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This Day in History: The Chesapeake–Leopard affair

On this day in 1807, a British Royal Navy officer boards an American ship, looking for deserters. The humiliating affair ended when the American commander surrendered, having fired only one shot. How could this happen? The American public was outraged.

“[N]ever, since the battle of Lexington,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present: and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

USS Chesapeake, by F. Muller

The 36-gun USS Chesapeake had left Hampton Roads, Virginia, under the command of Commodore James Barron. The ship was headed to the Mediterranean Sea with more than 300 men aboard. Unfortunately, at least a few of the crew had deserted from British ships before they decided to serve aboard the American vessel.

This would prove to be a big problem.

Making matters worse, Chesapeake was not completely prepared for its voyage. The deck was cluttered with items—even including furniture and chicken coops! The ship’s guns were not yet ready, and the crew had not yet run any drills on them. It seems that American officers intended to complete some of these tasks on the long trip across the ocean.

That plan went badly awry. Mere hours into the trip, Chesapeake ran into the 50-gun HMS Leopard. The British ship hailed Chesapeake, indicating that it had some dispatches for Barron. Chesapeake agreed to “heave to and you can send your boat on board of us.”

British Lt. John Meade soon boarded Chesapeake, but he didn’t have any dispatches. Instead, he wanted to search the American ship for British deserters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barron refused and Meade returned to his ship.

In later months, there would be a dispute about how much notice Barron did (or didn’t) have that Leopard’s captain was about to respond with force.

The British captain soon fired a shot across Chesapeake’s bow, then launched a few broadsides. Americans hadn’t had sufficient time to prepare for battle. “[I]t was impossible to Clear Ship for Action in proper time,” the ship’s log would record, “though every possible exertion was made, and not suspecting an enemy so near did not begin to clear the Deck untill the enemy had commenc’d firing.”

In the end, Barron fired only one ineffective shot at Leopard before striking his colors. Three men aboard Chesapeake were killed and as many as 18 were injured.

The British seized four men from Chesapeake. One was a British deserter (he was soon hanged). The other three turned out to be Americans.

The action by Leopard was basically an act of war. Americans were furious! Perhaps the War of 1812 would have been the War of 1807, if many Americans had gotten their way back then?!

But it wasn’t to be. Instead, on July 2, President Jefferson ordered all British ships out of American waters. Americans simply were not ready for another war against British. War would eventually come, of course, but not for five more years.

As for Barron, he faced a court-martial. He was found guilty and suspended from service for five years. One of the naval officers sitting on that court was Stephen Decatur.

There was bad blood between the two men, and Barron would later kill Decatur in a duel. Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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