James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

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James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

Defendant: Commodore James Barron
Crimes Charged: "Negligently performing the duty assigned him; neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear ship for action; failing to encourage in his own person his inferior officers and men to fight courageously; not doing his utmost to take or destroy the Leopard, which vessel it was his duty to encounter."
Defense Lawyer: Robert B. Taylor
Prosecutor: Lyttleton W. Tazewell, Judge Advocate
Senior Presiding Officer: John Rodgers
Court: William Bainbridge, Hugh G. Campbell, Stephen Decatur, Jr., John Shaw, John Smith, David Porter, Jacob Jones, James Lawrence, Charles Ludlow, Joseph Tarbell
Place: On board the USS Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia
Date of Trial: January 9-February 8, 1808
Verdict: Guilty on second charge
Sentence: Suspension from command for five years with loss of pay

SIGNIFICANCE: This was one of the most extraordinary court-martials in American history, occasioned as it was primarily by a clear need to find a scapegoat for a humiliating incident. It also exemplifies the incredible infighting that then afflicted the American navy. The punishment meted out was relatively mild, but it led to the most tragic of encounters, James Barron's duel with a major American hero, Stephen Decatur.

James Barron belonged to a Virginia family with a seafearing tradition. Enlisting in the navy as a youth, by 1799 he was serving as captain of the USS United States (which included in the crew a young midshipman, Stephen Decatur, Jr.). In 1806, Barron was promoted to commodore and in 1807 was assigned to command the USS Chesapeake. Although it had an inexperienced crew and poorly prepared equipment, it was hastily ordered by the navy to head for the Mediterranean on June 22, 1807.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Incident

At this time Britain was at war with France and it was engaging in the practice known as "impressment"stopping American ships at sea to search for men it regarded as deserters from its own navy. The Chesapeake was barely 10 miles offshore that day when a British warship, the HMS Leopard, sailed up to her and demanded the right to look for British citizens. Barron refused and suddenly the Leopard fired three broadsides into the Chesapeake, killing three crewmen and wounding 18 (including Barron). Barron had one shot fired but, recognizing that further resistance was futilefor one thing, the Leopard had 50 guns to his own 36had his flag lowered in surrender. The British then boarded and took away four men. (One was hanged, another died in captivity, and the other two were eventually returned to U.S. Navy service.) The Chesapeake limped back to Norfolk, Virginia.

As word quickly spread from Virginia throughout the American states, there was a tremendous outcry and even a call for war. President Thomas Jefferson himself stated, "Never since the battle of Lexington, have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation." But above all, there was a call for some assignment of responsibility, and inevitably the finger pointed at Commodore James Barron. The indignation was fanned by six of the junior officers, who wishing to free themselves from blame, quickly submitted a letter casting all responsibility on Barron.

In October, the secretary of the navy convened a court of inquiry composed of three naval officers to look into the incident and Barron's role. In November, the panel reported that Barron should be held responsible and called for a general court martial.

The Court-Martial

The court that met in January 1808 in Barron's own quarters on the Chesapeake was composed of some of the most distinguished officers in the U.S. Navy at that time. Barron's relations with several of them were at best ambiguous, most especially with Captain John Rodgers, the presiding officer. Not much more than a year before, Rodgers had challenged Barron to a duel over allegedly "slanderous rumors," and only the intervention of other officers had led them to a formal if cool reconciliation. Meanwhile, Stephen Decatur, who was befriended by Barron at the outset of his naval service, had for some reason taken the lead in criticizing him for what happened with the Leopard.

In addition to Barron, two officers and one chief gunner were also standing trial, but it was quite clear that Barron was the major target. In fact, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, one of those charged with negligence, was also the chief witness for the prosecution against Barron. Gordon's role was important, because it was he who had actually been responsible for assembling the crew and supplies and readying the ship before Barron took command only two days before sailing. To the extent that the crew was not properly prepared, the decks were obstructed with supplies, and the ship's guns were not battle ready, Gordon was as responsible as Barron.

Yet, the prosecution allowed Gordon to evade answering crucial questions. For instance, a letter was produced in which Gordon on June 19 assured Barron: "We are ready for weighing the first fair wind. The guns are all charged and if possible we have an exercise this evening." Yet the examination of the witness went thus:

Judge Advocate: Were your guns exercised on the evening of [June 19]?

Gordon: I decline answering that question.

Judge Advocate: Had they been exercised before?

Gordon: I decline answering that question.

For his defense, Barron did not take the stand but submitted a long letter responding to all the charges. In general, he argued that it was the navy's practice to hold a man in Gordon's position responsible for assuring that a ship was seaworthy; that the Navy Department knew that the four disputed men were aboard and that the British had their ships offshore; that he was under clear orders to avoid "whatever may have a tendency to bring us into collision with any other power"; that had he done anything to initiate hostilities against the Leopard, "to what censure would I not have exposed myself?"; and finally, that the decision to surrender was based on his seasoned judgment that resistance was futile.

After four days of deliberation, the court appeared with its verdict. It started with exonerating Barron of the third and fourth charges that impugned his courage and his judgment in the face of the Leopard's overwhelming advantages. They also found him not guilty of the first charge, general negligence. But they did find him guilty of the second charge, "neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action." The sentence: to be suspended from all command and pay for five years. Gordon and the other officer were both found guilty of negligence but were let off with a reprimand; the gunner was also found guilty of failing to perform his duties and was dismissed from the navy.

A Fatal Backfire

Few verdicts would have such profound repercussions. Although his family and close friends stood by Barron, in general, his fellow naval officers shunned him. In 1812 he was hired to command a merchant vessel to transport materials to Portugal; from there he sailed to Sweden and then in July to Copenhagen. Before he could set sail for home, the United States had declared war on Britain. Although he made several attempts to return home, Barron had to be especially careful as he was technically still an officer of the U.S. Navy, and so he was stranded in Copenhagen throughout the war. After the war, Barron stayed on in an effort to promote some of his inventions such as machinery to improve a ship's windlass, windmills, rope-making, and cork-cutting, finally returning home in 1818.

He found no support in Washington in his efforts to regain active duty assignment. Instead, he began to hear that Stephen Decatur, his former protege and a leader in the move to court-martial him, was making what he considered libelous and derogatory remarks. In 1820, Barron challenged him to a duel, and although both wounded each other, Barron survived and Decatur died. Barron did in fact regain an active duty assignment with the navy in 1824, but it was his fate to go down in American history as "the man who killed Decatur."

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron January 1808. Washington, D.C.: James Gideon, Jr., 1808.

Stevens, William Oliver. An Affair of Honor: The Biography of Commodore James Barron, U.S.N. Chesapeake, Va.: Norfolk Historical Society, 1969.

Watson, Paul Barron. The Tragic Career of Commodore James Barron, U.S. Navy. New York: Coward-McCann, 1942.