Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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USS Chesapeake– HMS Leopard affair

In the spring of 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, several British naval vessels from the North American Station were blockading French ships in the Chesapeake Bay. A number of Royal Navy seamen had deserted from these ships and local American authorities gave them sanctuary.

Some deserters were at the Gosport Navy Yard, commanded by Stephen Decatur. The British consul sent a letter ordering him to turn them over. The consul claimed the men had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which was recruiting a crew for Chesapeake, then at the Washington Navy Yard. Vice-Admiral Sir George Berkeley dispatched his flagship, HMS Leopard, with written orders authorizing boarding and searching of the United States warship to recover any of the deserters.

USS Chesapeake was off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, commanded by Commodore James Barron, when HMS Leopard, under Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, encountered the ship. Barron received Lieutenant John Meade on board, who presented Barron with the search warrant. After an inconclusive discussion, Meade returned to Leopard. Captain Humphreys, ordered the American ship to submit. When Chesapeake did not, Humphreys fired a round across her bow. This was followed immediately by Leopard firing broadsides into the American ship. Her guns unloaded and her decks cluttered with stores, Chesapeake only managed to fire a single gun in return. Barron struck his colors and surrendered. Three of Chesapeake's crew were killed and 18 wounded, including Barron, by the attack. However, Humphreys refused the surrender and sent a boarding party to Chesapeake to search for deserters.

Scores of British nationals had signed on as crewmen of Chesapeake, but Humphreys seized only the four Royal Navy deserters: Daniel Martin, John Strachan and William Ware and Jenkin Ratford. Only Ratford was British-born. The others were American residents. Jenkin Ratford, the sole British citizen, was sentenced to death and was hanged from the yardarm of Halifax on August 31, 1807. The three American deserters received sentences of 500 lashes each, but the sentences were later commuted.

The encounter caused a storm of protest from the United States government, and the British government eventually offered to return the three American residents and to pay reparations for the damage to Chesapeake.