From a distance, the two-decker HMS Leopard and the frigate USS Chesapeake seemed the picture of serenity as they rode the gentle swells off Cape Henry on the afternoon of 22 June 1807. On the decks of the two warships, however, it was a different story. On board the Chesapeake, men rushed to find their battle stations and clear obstructions from the gun deck, while on the Leopard, sailors stood tense and ready by their cannon. The United States and Great Britain had been at peace for two decades, but it had been an uneasy peace. Suddenly years of bitterness and mistrust found expression in a broadside from the Leopard. It crashed into the U.S. ship some 50 yards way, tearing away her rigging and sending lethal wooden splinters in all directions.
Five months earlier, in January 1807, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith had ordered the Chesapeake (40 guns) prepared for service. She and the ship sloop Wasp (18 guns) were to form a squadron under Commodore James Barron, with his flag on board the Chesapeake, to relieve the frigate Constitution, brig Hornet, and schooner Enterprise on the Mediterranean station. Readied at Washington, the Chesapeake proceeded down the Potomac to Hampton Roads, where she completed her outfitting. The Chesapeake sailed on 22 June with a crew of 329 and 52 Marines. There also were civilians on board and as many as ten Italian members of the Marine band, who were returning home at their request.
The U.S. frigate was hardly prepared for fighting. The gun deck was piled high with civilian baggage and littered with “the range of the starboard lower cable,” including empty gang casks that had been taken out to enable the crew to get at provisions, the armorer’s forge, sick men in hammocks (32 men were on the frigate’s sick list that day), the steward’s cupboard, a wooden secretary on each side of the cabin between the two after guns, and cases of claret abaft the after guns. More sick men lay in the sun on the spar deck. The frigate’s guns were lashed up for heavy weather, and some implements for serving them were stowed below. Articles filled the passageways leading to the magazines. Barron later said the frigate seemed “intended then rather as a store ship, than one which was supposed to meet and engage an enemy.”
At 0900 in Lynnhaven Bay, a few miles from the Capes, the Chesapeake sailed past two British vessels, the Melampus (40 guns) and the ship-of-the-line Bellona (74 guns). Barron recalled that “their colors [were] flying and their appearance friendly.” Three hours before the Chesapeake had sailed, however, the two-decked British ship Leopard (50 guns), commanded by Captain Salisbury Pryce Humphreys, departed Lynnhaven Bay and proceeded into the Atlantic. At 0600, she reanchored about three miles north of Cape Henry lighthouse with the ship-of-the-line Triumph (74 guns). After the Chesapeake passed the Bel- Iona, the latter ran up the signal, “weigh and reconnoiter S.E. by E.” In response at 0915, the Leopard weighed and made sail.
The signaling from the Bellona was visible from the Chesapeake. Her captain, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, reported it to Barron in his cabin. Barron went on deck and observed it through a spyglass, but he was unable to read the signals and found nothing untoward in the Leopard’s movements.
At 1500, the Chesapeake stood to eastward. She was then “laying off and on under easy sail” about three leagues (approximately nine miles) east-southeast of Cape Henry waiting for the pilot boat. At that point the Leopard, three to four miles away, wore and stood for the Chesapeake. The wind was light, so it took nearly a half hour for the British warship to close to about 60 yards of the Chesapeake on her windward, weather, quarter. Meanwhile, many of the Chesapeake’s crew were occupied in stowing anchors, unbending the sheet cable, and stowing below ranges of lower cable. Gordon gave no orders to clear lumber from the gun deck.
At 1527, Captain Humphreys from the Leopard hailed the Chesapeake, saying that he had a dispatch for her captain. Perhaps Barron assumed he would be asked to carry mail to Europe, a normal courtesy extended at sea to vessels of other nations. There was, however, some cause for alarm. The Leopard had her lower-deck ports open, and the tampions—the plugs that protected the guns when not in use—had been removed from the muzzles.
On receiving the hail from the Leopard, Barron replied that he would “heave to” and that the British captain had permission to send his man on board. Barron did not call his crew to quarters, although regulations called for this on the approach of a warship of another power. Barron later said, however, that the idea of an attack “was so extravagant that I might as well have expected one when at anchor at Hampton Roads.”
Humphreys sent Lieutenant John Meade in a boat to the Chesapeake. Once in the commodore’s cabin, Meade handed Barron a note from Captain Humphreys introducing a circular letter of 1 June signed by Vice Admiral of the White Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, Commander-in-Chief of the British North American Station. The circular stated that British seamen from the Bellisle, Bellona, Triumph, Chichester, Halifax, and the cutter Zenobia were known to have deserted and entered service on board the USS Chesapeake. In the letter, Sir George Cranfield Berkeley ordered all under his command to board and search the U.S. frigate upon meeting her at sea.
