On 22 June 1807, off the Virginia Capes, the Leopard, a fifty-gun ship of the British navy, opened fire on the Chesapeake, a forty-gun frigate of the U.S. Navy. During the previous summer, two French warships had sought refuge in the Chesapeake Bay, and British ships had then taken up station off the coast. The proximity of their ships to land led a number of British seamen to desert, and some found their way aboard U.S. Navy ships, including the Chesapeake. British authorities were aware of this and complained to American authorities to no avail.
On the morning of 22 June 1807, the Chesapeake, under Commodore James Barron, commander designate of the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron, departed Hampton Roads for the Mediterranean. Barron had visited the Chesapeake only twice prior to its sailing, and Master Commandant Charles Gordon had actual responsibility for the ship and preparing it for sea. Barron and Gordon were certainly not expecting any trouble.
As the Chesapeake tacked to get off shore, HMS Leopard came up and hailed the American ship. Its captain, Salusbury Humphreys, said he had dispatches for the Americans. As it was common at the time for ships to carry mail of other navies, Barron did not become suspicious, even though the Leopard had its gun ports open and the tompions out of the guns. Barron failed to call his crew to quarters upon the British ship's approach as regulations required, but such practice was not regularly observed.
The "dispatch," presented to Barron by a British lieutenant, turned out to be a general circular from Vice Admiral Sir George Berkeley, the British commander in North America, ordering his captains to search for deserters from specified British warships. Humphreys did his best to avoid confrontation but insisted on the right to muster the Chesapeake's crew for deserters. Barron said that all his seamen were Americans, and he rejected the search of a U.S. Navy warship.
After some forty minutes of discussion, Humphreys recalled his lieutenant and ordered his men to open fire. The Chesapeake was wholly unready for combat. Equipment was piled high on the gun deck and guns were unprimed. The British fired at least two broadsides into the American ship, killing three of its crew and wounding Barron and seventeen others (one of whom later died). The crew of the Chesapeake managed to fire only a single shot before Barron ordered the colors struck to spare further bloodshed. Humphreys refused Barron's surrender of the Chesapeake as a prize of war, but he mustered the crew, took off four men identified as deserters, and sailed away. The badly damaged Chesapeake then limped back into port.
An explosion of indignation in the United States followed the event, and some legislators called for war. President Thomas Jefferson opposed war and merely ordered British warships from American waters. Barron was made the scapegoat. Court-martialed, he was found guilty only of neglecting to clear his ship for action and suspended from the navy for five years.
The affair led to a U.S. Navy order ending the recruitment of foreigners on its ships. It also soured U.S.-British relations. Ultimately London admitted that a mistake had been committed and returned the two survivors of the four crewmen taken off the Chesapeake (one man had already been tried and hanged and the other had died in captivity). Although the U.S. Navy achieved a measure of revenge in the encounter between two other ships, the President and the Little Belt, on 18 May 1811, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair continued to rankle, increasing Anglophobia in the United States. Soon after, anti-British sentiment intensified, leading to the War of 1812.
See alsoNaval Technology .
Emmerson, John Cloyd. The Chesapeake Affair of 1807: An Objective Account of the Attack by HMS Leopard upon the U.S. Frigate Chesapeake off Cape Henry, Va., June 22, 1807, and Its Repercussions. Portsmouth, Va.: Privately printed, 1954.
Tucker, Spencer C., and Frank T. Reuter. Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.
Spencer C. Tucker