Military history


Honor’s Shoals

From the Boston Patriot, February 29, 1812.

NO VISIT to America was complete for the British traveler of the early 1800s without a letter home laden with disdain for the vulgarity of the inhabitants. Americans were crude, loud, boastful, grasping—and they were ingrates to boot. Augustus J. Foster, secretary to the British legation in 1804, asserted that “from the Province of Maine to the borders of Florida, you would not find 30 men of Truth, Honour, or Integrity. Corruption, Immorality, Irreligion, and above all, self-interest, have corroded the very pillars on which their Liberty rests.” No more than five members of Congress could be considered gentlemen; the rest habitually appeared in “the filthiest dresses.” American women were “a spying, inquisitive, vulgar, and most ignorant race.” President Jefferson himself “is dressed and looks extremely like a plain farmer, and wears his slippers down at the heels.”1

Those slippers had nearly caused a diplomatic incident themselves. When Foster’s principal, the new British minister Anthony Merry, came to present his credentials to the president, he arrived in full court dress, sash, ceremonial sword, and all. President Jefferson appeared in an old brown coat, faded corduroys, much-soiled linen, and those worn-down slippers. Merry was sure it was a calculated insult to him personally, and to his country officially. The British minister spent the next several months accumulating imagined insults from other displays of American informality, above all the careless egalitarianism of Jefferson’s hospitality at the White House. Jefferson made a point of dispensing with all the elaborate European rules of precedence of place in seating guests at his dinner table; his rule was what he termed “pêle-mêle”: guests found their own seats. This was all news to Merry, who was mortified when Mrs. Merry was not seated next to the president and he found himself elbowed aside by a member of the House of Representatives as he was about to sit down next to the wife of the Spanish minister. Even an official note from Secretary of State James Madison explaining the customs of his host country failed to convince Merry that it was anything but a premeditated plan to give offense.2

The deeper problem was that most Britons did not really think of the America of 1800 as a real country. The Revolution had given America independence in name, but her claims to a place among the civilized nations of the world struck even sympathetic British observers as pretentious or simply laughable. America’s similarities to Britain only showed her enduring dependence on the mother country; her differences only reflected degeneracy or immaturity, proving how helpless the former colony was on her own. British critics found literally nothing praiseworthy about life in America. In science, art, and literature America was a nullity; “the destruction of her whole literature would not occasion so much regret as we feel for the loss of a few leaves from an antient classic,” pronounced the Edinburgh Review. American conversation consisted of nosy cross-examination of strangers. America’s colleges were little better than grammar schools. The food was ill-cooked, the drinking excessive, the inns crowded, the street brawls savage.3

Above all, America’s government was a rickety experiment, indecisive and incapable of ever rising to the level of the world’s great powers. The Irish poet Thomas Moore, who visited America in 1804, saw in the vulgarity and roughness of American society a reflection of a government system fatally weakened by airy ideals of republicanism and lacking the steadying influence of a gentry and hereditary aristocracy. “The mail takes twelve passengers, which generally consist of squalling children, stinking negroes, and republicans smoking cigars,” Moore complained. “How often it has occurred to me that nothing can be more emblematic of the government of this country than its stages, filled with a motley mixture, all ‘hail fellows well met,’ driving through mud and filth, which bespatters them as they raise it, and risking an upset at every step.”4

America’s grasping commercialism and braying talk of liberty, most Britons felt, were all of a piece with its upstart vulgarity. An honest recognition of America’s ongoing dependency on Britain for its very survival, economically and politically, ought to make Americans more grateful and less strident: more willing to accept the place Britain wished to assign her as a very junior partner; happy to behave, in other words, more as the colony they really, in fact, still were, not the excessively proud nation their upset victory at Yorktown had led them to declare themselves to be. “The Alps and Apennines of America are the British Navy,” asserted the Times of London. “If ever that should be removed, a short time will suffice to establish the head-quarters of a Duke-Marshal at Washington, and to divide the territory of the Union into military prefectures.” The even more jingoistic British newspaper the Courier chimed in with the observation that while America was arguably advantageous to Great Britain, Great Britain was necessary to America: “It is British capital, which directly or indirectly, sets half the industry of America in motion: it is the British fleets that give it protection and security.”5

LIKE ALL caricatures, the picture of America painted by British travelers and opinion writers captured some truths. On a visit to Monticello during the summer of 1805, Augustus Foster observed with more perception and nuance, and less of the automatic disdain that had animated his earlier impressions of America, the contradictions of American democracy, and of the leader who was supposed to embody its values. The president who made a show of democratic simplicity, riding his horse unaccompanied about Washington in his worn coat, spent freely on his own comforts at home atop his mountain retreat in Virginia. There were all the gadgets Jefferson’s guests were expected to admire: the cart equipped with an odometer, the spiral rotating clothes rack. And then Foster, the English aristocrat, found that his own views on human equality and liberty were far more broad-minded than Jefferson’s, at least when it came to extending the American notion of liberty to the black race. Foster thought it self-evident that blacks were “as capable to the full of profiting by the advantages of Education as any other of any Shade whatever,” but the Republican president told him that “the Mental Qualities of the Negro Race” fitted them only “to carry Burthens” and that freedom would only render them more miserable; the American champion of democratic equality dismissed emancipation of the slaves as “an English Hobby,” much as the tea tax had been. And Jefferson the extoller of agrarian virtue was “considered a very bad Farmer,” Foster found in conversation with others nearby; a whole hillside of Monticello had been so negligently cultivated as to have eroded away into gullies so deep that “Houses afterwards might be buried” in them. “They have been obliged to scatter Scotch Broom Seed over it, which at least succeeded in at least hiding the Cavities.” Like the country itself, America’s third president was much given to “speculative doctrines on imaginary perfection” that did not always comport with reality.6

The reality was that America in the first decade of the new century was poor, weak, and backward. By many measures there had been little progress from colonial days. Compared with London, with its one million people, America’s great cities were little more than overgrown medieval villages. Boston had actually lost population for several years following the Revolution; by 1800 its population stood at 25,000, little more than what it had been thirty years earlier. New York had 60,000, Baltimore 13,000, Charleston 18,000. With the possible sole exception of Philadelphia—whose 70,000 residents enjoyed neatly laid-out blocks, streetlights, drains, and wooden pipes that brought in fresh water—they also had no sanitation to speak of, bad paving, an abundance of dramshops, and periodic outbreaks of yellow fever and other deadly epidemics that sent the residents fleeing for the hills. The still-unpaid cost of the war against Britain, a debt of $82 million, pressed like a dead weight on the national economy; the entire capitalization of all the banks in the country amounted to but a third as much.

Travel was arduous, erratic, and unbelievably expensive; even in settled New England, stagecoaches crept along barely travelable roads at an average pace of four miles an hour, taking three days from Boston to New York, two days from New York to Philadelphia. From Baltimore to Washington—where the new federal city, all hope and little reality, was rising on a malarial backwater with nothing to show yet but a single row of brick houses, a few log cabins, the half-finished White House, and, a mile and a half away across a bramble-tangled swamp, the two wings of the Capitol still unconnected by a center—there was a stagecoach but no road at all; the driver chose among meandering tracks in the woods and hoped for the best. To go from Baltimore to New York cost $21, a month’s average wages.7

South of Washington there were no public conveyances to be had at all, no roads that wagons could traverse, no bank between Alexandria, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, and no call for one. Three-quarters of the nation’s workforce of 1.9 million worked on farms, almost all practicing methods unchanged for a thousand years before, steadily exhausting the soil, making whatever clothes they wore themselves, threshing grain with two sticks bound by a leather hinge or trod-ding it with horses or oxen. Two thousand men in the entire nation, about evenly divided between textiles and primary iron and steel production, earned their wages in basic manufacturing. Houses, even of the wealthiest planters, were run-down; a French visitor to Virginia at this time found genteel poverty the norm: “one finds a well-served table, covered with silver, where for ten years half the window panes have been missing, and where they will be missed for ten years more.”8

Most Americans still reckoned money in shillings and never saw an American coin larger than a cent. The loose ties that linked the states together had changed little from colonial times. The new capital was meant to be an affirming symbol of nationhood, but as the historian Henry Adams would later wryly observe, “the contrast between the immensity of the task and the paucity of the means” seemed only to suggest that the nation itself was no more than a “magnificent scheme.” The unraised columns of the Capitol were a symbol not of national affirmation but of a people given to grandiose and loudly proclaimed plans incapable of fulfillment. Pierre L’Enfant’s grand design of broad avenues and long vistas existed only in the imagination across an ugly expanse of tree stumps. Expectations that Washington would grow like any other city and become a place of commerce and culture had been roundly disappointed; the legislators lodged together in boarding-houses, two to a room, living “like bears,” complained one senator, “brutalized and stupefied” by having nothing to do but talk politics morning and night, having to send to Baltimore for all but the most ordinary necessities. “Is national independence a dream?” asked the citizens of Mobile, part of Jefferson’s grand Louisiana Purchase of 1803, struggling as they were to eke out a miserable living on a frontier a thousand miles away.9

The one bright spot in all this was America’s maritime trade: it was absolutely booming. By 1805 the American merchant fleet engaged in foreign trade was growing by seventy thousand tons of shipping a year, well on its way to reaching a million tons by the end of the decade, double what it was in 1800 when America already boasted the world’s largest merchant fleet of any neutral nation. From Salem, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, American-built ships laden with American-grown cotton, wheat, and tobacco set sail across the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and even more distant seas. American exports passed $100 million a year, quadruple the figure of just a decade earlier. And it was not just American products they were carrying; Yankee ships were showing up wherever there were goods to be carried and money to be made. William Jones, merchant captain of Philadelphia, was already following a well-worn path for American traders when he sailed to India in 1803 and Canton in 1805, taking a share of the lucrative Chinese opium trade.

