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Provocation Toward War: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

In recent posts, we have talked about both Indian trouble in the Northwest Territories and the Embargo Act, and its successors as some of the “strains” that led the United States to declare War on Great Britain in 1812. While the interdiction of international trade by American merchants was one of several “irritants” between the two countries that brought about Jefferson’s push for the Embargo Act, it was the outrage caused by today’s subject, the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, that supplied the political will to pass the act and push the two countries closer to war.


By 1806, Napoleon controlled continental Europe, effectively locking Great Britain out of trade with the continent. However, the destruction of the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar had effectively left England in control of the seas and removed the threat of a French invasion of England. Napoleon, hoping to destroy British trade, disrupt its growing industrial expansion, diminish its credit, and force a peace settlement, resorted to economic warfare through what was known as the Continental System, closing the ports of Europe to British trade.

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson

The English and French went back and forth with several decrees until it became impossible for American merchants, who were trying to maintain neutrality, to trade with either country or their possessions. President Jefferson, while sympathetic to France, worked hard to keep the United States from being drawn into this European conflict and kept our ports open to both French and English ships hoping for the same treatment from the two belligerents.

Regardless of England’s naval superiority, the Royal Navy was losing as many as 10,000 men annually to desertion, making this a problem of great significance. To compensate for such losses, Britain regularly pressed seamen into its navy and searched to recover deserters. Britain’s efforts to recover deserters fueled the diplomatic impasse with the United States. At the center of the disagreement was the issue of citizenship. Britain argued that citizenship could not be changed—those born British would always be British. The U.S. took the opposite position, arguing that it was possible, through expatriation, to change one’s citizenship. Thus, Britain, in pressing American sailors into its service, violated American sovereignty while breaking international laws by forcing citizens of a neutral nation into its navy. This diplomatic problem lay unresolved when Sir George Berkeley, commanding British forces from Halifax, ordered naval commanders to bring back deserters even if doing so required the use of force.

As we have seen, desertion from the Royal Navy was not uncommon and, not surprisingly, occurred more often in foreign ports. This was especially true in the West Indies (where law enforcement was usually lax) and America where the deserters often found a haven in the American merchant marine. This was due to the rapid expansion of American participation in international trade creating a need for more merchant seamen, as well as the higher wages and better working conditions in the American commercial fleets. Phineas Bond, British Consul at Philadelphia, reported that “entire crews deserted in American ports in order to escape service in the navy.” Because British consuls in American ports received the complaints of British sea captains about their deserters and transmitted this information to their minister in Washington or directly to the Admiralty station in Halifax, the British Admiralty usually had intelligence about deserters employed on American ships and upon which ships they were embarked. This played a significant part in the Royal Navy’s actions in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.

Royal Navy Recovering Deserters from US Ships
Royal Navy Recovering Deserters from US Ships

Early in 1807, a storm off the Virginia coast devastated a small French squadron of three ships, driving one ashore and forcing the other two into the Chesapeake Bay. A pursuing British squadron of six ships under Commodore John E. Douglas ignored American territorial sovereignty and promptly destroyed the grounded ship. They then went ahead and blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay against the other two French ships leaving. While the French brigs made their way to Annapolis for repairs, the British squadron anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, about ten miles from Norfolk.

Nourishing hundreds of sailors required frequent shore parties to buy fresh water, fruits, and vegetables, and to hunt fowl along the local beaches. During this time, they often came into Norfolk for supplies. Many British sailors used these trips ashore to desert. When officers restricted these excursions, some men judged the American shore within swimming distance and fled their ships.

While part of the British squadron was inside Hampton Roads at the beginning of March 1807, a boat’s crew of five deserted the HMS Halifax one evening, during a party on board the ship, and escaped to Norfolk. A few days later four more men deserted the HMS Melampus and enlisted for the USS Chesapeake, which was in Gosport Naval Yard outfitting for a cruse to the Mediterranean. The commanders of these ships filed complaints with the British Consul in Norfolk. Both the British Consul in Norfolk and the British Minister in Washington requested the return of these men by the American government. On April 6, the Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, ordered Commodore James Barron, commander of the USS Chesapeake, to inquire into the of alleged deserters and “to direct the recruiting officers in no case to enter deserters from British ships of War.” Barron responded the following day that all four Melampus deserters were American-born and had previously been impressed by the Melampus.

