Prelude to the War of 1812

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Impressment of American Sailors
The Chesapeake Affair of 1807
American Reaction to the Chesapeake Affair
Entanglement in World Affairs

Chesapeake Affair of 1807

The actual number of Americans pressed into service in the Royal Navy is unknown, but it is estimated that a thousand American seamen per year were illegally pressed into British service. Though the United States government regularly protested against the impressment of its citizens, little could be done to protect them.

In 1807, when four sailors off the Virginia Capes were pressed into the Royal Navy, the issue gained national attention, bringing the United States to the brink of war. As the war between France and England raged in the Caribbean, ships of both navies regularly appeared along the American coast. In 1806, a hurricane damaged two ships of the French navy. In the wake of the storm, Cybelle and Patriot limped into the Chesapeake Bay for repairs. The Royal Navy followed them into Hampton Roads to keep an eye on them and capture them if they returned to sea. To do so, the British stationed ships at Norfolk and blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Among the British ships present in Hampton Roads were the Melampus and the Halifax. The close proximity to land was a constant source of temptation to English sailors eager to escape the harsh naval life by desertion. Four men from these ships took their chance at freedom. Three of them--William Ware, Daniel Martin, and John Strachan--were Americans who had been pressed earlier. The fourth was a British sailor, Jenkins Ratford. All four men made their way to Portsmouth, where they were seen by their commanding officers. The British demanded the return of the deserters by the American authorities, but the demand was ignored. Seeking protection from arrest, all four runaway sailors enlisted on the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, which was in Portsmouth preparing for a cruise to the Mediterranean. Aware of the men's enlistment, the Royal Navy again demanded their return.

Commodore James Barron aboard the Chesapeake conducted an investigation. Finding that Ware, Martin, and Strachan were all American citizens, he refused to surrender them to the British. Ratford, a bona fide deserter, had enlisted under an alias and was not identified by Barron in his investigation.
Battle between the Chesapeake and the Leopard. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Infuriated by the refusal of the Americans to return the deserters to British authority, Vice Admiral Berkeley, commander of the British North American Station at Halifax, took matters into his own hands. In June 1807, he issued an order to his fleet that, should the Chesapeake be found at sea, any ship of his squadron must stop her and recover the deserters.

This occurred on June 22, 1807. As the Chesapeake cleared port and sailed by Cape Henry, she was approached by HMS Leopard, commanded by Captain Salisbury Humphreys. Hailing the American ship, Humphreys sent a boat to the Chesapeake with a copy of the orders from Admiral Berkeley that charged him to arrest the deserters believed to be aboard. Commodore Barron again refused to surrender the men in question. Humphreys responded by firing seven broadsides into the Chesapeake at extremely close range. The Chesapeake was unprepared for battle, and in her state of panic and confusion, little was done to resist. Barron had little choice but to strike his colors and allow the British to board his vessel. In short order, the British arrested the four deserters and sailed for Halifax, where the sailors would be tried. With his ship in shambles and his crew badly demoralized, Barron sailed the Chesapeake back to Norfolk. There, the news of yet another violation of American sovereignty at the hands of the British was met with shock and outrage.

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American Reaction to the Chesapeake Affair

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