The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Chesapeake-Leopard Incident and the War of 1812

This past Saturday marked the 206th anniversary of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, a controversial incident in American history and a contributing factor to the start of the War of 1812.

In 1807 Britain was fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The British navy sent a number of ships to blockade the French from obtaining supplies in the United States, but some crew members of these ships deserted and sought protection with American authorities. The US navy recruited these men, and they joined the crew of the USS Chesapeake.

On June 22, 1807, the British HMS Leopard pursued the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia. The captain of the Leopard sent a message demanding to search the Chesapeake for British naval deserters but the Chesapeake’s Commodore James Barron refused. The Leopard opened fire and the Chesapeake, poorly armed, was forced to surrender, but not before several crew members were wounded or killed. The British removed four deserters from the Chesapeake’s crew. Only one of them was British – the rest were American seamen who had been impressed into British naval service. The Leopard then sailed to Halifax so that the men could be tried.

The American public was outraged by the actions of the British navy, but quickly divided over how to respond, with some calling for war and others caution. The Society has a number of manuscripts in its collections related to the public response to the Chesapeake incident. In “Peace Without Dishonor, War Without Hope,” a “Yankee Farmer” appealed to the reason of his readers and argued against a rush into war. “If we succeed in the war, we gain the right to cover a few British deserters, whom we do not want, and which…will bring little profit; but we hazard our lives, our liberties, our government,” he wrote. Others, however, were not so interested in peace. “Illustrations on the Fulfillment of the Prediction of Merlin” contains a poem titled “The Chesapeake Massacre,” which was written by a “Revolutionist of ’75.” The final stanza reads:

If Jefferson and Congress join,

We can defeat the base design

                        Of villainous ingrates;

Then let us arm at ev’ry point,

And with our blood, our cause anoint,

                        And trust to God our fates.

Pres. Jefferson chose to respond with an embargo rather than go to war with Britain, but his decision was controversial. The embargo hurt American industries and was difficult to enforce. Despite Jefferson’s attempt to avoid war, the British navy’s act of aggression sowed a seed that ultimately contributed to war between the United States and Great Britain five years later.

 To learn more about the War of 1812 read this earlier blog post about an 1813 political cartoon, or view this online exhibition

permalink | Published: Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 1:00 AM


Commenting has closed for this post. Thank you for participating.