Prelude to the War of 1812

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Impressment of American Sailors
The Chesapeake Affair of 1807
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Impressment of American Sailors


Of all the causes for the War of 1812, the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy was the most important for many Americans. The British practice of manning naval ships with "pressed" men, who were forcibly placed into service, was a common one in English history, dating back to medieval times.
Sailors being pressed. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Under British law, the navy had the right, during time of war, to sweep through the streets of Great Britain, essentially arresting men and placing them in the Royal Navy.

Naval press gangs operated throughout England in organized districts overseen by naval captains. When there was a need for new recruits the gangs would move through the waterfront districts searching for "Roderick Random," as they called the men they pressed. Under law, the press gangs could take almost anyone they happened to find. However, some individuals were protected from the press: apprentices already indentured to a master, seamen with less than two years' experience at sea, fishermen, and others associated with maritime trade and industry such as riggers, shipwrights, and sailmakers. These men were essential to the economic well-being of the empire and were not to be conscripted by press gangs. However, simply identifying oneself as a member of a protected segment of British society was not enough to guarantee one's freedom. Each "protected man" was required to carry with him a document called a protection that identified him and his trade. If he could not produce his protection on demand by the press gang, he could be pressed without further question.

Press gangs operated on land and sea. Impress cutters patrolled harbors and coastal areas searching for ships returning from voyages with men who might be pressed into service. Any officer of the Royal Navy could, when in need of men, stop English vessels on the high seas and press crewmen into service. Legally, foreigners were protected from the press, but this legality was often ignored, and the practice of pressing men at sea became common. In the eyes of the Royal Navy, all Englishmen were available for service even if they were on the ship of a foreign nation. Therefore, it was not uncommon for British naval vessels to stop American ships searching for English crewmen.
A letter of Impressment Protection. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
During these searches, American sailors who could not prove their citizenship were often pressed.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, as England slugged its way through prolonged wars with France, the need for able seamen grew dramatically. During the peacetime that preceded the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had about 10,000 men; by the War of 1812, the number had risen to 140,000. The overwhelming majority of these men came from the press. To maintain the navy's strength, the press gangs were constantly at work. Not only did they have to replace men who were killed or died in service, but they also had to replace the countless vacancies created by desertion. Lord Nelson estimated that between 1793 and 1801 perhaps as many as 40,000 men deserted the navy. With demand for sailors always high and supply sometimes lacking, it is not surprising that the press gangs preyed from time to time on protected men, including Americans.

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The Chesapeake Affair of 1807

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