Impressment and the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson. Getty Images

The impressment of United States seamen from American ships by the British Royal Naval created serious friction between the United States and Britain. This tension was heightened by the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807 and was a major cause of the War of 1812

Impressment and the British Royal Navy

Impressment denotes the forceful taking of men and placing them into a navy. It was done without notice and was commonly used by the British Royal Navy in order to crew their warships. The Royal Navy normally used it during wartime when not only British merchant sailors were “impressed” but also sailors from other countries. This practice was also known as “the press” or “press gang” and it was first used by the Royal Navy in 1664 at the onset of the Anglo-Dutch wars. Although most British citizens strongly disapproved of impressment as being unconstitutional because they were not subject to conscription for other military branches, the British courts upheld this practice. This was mainly due to the fact that naval power was vital to Britain maintaining its’ existence. 

The HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake

In June 1807, the British HMS Leopard opened fire on USS Chesapeake which was forced to surrender. British sailors then removed four men from the Chesapeake who had deserted from the British Navy. Only one of the four was a British citizen, with the three others being Americans who had been impressed into British naval service. Their impressment caused widespread public outrage in the U.S.

At the time, the British, as well as most of Europe, were engaged in fighting the French in what is known as the Napoleonic Wars, with the battles starting in 1803. In 1806, a hurricane damaged two French warships, the Cybelle and Patriot, which made their way into Chesapeake Bay for necessary repairs so that they could make the return trip to France. 

In 1807, the British Royal Navy had a number of ships, including the Melampus and the Halifax, which were conducting a blockade off the United States coast in order to capture Cybelle and Patriot if they became seaworthy and left Chesapeake Bay, as well as prevent the French from obtaining much needed supplies from the U.S. Several men from the British ships deserted and sought the protection of the U.S. government. They had deserted near Portsmouth, Virginia, and made their way into the city where they were seen by naval officers from their respective ships. The British request that these deserters be handed over was completely ignored by local American authorities and enraged Vice Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley, the Commander of the British North American Station at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Four of the deserters, one of which was a British citizen - Jenkins Ratford – with the three others – William Ware, Daniel Martin, and John Strachan – being Americans who had been impressed into British naval service, enlisted in the U.S. Navy. They were stationed on the USS Chesapeake which just happened to be moored in Portsmouth and was about to embark on a trip to the Mediterranean Sea. Upon learning that Ratford had been bragging about his escape from the British custody, Vice Admiral Berkeley had issued an order that if a ship of the Royal Navy should find the Chesapeake at sea, it was that ship’s duty to stop the Chesapeake and capture the deserters. The British were very intent on making an example of these deserters.

On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake left its’ port Chesapeake Bay and as it sailed past Cape Henry, Captain Salisbury Humphreys of the HMS Leopard sent a small boat to the Chesapeake and gave Commodore James Barron a copy of Admiral Berkeley orders that the deserters were to be arrested.  After Barron refused, the Leopard fired almost point blank seven cannon balls into the unprepared Chesapeake which was outgunned and therefore was forced to almost immediately surrender. The Chesapeake suffered several causalities during this very brief skirmish and in addition, the British took custody of the four deserters.

The four deserters were taken to Halifax to be tried. The Chesapeake had suffered a fair amount of damage, but was able to return to Norfolk where the news of what had taken place quickly spread.  Once this news was made known throughout the United States which had very recently rid itself of British rule these further transgressions by the British was met with complete and total disdain. 

American Reaction

The American public was furious and demanded that the United States declare war against the British.  President Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

Although they were normally politically polar opposites, the Republican and Federalist parties were both aligned and it appeared that U.S. and Britain would soon be at war. However, President Jefferson's hands were tied militarily because the American army was small in number due to the Republicans desire to reduce government spending. In addition, the U.S. Navy was also quite small and most ships were deployed in the Mediterranean attempting to stop the Barbary pirates from destroying trade routes.

President Jefferson was intentionally slow in taking action against the British knowing that the calls from war would subside – which they did. Instead of war, President Jefferson called for economic pressure against Britain with the result being the Embargo Act.

The Embargo Act proved to be highly unpopular with American merchant who had benefited for nearly a decade from the conflict between the British and the French, collecting large profits by conducting trade with both sides while maintaining neutrality.

Aftermath

In the end, the embargoes and economic did not work with the American merchants losing their shipping rights because Great Britain refused to make any concessions to the U.S. It seemed evident that only war would restore the United States autonomy in shipping. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain with a major reason being trade restrictions which had been imposed by the British.

Commodore Barron was found guilty of “neglecting on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action,” and was suspended from the U.S. Navy for five years without pay.

On August 31, 1807, Ratford was convicted by court-martial for mutiny and desertion among other charges. He was sentenced to death the Royal Navy hanged him from a sail mast of the HMS Halifax – the ship that he had escaped from looking for his freedom. While there is truly no way of knowing just how many American sailors were impressed into the Royal Navy, it is estimated that over one thousand men were impressed per year into the British service.