Chesapeake–Leopard affair

ChesapeakeLeopard affair
Part of the events leading to the War of 1812
HMS Leopard (right) fires upon USS Chesapeake
DateJune 22, 1807
ResultBritish victory
 United Kingdom United States
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Salusbury HumphreysUnited States James Barron
1 4th rate1 frigate
Casualties and losses
  • 1 frigate damaged
  • 4 killed
  • 17 wounded

The ChesapeakeLeopard affair was a naval engagement that occurred off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, on Monday, June 22, 1807, between the British warship HMS Leopard and the American frigate USS Chesapeake. The crew of Leopard pursued, attacked, and boarded the American frigate, looking for deserters from the Royal Navy.[1] Chesapeake was caught unprepared and after a short battle involving broadsides received from Leopard, the commander of Chesapeake, James Barron, surrendered his vessel to the British. Chesapeake had fired only one shot.

Four crew members were removed from the American vessel and were tried for desertion, one of whom was subsequently hanged. Chesapeake was allowed to return home, where James Barron was court martialed and relieved of command.

The ChesapeakeLeopard affair created an uproar among Americans. There were strident calls for war with Great Britain, but these quickly subsided. President Thomas Jefferson initially attempted to use this widespread bellicosity to diplomatically threaten the British government into settling the matter. The United States Congress backed away from armed conflict when British envoys showed no contrition for the Chesapeake affair, delivering proclamations reaffirming impressment. Jefferson's political failure to coerce Great Britain led him toward economic warfare: the Embargo of 1807.[2]


USS Chesapeake, depicted in a c. 1900 painting by F. Muller

In the spring of 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, several British naval vessels were on duty on the North American Station, blockading two French third-rate warships in the Chesapeake Bay.[3] A number of Royal Navy seamen had deserted from their ships and local American authorities gave them sanctuary. One of the deserters, a Londoner named Jenkin Ratford, joined the crew of USS Chesapeake. Ratford had made himself conspicuous to British officers by shouting at them on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia.[4]

Other deserters were reported to be at the Gosport Navy Yard, then commanded by Stephen Decatur. Decatur received a letter from the British consul ordering him to turn over three men alleged to have deserted from HMS Melampus. The consul claimed the men had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which was recruiting a crew for Chesapeake, then at the Washington Navy Yard outfitting for a voyage to the Mediterranean.[1][5]

Vice-Admiral Sir George Berkeley dispatched his flagship, the fourth-rate warship HMS Leopard, with written orders authorizing him to board and search the United States warship to recover any deserters.[4] Berkeley ordered Leopard's captain to search for deserters from HMS Belleisle, HMS Bellona, HMS Triumph, HMS Chichester, HMS Halifax, and the cutter HMS Zenobia.[6]