Customs duties were the national government’s only reliable source of revenue, and the expansion of foreign trade brought millions flooding into the United States Treasury. Jefferson’s administration ran a surplus every year, making it possible to pay down the debt that the president had called a “moral canker” on the body politic of the young nation. Federal revenues grew from $10 million at the start of Jefferson’s presidency in 1801 to $16 million by the end of his second term, allowing his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, to announce in 1808 that $25 million of the $82 million national debt had been erased.10

America’s growing merchant fleet created a huge demand for labor to man all the new ships: four thousand new sailors were needed each year just to keep pace with the expansion. By 1807 some fifty thousand seafarers would be employed on American merchant ships. It was a young man’s occupation, and a distinctly urban one. Nearly all American seafarers came from towns or cities along the coast; half were from the twelve largest coastal cities. Most went to sea between the ages of sixteen and twenty and stayed at it only a few years; half were between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, and only 10 percent remained at sea for more than fifteen years. For a young American of 1800 it was not a way of life but an adventure and a way to make some quick money, since the wages paid merchant seamen had risen swiftly with demand, and American seamen were soon earning $18 a month at a time when their counterparts in the British merchant marine and the Royal Navy were paid less than half that. Some American shipowners were offering as much as $30 or $35 a month when that was what it took to man their vessels.

It was also an exceedingly dangerous occupation. The physical descriptions entered in seamen’s certificates issued by the United States in the first two decades of the nineteenth century in almost every case include a mention of scars and deformities: most sailors had smashed, split, bent, or broken fingers, missing nails, or missing fingertips; one in ten were partially disabled with missing eyes, lame legs, or ruptures.11

Significantly, more than 15 percent of American seafarers at this time were free African Americans; that was two or three or even four times the percentage of the black population in the places they came from. Half of black seafarers worked as stewards or cooks, but the other half were regular seamen. It was an opportunity for equal pay and equal respect that simply did not exist anywhere else in American society at the time. “To drive carriage, carry a market basket after the boss, and brush his boots, or saw wood and run errands, was as high as a colored man could rise” on land, recalled William Brown, whose father, Noah, had been a sailor on merchant ships in Rhode Island in the first years of the 1800s. But at sea, noted one traveler of a slightly later period, “the Negro feels as a man.” Black seafarers responded to the opportunity by sticking with the life at sea much longer than their white counterparts: they were on average older, more likely to be married, more likely to be tied to one home port. That meant they were also more experienced. On many Yankee ships African American sailors ranked higher, and earned more, than white hands.

African Americans were almost never officers—there were limits—but many observers commented on the equality and lack of racial animosity that existed among American sailors in the first decades of the nineteenth century. They messed together and worked together. Racial boundaries retreated in the face of the far more salient boundaries that the rules and regimentation of shipboard ritual imposed; ironically, the very depersonalization and dehumanization that all sailors suffered made race recede in significance along with every other claim to individual, human consideration that a ship’s captain made perfectly clear he didn’t give a damn about. A visitor to New Orleans around 1800 noted with wonder that black seamen might “give twenty lashes with the end of a rope to white sailors, but ashore they dare not even look them in the face.”

It would not last: by 1840 segregation was already becoming the norm on American ships, and more and more the only jobs open to African Americans at sea were the familiar and degradingly menial ones of servant, messman, and cook. But in the formative years of the young republic, African Americans would carry a hugely disproportionate burden in the emergence of the nation as a force to be reckoned with on the high seas.12

BRITISH OPINION divided on whether the swelling tide of American merchant vessels was a good thing or a bad thing. A few radical members of Parliament regularly rose from the Whig party’s opposition benches to praise all things American. Samuel Whitbread, whose successful brewing business had made him a fortune—and an emblem of the self-made man who was beginning to challenge the landed aristocracy’s traditional hold on power—declared that he viewed America’s successful Revolution with “reverence and admiration,” and made clear he welcomed American progress on any and all fronts as a boon to humankind.13

Others saw perfectly practical reasons to welcome America’s growing commercial prosperity. America was the market for half of Britain’s textile exports in 1806, a third of all her exported goods—worth some $50 million a year. America, for her part, supplied Britain with the wheat she needed to feed herself, shipping twice as much as the rest of the world combined, along with some fifty million tons of cotton a year to keep her mills running. Anticipating free-trade arguments that would take nearly two centuries to become commonplace, the Scottish Whig politician Henry Brougham argued that trying to protect traditional British monopolies on the oceangoing trade only hurt Britain’s prosperity in the long run; the American shipping trade provided an outlet for British manufactures and put money in the pockets of Britain’s best customers. “Can any but the veriest driveller in political science, doubt for a moment that her gains are our gains,” Brougham wrote of America in 1808, “… that the less she traded with other nations, the less she will trade with ourselves; and that to confine her foreign commerce to her trade with England, would be to diminish, if not to destroy this trade also.”

That was a compelling argument for many of Britain’s emerging industrial class. But it was the “drivellers” who spoke far louder, clinging to a traditional view that equated the strength of Great Britain with her hegemony of the seas, pure and simple: British merchantmen no less than the Royal Navy were why Britannia ruled the waves. Shipbuilders, shipowners, and the trades that supplied them formed a powerful bloc that violently opposed any concessions to rival trading nations, and in particular any weakening of the Navigation Acts, which barred non-English ships from carrying goods to or from English colonies. They noted with alarm that America had already elbowed aside Britain in the trade between the two countries; British tonnage engaged in that transatlantic commerce had plummeted from 72,000 to 14,000, and there was no end to America’s appetite for more. “Our liberality was but that of the prodigal who gives without return,” declared Lord Sheffield, a venerable proponent of the Navigation Acts. America’s gains, insisted the traditionalists, inescapably were Britain’s losses.14

Calls to crack down on the encroaching American trade sharply intensified with the resumption of Britain’s war with France in May 1803. As the Royal Navy swept French and Spanish merchantmen from the sea, neutral American shippers swept in. “Their own fair Trade has increased immensely & yet they would have the carrying all the French & Spanish,” fumed Augustus Foster. “There is not, thanks to our Tars, a single French or Spanish merchantman that now navigates these Seas—& these Jews want to navigate for them.”15 It was sometimes hard to tell which the British resented more, the money the Americans were making or the aid they were giving their enemy, but there were clear signs that a harsh reaction was coming.

In summer 1804 the British frigate Leander appeared off Sandy Hook at the entrance to New York harbor. Along with two other British warships, the frigate Cambrian and the sloop of war Driver, the Leander had been in and out of New York since the spring, ostensibly to keep watch on two French frigates that had taken refuge in the harbor. On one occasion Cambrian and Driver had sailed into port and anchored directly abreast of the French ships in an attempt to rattle their foes.16

On her return in August 1804, the Leander began to make clear that the British navy now had an additional mission on the American coast, and that was the systematic harassment of American shipping. “With the outward-bound vessels we had little or nothing to do,” recalled Basil Hall, then a young midshipman aboard the Leander. But every American ship returning from Europe was halted and boarded, just outside of the United States’ three-mile territorial limit:

Every morning, at daybreak, during our stay off New York, we set about arresting the progress of all the vessels we saw, firing off guns to the right and left, to make every ship that was running in, heave to, or wait, until we had leisure to send a boat aboard, “to see,” in our lingo, “what she was made of.” I have frequently known a dozen, and sometimes a couple of dozen ships, lying a league or two off the port, losing their fair wind, their tide, and worse than all, their market, for many hours, sometimes the whole day, before our search was completed.… When any circumstance in the ship’s papers looked suspicious, the boarding officer brought the master and his documents to the Leander, where they were further examined by the captain; and if anything more important was then elicited, by an examination of the parties or their papers, to justify the idea that the cargo was French, and not American … the ship was forthwith detained. She was then manned with an English crew from the ships of war, and ordered off to Halifax.17

Neutral trade was governed by what was, in effect, a body of international common law, a set of precedents and rulings that had been accumulating for centuries, enforced by the admiralty courts of each nation. The basic principles were widely recognized and accepted as part of the “law of nations” that governed the rules of civilized warfare. A belligerent could legally make a prize of any of his enemy’s merchant vessels encountered on the high seas. He could not, however, interfere with neutral vessels trading with the enemy so long as they did not carry contraband—material such as weapons or ammunition that directly aided the enemy’s military forces. The more traditional rules that British courts enforced held that noncontraband goods owned by a belligerent could also be seized on the high seas, even when transported by a neutral vessel. American policy favored a more encompassing definition of neutrality: “free vessels make free goods.” This difference would often be cited as one of the key points of dispute in the war to come between Britain and America, but the truth was it was largely moot by 1804; American shippers by then had access to enough credit that the goods they transported were almost always purchased on their own account, so American ships carried American goods. By either the British or the American definition, the ships and their cargo were neutral and not subject to seizure.

The British rule may have provided slightly more convenient legal window dressing for the pretexts British captains began to use as they stepped up the campaign against American shipping, but it was manifest they were going to find pretexts no matter what. Hundreds of American ships were halted and seized on the flimsiest evidence—a ship’s paper not drawn up in correct form, a bill of lading that the British captain declared might have been forged, a piece of private correspondence referring to business transactions in France—and sent in to Halifax or Bermuda or the West Indies for adjudication by the British vice admiralty courts that operated at these colonial outposts. The ships’ owners faced months of lost time while their ships were held and their cargoes frozen, and contesting the legality of the seizure incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees and court charges for the ship’s owner, win or lose. And then the captor could threaten to carry the case to the Lords Commissioners of Appeal in London, which guaranteed to tie up the matter for a minimum of another year, virtually forcing the owner to compromise in order to have the appeal dropped. And after all that, upon the release of his ship, he faced the good chance that his vessel would be seized yet again by another British ship on his way home, starting the process all over again. There were never any official repercussions for a British navy captain who was overly zealous in stopping and seizing American ships; none was ever disciplined. Although in egregious cases the vice admiralty courts could find the capturing ship’s captain liable and award the owner costs and damages, the sanction was never applied with the frequency or certainty required to offset the much greater rewards that captors regularly reaped even in dubious seizures.