HMS Melampus
HMS Melampus

Jenkin Ratford, a Londoner and one of the HMS Halifax deserters, seems to have been left out of the investigation, possibly because he had enlisted under the pseudonym of John Wilson. Unfortunately, the Royal Navy officials in Hampton Roads were aware of his presence in the USS Chesapeake’s crew as he had made himself conspicuous to British officers by shouting and taunting at them on the streets of Norfolk while in uniform. Although the US officials thought they had done their duty in investigating the British claims, the British were dissatisfied.

On June 1, Vice-Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley, MP, and Commander-in-Chief of the Halifax Naval Station issued orders to his squadron to stop the USS Chesapeake and remove the deserters. His orders read in part:

“Whereas many seamen, subject to his Britannic Majesty, and in His Majesty’s ships and vessels, . . . while at anchor in the Chesapeake, deserted and entered on board the U.S> frigate Chesapeake, and openly paraded the streets of Norfolk, in sight of their officers, under the American flag, protected by the magistrates of the town, and the recruiting officer belonging to the above mentioned American frigate, which magistrates, and naval officer, refused giving them up, although demanded by His Britannic Majesty’s Consul, as well as the captains of the ships from which said men had deserted. The captains and commanders of His Majesty’s ships and vessels under my command, and therefore, hereby required and directed, in case of meeting with the American frigate Chesapeake at sea, and without the limits of the United States, to shew to the captain of her, this order, and to require to search his ship for the deserters from the before mentioned British ships, and to proceed and search for the same; and if a similar demand shall be made by the Americans, he is to be permitted to search for any deserters from their service, according to the customs and usage of civilized nations, on terms of peace and amity with each other.

This order was carried from Halifax by the HMS Leopard, 50 guns, under the command of Captain Salisbury Humphreys, arriving in Lynnhaven Bay on June 21, the day before the USS Chesapeake sailed.

Captain Salisbury Humphreys, RN
Captain Salisbury Humphreys, RN

The Confrontation

In the months leading up to Barron’s 1807 departure, he was consumed in large part by scheduling a duel with Captain John Rodgers. Their ill feelings dated back to competition between the two for command of the Mediterranean Squadron during the days of the Barbary Wars. After receiving orders from the Secretary of the Navy not to fight, the two captains peacefully negotiated a settlement after protracted talks between their seconds. Unfortunately, negotiating the duel and its settlement consumed much of Barron’s time and energies, distracting him from preparing for his upcoming assignment.

Commodore James Barron
Commodore James Barron

The Chesapeake was declared seaworthy on June 17, mounting 28 long 18-pounders, twelve 32-pound carronades, and a crew of almost four hundred men. Commodore Barron came aboard on June 21 and, although the frigate needed more fitting, some of the guns had not been set and the crew was still highly untrained, the officers considered it necessary to set sail the following morning since they were already many months behind schedule. The Chesapeake sailed out of Hampton Roads and passed in full sight of the British squadron lying to the right in Lynnhaven Bay. Somewhere around midday, some of the Chesapeake’s crew noticed that the HMS Leopard seemed to be following but nothing was suspected.

At about half past three in the afternoon, both ships now lying just under ten miles southeast of Cape Henry, the British frigate approached and signaled it had dispatches for Commodore Barron. Suspecting nothing, Barron allowed Lieutenant Meade to come aboard carrying Admiral Berkeley’s letter ordering the return of the four deserters as well as a letter from Captain Humphreys expressing hope that peace could be kept. Barron knew that he could not allow a British boarding party to muster his crew as this would violate the Executive Order issued by President Addams in the wake of the 1798 boarding of the USS Baltimore by the British where 55 of her crew were impressed. Barron drafted a note informing Leopard’s commander of his refusal. As Barron watched the British boarding party return to their ship, he noticed the British gun crews preparing for action. Barron ordered Chesapeake’s crew to quarters but stipulated no use of the drum and bugle to avoid tipping off the sailors aboard the HMS Leopard.

USS Chesapeake vs. HMS Leopard
USS Chesapeake vs. HMS Leopard

Chesapeake stood little chance of victory in a battle with Leopard. The powder magazine was disorganized, with only eight cartridges holding any gunpowder and four of those half-empty. There was also a shortage of slow matches and loggerheads used to ignite the ship’s guns. Several of the frigate's guns were still inoperable because of improper fitting onto the gun carriages and the decks of the frigate were strewn with lumber, sails, and cables. Before firing, the sailors would have to clear the decks so they could load and discharge their guns, a process that would have taken hours. Finally, most of Chesapeake’s crew were new to the ship, had only been drilled infrequently, and only about one-third of the men reported to their proper battle stations.

