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A family guards its memento from an epic clash at sea

The heirloom has been in his family's possession for five generations, passing from a naval veteran to his son, to his son, to his son and into the hands of Mike Gifford.

Mr. Gifford, 69, is steward of a keepsake, a minder of a medal presented to his great-great-grandfather more than 150 years ago.

"I'm a direct descendant," he said. "It's been passed down by family to family."

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It is a responsibility he does not take lightly. His ancestor earned the honour for service in the Royal Navy, notably for having served aboard a British frigate in one of the most celebrated naval battles of the War of 1812.

With the bicentennial of the conflict being marked this year, Mr. Gifford has been seeking an opportunity to have the medal displayed in public.

His initial approach to museums and the heritage ministry were ignored.

"It was disappointing nobody seemed interested at the start of the celebration," he said.

He wrote a scathing letter complaining about the indifference to the editors of two newspapers. A subsequent story in the Times Colonist has renewed interest in his proposal. An honour that normally resides in the unseen darkness of a safety deposit box might yet be displayed for public viewing in a museum in Ottawa, or Victoria.

In the meantime, Mr. Gifford showed off the silver medal to visitors at his Victoria home. The obverse portrays a bust of the monarch and the embossed legend "VICTORIA REGINA 1848".

"That's Queen Victoria, she looks pretty young," he said. "The back of it is somebody sitting on a horse kneeling down."

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That would be Britannia bearing a trident while seated sideways on a seahorse.

This is a Naval General Service Medal issued retroactively to naval personnel who had served between 1793 and 1840. The medal was issued to surviving veterans, who had to apply for the honour.

Mr. Gifford's medal includes a white ribbon with dark blue edges and a bar reading, "Shannon [with] Chesapeake."

It is this bar that makes the medal so appealing.

On June 1, 1813, the British frigate Shannon engaged the American frigate Chesapeake in the waters off Boston harbour. At 5:50 p.m., Shannon's cannons fired, delivering devastation to the sailors aboard the American vessel.

Eleven minutes later, a British boarding party of about 70 men led by Captain Philip Broke boarded the other ship. In four minutes of ferocious hand-to-hand combat, the British captured the American frigate.

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Those furious minutes of battle were costly. The casualty toll for Shannon was 34 dead, 43 wounded; for Chesapeake, 62 dead, 85 wounded. Capt. Broke suffered a grievous injury, but survived. The American commander, Captain James Lawrence, whose final order – "Don't give up the ship!" – went unfulfilled, was mortally wounded.

The Chesapeake was towed to Halifax, wounded men writhing on her deck, which, according to one memorable description, was "steeped in gore as a slaughterhouse."

Aboard the Shannon that day was John Gifford, an ordinary seaman. What little is known of him can be found in a 1923 book titled, The Glorious 'Shannon's' Old Blue Duster. According to author C.H.J. Snider, John Gifford, born in the Shetland Islands, had been working on a whaler in Greenland when impressed into Royal Navy service.

His name was entered into the ship's muster on Nov. 1, 1810, when he was 22.

He emerged from the battle without a scratch.

John Gifford received his medal with his name engraved on the rim. It came with the Shannon bar, one of only 44 issued.

A photograph of the Gifford medal appears in Mr. Snider's book.

At the time, the medal was owned by James R. Gifford of Toronto, who passed it on to his son, James A. Gifford, who in 1958 loaned it to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. In 1985, James's son, Mike Gifford, asked for the medal's return. He soon after moved to Victoria and a bit of Canadian military history has been in the city since.

It is believed to be the only campaign medal for service aboard the Shannon to have remained in family hands. It is Mike Gifford's wish for his son, Dane, to inherit the medal, souvenir of a 15-minute battle that continues to fascinate two centuries later.

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