Knowing this allowed the even less scrupulous British privateers, who eagerly began to join in the game, to extort ransoms of $500 or $1,000 apiece from the owners of merchant ships they stopped on scarcely any pretext at all. It was a small price to pay for staying out of the clutches of the British legal system.18

IN 1805 the tensions that would finally erupt seven years later into full-blown war took a sharp jump as a result of a British legal ruling that vastly widened the scope of the for-now-undeclared British war on American neutral commerce. In May 1805 the British vice admiralty court in Nassau, Bahamas, ruled that any American ship carrying goods between France and her colonies could legally be seized, regardless of who owned the goods or where the voyage began. As a direct consequence, British cruisers everywhere began snapping up every American merchant ship they encountered crossing the Atlantic.

The legal reasoning in the case, which involved the merchant brig Essex, revolved around a British precedent known as the Rule of 1756, established during the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 between Britain and France. The rule held that a neutral could not carry on in wartime a trade that was closed to him in peacetime. France, like most European powers, restricted trade to her colonies to French vessels. For a neutral to come in and take up that trade in wartime was, from the British viewpoint, not a neutral act at all, but rather was using the cover of neutrality to reconstitute the commerce of an enemy that had been legitimately destroyed by the not inconsiderable exertions of the Royal Navy.

The 1803 revival of hostilities between Britain and France had produced a bonanza for American merchants carrying sugar and coffee from the French West Indies to France, precisely the sort of trade barred by the Rule of 1756. To skirt the rule, American ships would break their voyage by touching at an American port, sometimes even unloading their cargo onto the wharves and paying import duties before reloading the goods and “re-exporting” them. An earlier British admiralty court decision had seemed to sanction this practice, and American shippers immediately started to run away with this trade; American re-exports doubled in just two years, reaching $60 million in 1805. The Essex decision slammed the door on this legal charade. “I cannot hesitate in denying to a fraudulently circuitous voyage, those immunities which are withheld from a direct one,” the judge of the British vice admiralty court ruled in affirming the validity of the Essex’s seizure.19

The decision caused an uproar in the United States when news of it finally arrived in late 1805, not least because it had come without warning and scores of American ships were taken before American shippers could learn of the change in policy. Hard on its heels there arrived from England a furious attack on American motives that literally added insult to the injury. War in Disguise: or, The Frauds of the Neutral Flags was published anonymously but was almost immediately known to be the work of James Stephen, a British lawyer with close ties to the government. James Monroe, the American minister in London, sent a copy back to Washington along with the report that everyone in London knew it was “a ministerial work, or rather under its auspices.” Those suspicions were amply confirmed when Stephen was shortly afterward rewarded with a safe seat in Parliament.

War in Disguise was hugely influential in Britain, throwing America’s supporters on the defensive by skillfully casting America not as an innocent wronged but as an actual aggressor, and a deceitful and treacherous one at that. Affirming the correctness of the Essex decision—“that a neutral has no right to deliver a belligerent from the pressure of his enemy’s hostilities, by trading with his colonies in time of war in a way that was prohibited in time of peace”—Stephen went on to accuse America of engaging in conduct that was tantamount to war. Far from America having had her neutral rights violated, America had trespassed Britain’s belligerent rights. Cutting off France from the wealth of her colonies was Britain’s most effective weapon against Napoleon, and the “abuse of the neutral flag” by America to restore that commerce was little more than a French ruse de guerre: American ships had been “made French by adoption.” Moreover, Americans knew it and were lying through their teeth when they tried to say otherwise. American merchants had perpetrated “fraud and perjury,” had violated “the obligations of truth and justice in order to profit unduly by the war,” had corrupted the very morals of American society in the process. American protests were not only baseless, but immoral.

Stephen concluded by suggesting that Americans were much too wise to fail to see where their true interests lay; Britain was the true defender of liberty. Nor did Britain seek war with a neutral nation. But such a war, he threatened, was infinitely better than “the sacrifice of our maritime rights.”20

From New York, where the seizure of American merchantmen continued apace, the city’s merchants presented a memorial protesting the “the humiliating and oppressive conduct of ships of war in the vicinity of our coasts and harbors.” From the Caribbean to the Atlantic seaboard to the approaches of the ports of Europe, an American ship was being seized every day or two; at any given time there was $10 million worth of American property awaiting adjudication and possible condemnation in British prize courts. Insurance premiums on cargoes carried by American ships quadrupled.

A few months later the humiliations boiled over into a riot, and a rage burning and lasting enough that it might have kindled instant war had the country’s leaders fanned it. On the evening of April 25, 1806, the Leander, Cambrian, and Driver were carrying on their usual routine of lobbing cannonballs across the bows of merchantmen passing into New York when a shot from the Leander struck a small coasting sloop inside the harbor. The British captain claimed the sloop had by unlucky chance been in line with the shot, far behind the vessel he was halting. Whatever the facts, the ball struck the helmsman of the sloop, John Pierce, immediately killing him in a particularly gruesome manner: he was completely decapitated.

The sloop’s captain was Pierce’s brother, and he made his way back to the city, quickly gathered a furious mob, and paraded the mangled body and severed head of the dead man through the streets. The next day a party from the Leander returning to their ship with a load of provisions was intercepted by a mob; the supplies were grabbed and placed on twenty carts that were triumphantly wheeled around the city, drums beating, British colors flying under the American flag from a pole on the lead cart. On reaching the Alms House, the crowd presented their prize for the use of the poor and burned the British flag.

Four of Leander’s officers caught ashore were thrown in jail for their own protection; protest meetings were called; Pierce was given a huge public funeral; and with a local election scheduled to begin the next day, both political parties made hay of the issue, especially the Federalists, who indignantly blamed the Republicans for refusing to support the construction of a navy that could prevent such affronts. For days Thomas Barclay, the British consul general in New York, hid in his house, fearing he would be killed if he showed his face in public. He wrote reams of letters expressing his regret for the mistake and desperately trying to get the Leander’s officers freed; eventually the city authorities secretly released them and hustled them back aboard their ship.21

Talk of war began to sound more than just theatrical. “How long must we bear these violations of our National honor, property, and loss of our fellow Citizens,” William Bainbridge wrote Edward Preble when he heard the news. “—O Lord! Grant us a more honorable Peace or a sanguinary war!”22

Publicly, Jefferson ordered American ports forever closed to the three British ships and the Leander’s captain arrested if he ever were found within American jurisdiction. Privately, the president admitted his first doubts about his party’s rigid opposition to a standing navy as a threat to liberty and a burdensome expenditure that would lead to oppressive taxation and growing government power. To Jacob Crowninshield, a wealthy Salem merchant and Jeffersonian member of Congress, he wrote a few weeks after the event, “Although the scenes which were acted on shore were overdone with electioneering views, yet the act of the British officer was an atrocious violation of our territorial rights.” He lamented that America did not have three frigates to send at once to New York or, even better, some ships of the line building. “That we should have a squadron properly composed to prevent the blockading of our ports,” Jefferson added, “is indispensable.”23

A couple of months earlier he had conceded a more fundamental doubt about the country’s overall direction. “The love of peace which we sincerely feel & profess,” he wrote one of his correspondents in February, “has begun to produce an opinion in Europe that our government is entirely in Quaker principles.”24

WHEN THE news of the Essex decision reached Washington, Secretary of State Madison sat down, took up his pen, and produced his own painstaking, lawyerly rebuttal. Exhaustively analyzing the legal precedents, history, justice, and logic of the rules governing neutral trade, Madison concluded that the Rule of 1756 had no basis in the law of nations. The secretary of state had his argument printed as a 204-page booklet and presented every member of Congress with a personal copy. An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade, Not Open in Time of Peace was thorough, closely argued, solidly reasoned, and absolutely, mind-numbingly dull. Massachusetts senator John Quincy Adams, son of the former president and an eminent scholar, pronounced himself “much pleased” with Madison’s effort—and admitted privately that it took him eight days to get through it. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire more forthrightly confessed, “I never read a book that fatigued me more than this pamphlet.”

But it was John Randolph, the flamboyant maverick congressman from Virginia, “old Republican,” constant thorn in the side of the Jefferson administration, owner of a plantation fittingly named Bizarre, who put his finger on the heart of the matter. Flinging Madison’s booklet contemptuously to the floor of the House, he pronounced it “a shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war.”25

The fact was that the British could do whatever they wanted. The fact was that for all of James Stephen’s outrage over American treachery in engaging in trade with France, Britain was perfectly happy to engage in the same trade herself. British merchant ships regularly carried goods to Napoleon’s empire; when Americans pointed out the utter hypocrisy of their stance, British defenders of maritime interests glibly replied with an argument that went little beyond the principle of might makes right. As the jingoistic London newspaper the Courier would put it, “The sea is ours, and we must maintain the doctrine that no nation, no fleet, no cock-boat shall sail upon it without our permission.” Even Lord Grenville, a leader of the opposition, seemed perplexed by American accusations of inconsistency. A certain amount of trade with the Continent and the French colonies had to proceed, even with the British blockade, he observed; and since Britain could not carry on her war against France without a strong economy, it was manifest that Britain should be the one to benefit from this inevitable trade. Grenville professed himself irritated by “the stress wh. Jefferson lays on the supposed unreasonableness of our claim to deprive other nations of a trade wh. we carry on ourselves.… we have a right to prevent that wh. is injurious to us, & may if we think right relax that right in cases where we think the advantage to ourselves compensates or overbalances the injury.”

