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Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

USS Chesapeake

France and Great Britain resumed war in May 1803. For two years neither side seriously assaulted American commerce, and American merchants made enormous profits carrying goods between the continent of Europe and French and Spanish colonies in the West Indies-a trade normally monopolized by the mother countries in peacetime. Then, at midday on 21 October 1805, outside the Spanish port of Cadiz, off Cape Trafalgar, the naval balance in the Atlantic shifted to the Royal Navy, where it would remain until the end of the age of sail. About 11:00 A.M. on that day, in the cabin of his 100-gun three-decked flagship H. M. S. Victory, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson prayed for "a great and glorious victory" and after praying returned to the quarterdeck to direct the fleet engagement he had forced upon the combined French and Spanish fleets under Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve. Nelson's goal was to "annihilate" the enemy by destroying or capturing at least twenty ships of the line. He took eighteen that day, and in the blood bath lost his own life to a sharpshooter firing from the rigging of a French ship. But his colossal achievement put a final end to Napoleon's hope of invading England.

After Trafalgar Bonaparte could win decisive military victories only on land, never at sea. He could attack England only indirectly, by excluding its commerce from the continent of Europe. In 1806 and 1807 he therefore issued the Berlin and Milan decrees establishing the "continental system" by which he hoped to strangle England's export trade, bring it to the brink of financial collapse, and so destroy the fiscal basis of the Royal Navy. His device was to discourage neutral ships from stopping at English ports by threatening to seize them if they subsequently entered a European port under his control.

The continental system hurt American exporters and irritated the administration, but it was less disruptive to shipping or insulting to the national honor than the British violations of neutral rights that followed Trafalgar. At issue was a fundamental difference in the view of belligerent and neutral rights held in London and Washington, a disagreement that dated back to the British Rule of 1756 ordaining that trade not open to a nation in peacetime could not be opened during a war. As a nonbelligerent in the prolonged Anglo-French wars the United States could profit by carrying goods between European ports and European colonies, especially ones in the West Indies. Until just before Trafalgar, Britain tolerated such trade if the cargo vessel "broke" its voyage by touching at an American port and paying duties to convert the cargo into "free goods," that is, the goods of a free or neutral nation.

In May 1805, in a case involving the captured American brig Essex, a British admiralty judge declared that such a "break" in a voyage was not evidence of good faith, that the voyage was in fact "continuous," and the ship and cargo hence were subject to seizure under the Rule of 1756. Following Trafalgar the British implemented that decision by stationing cruisers outside American ports in a nearblockade of the coast. Furthermore, a series of orders in council beginning in May 1806 established partial blockades of Europe's coast. The Americans protested these as illegal - or "paper" - because not rigidly enforced by ever present ships of the Royal Navy. In 1807 London again tightened the screws by prohibiting neutral vessels from trading with European ports under French control unless they had previously passed through English ports, where they would be taxed.

As if those restrictions were not enough, the British fully outraged American sensibilities by the practice of impressment. Holding that allegiance was inalienable, Britain denied Englishmen the right of renouncing their loyalty to England. Thus, any British sailor who fled a British warship for an American merchant vessel could be forcibly retrieved by a roving Royal Navy crew, often to be hanged for desertion as a warning to other restless souls. Since country of birth was often impossible to prove, and since Americans and Britons were often largely indistinguishable from one another, the British naval officers interpreted their orders liberally and "impressed" a great many Americans into the Royal Navy. By 1812 James Monroe estimated that 6,257 Yankees had been impressed into the Royal Navy since 1803, and the British conceded at least 1,600.

Britain was fighting for its survival; its weapon was the Royal Navy, and the navy swallowed 10,000 recruits a year. Impressment therefore seemed a regrettable necessity to the British admiralty. Jefferson detested the affront, and Madison condemned it as "anomalous in principle, . . . grievous in practice, and . . . abominable in abuse." Still, as Samuel Smith's orders to Commodore Dale showed, the administration would allow even convoyed merchantmen to be searched if such a genuflection would prevent war.

