To understand the incident that has come to be called the Chesapeake—Leopard Affair, we must first understand the political and diplomatic circumstances that existed between the young United States and the European superpowers at the outset of the nineteenth century.
Although America had secured her independence in 1783 after a long and destructive struggle, her former colonial parent found it difficult to adjust to the new state of affairs. Britain had recognized the fact of separation, but continued to view the new nation as an upstart, wayward younger brother. Spain retained vast possessions in the New World; she was understandably suspicious of America’s rapid expansion and acquisitive intentions. Spain after 1783 refused even to recognize American independence, or consider offers to purchase its territories in Florida. France, preoccupied with her revolution and its consequences, saw the United States as a nuisance and a distraction from her struggles with Britain.
In military capability, the United States in the early 1800s was far weaker than Britain or France. She was quickly learning that the European superpowers were the ones who made the rules; other nations had to reconcile themselves to the realities of power. When war broke out between England and France in 1793—which would transition into the Napoleonic conflict in the early 1800s—the United States attempted to steer a neutral course between the two belligerent giants. From the American perspective, it seemed that Britain went out of her way to snub U.S. sovereignty, honor, and neutrality. Yet both Britain and France wanted to secure the benefits of American trade for themselves, and deprive their rivals of this market. The consequence was that the United States found itself as a kind of football, kicked back and forth between London and Paris. From 1799 to 1800 the U.S. was embroiled in a “Quasi-War” with France, and tensions with Britain would seethe continuously until open hostilities broke out in the War of 1812.
It must be said, however, that the British had their own grievances against Washington. An appraisal of the situation from London looked quite different than it did from Washington. To the British, it seemed that the United States wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. Washington’s insistence on “neutrality” in the Anglo-French conflict was in London’s view unrealistic, considering that the Americans expected to carry on trade with both belligerents in the midst of a naval war zone. In addition, the United States had been willing to enlist deserters who had fled the harsh discipline of the Royal Navy. This the British found intolerable. London was also exasperated by what it perceived to be an American failure to grasp the existential nature of England’s life and death struggle with Napoleon. Neutrality in such circumstances looked to London much like hostility. Of course, the Americans in response might point out that the Royal Navy had no qualms about forcibly impressing U.S. sailors into service on British ships of the line. Feelings thus ran high on both sides of the Atlantic.
In early March of 1807, a number of British sailors had deserted from the H.M.S. Halifax and openly signed aboard as crewmen of the U.S.S. Chesapeake. Admiral George C. Berkeley, the ranking British naval commander at Halifax, received instructions from the Admiralty that he was to recover the deserters and restore them to proper duty. From June 1, 1807, any British ship was authorized to stop the Chesapeake at sea and carry out these instructions. One captain who received these orders was Salisbury Humphreys of the Leopard.
The Chesapeake departed from Hampton Roads, Virginia on June 22, under the command of Commodore James Barron. Her destination was the Mediterranean. She was soon spotted by the Leopard, which set out in pursuit; Barron, assuming the British ship’s intentions were friendly, did not take evasive maneuvers. In the late afternoon, Captain Humphreys caught up with the Chesapeake and requested a conference with Barron; he soon made it clear that he wished to search the American ship for the presence of suspected deserters. Humphreys, in an apparent gesture of goodwill, suggested that the Americans could search his ship for impressed sailors.
Barron told Humphreys that no deserters were aboard, stalled for time for about an hour, and then conferred with his officers. The Leopard meanwhile had maneuvered into an advantageous gunnery position against the Chesapeake, and proceeded to load her cannon. Barron did not fail to heed the message: turn over the deserters, or we will open fire on you. He nevertheless refused to permit Humphreys to search the ship. As hostilities edged closer, Barron continued to stall for time. Because he had assumed the Leopard had friendly intentions, he had left his decks and rigging in a state that was unprepared for an immediate fight; bundles of rope, sail, and other clutter lay about here and there. The crew of the Chesapeake frantically tried to ready themselves for combat, but were unable to do so. They discovered that some of their powder was wet; that their ammunition was improperly calibrated; that they had insufficient wadding for shot; and that firing matches could not be located. They had been caught unprepared for battle.
