Impressment, the unsystematic seizure of men by a state to fill the ranks of its military machine, had provided warriors long before the opening volleys of the War of 1812. From the peasant spearmen of ancient Egypt to the superbly trained soldiers of Frederick the Great (1712–1786), monarchs had forced men from fields and city streets to battle the foe. In England, heads of state since Alfred the Great (849–899) had pressed men for army and navy alike, and impressment would provide 75 percent of the Royal Navy's crews during the Anglo-French wars of 1793–1815.
Conflict with France meant a global struggle for far-flung colonies and trade routes. As the Royal Navy added new vessels to its list, manning requirements climbed from a prewar low of 10,000 to 85,000 in 1794 and 140,000 by 1812. Attrition by disease, accident, desertion, and combat reduced crews and required constant replacements. At the same time, the ranks of the army had to be filled. But whereas a soldier could be trained in a matter of weeks, a sailor needed years of experience to become proficient in nautical skills—and at least one-third of a ship's crew needed to be able seamen to avoid shipwreck or destruction at the enemy's hands. Britain's Quota Act of 1793 ordered each county to provide a percentage of the navy's manpower, but few of those men possessed any seafaring skills. Skilled seamen could be acquired in a number of ways, such as by taking them from passing merchantmen, though laws exempted many sailors and fishermen from service lest the economy collapse. Quite often, captains coerced foreign nationals into serving by threatening the latter with becoming prisoners of war. Also, coercion was frequently applied when the foreigners were regarded as actually being British citizens. For the Royal Navy, the definition of citizenship was quite clear. Any man born on English soil was and would always be a subject of the crown and thus subject to impressment. This included most American citizens born before 1783.
The impressment of American citizens, whether naturalized or not, began with the outbreak of war in Europe during 1793. The United States attempted to protect its seamen by issuing warrants or "protections" attesting to citizenship, but the ease of forgery and the British definition of citizenship made them ineffective. Even American warships proved unable to resist the Royal Navy: the USS Baltimore lost fifty-five of its crew to impressment in 1798, and the USS Chesapeake was fired upon and then stripped of four crewmen in 1807. Merchant vessels suffered more cruelly, the Department of State reporting in January 1812 that 9,991 American seamen had been impressed since 1796. The exact number of Americans pressed to crew the Royal Navy may well have exceeded twenty thousand. Despite continuous efforts of American presidents from George Washington through James Madison to end this threat to Americans and to American sovereignty, Britain—its very survival threatened by France—ignored them. Thus Madison, in his war message of 1 June 1812, listed impressment as the first justification of conflict. As the War of 1812 continued, abandonment of the practice of impressment would be the last American condition dropped for a negotiated peace.
Dudley, William S., ed. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1985.
Hutchinson, J. R. The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore. New York: Dutton, 1914.
Lavery, Brian. Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1793–1815. Rev. ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994.
Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812. 2 vols. London: Low, Marston, 1905.
Wade G. Dudley