Jefferson was in a tough spot, one far tougher after Trafalgar than any John Adams had known during the Quasi War. Adams had enjoyed several luxuries denied to Jefferson: a war fought in nearby waters, an enemy that could not dominate the seas, an unspoken but effective alliance with Britain, a political party pressing for naval expansion, and a secretary of the navy who favored construction of ships of the line. By contrast, Jefferson faced the mistress of the seas alone, and he headed a party committed to naval retrenchment. When challenged by much weaker powers in the Mediterranean he could and did use his frigates and smaller ships imaginatively in defense of American commerce, but he was prevented from effectively challenging Britain at sea by his own preoccupation with the trans-Mississippi west, by Republican opposition to naval expansion, and by the sheer magnitude of the Royal Navy. Thus far he had let matters drift, but the audacious attack of H. M. S. Leopard on the U. S. S. Chesapeake brought the European war into his backyard.

On 22 June 1807, about 10 miles off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, the 56-gun British ship Leopard intercepted the 36-gun American frigate Chesapeake, flagship of Commodore James Barron, en route to assume command of the United States squadron in the Mediterranean. Captain S. P. Humphreys of the Leopard carried orders from the commander-in-chief of the British North American station requiring any British captain who encountered the Chesapeake to search her for deserters. Desertion of British sailors and subsequent enlistment on American warships was all too common, especially around Norfolk, Virginia, where a Royal Navy squadron including two or three 74s lay at anchor in June 1807. The British ships, recently joined by the Leopard, procured fresh water and provisions while keeping an eye on a pair of armed French vessels that had sought refuge in the same neutral harbor. It was general knowledge that some of the British sailors had shipped aboard the Chesapeake. Humphreys therefore had good reason for hoisting anchor and tagging along with the Chesapeake until she was in international waters. He then hailed her and sent aboard a messenger demanding to search the American warship for deserters.

Barron was incensed but unprepared. He had commanded a frigate in the Mediterranean under Commodore Dale, so he knew full well the administration's standing orders that a captain must not surrender his men without also surrendering his ship. But Barron had been tardy in coming aboard the Chesapeake and had shown little interest in the condition of the ship, apparently preferring to leave her readiness in the hands of her acting commanding officer, Master Commandant Charles Gordon. As a result, the gun deck was littered with gear - lumber, sails, and cables - and the frigate was far from battle ready when the British messenger presented Humphreys's disconcerting demand. Barron sent him back with the disingenuous reply that he knew of no deserters on board and that in any event he had orders not to allow "the crew of any ship that I command to be mustered by any other but their own officers." After observing a great deal of activity aboard the Leopard, it finally dawned on Barron "that it was possible they were serious." He told Gordon to order the crew to battle stations "with as little noise as possible" while he stalled for time. To no avail: Leopard "commenced a heavy fire, which did great execution."

The Chesapeake took twenty-two shots in her hull and sustained irreparable damage to her main and fore masts. In less than twenty minutes the proud frigate had become a bloody and crippled wreck. Barron struck his colors, permitted the search and removal of four crewmen, and pleaded with Humphreys to take the Chesapeake as a prize of war. The British officer refused to compound what was already a warlike act. He returned to Virginia waters, leaving Barron with three men killed and eighteen wounded, including himself.

The hapless commodore had to bring his crippled ship back to Norfolk, past the Leopard and the rest of the anchored British squadron. He very soon faced a preliminary court of inquiry, which decided that during the attack lie had "manifested great indecision, and a disposition to negotiate, rather than a determination bravely to defend his ship." Armed with this finding, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith convened a general court-martial which in May 1808 found Barron guilty of not clearing his ship for action when an engagement appeared probable. The court sentenced him to suspension from duty without pay for five years.

The sight of what American naval officers described as "the late United States' frigate Chesapeake" limping into Hampton Roads on 23 June 1807 and disgorging her dead and wounded inflamed the local population. An angry mob destroyed two hundred water casks earmarked for the British squadron. Citizens' meetings unanimously agreed to cease all intercourse with the British warships. Captain Stephen Decatur, commanding officer of the Norfolk Navy Yard, readied a dozen gunboats to prevent the thirsty British from carrying out their threats to obtain water by force. The British commander provocatively moved his squadron from outlying Lynnhaven Bay into Hampton Roads and challenged Decatur with a threat to take the Chesapeake and over-power a French frigate, the Cybele, undergoing repairs at Norfolk. Decatur shifted the two warships to a mooring protected by coastal batteries and assured the secretary of the navy that he was ready to repel any British attack. None came, but for a few days the unrepentant British did compel all merchant ships entering Hampton Roads to heave to and submit to inspection.

