Chesapeake-Leopard Incident

views updated


CHESAPEAKE-LEOPARD INCIDENT, one of the events leading up to the War of 1812. On 22 June 1807 off Hampton Roads, Virginia, the American frigate Chesapeake was stopped by the British ship Leopard, whose commander demanded the surrender of four seamen alleged to have deserted from the British ships Melampus and Halifax. Upon the refusal of the American commander, Captain James Barron, to give up the men, the Leopard opened fire. The American vessel, having just begun a long voyage to the Mediterranean, was unprepared for battle, and to the repeated broadsides from the British replied with only one gun, which was discharged with a live coal from the galley. After sustaining heavy casualties and damage to masts and rigging, Barron surrendered his vessel (he was later court martialed for dereliction).

The British boarding party recovered only one deserter. In addition, three former Britons, by then naturalized Americans, were removed by force and impressed into the British navy to help fight its war with France. The British captain refused to accept the Chesapeake as a prize, but forced it to creep back into port in its crippled condition. The incident enflamed patriotic passions and spurred new calls for the protection of American sovereignty in neutral waters. Seeking to pressure England and France to respect American neutrality, President Thomas Jefferson pushed the Embargo Act through Congress in December 1807. The embargo, which prohibited exports to overseas ports, hurt the domestic economy and did little to alter British practices. Negotiations over the Chesapeake incident continued until 1811 when England formally disavowed the act and returned two of the Americans—the third had died.


Spivak, Burton. Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.

Charles LeeLewis


See alsoImpressment of Seamen ; Navy, United States ; Warships .