The Chesapeake Affair of 1807



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In 1807 the British ship HMS Leopard demanded to board the U.S. frigate Chesapeake and muster her crew to search for deserters. Refusing this affront to American independence and the rights of its citizen, the Chesapeake was attacked. The British removed four sailors, three of whom were American citizens.




Although the infant United States of America had fought and won it's war for independence from the British, one would never know it from the attitude of the British parliament and the instrument of its will, the British Royal Navy. The British acted as if the new nation in America was still a colony and its citizen still subjects of the crown. Britain, achieving the status of the greatest navy on the face of the earth was using its naval power to eclipse the once dominant Spanish and French navies. Locked in a struggle with France for control in Europe, Britain cared little for the sensibilities of the weak, disorganized "rabble' that was the United States. Vociferous dissent to the policies of the Federal government and strong American sentiment against investing power in a central government, led to a dismissal of American will and conviction. British troops continued to occupy parts of Ohio and debts owed to the new nation as part of the treaties signed to conclude the Revolutionary War went unpaid. Britain restricted the American access to British colonial ports in order to keep the maritime trade for itself. By 1794 British ships were seizing American ships trading in the West Indies as Britain had "declared" that neutral nations could not trade with French ports.

America wished to stay out of the conflict between the superpowers of the day, France and Britain and profit by doing business with both nations. Britain had strong economic and cultural ties with the states of the North. France had helped the Americans in their war against Britain, mostly to weaken Britain. When America refused to support France against Britain as laid out in the treaties signed during the American War of Independence, France began taking action against United States commercial shipping trading with Britain. In 1795 France captured and sold as prizes over 300 American vessels.

With little money left after the War for Independence and with almost no ability to raise revenues, the Continental Navy had been sold and dismantled. Realizing that the protection of foreign commerce was vital to the independence and prosperity of the American economy, President Adams fought to create an American Navy. However support for centralized government and the imperial trappings symbolized by a standing Navy was in short supply in a populace fresh from under the thumb of the British monarchy and the Royal Navy. Starting in 1794, the federal government began constructing six frigates, the USS Constitution in Boston, the USS Constellation in Baltimore, The USS President in New York, the USS Unites States in Philadelphia, the USS Congress in Portsmouth, and the USS Chesapeake in Norfolk.. Construction of each ship in a different state made support for the fledging navy more widespread.

When negotiations with the French broke down (the American diplomatic mission refused to pay personal bribes to their French counterparts to begin negotiations) in 1798, the six authorized frigates commissioned to protect American ships form Algerian pirates had not been completed. With new losses of merchant shipping to the French navy, efforts to complete the full complement of ships increased.

Although the President never requested Congress declare an act of war, ships of the US Navy were ordered to attack French shipping wherever they found it. This "Quasi-War" as it is now called sputtered along at a low level until the French revolution when issues with Britain and the Barbary War became more pressing.

While a British colony, American merchant shipping was protected by the Royal Navy and its treaties with the Barbary Coast. When it became independent, however, the Barbary states demanded tribute for the safe passage of American ships. When the pasha of Tripoli demanded greatly increased tributes of the newly elected President Jefferson, who never agreed with the payments in the first place, Jefferson decided it was cheaper to fight than pay. Two years into the conflict ( 1801 - 1805 ) without much progress toward resolution, a change of commander led to a generally successful campaign ( except for the loss of the US frigate Philadelphia ). When reinforcements arrived with a higher ranking officer, the tactic changed from attack to blockade and destabilization. Indigenous insurgents and the newly formed US. Marines ( "to the shores of Tripoli") brought about a treaty without the payment of tribute.

When Britain defeated France at the Battle of Trafalgar, it became the undisputable ruler of the seas. To fill all the manpower required for this formidable navy, Britain had long depended on press gangs to enslave its own citizens to service in the Royal Navy. Conditions on British ships were very harsh. American commercial vessels were much more pleasant places to be. British sailors escaped and deserted by the thousands. To reclaim and in many cases simply replace these crew, British naval vessels stopped and impressed many American citizens. Britain's blockade of France tightened after their victory at Trafalgar. America, which had lost less than sixty ships in the five years between 1800 and 1805, lost over four hundred and fifty, half the entire merchant fleet, in the years of 1805 through 1807. Six thousand Americans were impressed into the Royal Navy. Such disregard for American Independence led to orders being issued to all US navy ships to refuse to be boarded or mustered by the Royal Navy. That set up the conditions for the incident known as the Chesapeake Affair of 1807.

