Documents on the Capture of the Chesapeake by the Leopard (1807)
By Commodore James Barron.
[Excerpted from American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. III: Building of the Republic, Albert Bushnell Hart, ed. (New York, MacMillan, 1901), pp. 396-400]
Barron is known chiefly through this episode, for he never afterwards possessed an active command. The incident illustrates the storm and stress of that period. The Chesapeake had gone to sea because war with France seemed imminent, and within two days she struck her Flag to the enemy of France. -the British government repudiated the action and restored the seamen taken from the Chesapeake, and also paid an indemnity.
By the Honorable GEORGE CRANFIELD BERKELEY, Vice Admiral of the White, and Commander--in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty's ships and vessels employed in the river St. Lawrence, along the coast of Nova Scotia, the Islands of St. John and Cape Breton, the Bay of Fundy, and at and about the island of Bermuda, or Sommers' islands:
Whereas, many seamen, subjects of His Britannic Majesty, and serving in His Majesty's ships and vessels . . . while at anchor in the Chesapeake, deserted and entered on board the United States' frigate the Chesapeake, and openly paraded the streets of Norfolk, in sight of their officers, under the American flag, protected by the magistrates of the town, and the recruiting officer belonging to the above-mentioned American frigate; which magistrates and naval officer refused giving them up, although demanded by His Britannic Majesty's consul, as well as the captains of the ships from which the said men had deserted; the captains and commanders of His Majesty's ships and vessels under my command are, therefore, hereby required and directed, in case of meeting with the American frigate Chesapeake at sea, and without the limits of the United States, to show to the captain of her this order, and to require to search his ship for the deserters from the before-mentioned shops, and to proceed and search for the same. And, if a similar demand should be made by the American, he is permitted to search for deserters from their service, according to the customs and usages of civilized nations, on terms of peace and amity with each other.
Given under my hand, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1st day of June, I807.
G. C. BERKELEY
To the respective captains and commanders of gas Majesty's ships and vessels on the North American station.
NAVY YARD, WASHINGTON, April 7, 1807.
I HAVE the honor to enclose you the result of my inquiries relating to the men mentioned in your letter of yesterday....
William Ware, pressed from on board the brig Neptune, Captain Crafts, by the British frigate Melampus, in the Bay of Biscay, and has served on board the said frigate fifteen months.
William Ware is a native American; born on Pipe creek, Frederick county, State of Maryland, at Bruce's Mills, and served his time at said Mills; he also lived at Ellicott's mills, near Baltimore, and drove a wagon several years between Hagerstown and Baltimore; he also served eighteen months on board the United States' frigate Chesapeake, under the command of Commodore Morris and Captain James Barron; he is an Indian looking man.
Daniel Martin was pressed at the same time and place; he is a native of Westport, in Massachusetts, about thirty miles to the eastward of Newport, Rhode Island; served his time out of New York with Captain Marrowby in the Caledonian; refers to Mr. Benjamin Davis, merchant, and Mr. Benjamin Corce, of Westport; he is a colored man.
John Strachan, born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Queen Anne's county, between Centreville and Queen's town; refers to Mr. John Price and Pratt, Esq., on Kent island, who know his relations; Strachan sailed in the brig Martha Bland, Captain Wivill, from Norfolk to Dublin, and from thence to Liverpool; he there left the brig, and shipped on board an English Guineaman; he was pressed on board the Melampus, off Cape Finisterre; to better his situation he consented to enter, being determined to make his escape when opportunity offered; he served on board the frigate two years; he is a white man, about five feet seven inches high.
William Ware and John Strachan have protections; Daniel Martin says he lost his after leaving the frigate.
John Little, alias Francis, and Ambrose Watts, escaped from the Melampus at the same time; known to the above persons to be Americans, but have not been entered by my recruiting officer.
William Ware, Daniel Martin, and John Strachan, state that, some time in February last, there was an entertainment on board the Melampus, lying then in Hampton Roads; that while the officers of-were engaged, and all the ship's boats, except the captain's gig, being hoisted in, themselves, and the two other men mentioned, availed themselves of a moment to seize the gig and row off; that, as soon as they had got into the boat, they were hailed to know what they were going to do; they replied they were going ashore; a brisk fire of musketry instantly commenced from the ship; that, in defiance of balls, and the hazard of their lives, they continued to pull, and finally effected their escape to land, namely, Lowell's Point; that they then carefully hauled up the boat on the beach, rolled up the coat, and placed that and the oars in the boat, gave three cheers, and moved up the country.