Almost at War

The American public was outraged with the incident, as President Thomas Jefferson noted: "Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation." The President closed U.S. territorial waters to British warships, demanded payment for damages, and requested an end to British efforts to search United States ships for deserters.

This event served to raise tensions between the two countries and, while not a direct cause, can be seen as one of the events leading up to the War of 1812. Indeed, many Americans demanded war following the incident, but President Thomas Jefferson initially turned to diplomacy and economic pressure in the form of the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807.

The incident had significant repercussions for the U.S. Navy. The public was shocked that Chesapeake had put up little resistance and surrendered so quickly (even if the surrender was declined), calling into question the ability of its navy to defend the U.S. from a possible British invasion, despite its expensive and controversial frigate-building program. A court martial placed the blame on Barron, and suspended him from service for five years as punishment.

On 1 June 1813, during the War of 1812, the Chesapeake - then under the command of Captain James Lawrence - was defeated and captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon in a ship-to-ship action near Boston, and taken into service in the Royal Navy. She was sold out of the service in 1820.

Word of the "British Outrage" against the American warship meanwhile spread rapidly, fanning patriotic anger in every city and uniting the people as no British trespass against merchant shipping could possibly have done. Samuel Smith, now a senator from Maryland, reported the bitter mood of mercantile Baltimore to the president: "There appeared but one opinion â€" War - in case satisfaction is not given."

The president, however, was resolved upon a patient policy blending diplomatic protest with prudent defense. Thus the cabinet on 2 July approved the symbolic gesture of sending the 12-gun schooner Revenge to England with instructions for Minister James Monroe to seek satisfaction. In the next few weeks the administration mobilized part of the Virginia militia, armed coastal fortifications, drew up plans for an invasion of Canada, ordered Congress to convene on 26 October, and protectively recalled all overseas American merchant and naval vessels - thereby interrupting the campaign against Barbary until after the War of 1812.

Jefferson was mildly optimistic about negotiating a settlement, but both he and Madison were determined to achieve "reparation for the past, and security for the future." They therefore included in their demand for redress an insistence that the British government entirely abolish the practice of impressment aboard American merchant vessels on the high seas, a concession the British could not make in mid-1807.

On 7 July of that year - the very day after Madison drafted Monroe's instruction - Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I had signed the treaties of Tilsit ending hostilities between France and Russia. England now stood alone against Bonaparte, and British opinion hardened toward the Americans, whom Britons saw as waxing prosperous on the high seas by virtue of England's indulgence. The so-called rights of' the neutral upstart could not be honored at the cost of prolonging a war for national survival. As the former minister to Spain, David Humphreys, noted when informing Jefferson of the ominous mood in London: "To maintain the naval superiority or perish as a nation, is the prevalent doctrine of the day." Impressment therefore became the rock upon which negotiations foundered, and Jefferson and Madison were largely to blame.

The error lay not in insisting on the abolition of impressment but in linking the practice with the attack on the Chesapeake. As Minister James Monroe explained from London, it was diplomatically "improper to mingle" other examples of British naval infringements on American neutrality and sovereignty "with the present more serious causes of complaint." But he did not persuade the president or secretary of state to disentangle the discrete issues and as a result formulation of an acceptable British apology for the attack on the Chesapeake was delayed until 1811. By that time the interminably prolonged Anglo-American dispute over neutral rights on the high seas and the alleged British incitement of the Indians on the northwest border had made war imminent.

The Chesapeake-Leopard affair produced an immediate effect on Jeffersonian naval and maritime policy in 1807. The American frigates were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, and on 22 December Congress passed the ill-fated Embargo Act recalling all overseas American merchant vessels. The Chesapeake episode also led to a renewed commitment to limit sharply the size and number of American seagoing warships.

Kenneth J. Hagan. Strength and Bravery in Every Sea. This People's Navy: The Making of American Sea Power. The Free Press. Copyright 1991.


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