In Washington, Merry, the British minister, confidently informed London after the Leander affair that America was too weak to take any meaningful action; a firm stand resisting any American claims would “only be attended by the salutary effect of commanding from the [American] Government the respect which they have recently lost toward Great Britain.”26

Jefferson may have come to believe that a reinvigorated navy had become “indispensable,” but his long-standing ideological opposition to having a navy at all left him in a weak position to exercise much leadership on the subject. Jefferson had come into office in 1801 vowing to reduce debt, taxes, and expenditures, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, puzzling over where to find $2.7 million to cut from the government’s $5 million annual spending—that was the amount he calculated would be needed to cover his planned reductions in the national debt—saw the navy’s $2.1 million as an irresistible target. Gallatin thought $1 million was a perfectly adequate figure for a navy to live with, insisting that America would gain more strength by reducing its debt than from anything a navy could do. The example of Britain showed the dangers of endless expenditure once a country started down the road of naval expansion: Britain had incurred a staggering debt of £300 million (about $1.3 billion) in building up its navy. Gallatin produced calculations for Congress proving that a navy always cost more than the value of the commerce it saved. Moreover, as a matter of basic principle, commercial interests had no claim to the government’s protection once they ventured beyond the territory of the United States. By the same token, a navy would be useless in defending American territory in the unlikely event of a seaborne invasion from abroad, since any nation that could carry out such an attack would have to possess a fleet of such overwhelming might that no American navy could possibly contend with it.27

In his first year in office Jefferson hatched one of his usual fantastic schemes, an eight-hundred-foot-long dry dock that would hold the entire American navy in storage until it was needed again. Excavated out of the banks of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now the Anacostia River) east of the Washington Navy Yard, the dock would fill the entire area between Ninth and Tenth streets from the river to the intersection of Georgia and Virginia avenues. Covered with a sheet-iron roof—like the Paris corn market, Jefferson suggested—as many as twelve frigates could thus be preserved indefinitely in a state of suspended animation, “under the eye of the executive administration” and safely beyond the temptations of military adventurism. Congress predictably balked at the half-million-dollar cost of the project, but the Republican majority gladly went along with the slashing cutbacks in the navy Jefferson and Gallatin proposed along with it.

In that political climate it was next to impossible to find anyone willing to serve as head of the Navy Department. At one point Jefferson joked, “I believe I shall have to advertise for a Secretary of the Navy.” Robert Smith, a Baltimore lawyer who finally agreed to take the position after four other men had turned it down, found that his first task was to write to two-thirds of the navy’s officers, dismissing them from the service in obedience to the terms of the naval Peace Establishment Act, passed by Congress in March 1801.28

The Tripolitan war had brought a modest reversal in course, but with its end in June 1805, all but one of six original frigates authorized back in 1794—in the bill that had first created the United States navy—were being laid up or dismantled; only the Constitution remained on active service, in the Mediterranean. During the Quasi War with France the materials needed to build six seventy-four-gun ships of the line had been purchased, but the war ended before construction could begin, and for nearly a decade the timbers had been sitting in storage at the navy’s shipyards in Portsmouth, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk. The most Jefferson was willing to do now was diffidently observe to Congress that it was up to “the will of the Legislature” whether to build those ships.

Edward Preble and several other navy officers went to Washington to lobby for the cause shortly after Congress began its session in December 1805, but Preble quickly saw it for the hopeless task it was. “What we are to do for a Navy,” he wrote his fellow captain James Barron, “God only knows.” Another naval officer surveyed the views of Congress in early 1806 and reported that “some of the gentlemen think the most economical plan is to let [the six frigates] rot; others to sell half for the repairs of three; and almost all are of the opinion that six seventy-fours would ruin the country.” When a bill authorizing construction of the ships of the line came up for a vote in late March 1806, it was defeated by a two-to-one margin. The amendments to the Peace Establishment Act that finally passed at the end of April limited the number of seamen on active duty to 925, cut the number of captains from 15 to 13, and authorized new expenditures of $400,000 for harbor defenses only. Most naval officers were already Federalists by inclination, and Republican opposition to the navy cemented their political allegiance. James Barron received a handwritten note from the president the next spring offering his “friendly salutations” and asking if Captain Barron might carry a letter for him to Malta and arrange for a pipe of Malta Madeira to be sent back to him. Barron scrawled a surly comment on the back: “From that infamous Hypocrite T. Jefferson.”

Captain William Bainbridge requested and received a leave of absence from the navy in June 1806 to sail as a merchant captain, and a number of other experienced officers took the same course. Master Commandant Isaac Chauncey wrote Preble that he had obtained a furlough and was heading for China: “I see no prospect of Congress doing any thing for the Navy or officers therefore the sooner we can get good employ in private Ships the better at least for those who has no fortunes to depend on.”29

Two hundred fifty thousand dollars of the congressional appropriation for harbor defenses was set aside for the construction of up to fifty small gunboats. These were another one of Jefferson’s hobbyhorses: small, one- or two-masted sloop-rigged vessels, typically no more than fifty feet long and eighteen or even ten feet wide, armed with one or two guns mounted on swivels; all in all, more like a Chesapeake oyster boat than a ship of war. The idea was that two hundred or so could be built cheaply and distributed up and down the coast to defend American harbors—fifty for Boston and other harbors north of Cape Cod, fifty for New York and Long Island Sound, twenty for the Chesapeake, twenty-five for Charleston and Savannah (Jefferson worked all the numbers out himself). In a calm they could be rowed with oars, and most of the time they could be manned by skeleton crews or even “hauled up under sheds” when not in use, Jefferson suggested.

Jefferson thought them the perfect embodiment of republican ideals, the perfect answer to the deep-seated fear among his party’s faithful that a standing navy would be as dangerous an invitation to despotism as a standing army. American naval power, the Republicans insisted, would only entangle the nation in wars and foreign intrigues and do the bidding of the detested commercial classes and money men at the expense of the honest republican agrarians who were the backbone of American liberty and virtue. Contesting with the British navy on the high seas was impossible, and even were it not, it would only corrupt American values. “I deem it no sacrifice of dignity to say to the Leviathan of the deep: We are unable to contend with you in your own element,” Congressman Randolph proclaimed in one of the hours-long harangues he regularly delivered on the House floor.

The American carrying trade was itself an evil by this way of thinking, not even worth trying to defend. Randolph derided it as “a mere fungus—a mushroom production of war in Europe” that would vanish as soon as peace between Britain and France returned and European shippers reclaimed their customary trade routes. Congressman George Washington Campbell of Tennessee went even further, ruing the day America ever first succumbed to the seductive vice of commerce: “It would have been well for us if the American flag had never floated on the ocean … to waft to this country the luxuries and vices of European nations, that effeminate and corrupt our people, to excite the jealousies and cupidity of those Powers whose existence, in a great degree, depends on commerce, and to court their aggressions and embroil us in their unjust and bloody contests.”30

The gunboats, as Jefferson conceived of them, would answer most of these objections, or at least offer a palatable compromise that he thought most Republicans could swallow. Gunboats were obviously defensive, restricted to protecting American territory; since they could barely navigate open waters, they could never “become an excitement to engage in offensive maritime war.” They were thrifty: at $5,000 apiece, a mere one-fortieth the cost of a frigate or one-seventieth the cost of a ship of the line. They even could be manned in time of need by a kind of maritime citizen militia, Jefferson suggested.31

The trouble was they were also ridiculous. In anything but a flat calm their guns proved impossible to aim with any reliability: even a light chop made the boats pitch and roll violently. In even moderate seas the guns had to be stowed below to keep the boats from capsizing from their top-heaviness; then it turned out that the recoil when the guns were fired in any direction other than nearly straight fore or aft also caused the boats to capsize. Their low gunwales afforded no protection to the crew from musket fire, while a single cannonball could reduce them to splinters.

Even their economy swiftly proved illusory as construction costs doubled. While that still meant that twenty gunboats could be built for the price of one frigate, their manpower needs were no bargain at all; twenty gunboats required twice as many men, and five times as many officers, as a single frigate. It cost something like $120,000 a year to man and maintain one large frigate of fifty-six guns, three times that much for gunboats that carried an equivalent number of guns.32

Naval officers loathed the gunboats and complained that they undermined the only real system the navy had for bringing up young officers and teaching them the arts of seamanship and command: namely by having midshipmen enter the navy as adolescents and learn from the example of the senior captains they served under. But the gunboats, often captained by an officer no more senior than an older midshipman, provided no such opportunities and quickly acquired a reputation for lax discipline, or worse. Complaints of drunkenness and insubordination were rife. One distraught mother of a midshipman wrote to the secretary of the navy that aboard a gunboat her son had had “no opportunity to acquire a practical knowledge of his profession; he is exposed to the contagion of vicious example; gains not the advantage of discipline; forms not the valuable manners of an officer; and thus has every prospect for future service to his country blasted and destroyed.”

When one gunboat capsized and sank in six fathoms of water, Stephen Decatur sarcastically asked, “What would be the real national loss if all gunboats were sunk in a hundred fathoms of water?”

In the end, 177 would be built for $1.5 million. That would have bought the American navy eight new forty-four-gun frigates or five mighty seventy-four-gun ships of the line.33

THE GROWING British harassment of American trade from 1804 on stirred American resentment, but what turned resentment into fury was a sudden increase in the longstanding and long-detested Royal Navy practice of seizing sailors from merchant ships and forcibly impressing them into British naval service. As the war with France created a surging demand for sailors to man the fleet, it became a daily occurrence for British warships to stop and board any passing American merchant vessels and pull off a few experienced seamen. That the British claimed the men it took were all British subjects did little to assuage American anger, especially since Britain arrogantly insisted that anyone born in Britain remained a British subject, forever owing allegiance to the British crown even if he had since become a naturalized American.

Yet even during the colonial years Americans had loathed and at times violently resisted impressment. In November 1747 a press gang from a British man-of-war had come ashore in Boston and rounded up sailors, shipbuilders’ apprentices, and laboring land men, triggering three days of rioting. An angry mob of “seamen and other lewd and profligate persons … arm’d with cutlasses and other weapons,” as Massachusetts’s colonial governor indignantly put it, chased British naval officers through the streets and forced its way into the first floor of the town hall when the officers holed up there to try to escape. The rioters broke into the council chambers and hurled brickbats at the governor and his council, dragged off an undersheriff guarding the governor’s house and beat him and threw him in the town’s stocks, and hauled up a navy barge and threatened to set it on fire in the governor’s courtyard. The governor tried to call out the militia to quell the disturbance, but the militiamen refused to obey the order to muster.