Yesterday at 6., A. M., the wind became favorable, and knowing your anxiety that the ship should sail with all possible despatch, we weighed from our station in Hampton Roads and stood to sea. In Lynnhaven bay we passed two British men of war, one of them the Bellona, the other the Melampus; their colors flying, and their appearance friendly. Some time afterwards, we observed one of the two line-of-battle ships that lay off Cape Henry to get under way, and stand to sea; at this time the wind became light, and it was not until near four in the afternoon that the ship under way came within hail. Cape Henry then bearing northwest by west, distance three leagues, the communication, which appeared to be her commander's object for speaking the Chesapeake, he said he would send on board; on which I ordered the Chesapeake to be hove to for his convenience. On the arrival of the officer he presented me with the enclosed paper (No. I.) from the captain of the Leopard, and a copy of an order from Admiral Berkeley, which another officer afterwards took back, to which I gave the enclosed answer, (No. 2.) and was waiting for his reply. About this time I observed some appearance of a hostile nature, and said to Captain Gordon that it was possible they were serious, and requested him to have his men sent to their quarters with as little noise as possible, not using those ceremonies which we should have done with an avowed enemy, as I fully supposed their arrangements were more menace than any thing serious. Captain Gordon immediately gave the orders to the officers and men to go to quarters, and have all things in readiness: but before a match could be lighted, or the quarter-bill of any division examined, or the lumber on the gun-deck, such as sails, cables, &c., | could be cleared, the commander of the Leopard hailed; I could not hear what he said, and was talking to him, as I supposed, when she commenced a heavy fire, which did great execution.
It is distressing to me to acknowledge, that I found from the advantage they had gained over our unprepared and unsuspicious state, did not warrant a longer opposition; nor should I have exposed this ship and crew to so galling a fire had it not been with the hope of getting the gun-deck clear, so as to have made a more formidable defence; consequently our resistance was but feeble. In about twenty minutes after I ordered the colors to be struck, and sent Lieutenant Smith on board the Leopard to inform her commander that I considered the Chesapeake her prize. To this message I received no answer; the Leopard's boat soon after came on board, and the officer who came in her demanded the muster book. I replied the ship and books were theirs, and if he expected to see the men he must find them. They called on the purser who delivered his book, and the men were examined; and the three men demanded at Washington, and one man more, were taken away. On their departure from the ship I wrote the commander of the Leopard the enclosed, (No. 3,) to which I received the answer, (No. 4.) On finding that the men were his only object, and that he refused to consider the ship his prize, and the officers and crew his prisoners, I called a council of our officers, and requested their opinion relative to the conduct it was now our duty to pursue. The result was that the ship should return to Hampton Roads, and there wait your further orders. Enclosed you have a list of the unfortunate killed and wounded, as also a statement of the damage sustained in the hull, spars, and rigging of the ship....
With great respect, I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant, JAMES BARRON.
To Hon. ROBERT SMITH, Secretary of the Navy, Washington.
HIS MAJESTY'S SHIP LEOPARD, AT SEA, June 22, 1807.
The captain of His Britannic Majesty's ship Leopard has the honor to enclose the captain of the United States' ship Chesapeake an order from the honorable Vice Admiral Berkeley, commander-in-chief of His Majesty's ships on the North American station, respecting some deserters from the ships (therein mentioned) under his command, and supposed to be now serving as part of the crew of the Chesapeake
The captain of the Leopard will not presume to say any thing in addition to what the commander-in-chief has stated, more than to express a hope that every circumstance respecting them may be adjusted in a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two countries may remain undisturbed.
To the Commander of the United States' Ships Chesapeake.
AT SEA, June 22, I807.
I know of no such men as you describe. The officers that were on the recruiting service for this ship were particularly instructed by the Government, through me, not to enter any deserters from His Britannic Majesty's ships, nor do I know of any being here. I am also instructed never to permit the crew of any ship that I command to be mustered by any other but their own officers. It is my disposition to preserve harmony, and I hope this answer to your despatch may prove satisfactory.
To the Commander of His Britannic Majesty's Ship Leopard
CHESAPEAKE, AT SEA, June 22, I807.
I consider the frigate Chesapeake your prize, and am ready to deliver her to any officer authorized to receive her. By the return of the boat I shall expect your answer....
To the Commander of His Britannic Majesty's Ship Leopard.
LEOPARD, AT SEA, June 22, I807.
Having to the utmost of my power fulfilled the instructions of my commander-in-chief, I have nothing more to desire, and must in consequence proceed to join the remainder of the squadron, repeating that I am ready to give you every assistance in my power, and do most sincerely deplore that any lives should have been lost in the execution of a service which might have been adjusted more amicably not only with respect to ourselves, but the nations to which we respectively belong. . . .
S. P. HUMPHREYS.
To the Commander of the United States' Ship Chesapeake.