake_ to destruction against the _Shannon_.

Bainbridge: Evidently the poet couldn't think of any other naval heroes, so he stuck in a disaster. William Bainbridge (1774-1833) had his ship _Resolution_ captured during the Quasi-war with France. He also commanded the _Philadelphia_ when she was captured by the Barbary Pirates. He at least proved his courage in the War of 1812, being commander of the _Constitution_ when she beat the _Java_; he was twice wounded in that action -- but the ship had been badly handled and suffered far more damage than in its other battles and had to return to port for repairs. Even that was sort of an accident, though; according to Hickey, p. 216, he had tried to trade the _Constitution_ for the _President_ in 1814, even offering $5000 for the right to command the latter ship. Lucky for him Captain John Rogers turned him down. - RBW

Historical references

  • Aug 19, 1812 - the 44-gun U.S.S. Constitution defeats and captures the 38-gun H.M.S. Guerriere in the north Atlantic
  • Oct 25, 1812 - the 44-gun U. S. S. United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur, defeats the 38-gun H. M. S. Macedonian in the mid-Atlantic
  • Dec 29, 1812 - U. S. S. Constitution defeats the 38-gun H. M. S. Java off Bahia, Brazil
  • Feb 24, 1813 - U. S. S. Hornet defeats H. M. S. Peacock

Cross references


  1. Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 167-169, "Charge the Can Cheerily" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, ShaSS167


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1948 (Shay), apparently from a broadside
Keywords: navy bragging ship battle
Found in: US(NE)