Declaring that he “did not think it consistent with the Honour of His Majesty’s Government to remain longer in the Midst of it,” the governor then ran for his life, taking shelter in Castle William, a stone fort manned by British army troops on one of the islands in the harbor. Eventually some of the impressed men were released in exchange for naval officers held hostage by the mob. Two decades later, in 1769, John Adams successfully defended an American sailor who killed the lieutenant of a British frigate when he tried to press him and other crewmen as their merchant ship was returning to Massachusetts after a voyage to Europe; the judge ruled it justifiable homicide.34

The practice of impressing American seamen continued nonetheless. Even after the Revolution, British warships regularly took sailors out of passing American merchant vessels. Many crewmen on American ships were indeed British subjects, but the Royal Navy’s officers were never very particular when they needed a few prime hands to fill out their ship’s company. American consuls and notaries had begun to provide American seamen with certificates authenticating their citizenship specifically to protect them against the press, but British naval captains routinely brushed these proofs aside. “I could get one, if I was in America, for half a crown, as good as that,” sneered one Royal Navy captain when an American sailor showed him his certificate. Declaring an impressed American to be a Scotsman or Irishman was another favorite pretext; any sailor with a Mc or Mac or M’ in his name who protested against being pressed was almost certain to hear some variation on what was obviously a well-worn line making the rounds among Royal Navy officers, given how many times it was recounted by their victims: “Do you call yourself a Yankee, you damned Scotch rascal?” Another British captain said, “I have plenty like you on board and I do not believe you was ever in any part of the United States. You are either Scotch or Irish.”35

The start of Britain’s war against Napoleon in 1803 turned an occasional annoyance into a major assault on American sovereignty. The Royal Navy’s manpower demands were proving insatiable: from 1803 on, the number of sailors and marines needed to man the fleet grew almost steadily at a rate of 12,000 year as the force more than doubled from 60,000 in 1803 to 145,000 by 1812.36 But even that did not tell the whole story because of the waves of desertions constantly taking place. To try to stem the loss of men, the navy instituted horrific punishments; deserters faced hanging or worse. James Durand, an American seaman who was trapped in the British service for six years after being pressed from a merchant ship in August 1809, witnessed one of these punishments carried out on a fellow American who had repeatedly tried to escape. He was sentenced to be whipped through the fleet, a total of three hundred lashes. The prisoner was stripped from the waist up, seized to a gallows erected in a large boat, and as the band played the rogue’s march was rowed from one warship to the next in the harbor. At each stop the boatswain’s mate of the ship came on board and delivered twenty-five lashes to the man’s bare back with the cat-o’-nine-tails. It was little but a long-drawn-out death sentence. “Alongside the last ship he expired under the brutality of the punishment,” Durand wrote. “So they gave his body ten lashes after he had died.”37

But even that threat could not keep more than six thousand men from deserting each year, willing to risk the chance of draconian punishment rather than the certainty of the continued brutality of life aboard a man-of-war. Between the deserters, and the new ships to be manned, and the fifteen hundred men a year invalided out of the service from injury or sickness, the Royal Navy needed to find close to twenty thousand new men a year.38 A semibenevolent patriotic organization called the Marine Society offered to outfit destitute boys and men with a new suit of clothes and a few days of good food and tutoring if they would volunteer; that provided a thousand a year driven mostly by desperation. A few dreamy, naive young men from working families were drawn by visions of adventure—“I had read Robinson Crusoe many times over and longed for the sea,” said the son of an Edinburgh cooper who enlisted. But most of the “volunteers” were the so-called quota men that the magistrates of each county had to produce in two large drafts in 1795, supplemented in the following years by a steady stream of various small-time thieves, beggars, pickpockets, and other local nuisances from the local jails, including the occasional dissipated scion of a gentlemanly family who had fallen into drink, debt, or other dissolution that made getting out of the country as quickly as possible an attractive option.39

Volunteers, willing and otherwise, could satisfy only a small fraction of what the navy needed during its rapid buildups. By 1800 the Impress Service was a permanent institution, commanding the full-time services of one admiral, forty-seven captains, and eighty lieutenants whose job it was to make up the difference. “Gentlemen,” officers of merchant ships at sea, and sometimes fishermen were exempt from the press, but otherwise the law permitted the navy to forcibly take any “persons using the sea.” That generally meant merchant seamen, but in practice it was interpreted imaginatively. Impress officers routinely declared that a man who had just been dragged in off the streets of a seaport town “looked like” a sailor, and that was good enough.40 Merchant ships at sea were in many ways the favorite target of the press, however, since they were sure to contain experienced sailors. A Royal Navy captain almost never passed up the chance to press a few “prime seamen” from a passing ship.

In London, James Monroe’s consulate was soon inundated with pleas from friends and families of American seamen who had been forcibly taken into British service. The American agent for seamen in London tallied 6,057 American sailors who had applied for release from the Royal Navy from 1803 to 1810, and the American secretary of state reported 200 more cases that had been filed directly with his office.41 Although the British government professed itself willing to discharge American citizens who had been wrongfully impressed, a sailor trying to get his release from the Royal Navy faced a Kafkaesque series of obstacles. To start with, any impressed man who accepted pay was deemed to have “volunteered” and thus was ineligible for release. James Durand had been grabbed in his sleep belowdecks on a merchant brig in Plymouth harbor by a press gang that had come alongside in a boat from the frigate Narcissus and forced to leave behind all his clothes, money, and papers. A few days later the captain summoned him to the quarterdeck and offered him five pounds if he would enter the ship’s company. When Durand protested that he was an American, the captain replied, “If you will not work I’ll flog you until you’re glad to set about it. Go below, for I won’t hear another word out of you.” Below he found twelve other Americans who had been impressed earlier; one said he had been given four dozen lashes, and advised Durand to do as the captain bid him.

All manner of dodges were used to keep improperly impressed Americans from having their cases heard. Samuel Dalton of Salem, who was taken by the British in 1803, wrote letter after letter to his family and American consuls, desperately trying to have proofs of his citizenship forwarded to the Admiralty, and was thwarted at every turn. His mail was intercepted; when the American consul in London tried to file for a writ of habeas corpus, the magistrate kept rejecting it on technical grounds. First the magistrate said there was no evidence that Dalton actually was serving in His Majesty’s navy. The consul filed a deposition from a fellow seaman attesting that he had seen Dalton aboard the British ship of the line Namur. The magistrate rejected that petition because the seaman had not attested that Dalton had asked him to help secure his release. The consul obtained another deposition from the witness, only to have it rejected this time on the grounds that the man had not sworn that he believed Dalton was an American. “I am like a man that is out of his mind,” Dalton wrote his mother six years into what would be an eleven-year ordeal to obtain his freedom.

Britain’s naval supporters noisily defended impressment as a self-evident necessity, a right founded on “immemorial usage,” and dismissed American protests as “almost ridiculous” given the “right which we undoubtedly possess of reclaiming runaway seamen.” Ceding the right to stop and search American ships and remove British sailors would create a safe haven for deserters, they insisted. Many British writers also insisted that any supposed American sailors taken in the press were in fact native-born Britons, and that the entire dispute between the two countries over impressment turned largely on their differing definitions of nationality and the right of naturalization. In fact, however, just the opposite was the case; nearly all of the American citizens seized in the press had been born in the United States.42

The figure 6,257 began to appear in large outline type in Republican newspapers as American public outrage smoldered. Many of the British ships that invested American ports, seizing returning American merchantmen as prizes, also started pressing men out of them while they were at it. Each day’s shipping news contained reports of men taken: the ship Hannah and Elizah of New Bedford bound for New Holland on a whaling voyage, forced to put back after the Leander took ten of her crew; the brig William, three seamen and three passengers pressed by Leander; the ship Actress, sailed from New York and forced to return, having had two of her best seamen taken off by Leander; the schooner Swallow sailing in company with Nancy from Baltimore, boarded by the British frigate La Desiree, which impressed three men from Swallow and thirteen from Nancy; twelve fishermen from Salem and Marblehead impressed on the banks by the English frigate Ville de Milan. Once in a while a ship ordered to Halifax was retaken en route when the American crew overpowered their captors and put back into an American port, but there was no resisting the British boarding parties that pulled men off as a frigate stood by, its entire broadside of guns run out, smoldering matches at the ready.43

There was obviously a spurious precision to the 6,257 figure, and both at the time and later there would be much controversy over the true number of impressed American sailors, but the best analysis suggests that it was not far off that widely popularized number. By 1812 the British had ordered the release of nearly 2,000 Americans who successfully protested their impressment; nearly 2,000 more Americans forcibly serving on British warships were discharged from service and held as enemy prisoners at the start of the war in 1812. So even by Britain’s own definitions and admission, 4,000 was a bare minimum for the number of American citizens forced since 1803 to serve against their will in the Royal Navy. The true figure may easily have been as high as 8,000 or 10,000.44

A bill introduced in Congress in the 1806 session sought to define impressment as piracy, punishable by death. Representative Randolph, nothing if not consistent, opposed any such American efforts as empty gestures and argued that British impressment only offered a further demonstration of the inherent evils of a standing navy: an American navy would soon be forced to adopt the same detestable practice to fill its ranks.45

Others with a keener grasp of public opinion and the dynamics of the relations between nations recognized the British behavior for the political dynamite it was, the galling humiliation to national sovereignty it represented. “That an officer from a foreign ship should pronounce any person he pleased, on board an American ship on the high seas, not to be an American Citizen, but a British subject, & carry his interested decision on the most important of all questions to a freeman into execution on the spot is so anomalous in principle, so grievous in practice, and so abominable in abuse, that the pretension must finally yield,” wrote Madison, summing up the case.

More to the point was John Quincy Adams. “The practice of impressment,” he said, “is the only ineradicable wound, which, if persisted in, can terminate no otherwise than by war.”46

THE UNITED States frigate Chesapeake had been laid up “in ordinary”—out of service but still officially in commission—for four years in the navy yard in Washington when William Henry Allen received orders at the end of January 1807 to join her as third lieutenant. The ship was being brought back into service to finally relieve the Constitution, which had remained on station in the Mediterranean ever since the end of the Tripolitan war. On her way she was to deliver to Minorca the new American consul, a naval surgeon named Dr. John Bullus, who was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson’s.

