War of 1812: USS Chesapeake

USS Chesapeake under sail
USS Chesapeake. US Naval History & Heritage Command

USS Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates constructed for the U.S. Navy. Entering service in 1800, the ship carried 38 guns and saw service during the with Quasi-War with France and the campaign against the Barbary pirates. In 1807, Chesapeake was attacked by HMS Leopard (50 guns) over the practice of impressment of sailors in what became known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Active in the War of 1812, Chesapeake was defeated and captured by HMS Shannon (38) on June 1, 1813. The ship served as HMS Chesapeake until 1819.


With the United States' separation from Great Britain after the American Revolution, the American merchant marine no longer enjoyed the security provided by the Royal Navy when at sea. As a result, its ships made easy targets for pirates and other raiders such as the Barbary corsairs. Aware that a permanent navy would need to be created, Secretary of War Henry Knox requested American shipbuilders submit plans for six frigates in late 1792.

Worried about cost, debate raged in Congress for over a year until funding was finally obtained through the Naval Act of 1794. Calling for the building of four 44-gun and two 36-gun frigates, the act was put into effect and construction assigned to various cities. The designs selected by Knox were those of renowned naval architect Joshua Humphreys.

Aware that the United States could not hope to build a navy of equal strength to Britain or France, Humphreys created large frigates that could best any similar vessel, but were fast enough to escape enemy ships-of-the-line. The resulting vessels were long, with wider than usual beams and possessed diagonal riders in their framing to increase strength and prevent hogging.


Originally intended to be a 44-gun frigate, Chesapeake was laid down at Gosport, VA in December 1795. Construction was overseen by Josiah Fox and superintended by Flamborough Head veteran Captain Richard Dale. Progress on the frigate was slow and in early 1796 construction was halted when a peace accord was reached with Algiers. For the next two years, Chesapeake remained on the blocks at Gosport.

With the beginning of the Quasi-War with France in 1798, Congress authorized work to resume. Returning to work, Fox found that a shortage of timber existed as much of Gosport's supply had been shipped to Baltimore for the completion of USS Constellation (38). Aware of Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert's desire to have the vessel completed quickly and never a supporter of Humphreys' design, Fox radically redesigned the ship. The result was a frigate that was the smallest of the original six.

USS Chespeake under sail
USS Chesapeake. US Navy

As Fox's new plans reduced the overall cost of the vessel, they were approved by Stoddert on August 17, 1798. The new plans for Chesapeake saw the frigate's armament reduced from 44 guns to 36. Considered an oddity due to its differences relative to its sisters, Chesapeake was deemed an unfortunate ship by many. Launched on December 2, 1799, an additional six months were required to complete it. Commissioned on May 22, 1800, with Captain Samuel Barron in command, Chesapeake put to sea and transported currency from Charleston, SC to Philadelphia, PA.

USS Chesapeake (1799)


  • Nation: United States
  • Builder: Gosport Navy Yard
  • Authorized: March 27, 1794
  • Launched: December 2, 1799
  • Commissioned: May 22, 1800
  • Fate: Captured by HMS Shannon, June 1, 1813


  • Ship Type: Frigate
  • Displacement: 1,244 tons
  • Length: 152.6 ft.
  • Beam: 41.3 ft.
  • Draft: 20 ft.
  • Complement: 340

Armament (War of 1812)

  • 29 x 18 pdr
  • 18 x 32 pdr
  • 2 x 12 pdr
  • 1 x 12 pdr carronade

Early Service

After serving with an American squadron off the southern coast and in the Caribbean, Chesapeake captured its first prize, the French privateer La Jeune Creole (16), on January 1, 1801, after a 50-hour chase. With the end of the conflict with France, Chesapeake was decommissioned on February 26 and placed in ordinary. This reserve status proved brief as a resumption of hostilities with the Barbary States led to the frigate being reactivated in early 1802.

Made the flagship of an American squadron, led by Commodore Richard Morris, Chesapeake sailed for the Mediterranean in April and arrived at Gibraltar on May 25. Remaining abroad until early April 1803, the frigate took part in American operations against the Barbary pirates but was plagued by issues such as a rotted mast and bowsprit.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Laid up at the Washington Navy Yard in June 1803, Chesapeake remained idle for nearly four years. In January 1807, Master Commandant Charles Gordon was tasked with preparing the frigate for use as Commodore James Barron's flagship in the Mediterranean. As work progressed on Chesapeake, Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair was sent ashore to recruit a crew. Among those who signed on were three sailors who had deserted from HMS Melampus (36).