Chesapeake Affair of 1807

From the Norfolk Historical Society

"On June 22, 1807, the United States frigate Chesapeake cleared Norfolk area waters for the Mediterranean to relieve the USS Constitution as flagship of the European station. In command was Captain (later Commodore) James Barron, who had been the senior officer aboard for only one day.

The Chesapeake was badly prepared for her mission. Her crew was shorthanded and untrained, her decks were littered with unstowed gear, and her powder flasks and loggerheads were not stored away in her hold.

Standing down Thimble Shoals Channel, the Chesapeake passed a British squadron anchored in Lynnhaven Roads. Catching sight of the Chesapeake, one of the British vessels, the HMS Leopard, weighed anchor and followed her.

Side by side the two ships sailed to about forty miles at sea, at which point the Leopard passed the Chesapeake, then backed a topsail and waited until the Chesapeake came down to her. At that point a British lieutenant was rowed over to the Chesapeake in a small boat. When he came aboard and was taken to Captain Barron, he informed the latter that his ship would have to submit to a search for supposed deserters from the Royal Navy who were believed to be on board. Barron naturally refused to comply, and the British lieutenant was rowed back to the Leopard.

Seeing that the Leopard's gunports were open and her guns were run out, Barron and his officers made a frantic effort to prepare the Chesapeake for resistance, but they were hindered by the unprepared condition of the vessel's armament. The Leopard then blazed away at the Chesapeake for fifteen minutes, killing three men and wounding eighteen before Barron struck his colors. The British lieutenant then returned to Barron's riddled ship and took out three men whom the British claimed were deserters, plus a fourth man for good measure.

When the news of the incident filtered back into Norfolk, enraged citizens swarmed out in rowboats to every vessel which came in from the Virginia Capes to question their crews and passengers. Finally, when they saw a vessel approaching carrying eleven wounded men from the Chesapeake, all doubts were dispelled.

Seeking immediate revenge, Norfolk citizens held a mass meeting at which it was unanimously agreed to refuse all intercourse with any of the British men of war in the area, either by providing them with pilots or by selling them supplies or water."

Outrage was felt not only in Norfolk, but throughout the nation. Unprepared to go to war against the powerful British Navy, President Jefferson decide to try to persuade Britain to respect American rights by restricting all trade with Britain. Britain was not much affected, but the trade of the United States dropped precipitously. The Chesapeake, after repairs in Norfolk, enforced the blockade in the New England region under the command of Stephen Decatur. From December 1812 to April 1813, the Chesapeake served under the command of Stephen Decatur in the West Indies taking 5 British prizes and escaping from a British 74 gun ship. After refitting in Boston, Decatur was succeeded by Captain Lawrence and sailed with an untrained crew into the waiting HMS Shannon out of Halifax. The experienced British crew cut Chesapeake's rigging in an early broadside and despite the Chesapeake's greater firepower, outsailed the crippled ship. The mortally wounded Lawrence uttered the now famous motto of the US Navy "Don't give up the ship." However that is precisely what occurred. The Chesapeake was towed to Halifax for repairs, transferred to the Royal Navy and eventually broken up as timber for a mill in Wickham, Hampshire, England.



US Chesapeake v. HMS Shannon off Boston 1813 Hampton Roads Naval Museum

from John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 167-168

Capture of the USS Chesapeake
Lieutenant George Budd, USN, to the Secretary of the Navy

Halifax, 15 June 1813

The unfortunate death of captain James Lawrence, and lieutenant Augustus C. Ludlow, has rendered it my duty to inform you of the capture of the late United States' frigate CHESAPEAKE.