The first order of business for the officers was to ship a crew. Henry Allen traveled to Philadelphia to try to find up to 170 seamen and boys; other recruiters went to New York and Norfolk. By the end of March, Allen had managed to get 47 men aboard a packet boat safely on their way to join the ship, but it had not been easy. “My guardian genius of good fortune certainly slumbered a little when she suffered me to be sent here,” Allen wrote his father. “What do you think of 60 or 80 Sailors, no doubt some of them wild Irishmen, let loose in this city after you have advanced them from 18 to 70 dollars each … I never had so much trouble with a pack of rascals in my life.” Of the 57 men he finally recruited, he had to release one after the man’s wife appeared, begging for his release and “overpersuaded me”; three others proved to be unfit for one reason or another, and six disappeared with the advance pay Allen had given them.47

By May 9, when the Chesapeake at last set out from the navy yard, she was still 60 men short. During the transit from Washington to Norfolk, where the ship was to complete her final fitting out for sea, 60 to 85 men were sick the entire time from a virulent infection that had torn through the crew. At nine in the morning of the first day, less than a mile into the two-hundred-mile first leg of her voyage, the frigate struck and grounded on the sandbar where the Eastern Branch joins the Potomac. A day of heaving off with the anchors was followed by a day of unloading supplies and shot onto a tender. On the seventeenth the green crew was trying to strike down the fore topgallant yard to fix a line that had been improperly rigged when the spar came loose and crashed to the deck, killing two crewmen and seriously injuring a third. A few days later another seaman fell overboard and drowned. Three of the sick men died over the next two weeks; a dozen of the crew made off with the ship’s boats and deserted; then the ship struck on Mattawoman shoals farther down the Potomac, and the cable broke when the crew tried to heave the ship off using a stern anchor. On June 4 she finally arrived at Hampton Roads. But there were other, deeper problems with this ship, which the crew was already feeling was cursed with ill luck: tensions between the officers and their captain, incomprehensible lapses in routine preparations of the ship’s armaments, chaotic arrangements for accommodating passengers who kept being added to the ship’s charge.

The ship’s senior officer was James Barron. At age thirty-nine he was one of the navy’s senior captains, having been advanced to the rank in 1799 at the same time as Edward Preble and John Rodgers. He was an expert seaman from a maritime family; his father had been the commander in chief of Virginia’s state navy during the Revolution, his older brother Samuel was a commodore in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitan war, where Barron had served too, as captain of the frigate President. He was, however, said to be more of a seaman than a fighting man. He had seen no fighting in either the Quasi War or the Mediterranean, his duties never seeming to go beyond routine patrolling. That was not necessarily his fault, but whether as cause or effect, he seemed to lack the rage for glory that drove so many of his fellow officers.

He was tall, over six feet, and strongly built but also overweight and nearsighted, giving him a perpetual squint. He was amiable and made friends easily. He had also acquired his share of enemies. An apparently offhand but too familiar remark to Stephen Decatur had resulted in a noticeable frostiness between them of late. Strolling through Norfolk one day in February 1806 with Decatur and some other navy officers, Barron had tried to defend Decatur from the ribbing one of the others started to give him about “the particular attraction” that brought him to town. Barron spoke up and said that no, he knew that Decatur’s affections were elsewhere engaged. That, anyway, was how things stood as far as Barron knew; Decatur had told him earlier of his engagement to a woman in Philadelphia. What Barron didn’t know, but which the other officers apparently did, was that Decatur had since met Susan Wheeler, the daughter of Norfolk’s mayor, had fallen head over heels for her, and was planning to marry her just a few weeks later—having abruptly broken off his other engagement, a fact he didn’t particularly care to have made public. Mortified at having his less than completely honorable conduct brought to light, Decatur had turned on his heels and walked off. Barron was notably absent from the list of guests at the wedding.48

Barron had also made a bitter enemy of John Rodgers. That in itself was not terribly surprising; Rodgers picked fights with everyone. Rodgers had once addressed a furious letter to Edward Preble stating that while their present duties constrained him “from requiring you to explain your observation on the comparative good order” of their respective ships “and other incoherent remarks” Preble had made, “when we meet in the United States you shall then be explicitly informed of my opinion of your conduct.”49 Although nothing further happened in that instance, Rodgers’s feud with Barron came within a whisker of an actual duel in February 1807. Rodgers thought Barron had tried to thwart his chances to assume command of the Mediterranean squadron when Samuel Barron had fallen ill; when Rodgers did get the appointment and Barron wrote to congratulate him, Rodgers dismissed him in a message sent through Bainbridge as “two faced” and a “Judas,” and dared Barron to send him a challenge when they returned to America. “I shall impute it to a want of what no gentleman—one who wears a uniform—should be deficient in” should Barron fail to do so, he added for good measure.50

Both men named seconds, and the dictates of honor at that point took charge; any hint of wanting to avoid a “meeting” would now be taken as a sign of cowardice, which was worse than swallowing whatever the original affront had been. Barron was particularly touchy since delays caused first by an illness and then by an order from the secretary of the navy forbidding him to leave Norfolk—in an attempt to avert the impending duel—had started rumors that he was trying to back out. That forced Barron to declare that if Rodgers “will come to Norfolk and accede to my terms of short distance”—meaning an almost certainly fatal outcome for one or both of the men—he was ready; failing that, he later proposed, he would have no alternative but “breaking my orders and seeking you where you are to be found.” As the men were on the verge of meeting in Havre de Grace, Maryland, the seconds negotiated an agreement. A letter from them to Rodgers was published, declaring that Barron “does not now perceive the necessity of calling on you,” though he remained “injured by the style of your reply,” and at the same time expressing their certainty that Rodgers could not “entertain a suspicion dishonorable to captain Barron” and had spoken out of “instantaneous irritation” only.51

Whatever the truth about Barron’s courage or lack thereof, most of the Chesapeake lieutenants were Rodgers’s protégés, and most were willing to put a doubtful interpretation on Barron’s conduct in this affair of honor. Meanwhile, though, they had seen little of their commanding officer. Barron left the job of bringing the ship down to Master Commandant Charles Gordon, his second in command. Barron traveled to his home in Hampton to wait for their arrival. Before leaving the navy yard, Barron had complained that the gunpowder supplied by the navy yard was “not fit for service.” The navy department replied that he could have it “remanufactured” when he reached Malta.52 As Gordon brought the ship past Mount Vernon on the way down the Potomac, he ordered the customary sixteen-gun salute to the grave of George Washington. Henry Allen, who was in charge of carrying out the salute, found to his consternation that half of the cartridges were the wrong size for the guns. Gordon, furious, ordered the gunner placed under arrest. Just below Mount Vernon, Dr. Bullus and his wife, three children, and two servants came aboard. Their small mountain of baggage, crated furniture, and household paraphernalia was stowed as best it could be about the frigate’s gun deck.

At Norfolk still more passengers and baggage joined the ship. Gaetano Carusi, with his wife and family, and several other Italian musicians were returning home after two utterly miserable years in the service of the United States. Recruited to lead the newly created Marine Band, practically browbeaten by American officers in Sicily into coming to Washington at the meager pay of $12 a month, Carusi had experienced nothing but one disappointment after another. (At one point, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who wanted nothing to do with the musicians, put them to work digging latrines in the hope of getting them to quit.) Paying $40 out of his own pocket to get to Norfolk, Carusi was relieved to be seeing the last of a country that, he said, had only “deceived, betrayed, and insulted” him.53

Twelve miles east of Norfolk, at the mouth of the Chesapeake, lay Lynnhaven Bay, the habitual anchoring point of a strong British squadron that had been operating in the area since the summer of 1806. Relations between the British and the locals had generally been much better than they were in New York. The British ships had arrived there after chasing three French warships into Annapolis, and had remained ever since to keep the French bottled up. British officers frequently went into Norfolk and were generally welcomed as an addition to the social life of the town; they were even more enthusiastically welcomed by the farmers of Princess Anne County, who suddenly had a new and very high-paying customer for their cattle and produce right at their doorstep.

The proximity to American soil was also welcomed by more than a few British sailors, who began deserting at a steady clip. In February 1807, while the officers of the frigate Melampus were giving a party on board for some of the ladies and gentlemen from Norfolk they had become acquainted with, five of the crew jumped into the captain’s gig and rowed like madmen for shore. A sentry on deck challenged them with a hail; that was followed by a volley of musket fire from the ship’s marines, but the men reached Sewell’s Point safely, gave three cheers, and vanished into the countryside. A few weeks later a boat crew sent from the sloop of war Halifax to retrieve a kedge anchor took advantage of a rain squall that hid them from view of the ship to beat it to shore, threatening the midshipman who was in command of the party that they would beat his brains out if he tried to stop them. Musket fire and then a cannon shot echoed from the Halifax, but the boat was soon completely shrouded in the mist and lowering dusk, and it too reached Sewell’s Point.

Within days four of the deserters were aboard the Chesapeake, having signed on to her crew. Three were Americans, all from the Melampus: Daniel Martin, an African American man from Westport, Massachusetts; William Ware, an “Indian looking” black man from Maryland; and John Strachan, a white man from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The fourth, Jenkin Ratford from the Halifax, was English, which the American recruiter in Norfolk apparently knew perfectly well, since he asked him if he didn’t have “a second name” to use; Ratford was entered on the ship’s books as John Wilson.

The Halifax’s captain stormed into Norfolk to demand his men back and was treated to something of a practical-joke runaround, made worse when he encountered Ratford himself on the street. In his joy of liberation in what he loudly declared to be “the Land of Liberty,” Ratford unleashed a string of verbal abuse at his former captain that he had no doubt been saving up for years. The captain confronted the American lieutenant in charge of the recruiting rendezvous, who referred him to the local civil authorities; he then went to the mayor, who referred him to Decatur, as commander of the Norfolk Navy Yard; Decatur referred him back to the recruiter. Allen heard rumors in town that the British were prepared to take the men back by force.54

On the morning of June 21, the fifty-gun ship of the line Leopard ran up Lynnhaven Bay and dropped her anchor by the Melampus and the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Bellona. On her way from Halifax, the Leopard had stopped and searched a dozen American merchant ships and pressed several men from them; just two days earlier she had seized an American schooner off the Delaware capes carrying sugar and coffee to Philadelphia from Havana, taken the crew aboard, and torn up their American protection certificates.55

A few hours after the Leopard’s arrival, Commodore Barron went aboard the Chesapeake, and the American frigate at last weighed anchor and dropped down the roads, preparing to stand to sea the next morning.

