ChesapeakeLeopard affair

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ChesapeakeLeopard affair
Part of the events leading to the War of 1812

HMS Leopard (right) fires upon USS Chesapeake
DateJune 22, 1807
Result British victory
 United Kingdom  United States
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Salusbury Humphreys United States James Barron
1 4th rate 1 frigate
Casualties and losses
  • 1 frigate damaged
  • 4 killed
  • 17 wounded

The ChesapeakeLeopard affair was a naval engagement off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on June 22, 1807, between the British fourth-rate HMS Leopard and the American frigate USS Chesapeake. The crew of Leopard pursued, attacked, and boarded the American frigate, looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.[1] Chesapeake was caught unprepared and after a short battle involving broadsides received from Leopard, the commander of Chesapeake, James Barron, surrendered his vessel to the British. Chesapeake had fired only one shot.

Four crew members were removed from the American vessel and were tried for desertion, one of whom was subsequently hanged. Chesapeake was allowed to return home, where James Barron was court martialed and relieved of command.

The ChesapeakeLeopard affair created an uproar among Americans. There were strident calls for war with Great Britain, but these quickly subsided. President Thomas Jefferson initially attempted to use this widespread bellicosity to diplomatically threaten the British government into settling the matter. The United States Congress backed away from armed conflict when British envoys showed no contrition for the Chesapeake affair, delivering proclamations reaffirming impressment. Jefferson's political failure to coerce Great Britain led him toward economic warfare: the Embargo of 1807.[2]


USS Chesapeake, depicted in a c. 1900 painting by F. Muller

On June 22, 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, several British naval vessels were on duty on the North American Station, blockading two French third-rate warships in Chesapeake Bay.[3] A number of Royal Navy seamen had deserted from their ships and local American authorities gave them sanctuary. One of the deserters, a Londoner named Jenkin Ratford, joined the crew of USS Chesapeake. Ratford had made himself conspicuous to British officers by shouting at them on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia.[4]

Other deserters were reported to be at the Gosport Navy Yard, then commanded by Stephen Decatur. Decatur received a letter from the British consul ordering him to turn over three men alleged to have deserted from HMS Melampus. The consul claimed the men had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which was recruiting a crew for Chesapeake, then at the Washington Navy Yard outfitting for a voyage to the Mediterranean.[1][5]

Vice-Admiral Sir George Berkeley dispatched his flagship, the fourth-rate warship HMS Leopard, with written orders authorizing him to board and search the United States warship to recover any deserters.[4] Berkeley ordered Leopard's captain to search for deserters from HMS Belleisle, HMS Bellona, HMS Triumph, HMS Chichester, HMS Halifax, and the cutter HMS Zenobia.[6]

Attack and search[edit]

Officers of Chesapeake offering their swords to officers of the Leopard, depicted c. 1900

Chesapeake was off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, commanded by Commodore James Barron, when Leopard, under Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, encountered and hailed her. Barron was not alarmed, and received Lieutenant John Meade on board, who presented Barron with the search warrant. After an inconclusive discussion, Meade returned to Leopard. Captain Humphreys, using a hailing trumpet, ordered the American ship to submit. When Chesapeake did not, Humphreys fired a round across her bow. This was followed immediately by Leopard firing broadsides into the American ship.[7] Her guns unloaded and her decks cluttered with stores in preparation for a long cruise, Chesapeake managed to fire only a single gun in reply. The humiliated Barron struck his colors and surrendered. Three of Chesapeake's crew had been killed and 18 wounded, including Barron, by the attack. However, Humphreys refused the surrender and sent a boarding party to Chesapeake to search for deserters.[8]

1807 USS Chesapeake, muster listing crewmen Robert McDonald & Joseph Arnold as killed by Capt S. Humphreys

Scores of British nationals had signed on as crewmen of Chesapeake,[7] but Humphreys seized only the four Royal Navy deserters: Daniel Martin, John Strachan and William Ware all from HMS Melampus, and Jenkin Ratford, formerly on HMS Halifax. Only Ratford was British-born. The others were American residents,[9] but had been serving on British warships.[7] Daniel Martin, for instance, claimed he was born in Westport, Massachusetts; he was described as age 24, 5 feet 5+12 inches (166 cm) high with "woolly hair", black eyes and dark yellow complexion and a small scar over his right eyebrow. Prior to serving on Chesapeake, Martin served on the merchant vessel Caledonia and was described as "a colored man." Newspaper accounts of the time state Martin was not born in the United States but brought to Massachusetts, (possibly enslaved) when he was six years old by mariner William Howland, from Buenos Aires.[10][11]