On Tuesday, June 1st, at 8 AM we unmoored ship, and at meridian got under weigh from President's Roads, with a light wind from the southward and westward, and proceeded on a cruise. A ship was then in sight in the offing, which had the appearance of a ship of war, and which, from information received from pilot-boats and craft, we believed to be the British frigate SHANNON. We made sail in chase, and cleared ship for action. At half past 4 PM she hove to with her head to the southward and eastward. At 5 PM took in the royals and top-gallant sails, and at half past 5, hauled the courses up. About 15 minutes before 6 PM the action commenced within pistol shot. The first broadside did great execution on both sides, damaged our rigging, killed, among others, Mr. White the sailing master, and wounded captain Lawrence. In about 12 minutes after the commencement of the action, we fell on board of the enemy, and immediately after, one of our arm chests on the quarter-deck was blown up by a hand-grenade thrown from the enemy's ship. In a few minutes, one of the captain's aids came on the gun-deck to inform me that the boarders were called. I immediately called the boarders away, and proceeded to the spar-deck, where I found that the enemy had succeeded in boarding us, and gained possession of our quarter deck. I immediately gave orders to haul on board the fore-tack, for the purpose of shooting the ship clear of the other, and then made an attempt to re-gain the quarter-deck, but was wounded and thrown down on the gun-deck. I again made an effort to collect the boarders, but in the mean time the enemy had gained complete possession of the ship. On my being carried down in the cockpit, I there found captain Lawrence and lieutenant Ludlow, both mortally wounded; the former had been carried below, previously to the shop's being boarded; the latter was wounded in attempting to repel the boarders. Among those who fell early in the action, was Mr. Edward J. Ballard, the 4th lieutenant, and lieutenant James Broom, of marines.

I herein enclose you a return of the killed and wounded, by which you will perceive that every officer, upon whom the charge of the ship would devolve, was either killed or wounded, previously to her capture. The enemy report the loss of Mr. Watt, their first lieutenant, the purser, the captain's clerk, and 23 seamen killed; and captain Broke, a midshipman, and 56 seamen wounded.

The SHANNON, had, in addition to her full complement, an officer and 16 men belonging to the BELLE POULE, and a part of the crew belonging to the TENEDOS.
Capture of the USS Chesapeake
Midshipman William Berry, USN

from John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 179-181.


Capture of the USS Chesapeake
Midshipman William Berry, USN

Washington, 30 July 1813

I consider myself bound to lay before you, what came under my knowledge, while on board the CHESAPEAKE, as well as on board the SHANNON.

After the enemy had completely possession of the ship, midshipmen Randolph and Flushman were ordered from the fore and main-top. In coming down the shrouds, lieutenant Faulkner, (the British officer) said to his men, kill those damned rascals. Then, and immediately, several muskets were discharged at them, but without effect. My station was in the mizen-top, where I had an opportunity of seeing their actions. I was looking on deck, when I saw one of the CHESAPEAKE'S men crawling along, attempting to get below, with one of his legs off. One of the enemy stepped up to him with his cutlass, and immediately put an end to his existence.

Lieutenant Faulkner looked up in the mizen-top; pointed at me,-said to his men, go up, three of you, and throw that damned yankee overboard. They immediately rushed up, seizing me by the collar; now, said they, you damned yankee, you shall swim for it, attempting to throw me overboard; but I got within the rigging, when one of them kicked me in the breast, which was the cause of my falling; being stunned by the fall, I lay some time senseless, and when I came to, I was cut over the head with a cutlass, which nearly terminated my existence. Eleven of our midshipmen were confined in a small place, nine feet by six, with an old sail to lie on, and a guard at the door, until a day or two before our arrival at Halifax; and likewise eleven of us upon five rations, and some days only one meal. Our clothes were taken on board of the SHANNON; lieutenant Wallis, the commanding officer on board, would not let us take our clothes below with us, but pledged his word and honour as an officer, we should receive our clothes. But we discovered next morning that their midshipmen had on our clothes and side-arms. We were conversing together respecting our clothes, one of their midshipmen overheard our conversation, and made report to the lieutenant commanding. He then sent word to us, that if we said any thing more about the clothes, he would put us in the forehold with the men. We expected to receive our clothes when we arrived in port; but I assure you, sir, nothing was ever restored. Other rascally things occurred, which our officers will, when they return, make known to the public, disgraceful to a civilized nation. If your request could have been made sooner, I should have felt gratified in making a fuller statement.


See also.......

The Annapolis Tea Party
Attack on Washington
Battle of Baltimore
Attack on St. Michaels


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