ChesapeakeLeopard Affair

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ChesapeakeLeopard Affair
Part of the events leading to the War of 1812
HMS Leopard (right) fires upon the USS Chesapeake
Date 22 June 1807
Location off Norfolk, Virginia
Result British victory
 United Kingdom  United States
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Salusbury Pryce Humphreys United States James Barron
1 4th rate 1 frigate
Casualties and losses
none 1 frigate damaged
4 killed
17 wounded
4 captured

The ChesapeakeLeopard Affair was a naval engagement that occurred off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on 22 June 1807, between the British warship HMS Leopard and American frigate USS Chesapeake, when the crew of the Leopard pursued, attacked and boarded the American frigate looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.[1] The Chesapeake was caught unprepared and after a short battle involving broadsides from the Leopard, her commander, James Barron, surrendered his vessel to the British after firing only one shot. Four crew members were removed from the American vessel and were tried for desertion, one of whom was subsequently hanged. The Chesapeake was allowed to return home where James Barron was court martialed and suspended from command.

The Chesapeake–Leopard Affair created uproar among Americans and 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 and delivered proclamations reaffirming impressment. Jefferson's political failure to coerce Great Britain led him towards economic warfare: the Embargo of 1807.[2]


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

In the spring of 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.[2][broken citation] 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 the USS Chesapeake. Ratford had made himself conspicuous to British officers by shouting at them on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia.[3]

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 the HMS Melampus. The consul claimed the men had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which was recruiting a crew for the Chesapeake, then at the Washington Navy Yard outfitting for a voyage to the Mediterranean.[4][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.[6] Berkeley ordered the Leopard's captain to search for deserters from HMS Belleisle, HMS Bellona, HMS Triumph, HMS Chichester, HMS Halifax, and the cutter HMS Zenobia.[7]

Attack and search[edit]

The Chesapeake was off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, commanded by Commodore James Barron, when the Leopard, under 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 the Leopard. Captain Humphreys, using a hailing trumpet, ordered the American ship to submit. When the Chesapeake did not, Humphreys fired a round across her bow. This was followed immediately by the Leopard firing broadsides into the American ship.[8] Her guns unloaded and her decks cluttered with stores in preparation for a long cruise, the Chesapeake managed to fire only a single gun in reply. The humiliated Barron struck his colors and surrendered. Three of the Chesapeake's crew had been killed and 18 wounded, including Barron, by the unprovoked attack. However, Humphreys refused the surrender and sent a boarding party to the Chesepeake to search for deserters.[5][broken citation]

Scores of British nationals had signed on as crewmen of the Chesapeake,[8] 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 the HMS Halifax. Only Ratford was British-born. The others were American citizens — two of them demonstrably non-British because they were African-Americans, but they had been serving on British warships.[8]

The brig Columbine brought the first dispatches to Halifax in early July. Leopard followed with her prisoners for trial.[9] Jenkin Ratford, the sole British citizen, was sentenced to death and was hanged from the yardarm of the Halifax on 31 August 1807.[10] The three Americans received sentences of 500 lashes each, but the sentences were later commuted.[citation needed]

The bloody encounter caused a storm of protest from the United States government, and the British government eventually offered to return the three American citizens and to pay reparations for the damage to the Chesapeake.[11] The schooner HMS Bream returned the last two British deserters to Boston, one month after the outbreak of the War of 1812.


Origins of
the War of 1812
ChesapeakeLeopard Affair
Orders in Council (1807)
Embargo Act of 1807
Non-Intercourse Act (1809)
Macon's Bill Number 2
Tecumseh's War
Henry letters
War Hawks
Rule of 1756
Monroe–Pinkney Treaty
Little Belt Affair

The incident outraged the American public, as 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."[12] 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.[13]

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. In fact, 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.

The Federal government began to be concerned about the lack of war material. A tariff protective of gunpowder manufacture followed, which helped ensure the fortunes of the DuPont company.[14]

The humiliating 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 from a possible British invasion, despite the expensive and controversial frigate-building program. A court-martial blamed Barron and suspended him from service for five years as punishment.[15]

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.

The Chesapeake herself proved unlucky during the War of 1812, when on 1 June 1813, after a long and surprising series of naval victories over the Royal Navy, the British frigate HMS Shannon captured Chesapeake in a ship-to-ship action near Boston. The Royal Navy commissioned the Chesapeake, but put her up for sale at Plymouth in July 1819.[16] Her timbers are now part of the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England.

In fiction[edit]

The fallout from the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair is first mentioned in Desolation Island, the fifth novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series. The subsequent Chesapeake vs Shannon engagement in the War of 1812 feature prominently in the sixth Aubrey-Maturin novel, The Fortune of War, both by Patrick O'Brian.

The Chesapeake–Leopard Affair is mentioned in the Boston Jacky novel of the Bloody Jack Adventures series by L.A. Meyer.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mackenzie, 1846 p. 145.
  2. ^ Perkins,1968, p. 317–318
  3. ^ Perkins, 1968, p. 315
  4. ^ MacKenzie, 2005, p. 145
  5. ^ Cooper, 1856, p. 224
  6. ^ Perkins, 1968, p. 315.
  7. ^ James (1837), Vol. 4, p.328.
  8. ^ a b c Perkins, 1968, p. 316.
  9. ^ James, v4, 1824 p.236
  10. ^ McMaster, 1914 p. 259.
  11. ^ Dickon, 1817 p. 54.
  12. ^ John P. Foley, 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. 
  13. ^ Toll, Ian W (2006). Six Frigates: The Epic of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5. OCLC 70291925.  pp. 303–304.
  14. ^ Fagal, Andrew (2012) Foreign Capital, American Armament, and the Rise of E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. Unpublished paper, SUNY-Binghamton.
  15. ^ Cooper, 1856 p. 231.
  16. ^ The London Gazette: no. 17494. p. 1228. 13 July 1819.


Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Henry (1921). History of the United States of America During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 4
    Charles Scribner's sons, New York; pp. 500. {Chapter I, The Chesapeak and Leopard) Ebook (full view)
  • Lossing, Benson John (1869). The Pictorial Field-book of the War of 1812: Or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the Last War for American Independence,
    Harper & Brothers, New York pp. 1054, Url
  • Perkins, Bradford. 1968. Embargo: Alternative to War (Chapter 8 from Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812, University of California Press, 1968) in Essays on the Early Republic 1789-1815. Leonard Levy, Editor. Dryden Press, 1974.

External links[edit]