Seaman's protection certificate issued in New Orleans, to Daniel Martin on 6 Oct. 1804

The brig Columbine brought the first dispatches to Halifax in early July. Leopard followed with her prisoners for trial.[12] Jenkin Ratford, the sole British citizen, was sentenced to death and was hanged from the yardarm of Halifax on August 31, 1807.[13][14] The three American deserters received sentences of 500 lashes each, but the sentences were later commuted.[14]

The bloody encounter caused a storm of protest from the U.S. government, and the British government eventually offered to return the three American residents[9] and to pay reparations for the damage to Chesapeake.[15] After over 5 years spent in bonded service with the Royal Navy, the last two deserters were returned to Boston, Massachusetts by the schooner HMS Bream, one month after the outbreak of the War of 1812.[16]


The incident outraged American public opinion, and many felt the country's "sense of honor" had been violated.[17] Americans of every political stripe spoke of the need to uphold national honor, and to reject the dismissal of the United States by Britain as a third-class nonentity. Americans talked incessantly about the need for force in response.[18] President Thomas Jefferson noted: "Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity."[19][20] James Monroe, then a foreign minister acting under instructions from U.S. Secretary of State James Madison, demanded British disavowal of the deed, the restoration of the four seamen, the recall of Admiral Berkeley, the exclusion of British warships from U.S. territorial waters, and the abolition of impressments from vessels under the United States flag.[21]

The event raised tensions between the two countries and, while possibly not a direct cause, was one of the events leading up to the War of 1812. Many Americans demanded war because of the attack, but President Jefferson turned to diplomacy and economic pressure in the form of the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807.[citation needed]

The Federal government began to be concerned about the lack of war material. Their concerns led to the establishment of a tariff protecting the manufacturers of gunpowder, which helped ensure the fortunes of the DuPont company.[22][better source needed]

The incident had significant repercussions for the U.S. Navy. The public was shocked that Chesapeake had not been able to put up any resistance and surrendered so quickly, questioning the ability of the Navy to defend the country in the case of a war with Great Britain, despite the expensive and controversial frigate-building program. A court-martial blamed Barron and suspended him from service for five years as punishment.[23]

In 1820, Commodore Barron challenged and mortally wounded Commodore Stephen Decatur in a duel over remarks Decatur had made about Barron's conduct in 1807 (Barron was also wounded). Decatur had served on the court-martial that found Barron guilty of being unprepared and barred him from command for five years.[24]

Chesapeake herself was captured during the War of 1812, when on June 1, 1813, after a series of naval engagements with the Royal Navy, the British frigate HMS Shannon captured Chesapeake in a single-ship action near Boston. The Royal Navy commissioned Chesapeake, but put her up for sale at Portsmouth in July 1819.[25] Her timbers are now part of the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England.[26]

In fiction[edit]

The fallout from the ChesapeakeLeopard affair features prominently in two novels of the Aubrey–Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. It is first mentioned in the fifth novel, Desolation Island, when the fictional Captain Jack Aubrey is given command of Leopard (which he privately refers to as the "horrible old Leopard") a few years after the incident. Though the United States and Great Britain are at peace at the time, and neither he nor any member of his crew had any direct involvement with the affair, he is met with mistrust and hostility from American whalers due to their negative association with the ship.[27] The subsequent capture of Chesapeake during the War of 1812 features prominently in the sixth Aubrey–Maturin novel, The Fortune of War, as Aubrey is aboard HMS Shannon during the engagement.[28]

