Little Belt Affair
The Little Belt Affair was a naval battle on the night of 16 May 1811. It involved the United States frigate USS President and the British sixth-rate HMS Little Belt, a sloop-of-war, which had originally been the Danish ship Lillebælt, before being captured by the British in the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen. The encounter took place off the North Carolina coast. The Little Belt Affair was one of many incidents and events that led to the War of 1812.
The Little Belt Affair occurred four years after the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, in which HMS Leopard had attacked the USS Chesapeake, killing three, wounding eighteen, and putting four of her sailors on trial for desertion. It was fifteen days after an incident involving HMS Guerriere, a frigate. On May 1 the Guerriere had stopped the brig USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It had impressed Maine citizen John Diggio, the apprentice sailing master of the Spitfire. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton had ordered the President, along with USS Argus, to patrol the coastal areas from the Carolinas to New York.
Commodore John Rodgers, commanding the frigate President, had left Annapolis several days earlier and was aware of the Guerriere incident. He was off the Virginia Capes and sailing up the coast towards New York. The Little Belt was sighted to the east at about noon on 16 May. Believing her to be the powerful frigate Guerriere, Rodgers pursued. The Little Belt's captain, Arthur Bingham, had spotted the President one hour earlier. Bingham signaled the President asking for identification but received none. However, he noticed a blue pennant showing the ship's nationality was American. Bingham continued south, but Rodgers continued his pursuit because he wanted to know the stranger's identity, although he realized it could not be the much larger Guerriere. By 15:30, the President was close enough for Rodgers to make out part of the British ship's stern. However, the angle he saw her made her appear larger than she was. The Little Belt was much smaller than the President, displacing only 460 tons in contrast to the President's 1,576. The schooner mounted just 20 guns, while the President carried 44.
The British and American accounts disagree over what followed. As the President closed with the Little Belt, Bingham thought the frigate was manoeuvring to rake his ship with gunfire. Bingham wore ship three times to avoid the threat. The ships were not within hailing range until long after sunset. At about 10:15, each captain demanded the other identify his ship. Each refused to answer before the other. Each captain later claimed he had been the first to ask. Shortly after this, a shot was fired, but it was disputed who did so. However, the ships were soon engaged in a battle which the schooner had no chance of winning. After just fifteen minutes, most of Bingham's guns had been put out of action, and Rodgers ordered a cease fire. The President returned and Rodgers asked Bingham if he had struck. Bingham replied he had not, and the President withdrew.
The President had only one man injured. The Little Belt, however had nine dead and 23 injured (2 of them fatally). The sloop was also badly damaged in the encounter. The next morning, Lieutenant John Creighton went from the President to the Little Belt to lament the affair and offer Bingham space at any American port, which he declined. Bingham asked why the President had attacked his much smaller ship. Creighton said it was because the Little Belt had "provoked" the action. Bingham rejected the charge.
The President sailed on to New York City, and the Little Belt went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, escorted by the HMS Goree. The British and American governments argued about the encounter for months. Rodgers insisted that he had mistaken the schooner for a frigate and was adamant that Bingham had fired first. The Admiralty expressed their confidence in Bingham and promoted him to post-captain on 7 February 1812.
On 19 August 1812, after war had finally broken out, the HMS Guerriere sailed into her ill fated action against the USS Constitution. Painted across her foretopsail were the words "NOT THE LITTLE BELT".
- Toll, Ian W., p. 321-323
- Martin, Tyrone G., p. 155
- Toll, Ian W., p. 347-348
- Toll, Ian W. (2006). Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5.
- Martin, Tyrone G. (2006). A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.