Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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The Little Belt Affair

The Little Belt affair occurred four years after the ChesapeakeLeopard matter of 1807, in which HMS Leopard had attacked USS Chesapeake.  Fifteen days before the Little Belt affair, HMS Guerriere had stopped the brig USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook in New Jersey and impressed some of the sailors. In response, the Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton had ordered President, along with USS Argus, to patrol the coastal areas from the Carolinas to New York.

The commanding officer of the President was Commodore John Rodgers. The President left Annapolis only a few days before, and was aware of the incident with the Guerriere.  Rodgers was sailing up the coast toward New York, when the Little Belt was spotted off the cost of the Virginia Capes on May 16th. Believing it to be Guerriere, Rodgers pursued. The Little Belt's captain was Arthur Bingham. When Bingham signal the President asking for identification and received none, he noticed a blue pennant designating the ship's nationality. He continued south, but President continued its pursuit because Commodore Rodgers was interested in identifying the ship that he now knew by this time was not HMS Guerriere.

From the start of the pursuit, it appeared to Bingham that the President was maneuvering into a position to rake the smaller British ship. Bingham maneuvered to prevent his ship being in the line of fire. Both captains demanded that the other identify his ship, and both refused to answer before the other. Shortly after, a shot was fired, but again it was disputed who was first. Both ships were soon fully engaged in a barrage in which the much larger American ship had an overwhelming advantage. After about fifteen minutes, most of the British guns were inactive, and Rodgers gave the order to ceasefire. President then returned, and asked if Bingham had struck. Bingham replied that he had not, and the President again withdrew.

President sustained only one injury; Little Belt took nine deaths during the battle and 23 injuries, and the sloop was badly damaged in the attack. Two of the wounded Britons died the following day. The President sailed to New York City, and Little Belt went to Halifax, Nova Scotia under escort by HMS Goree. The two nations continued to argue about how the battle began for several months. Rodgers claimed that he had mistaken the British ship for a larger frigate and was adamant that Bingham had fired first. The Admiralty expressed their confidence in Bingham; it promoted him to post-captain on 7 February 1812.

For the British public, it was an insult as great as the Leopard versus Chesapeake incident had been to the American public. The tension between the two nations increased.