The ChesapeakeLeopard affair is mentioned in the Boston Jacky novel of the Bloody Jack adventures series by L.A. Meyer.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mackenzie, Alexander Slidell (1846). Life of Stephen Decatur: a commodore in the Navy of the United States. C. C. Little and J. Brown. p. 145.
  2. ^ Perkins, Bradford (1974) [1968]. Livy, Leonard (ed.). Embargo: Alternative to War, Chapter 8: Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812 (Essays on the Early Republic 1789–1815 ed.). Dryden Press. pp. 317–318. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  3. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (1826). History of the navy of the United States of America. Stringer & Townsend, New York. p. 226.
  4. ^ a b Perkins, Bradford (1974) [1968]. Levy, Leonard (ed.). Embargo: Alternative to War, Chapter 8: Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812 (Essays on the Early Republic 1789–1815 ed.). Dryden Press. p. 315. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (1826). History of the navy of the United States of America. Stringer & Townsend, New York. p. 224. OCLC 197401914.
  6. ^ James, William (1824). The Naval History of Great Britain, from the Declaration of War by France in 1793, to the Accession of George IV. Vol. 4. London: Baldwin, Chadock and Joy. p. 328.
  7. ^ a b c Perkins, Bradford (1974) [1968]. Levy, Leonard (ed.). Embargo: Alternative to War, Chapter 8: Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812 (Essays on the Early Republic 1789–1815 ed.). Dryden Press. p. 316. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  8. ^ Guttridge, Leonard F (2006). Stephen Decatur American Naval Hero, 1779–1820. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. pp. 96–98.
  9. ^ a b Free and enslaved people of African descent were not legally allowed to be American citizens in 1807.
  10. ^ "Regarding Daniel Martin". Hampshire – Federalist. Springfield, Massachusetts. October 1, 1807. p. 2.
  11. ^ Sharp, John G M (January 1, 2020). American Seamen's Protection Certificates & Impressment 1796-1822. Retrieved February 3, 2020. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  12. ^ James, William (1824). The Naval History of Great Britain, from the Declaration of War by France in 1793, to the Accession of George IV. Vol. 4. London: Baldwin, Chadock and Joy. p. 236.
  13. ^ McMaster, John Bach (1901). "Chapter 18". A History of the People of the United States: From the Revolution to the Civil War. Vol. III: 1803–1812. New York: D. Appleton and Company. p. 259. Retrieved February 16, 2023 – via Internet Archive.
  14. ^ a b The Naval Chronicle, for 1812. Vol. 28, July–December. London: UK Royal Navy. 1812. p. 363.
  15. ^ Dickon, Chris (2008). The enduring journey of the USS Chesapeake: ... The Hickory Press, Charleston, SC. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-59629-298-7.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Naval Historical Center, US Department of the Navy. 1985. pp. 190–191.
  17. ^ Norman K. Risjord, "1812: Conservatives, War Hawks and the Nation's Honor". William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History (1961): 196–210. in JSTOR
  18. ^ Robert L. Ivie, "The metaphor of force in prowar discourse: The case of 1812". Quarterly Journal of Speech 68#3 (1982) pp. 240–253.
  19. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (July 14, 1807). "From Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, 14 July 1807". US National Archives. Retrieved September 1, 2020. [N]ever, since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present: and even that did not produce such unanimity.
  20. ^ Foley, John P., ed. (1900). The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson Classified and Arranged in Alphabetical Order Under Nine Thousand Titles Relating to Government, Politics, Law, Education, Political Economy, Finance, Science, Art, Literature, Religious Freedom, Morals, Etc. Funk & Wagnalls Company. p. 137. Retrieved June 19, 2012.
  21. ^ Toll, Ian W (2006). Six Frigates: The Epic of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W. W. Norton. pp. 303–304. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5. OCLC 70291925.
  22. ^ Fagal, Andrew (2012). Foreign Capital, American Armament, and the Rise of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  23. ^ Cooper, James Fenimore (1826). History of the navy of the United States of America. Stringer & Townsend, New York. p. 231. OCLC 197401914.
  24. ^ Guttridge, Leonard F (September 4, 2007). Our Country, Right Or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy's Most Illustrious Commander. Tom Doherty Associates. p. 263. ISBN 978-0-7653-0702-6. Retrieved September 3, 2020.
  25. ^ "No. 17494". The London Gazette. July 13, 1819. p. 1228.
  26. ^ "The Chesapeake Mill – history" (PDF). The Chesapeake Mill. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 30, 2008. Retrieved April 22, 2011.
  27. ^ Brown, A. G. (2006). The Patrick O'Brian Muster Book: Persons, Animals, Ships and Cannon in the Aubrey-Maturin Sea Novels (2nd ed.). Jefferson NC and London: McFarland. p. 209. ISBN 0-7864-2482-6.
  28. ^ Walton, Jo (November 8, 2010). "The American navy was the staple diet of conversation: Patrick O'Brian's The Fortune of War". Retrieved July 11, 2014.
  29. ^ Meyer, L. A. (September 10, 2013). Boston Jacky: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Taking Care of Business. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 84. ISBN 9780544156593. Retrieved June 20, 2018.


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