The Leopard opened fire with broadside after broadside as soon as the boarding party returned. During the brief battle, Barron often ordered his men to keep down rather than trying to return fire. The ship’s complement of marines managed to load their muskets, but never fired them because neither Barron nor Marine commander Captain John Hall gave an order to do so. Within fifteen to twenty minutes the Chesapeake was incapable of resisting, and Barron ordered the ship’s colors struck. The Americans had answered the attack by the British with a single cannon fired seconds before the surrender. American casualties during the engagement were three killed and eighteen wounded, including Barron, who received a very painful leg wound while standing in the ship’s exposed gangway. Another wounded sailor later died from his injuries.

Barron Attempting to Surrender the Chesapeake
Barron Attempting to Surrender the Chesapeake

The British sent a second boarding party over to the Chesapeake and quickly began a muster and examination of the ship and her crew. The three deserters that the British had requested the return of in Norfolk, (William Ware, Daniel Martin, and John Strachan) were taken to the Leopard, as well as Jenkin Ratford, serving under the alias of John Wilson. At this point, Barron tried to surrender the Chesapeake and her crew to the British as a prize of war. Captain Humphreys refused to accept the surrender because the United States and Great Britain were not at war. The HMS Leopard then returned to Norfolk to resume the blockade of the French ships.

After a brief meeting of Chesapeake’s officers, Commodore Barron determined the frigate to be unfit to make the Atlantic crossing and ordered a return to Gosport Navy Yard for repairs. The day after the engagement, Barron wrote Navy Secretary Smith that the officers of the Chesapeake would likely charge him with prematurely surrendering his ship. In fact, a letter from the ship’s officers to that effect, and addressed to Secretary Smith, arrived shortly afterward.

Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith
Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith

The letter described a short but tense post-battle meeting of the ship’s officers that took place shortly after Barron ordered the Chesapeake surrendered. During that conference, Lieutenant William Crane expressed the opinion that it would have been better for the ship to be blown from the water than to suffer such humiliation. Lieutenant William Allen concurred with Crane, calling the surrender an unforgivable act of cowardice that disgraced the United States flag. The Chesapeake’s officers closed their message by demanding Barron’s arrest for failing to clear his ship for action when an encounter was imminent, and for not defending the frigate to his utmost ability. Six officers signed the letter, all but Captain Gordon. Barron, for his part, did not question the valor of his subordinates, and vowed to travel anywhere to defend himself as soon as his leg wound healed.

Captain Humphreys of the Leopard wasted no time reporting the engagement to his superiors. Humphreys claimed that he tried to avoid bloodshed by pleading with Barron to turn over the deserters. When the American ignored his pleas, the British commander ordered a shot across the Chesapeake’s bow. Then, because this warning did not produce the desired results, Humphreys ordered a full broadside. Captain Humphreys estimated that the mêlée lasted ten minutes before the American flag was lowered and a second boarding party dispatched. He also reported that, while the British reclaimed the four deserters they sought, his officers reported seeing other deserters serving aboard the American ship. However, these fugitives remained aboard the Chesapeake because only four names appeared in Berkeley’s orders.


The citizens of Norfolk reacted swiftly to the battle that occurred in nearby waters. Without awaiting directives from state or federal officials, a committee formed on 24 June to formulate a response. This committee, acting in a manner reminiscent of a Revolutionary-era Committee of Public Safety, had no government sanction but appeared to have the full approval of local authorities. It decided that all communication between the town and British warships would cease at once, and that any local resident violating this order would be considered an enemy of the United States. The board also forbade local pilots from guiding any British naval vessel into the Chesapeake Bay or Hampton Roads. Finally, the committee called on the mayor to summon the local militia to defend the town and to enforce the resolutions passed by this extra-legal committee.

In addition to these moves, the group appointed a second committee and charged it with spreading word of the attack to local communities, like the way Committees of Correspondence did in the Revolutionary era, which had been so effective in uniting the colonists against the crown. As a final measure, the panel asked the local port collector (customs collector) to use revenue cutters to disrupt communication between the British consul in Norfolk and the British squadron positioned in nearby waters. Upon hearing of the attack on the Chesapeake, residents of Hampton destroyed casks of fresh water bound for the crew of the British warship Melampus.