HENRY ALLEN was on deck as officer of the watch as the Chesapeake passed the British ships in Lynnhaven Bay at about nine on the morning of June 22, 1807. A signal broke out on the Bellona, and soon Allen noticed the Leopard standing out under easy sail ahead of them, apparently in no hurry to take advantage of the favorable southwesterly wind to get to sea.

At noon, as the Chesapeake approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the wind shifted to the southeast, forcing her to tack several times to clear the land. By now the Leopard was several miles to the south and unmistakably began dogging the American’s course, tacking when she tacked, always staying to windward, steadily closing their gap to a mile. Allen’s unease grew as he saw that the Leopard’s lower gunports were open. “This fellow is coming on board of us to demand deserters and if they are not delivered up we shall have hell to hold,” muttered the ship’s sailing master.56 From time to time Barron and Gordon cast a glance at the British ship but said nothing. At 2:30 dinner was served in the captain’s cabin, and the ship’s commanding officers went below.

It was the normal courtesy for a ship wishing to speak another to come up on her leeward side. But around three, as the Chesapeake slowed to put off the Norfolk pilot, the Leopard suddenly shot up on her windward quarter, fifty or sixty yards away. All her guns were run out, their tompions removed. The Leopard’s captain, Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, hailed that he had dispatches for the commander of the Chesapeake; Barron shouted back for him to send a boat aboard and he would heave to.

Standard orders for every warship of every navy of the world called for beating to quarters when approaching another ship of war, sending her crew running to battle stations on the signal traditionally given by the beating of the marines’ snare drum. Barron would later insist that he had neglected to do so because he had no clue of any unfriendly intentions on the part of the British ship, even when he saw the Leopard’s guns run out. If so, he was certainly disabused of the notion a minute later, when he read the astonishing order handed to him in his cabin by the Leopard’s lieutenant. Even the British recognized that a foreign “national ship” was sovereign territory. The order from Vice Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley, commander in chief of the North American station, was addressed to all the British ships under his command, and as much as it tried to disguise the fact, it was an act of territorial infringement tantamount to war:

Whereas many Seamen, subjects of His Brittanic Majesty, and serving in His Ships and Vessels as per margin, while at Anchor in the Chesapeak deserted and entered On Board the United States frigate called the Chesapeak, 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 … the Captains & Commander of His Majestys Ships and Vessels under my Command are therefore hereby required and directed in case of meeting with the American frigate the Chesapeak at Sea, and without the limits of the United States to shew to the Captain of her this Order; and to require to search his Ship for the deserters from the before mentioned Ships.… and if a similar demand should be made by the American, he is to be permitted to search for any Deserters from their Service, according to the Customs and usage of Civilized Nations in terms of peace and Amity with each other.57

Attached was a note from Humphreys, which he would later explain was his attempt “as a gentleman, to soften and ameliorate the apparent severity and harshness” of Berkeley’s order that it was his duty to obey:

The Captain of the Leopard will not presume to say anything 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.58

Barron asked the lieutenant to sit down while he wrote a reply. A half hour passed and the lieutenant began getting very uncomfortable. A signal broke out on the Leopard. Finally, after another ten minutes, Barron handed over his answer. In it he stated that he knew of no deserters on his ship, but added that he was “instructed never to permit the crew of any ship that I command to be mustered by any other but her own officers.”

Only as the lieutenant was being rowed back did Barron finally order Gordon to get the men to quarters, but even then he phrased it in a hesitant way, saying only, “You had better get your gun deck clear”; Gordon thought that might mean only to be ready to beat to quarters. After several more minutes’ hesitation, Barron told Gordon to bring the men to quarters, but without a drumroll or letting the men show themselves through the gunports so the British could not “charge us with making the first hostile show.”

The result was utter confusion. The marine drummer, not understanding this unusual order, started beating his drum only to be hit by Gordon with the hilt of his sword to stop him. Many of the crew didn’t know what to make of that and thought the order had been countermanded. The gun deck was jammed with equipment and supplies and Dr. Bullus’s luggage and furniture. Henry Allen rushed to his station as captain of the second division of guns and tried to get his men to start clearing away 720 feet of six-inch anchor cable that lay directly behind the guns, throwing barrels and casks down the main hatch, carrying down to the cockpit two decks below nine of the sick men who’d had their hammocks strung directly over the guns. Just then came a single shot from the Leopard, then another, then a crashing broadside that cut through the Chesapeake’s masts and sails.

The Chesapeake’s befuddled gunner was struggling in the magazine to load powder horns to prime the guns: he had neglected to fill more than three of them beforehand. The flintlocks for the guns were not properly fitted, and the slow matches that were always supposed to be ready as a backup had not been prepared either. Allen sent a midshipman running to get an iron, known as a loggerhead, heating in the galley stove to set off the primer.

Two more broadsides hit directly into the hull. One set loose a shower of splinters on the deck above that tore into Barron’s leg, carrying off a good chunk of his right calf. But the gun deck took the brunt. A twenty-four-pound ball hit one of Allen’s men directly in the chest, killing him instantly and spattering Allen with blood and splinters of bone. Three other men in Allen’s division were wounded. Captain Gordon appeared through the chaos with a message from Barron—“For God’s sake fire one gun for the honor of the flag, I mean to strike”—and asked Allen why they were not firing. Allen shouted that he needed powder to prime the guns, and Gordon himself ran to the magazine, on his way meeting a boy who at last was heading up with two filled horns. Gordon grabbed them, ran the length of the gun deck, and tossed them across the open main hatch to Allen. Allen got three of his guns primed and grabbed a loggerhead, but still the guns would not fire: the iron was not hot enough to ignite the powder. In desperation Allen finally seized a coal from the galley stove with his bare hands and fired off a single gun. At almost the same instant Barron shouted down the hatch, “Stop firing, stop firing! We have struck, we have struck.”59

Three of the Chesapeake’s men lay dead, another eight seriously wounded. Another man would later die from his wounds.

Two boats from the British ship came over; a boarding party lined up the crew and interrogated them for three hours. Ratford was found hiding in the coal hold and, along with the Americans from the Melampus, was taken across to the Leopard, where they were put in irons.

Allen, to his eternal mortification, was sent across to the Leopard with a note from Barron formally surrendering the ship. He returned with the British captain’s note refusing it: “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 … 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.”

The Leopard blithely returned that night to take up her customary anchorage within the sovereign territory of the United States of America. The Chesapeake, her mainmast shot through in three places, seven of her main and fore shrouds shot away, her mizzen rigging entirely cut to pieces, two dozen round shot lodged in her hull, limped back to Norfolk, the next morning silently passing the anchored British squadron at Lynnhaven Bay.

A month later the prisoners taken from the Chesapeake were transported aboard the Bellona to Halifax. At 9:15 a.m. on Monday, August 30, 1807, having being convicted of mutiny, desertion, and contempt by a court-martial at which he was given no counsel and offered no defense, Ratford was hanged from the fore yardarm of the Halifax, the ship he had deserted from. The three others, “in consideration of their former good conduct,” were sentenced “only … to Corporal Punishment” of five hundred lashes apiece.60

FOR WEEKS war seemed all but certain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present,” Jefferson wrote his friend Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the French émigré economist and reformer, three weeks after the firing on the Chesapeake, “and even that did not produce such unanimity.” Phineas Bond, Britain’s consul in Philadelphia, had lived in the country for twenty years and had seen eruptions of democratic anger before, and he advised London that this one would die down in the usual manner after some venting of steam, but even he was taken aback by the “universal Ferment” the incident had provoked, with mass meetings in cities up and down the coast denouncing the British action.61 Traveling through New York, Augustus Foster, who also knew something about American mobs, hastened out of his carriage and decided to proceed incognito as soon as he heard the news of the Leopard’s attack—just in time, as it turned out, for a crowd almost immediately congregated and threatened to throw his horse and curricle into the Hudson River.

In Hampton crowds of armed men boarded tenders that had come ashore from the British squadron and demolished two hundred casks of fresh water and burned one of the boats. The funeral for Robert MacDonald, the American seaman who died from his wounds after the Chesapeake returned to Norfolk, brought out four thousand citizens, officials, and dignitaries. “Their blood cries for vengeance, and when our Government directs, vengeance it shall have,” declared a solemn toast to the wounded and dead proclaimed at a meeting attended by nearly seven hundred in Norfolk a few weeks later.62

Not even the new British minister in Washington, David Erskine, was sure if Berkeley’s orders represented a new and more aggressive policy directed from London, but in Washington the administration frantically tried to rush plans into place to prepare for the worst. Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all British armed ships out of American waters without delay and directed Madison that “the interdicted ships are enemies”; if the British should try to land any men, his orders were to “kill or capture them as enemies.” On July 5 the cabinet called on state governors to make 100,000 militiamen ready; two days later the governor of Virginia was requested to mobilize troops to defend Norfolk and the American navy gunboats in the area against further British attack.63

Stephen Decatur was sent orders to relieve Barron. On July 1 he went aboard the wounded Chesapeake to assume command, and a few hours later Barron limped off past the assembled crew and officers. For the first time since the Chesapeake struck her flag, the colors of the United States broke out aloft, along with Decatur’s broad pennant.

The next day a swarm of shipwrights from the navy yard in Washington arrived and set to work heaving out her wounded masts. Decatur immediately had the guns set right and put the crew to work exercising them relentlessly, sometimes firing them twice a day, working to make second nature the choreography of heaving in three tons of metal with the rope tail tackles; sponging out the sparking embers and ramming home the cartridge bag of powder, then shot and wadding; pricking the cartridge with a wire and pouring in powder from the horn; heaving the gun back out with the side tackles; shifting the aim with handspikes; firing and dodging the sometimes unpredictable direction of the gun’s recoil, which could crush a man in a second; and then doing it again and again until they could do it like machines even when staring death in the face. No American captain ever neglected gunnery practice again.

