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 incident 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 overcome USS Chesapeake, killing three, wounding eighteen, and putting four of its 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. The 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.
The commanding officer of President was Commodore John Rodgers. He had left Annapolis only a few days before, and was aware of the Guerriere incident. President was off Virginia Capes and sailing up the coast toward New York. Little Belt was spotted to the east at approximately noon on 16 May. Believing it to be Guerriere, Rodgers pursued. However, Little Belt had seen President around an hour before Rodgers's order. Little Belt's captain was Arthur Bingham. When Bingham had Little Belt signal President asking for identification and received none, he noticed a blue pennant designating the ship's nationality. He continued south, but President continued its pursuit because Commodore Rodgers was interested in identifying the ship that he now knew was not Guerriere. By 15:30, the President was close enough to Little Belt for Rodgers to make out part of her stern. However, the angle at which Rodgers was seeing Little Belt made her appear larger than she actually was. In truth, Little Belt was much weaker than President, displacing only 460 tons compared to President's 1,576; the smaller ship had 20 guns, whilst President had 44.
Following the start of the pursuit, there is considerable divergence in the accounts of the parties involved. As President followed, closing the Little Belt, it appeared to Bingham that the frigate was manoeuvring into a position to rake the smaller British ship. Bingham wore ship three times to foil that action. The ships were not within hailing range until long after sunset. At about 10:15, both captains demanded that the other identify his ship, and both refused to answer before the other. Each of the captains later reported that he had been the first to ask. Shortly after the battle of etiquette had begun, a shot was fired, but again it was disputed who was first. Both ships were soon fully engaged in a barrage in which the American ship had an overwhelming advantage. After about fifteen minutes, most of the British guns were inactive, and Rodgers gave the order to cease fire. President then returned, and asked if Bingham had struck. Bingham replied that he had not, and the President again withdrew.
President sustained only one injury; Little Belt took nine deaths during the battle and 23 injuries, and the sloop was badly damaged in the attack. Two of the wounded Britons died the following day. On the morning of 17 May, American Lieutenant John Creighton went to Little Belt to lament the affair and to offer space at any of the ports of the United States, which Bingham declined. When the captain asked why President had attacked his much smaller ship, Creighton claimed that it was because Little Belt had provoked the action. Bingham staunchly denied the account.
Creighton returned to his ship, and President and Little Belt parted ways. President sailed to New York City, and Little Belt went to Halifax, Nova Scotia under escort by HMS Goree. The two nations continued to argue about how the battle began for several months. Rodgers claimed that he had mistaken the British ship for a larger frigate and was adamant that Bingham had fired first. The Admiralty expressed their confidence in Bingham; it promoted him to post-captain on 7 February 1812.
On 19 August 1812, about 750 miles east of Boston, HMS Guerriere sailed into action (and her fate) against the USS Constitution. Painted across the foretopsail of Guerriere 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.