Commodore Stephen Decatur
Commodore Stephen Decatur

As a result, the Melampus’ commander now feared water shortages, and some Royal Navy officers threatened reprisals if more water was not delivered. To block British aggression, the Norfolk committee asked that Commodore Stephen Decatur, who had relieved Barron on the twenty-sixth and now commanded both the Gosport Navy Yard and the USS Chesapeake, equip all gunboats under his command and position them near Hampton. This Decatur agreed to do.

In Richmond, Virginia’s Capital, a committee of citizens drafted resolutions urging the government to avenge the insult and offering their lives and fortunes for defense of the country. Virginia quickly raised her quota of the 100,000 troops called for by President Jefferson and soldiers drilled in the Capitol square. On July 2nd, President Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all British warships and privateers out of American waters, and he forbade any American to either trade with or supply their crews. Jefferson’s edict also made it illegal for any pilot to aid these British crews unless they were leaving American waters. When the Royal Navy refused to leave American waters per President Jefferson’s order, troops were sent to Hampton Roads to prevent an invasion. Governor Cabel sent the Richmond Cavalry, the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, and the Republican Blues.

Virginia Governor William Cabell
Virginia Governor William Cabell

As word of the attack on Barron’s command spread throughout the country in late June, the public expressed similar sentiments to those felt in southeastern Virginia. A Baltimore newspaper called for men to defend the rights and the lives of their fellow citizens if Britain did not offer sufficient satisfaction for their offense. The paper professed a desire to avoid war and hoped that if Britain refused to make amends for Humphreys’ actions, the United States would point out the vulnerability of British commerce to American raiding. If this reasoning failed, America should not hesitate to attack the British.

As far north as Boston, citizens expressed outrage at the attack on the Chesapeake. On July 16, citizens of Boston held a town meeting at Faneuil Hall where US Senator from Massachusetts, and future President, John Quincy Adams helped draft the following resolutions which were unanimously approved.

Whereas, by the communication from Norfolk, Portsmouth, and their vicinities, and the Proclamation of the President of the United States, it appears the sovereignty of our country has been insulted, and the lives of our citizens sacrificed, by the unjustifiable conduct of a British armed ship.

1. Resolved, The we consider the unprovoked attack made on the United States armed ship the Chesapeake, by the British ship of war the Leopard, a wanton outrage upon the lives of our fellow citizens, a direct violation of our national honor, and an infringement of our national rights and sovereignty.

2. Resolved, That we most sincerely approve the Proclamation and the firm and dispassionate course of policy pursued by the President of the United States; and will cordially unite with our fellow citizens in affording effectual support to such measures, as our Government may further adopt in the present crisis of our affairs,

3. Resolved, That we remember with pride and pleasure, the patriotic and spirited conduct of the citizens of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and their vicinities, before the orders of Government were known, upon this momentous occasion; and they are entitled to the thanks and approbation of their fellow citizens throughout the Union.

4. Resolved, That the Selectmen be requested to return a suitable answer to the respectful communication from our fellow citizens at Norfolk, with the proceedings of this meeting.

The four men taken from the Chesapeake represented only a small fraction of the approximately 9,000 American seamen that were ultimately pressed into British service by the beginning of the War of 1812. The incident, however, stirred public outrage and American demands for war. President Jefferson responded with the embargo we discussed in our last post, prohibiting American vessels from sailing to Europe, because he believed that economic pressure could bring diplomatic results.

Britain responded to American outrage over the affair, recalling Berkeley, offering reparations for American losses, and returning three of the four sailors taken from the Chesapeake. (The three men, Britain admitted, were American citizens; the fourth man had already been hanged for desertion.) Despite Britain’s willingness to make amends for the incident, the Chesapeake ‘affair’ did not reach its diplomatic conclusion until the end of 1811. Just a few months later, the United States declared war on Britain.

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Hooks, Jonathon Woodard. A Friendly Salute: The President-Little Belt Affair and the Coming of the War of 1812. Dissertation. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 2009.

Lammermeier, Paul J. The "Chesapeake-Leopard Affair": A Study of its Effects upon the American People and Government. Master's Theses. Chicago: Loyola University, 1967.

Maclay, Edgar Stanton. A History of the United States Navy from 1775 to 1894. Vol. 1 Part 2. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1895.

Navy Department. Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron . . . Washington, DC: Jacob Gideon, Junior, 1822.

Stanard, Mary (Newton). Richmond, its People and its Story. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1923.

Van Sickle, Eugene. "The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair (1807)." n.d. Bandy Heritage Center. Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia. Electronic. 22 May 2021.


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