The British squadron did not depart but neither did it make any aggressive moves, and slowly the sense of crisis began to ease. By the fall, word came that Berkeley’s actions had been officially disavowed by the Admiralty and he was being recalled from Halifax to London. Humphreys too was soon back in England and placed on half pay. He would never again receive a sea command; a few years later he changed his name to Davenport, in acknowledgment, he said, of his “accession to a considerable property in right of his second wife,” which may have been true but was also a convenient way to leave behind his considerable notoriety.

In disavowing Berkeley, the British government underscored that it was not disavowing impressment. The government offered to pay compensation to the families of the American seamen who were killed, and publicly acknowledged that it was contrary to British policy to stop national ships belonging to a neutral power. But it adamantly rebuffed attempts by Monroe in London to widen the discussion of the Chesapeake affair to include a comprehensive resolution of America’s longstanding complaints about the British policy of stopping and impressing sailors out of American merchant ships. “They insist upon mixing two questions which we insist upon separating. We are ready to atone where we were wrong, but determined to maintain our rights,” the British foreign minister, George Canning, told a colleague. Most British newspapers thought even that was going too far, and expressed satisfaction, as one put it, that American “arrogance” received “a severe rebuke” in the form of the Leopard’s broadsides.64

·    ·    ·

RECRIMINATIONS OVER the Chesapeake affair continued to reverberate within the American navy for years. American public opinion in 1807 was already turning against what Jefferson once termed that “most barbarous of appeals,” the practice of challenging men to duels over personal disagreements. In the aftermath of the sensational duel in 1804 that left Alexander Hamilton dead at the hand of Vice President Aaron Burr, antidueling associations were formed, sermons were preached, and editorials denounced the practice as a barbaric throwback. In 1806 Congress made it a criminal offense for officers of the army to issue challenges.

But not for officers of the navy: Congress may have felt powerless to stop dueling between naval officers both because many of their duels were fought in foreign ports and because it had become a virtual epidemic in the service. One in twelve American navy officers who died on active duty before 1815 were killed in duels, eighteen in all; easily twice that number had fought a duel; and every officer lived with the knowledge that his reputation for courage was always liable to be tested on the field of honor. Many of the duels were fought over ridiculous disputes or slights, but the loss of respect that an officer faced from ignoring even a slight was far from trivial. Midshipman Richard Somers had once challenged the entire midshipmen’s berth aboard the frigate United Statesafter they ostracized him for failing to properly defend his honor—or so they felt—when fellow midshipman Stephen Decatur had teasingly called him “a fool” and Somers had let the remark pass. Actually, Decatur and Somers were close friends, had been since boyhood, and had thought nothing of the matter. But it was clear Somers now had to defend his honor. Selecting Decatur as his second, Somers exchanged shots with his first opponent and took a ball in his right arm; switching to his left hand, he faced his second opponent and missed him completely, taking a ball in his thigh this time; overruling Decatur’s insistence that he stop, he then took on his third opponent with Decatur propping up his wavering right elbow and somehow managed to slightly wound his adversary. At that point the remaining midshipmen agreed that honor had been satisfied.65

It would have taken a miracle in the wake of the Chesapeake’s humiliation for men of this culture of honor to avoid trading accusations that would lead to pistols at ten paces. If Barron thought that his officers would close ranks around him as the wardroom of the Philadelphia had around William Bainbridge, he was disabused of the notion within minutes of striking the Chesapeake’s flag. While the British boarding party was still aboard carrying out their search for deserters and Barron was lying wounded in his cabin, a bloody rag tied around his leg, he had called his officers in, sent his servant out, ordered the doors shut, and asked for their views. Gordon hesitated and finally opined that Barron had “spared the effusion of blood, but it would have been better had we given her a few broadsides” before giving the order to surrender. Allen did not mince his words. “We have disgraced our flag,” he said with unconcealed disdain.66

The next day the officers signed a letter to Secretary of the Navy Smith.

The undersigned officers of the late U.S. Ship Chesapeake feeling deeply sensible of the disgrace which must be attached to the … premature surrender of the U.S. Ship Chesapeake without their previous knowledge or consent and desirous of proving to their country and the world, that it was the wish of all the undersigned to have rendered themselves worthy of the flag under which they had the honor to serve, by a determined resistance to an unjust demand, do request the Secretary of the Navy to order a Court of Inquiry into their conduct … and that an order may be issued for the arrest of Commodore James Barron on the charges herewith exhibited.67

Allen wrote his father a few days later, “You cannot appreciate you cannot conceive of my feeling at this moment, Was it for this I have continued so long in the service against your wishes—the wish of all my friends; to be so mortified, humbled—cut to the soul … I was near cursing him … give us a Commander give us a man to lead to us to glory.”

Three weeks later he gave vent to more specific accusations. The half hour Barron had kept the British lieutenant waiting for his answer he spent “dictating, penning, and copying” when he could have used the time to get the ship cleared for action and the men to their guns, Allen told his father. “Now had the men been beat to Quarters … in 20 minutes they could have been in complete readiness for a fight (although we had on board a raw undisciplined crew, part of whom were never stationed at a gun in their lives before) But NO it was the wish of the Commodore.” Questioned at the court of inquiry, Allen minced no words at all: “I do believe that the surrender of the Chesapeake was principally owing to Commodore Barron’s want of courage and want of conduct.”68

Barron, for his part, wrote to Dr. Bullus on July 3 blaming everyone but himself. “The gunners Worthless Cowardly trifling in the extreme … Allen … the most Vindictive Rascal of them all he came to that Ship with all the Prejudices that his friend Comdr R[odgers] could inculcate and I am induced to believe that all the Reports now in circulation Prejudicial to me have originated with him … about Striking the Colors, believe me, that there was no order of mine executed with one hundreth part of the Alacrity that this was.”69

A relative of Barron’s called out Gordon over his implied criticism of his commander and they exchanged seven shots; an argument over whether Gordon’s challenger fired too soon on the last shot led to another duel, between Gordon and the man’s second, in which both men were wounded. Two of the Chesapeake’s midshipmen disagreed on whether Barron was a coward and fought a duel in which Barron’s accuser was wounded in the thigh. Gordon fought yet another duel in which he was seriously wounded in the lower abdomen, an injury that left him with “an air hole in his side” that never healed. Finally, Secretary Smith ordered Decatur to forbid any further duels among his officers. In all, nine duels were fought as a result of the Chesapeake’s surrender.70

Following the court of inquiry, Barron was brought up before a court-martial. Stephen Decatur was named to the court and tried to recuse himself, writing the secretary of the navy that as soon as the event occurred he had “formed and expressed an opinion that Commo. Barron had not done his duty,” but the secretary waved that aside. The president of the court, Commodore Rodgers, Barron’s old enemy, had no such compunctions. Barron would always claim that he had been made a scapegoat, but the most damaging testimony came from his own mouth. “What was my duty with the Leopard? My duty was defense; not attack—resistance, not assault. It was my duty to use my utmost exertions to keep my ship out of battle, not to bring her to battle with the ship of a friendly power.” He was sentenced to suspension from the navy for five years.71 The Chesapeake’s hapless gunner was dismissed from the service and the captain of marines given a reprimand for failing to see that his men had proper cartridges for their muskets. All the other officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

As more distant repercussions from the Chesapeake affair rippled through the navy, it at times seemed a contest as to whether defiance or demoralization would have the upper hand. The Chesapeake was supposed to have relieved the Constitution on the Mediterranean station. The Constitution’s cruise had stretched on and on, to four years now; many of the sailors’ two-year enlistments had long since expired; and as the weeks went by with no sign or word of their relief, discontent and restlessness had grown. By the time the Constitution finally received her recall orders on August 18, 1807, five of her men were in irons following a near mutiny.

Her commander, Commodore Hugh G. Campbell, had handled the incident with a judiciousness and tact that appeared to have defused the immediate crisis and regained the crew’s respect, but still it was an ugly situation. The confrontation started when one of the ship’s much-disliked lieutenants, William Burrows, had tried to have two men flogged for going too far from the ship when the crew had been allowed to go swimming one evening at anchor in Syracuse harbor. Burrows had shouted to the men to come back, but the men had not heard him at first; when they did come aboard, Burrows ordered the men to strip and told a boatswain’s mate to take a rope to them. An angry knot of seamen immediately formed, one shouting to the men they were fools if they obeyed the order to remove their shirts; the boatswain’s mate threw down his rope; and Burrows, in a rage, went for one of the delinquent men with a handspike.

Campbell had been ashore, and when he returned a little after eight o’clock, he found the marines and officers under arms and took in the situation at once. “Follow me to my cabin,” he told the lieutenant on deck. “I fear me there has been some misconduct among the officers as well as among the crew.” The next morning Campbell mustered the crew and asked those whose enlistments had expired to state their grievances. The men complained of the cruel treatment they had suffered under the harsh regime of the ship’s lieutenants; they were especially resentful that men whose enlistments had expired months earlier should be flogged at all, which outraged their sense of justice. They said if the captain would sail for home at once they would quietly obey his orders; if not, they would take the ship home themselves. “Well,” Campbell replied, “if you have a mind to take the ship, you may.” He promised, however, that if they could wait for him to conclude his business he would sail for America as soon as possible and henceforth no man would be punished unless he deserved it. A short while later, when news of the Chesapeake affair reached the ship at Málaga, Campbell called the crew together and asked if they were ready to fight their way through the British navy back to America if war had broken out, as was rumored. The men had given three hearty cheers in the affirmative.72

The Constitution arrived in Boston in October 1807 after an ultimately uneventful crossing. Campbell recommended that five men be court-martialed, but Secretary Smith overruled him, ordered the men discharged from the service, and left it at that. The frigate was moved to the navy yard in New York, where more than year’s worth of deferred maintenance lay before her; she needed a mainmast, an entire new set of sails, new topgallant masts and dozens of other spars, new rigging, boats, water casks.73 America’s naval presence was now confined to her own ports and yards.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!