Humphreys now assumed that the Chesapeake was playing for time and readying its guns. He fired three full broadsides into the helpless American vessel, killing three sailors and wounding eighteen others, including Commodore Barron himself. Barron, realizing he had no cards to play, struck his colors. We are told that a lieutenant William Allen, in a pathetic attempt to offer token resistance, carried a live coal from the galley and was able to fire off a shot at the Leopard. A boarding party was then sent to search the Chesapeake and find the deserters; four men were quickly located, placed in restraints, and hauled back to the Leopard. Humphreys then sailed away, leaving the Chesapeake to lick its wounds and limp back to port. It was a humiliating conclusion to an encounter that had caught Commodore Barron completely by surprise.
When the American public heard the news about what had happened, a furor erupted. How could such a tragedy have been allowed to happen? Who was responsible? Why had the Chesapeake dallied and fumbled in the face of British naval might? The incident triggered one of the Jefferson administration’s thorniest policy crises; some newspapers clamored for war, while others suggested Barron be relieved of command. Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, were faced with hard choices, and none of them were palatable. Some kind of strong response was merited; to do nothing would be to communicate weakness. But the reality is that the United States was unprepared for war with Britain. Monroe issued a number of demands against the British government—abolition of the practice of impressment, the return of the deserters, the recall of Admiral Berkeley, and an apology—but the British foreign secretary, George Canning, declined to accept them.
It seems likely that Jefferson and Monroe, acutely aware of their military inferiority, would have settled for an apology from Canning, but the prickly diplomat refused even to offer this. In the end Jefferson had to console himself with the Embargo Act of 1807, an attempt to apply economic pressure on England that arguably hurt the United States more than its intended target. The fact that the United States and Britain went to war anyway five years later makes it clear that the two nations had irreconcilable differences that could only be resolved by powder and sword.
Blame for the affair rightly fell on the shoulders of Commodore Barron, who was court-martialed for negligence in January of 1808. He had clearly failed in one of the primary duties of the commander: to maintain preparedness and readiness for battle at all times. Although Barron strenuously maintained he had not been at fault, the hearings resulted in a conviction against him for unpreparedness. Barron was stripped of command and suspended for five years without pay; he was relegated to shore duty for the remainder of his career. An officer who sat on the court-martial’s board was the famous Stephen Decatur, a legendary warrior who had distinguished himself in numerous engagements in the Revolutionary War and the Barbary Wars. He was an aggressive commander and stern disciplinarian, and he had harsh words for Barron, whom he believed was unfit to lead. Decatur actively lobbied to prevent Barron from being restored to full duty. Barron nursed a bitter enmity against Decatur thereafter, and eventually found a chance to revenge himself in a tragic postscript to the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.
Decatur on one occasion told Barron to his face that he was unfit to command. One historian provides the following quotation of a statement by Decatur to Barron:
I have entertained, and do still entertain, the opinion, that your conduct as an officer, since the affair of the Chesapeake, has been such as ought to forever bar your readmission into the service…that there was not employment for all the officers, who had faithfully discharged their duty to their country in the hour of trial; and that it would be doing an act of injustice to employ you, to the exclusion of any one of them.
This was followed by an angry exchange of letters between the two men, no doubt encouraged by friends and partisans on both sides. These culminated in a direct written challenge Barron issued to his imagined antagonist:
I addressed a letter to you under date of the 12th of June last, which produced a correspondence between us, which I have since been informed you have endeavored to use to my further injury, by sending it to Norfolk by a respectable officer of the navy, to be shown to some of my particular friends, with a view of alienating from me their attachment. I am also informed, that you have tauntingly and boastingly observed that you would cheerfully meet me in the field, and hoped I would yet act like a man, or words to that effect. Such conduct, Sir, on the part of any one, but especially one occupying the influential station under the government which you hold, towards an individual situated as I am, and oppressed as I have been, and that chiefly by your means, is unbecoming you as an officer and a gentleman, and shows a want of the magnanimity, which, hostile as I have found you to be towards me, I had hoped, for your own reputation, you possessed. It calls loudly for redress at your hands.
Decatur unwisely accepted this challenge, thus involving himself in a pointless and tragic duel that deprived the U.S. naval service of its best commander at a time when he was desperately needed. On March 22, 1820, the duel was fought. The two men fired pistol shots at each other at close range. Decatur’s wounds were mortal, while Barron’s were not. Thus Decatur, it might be said, proved to be the final and most irreplaceable casualty of the ill-fated Chesapeake—Leopard Affair.
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