top of page

Captain James Lawrence, USN

Lawrence is described in more than one place wearing almost the same thing. In his biography of Lawrence, Albert Gleaves says “Lawrence had dressed himself for the battle with particular care, in full uniform. He wore a cocked hat, heavy gold epaulettes and blue laced-coat buttoned across his chest, white trousers, and as was the naval fashion of that day, top boots... Large and imposing... he was unfortunately, a conspicuous mark for the enemy's sharpshooters.” Later, Peter Padfield says “Captain Lawrence himself had a musket ball in his leg from one of the topmen, his snowy white breeches were spreading with red.” Although accounts differ as to whether he wore white breeches or white trousers, they clearly describe him in a cocked hat, white vest, white shirt, and blue coat with gold lace. The emphasis on the gold lace makes it clear that this is Lawrence's more formal dress uniform, as opposed to the working or “undress” one. 

Another account says of the Chesapeake, “Her commander, Lawrence, glowing with recent triumph, anticipated an easy victory. Colossal in figure, and with muscular power superior to most men, he was on this day fatally conspicuous by the white vest and other habiliments he had assumed.” A white vest of Lawrence's exists in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society, and is made out of white twill woven cotton, with a 2 ½ inch standing collar, nine self-covered buttons, and two 5 ¾ inch wide pockets on either side of the front. The backing and lining of the vest are linen, and there are four linen tapes sewn to the back to adjust the fit. At center back, it is embroidered in light blue backstitch “J Lawrence/4."

Although the facial portraits of Lawrence ares the only trustworthy period representation of him specifically, many full-length portraits of his longer-lived compatriots exist in the collection of New York City's City Hall. In particular, I chose to use Stephen Decatur and Thomas MacDonough as the models for Lawrence's uniform because of their similar ages-Decatur was born in 1779, MacDonough in 1783, and Lawrence in 1781. 

One of Lawrence's jackets exists in the collection of the Newark Historical Society, and although the museum doesn't make it readily available to the public, I was able to see it by special arrangement. It is made out of blue wool, unlined except for the sleeves, and very similar to that worn by Decatur and MacDonough. Interestingly, instead of the solid gold Orris lace that outlines the 18 buttonholes on the fronts of many American captains' jackets, Lawrence's were surrounded in gold bullion goldwork rectangles, while the gold Orris lace is saved to outline the edges of the jacket.

bottom of page