Though alerted to the status of these men by the British ambassador, Barron refused to return them as they had been forcibly impressed into the Royal Navy. Dropping down to Norfolk in June, Barron began provisioning Chesapeake for its voyage. On June 22, Barron departed Norfolk. Loaded with supplies, Chesapeake was not in fighting trim as the new crew was still stowing equipment and preparing the vessel for active operations. Leaving port, Chesapeake passed a British squadron which was blockading two French ships at Norfolk.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
HMS Leopard fires on USS Chesapeake. US Naval History and Heritage Command

A few hours later, the American frigate was chased down by HMS Leopard (50), commanded by Captain Salusbury Humphreys. Hailing Barron, Humphreys requested Chesapeake carry dispatches to Britain. A normal request, Barron agreed and one of Leopard's lieutenants rowed across to the American ship. Coming aboard, he presented Barron with orders from Vice Admiral George Berkeley which stated he was to search Chesapeake for deserters. Barron promptly refused this request and the lieutenant departed.

A short time later, Leopard hailed Chesapeake. Barron was unable to understand Humphreys message and moments later Leopard fired a shot across Chesapeake's bow before delivering a full broadside into the frigate. Barron ordered the ship to general quarters, but the cluttered nature of the decks made this difficult. As Chesapeake struggled to prepare for battle, the larger Leopard continued to pound the American ship. After enduring fifteen minutes of British fire, during which Chesapeake responded with only one shot, Barron struck his colors.

Coming aboard, the British removed four sailors from Chesapeake before departing. In the incident, three Americans were killed and eighteen, including Barron, were wounded. Badly battered, Chesapeake limped back to Norfolk. For his part in the affair, Barron was court-martialed and suspended from the US Navy for five years. A national humiliation, the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair led to a diplomatic crisis and President Thomas Jefferson banned all British warships from American ports. The affair also led to the Embargo Act of 1807 which devastated the American economy.

War of 1812

Repaired, Chesapeake later saw patrol duty enforcing the embargo with Captain Stephen Decatur in command. With the beginning of the War of 1812, the frigate was fitting out at Boston in preparation to sail as part of squadron consisting of USS United States (44) and USS Argus (18). Delayed, Chesapeake remained behind when the other ships sailed and did not leave port until mid-December. Commanded by Captain Samuel Evans, the frigate conducted a sweep of the Atlantic and captured six prizes before arriving back at Boston on April 9, 1813. In poor health, Evans left the ship the following month and was replaced by Captain James Lawrence.

James Lawrence
Captain James Lawrence, USN. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Battle with HMS Shannon

Taking command, Lawrence found the ship in poor condition and the crew's morale low as enlistments were expiring and their prize money was tied up in court. Working to appease the remaining sailors, he also began recruiting to fill out the crew. As Lawrence worked to ready his ship, HMS Shannon (38), commanded by Captain Philip Broke, began blockading Boston. In command of the frigate since 1806, Broke had built Shannon into a crack ship with an elite crew.

On May 31, after learning that Shannon had moved closer to the harbor, Lawrence decided to sail out and battle the British frigate. Putting to sea the next day, Chesapeake, now mounting 50 guns, emerged from the harbor. This corresponded to a challenge sent by Broke that morning, though Lawrence never received the letter. Though Chesapeake possessed a larger armament, Lawrence's crew was green and many had yet to train on the ship's guns.

HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake
HMS Shannon leads the captured USS Chesapeake into Halifx harbor, June 1813. Library and Archives Canada (Public Domain)

Flying a large banner proclaiming "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights," Chesapeake met the enemy around 5:30 p.m. approximately twenty miles east of Boston. Nearing, the two ships exchanged broadsides and soon after became entangled. As Shannon's guns began sweeping Chesapeake's decks, both captains gave the order to board. Shortly after issuing this order, Lawrence was mortally wounded. His loss and Chesapeake's bugler failing to sound the call led the Americans to hesitate.

Surging aboard, the Shannon's sailors succeeded in overwhelming Chesapeake's crew after bitter fighting. In the battle, Chesapeake lost 48 killed and 99 wounded while Shannon suffered 23 killed and 56 wounded. Repaired at Halifax, the captured ship served in the Royal Navy as HMS Chesapeake until 1815. Sold four years later, many of its timbers were used in the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: USS Chesapeake." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-uss-chesapeake-2361213. Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). War of 1812: USS Chesapeake. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-uss-chesapeake-2361213 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: USS Chesapeake." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-uss-chesapeake-2361213 (accessed June 2, 2023).