Humphreys later wrote: “No person could regret more than myself that the Admiral should have issued such a circular to the different ships under his command; but my duty was to obey, as a subordinate officer, and as a gentleman, to soften and ameliorate the apparent severity and harshness of the order.” Indeed, Meade bore a note from Humphreys expressing the hope that matters might be settled amicably:
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 an hope, that every circumstance respecting them may be adjusted, in such a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two countries may be undisturbed.
Barron politely but firmly refused to recognize Royal Navy authority over his ship and pointed out that the U.S. government did not permit such searches. The only men he said he knew to be British “deserters” on the Chesapeake were those from the Melampus, a ship not mentioned in Berkeley’s dispatch. He was thus correct in telling Meade that he did not know of any men fitting the description in Berkeley’s order.
Barron apparently anticipated nothing other than an angry verbal exchange with the British captain. After Meade had left, Barron sent for Gordon and showed him Humphreys’s letter and his answer. He asked Gordon for his opinion, and Gordon said he thought the answer was “plain and decisive.” Barron then said, “You had better get your gun deck clear, as their intentions appear serious.”
A few minutes later, Barron ordered Gordon to call the crew to general quarters, but as quietly as possible and without the traditional drum roll and without the men showing themselves through the gun ports (which would preclude them from removing tampions or taking out half ports). As Barron put it, “If we are seen going to quarters, they will charge us with making the first hostile show.” Gordon later said that Barron told him that ‘“the ship would sink before he would give up a man,’ and asked me what 1 thought of it. 1 replied ‘certainly.’” Gordon said “The order was given in such a way too, that all the officers then on the gun and spar decks, I think must have heard it.” Captain Hall asked Gordon whether he should order his Marines to take up their arms. Gordon replied in the affirmative, and the Marines drew their weapons and loaded them.
While Barron was trying to determine Humphreys’s intentions, he was startled by the sound of the Chesapeake’s drummer beating to quarters. Gordon halted this by hitting the drummer with the side of his sword. All gun deck lieutenants and Gordon subsequently testified that halting the drumming delayed the process of readying the guns to fire because it threw the crew “into confusion.” It is indeed doubtful Barron gained any advantage by the silent call to quarters; the vessels were so close that the British could easily see the Americans belatedly clearing for action.
Although the lieutenants quickly reached their battle stations, all was confusion. The frigate’s guns had all been loaded with round shot before sailing, as per normal naval procedure, but none was ready to fire. A number were insecurely fitted on their carriages, so that there was about a half-inch difference in seating the trunnion properly against the wood of the carriage; at least one had a carriage cap square that would not fit over the trunnion. Sufficient round shot, grape, and canister were on the gun deck and quarterdeck, but the guns were not primed, and only five powder horns of the 54 on board the frigate were filled. All the powder horns were in the magazine. Matches and logger- heads to fire the guns were not available, and some of the rammers were not in their proper places. Some guns did not have handspikes or sponges.
Lieutenant William M. Crane, who commanded the first division battery, found a cluttered scene. Hammocks with sick men were slung over the guns. The gun deck was covered with cable. The armorer’s forge and anvil, the fore hatch ladder, cooper’s horse, a large grindstone, a pile of boards on two of the guns, and several casks hindered preparations. Crane ordered the deck cleared and guns cast loose. He also sent to the magazine his powder boys, and later two midshipmen, for cartridges and powder horns.
Told by Crane that the frigate was going to quarters, Lieutenant William Henry Allen took his side arms and went to his station as commander of the second division on the gun deck. His division was littered with three pork barrels, a grog tub, and cable. Fourth Lieutenant John Creighton, who commanded the third division in the after battery, went to quarters on his own without being ordered, but his guns were obstructed by a large canvas screen for the cabin servants. This concealed trunks, a table, a cask, and a locker for cabin furniture. The cabin bulkhead (which could be dismantled during a battle) was still standing, a large sideboard was near the mizzen mast, and a table and chairs were within the cabin.
A few minutes after Meade had returned to the Leopard, she edged closer, and Humphreys hailed. Several witnesses reported him as saying, “Commodore Barron, you must be aware of the necessity I am under of complying with the orders of my Commander-in-Chief.” Another account had him saying, “I have been ordered to remove British deserters from your ship, sir!” Barron, who had stepped into the gangway, said he answered Humphreys, “I do not understand what you say.” (One witness on the Leopard reported him as saying, “You may do as you please.”) Humphreys later said that he was prompted by “motives of humanity, and an ardent desire to prevent bloodshed. . .by repeatedly hailing and remonstrating, but without effect.” He believed Barron understood his words, because the water was calm, the British warship was to windward, and those on the Leopard were able to hear what Barron said.
Immediately after this exchange, Barron told Gordon to “hurry” the men to their quarters. Humphreys was convinced Barron was merely stalling; the British captain was not going to allow the Chesapeake’s crew time to get ready for action. The Leopard had more sail set and was slowly pulling ahead of the U.S. frigate when Captain Humphreys ordered a shot fired “athwart her bows” as a signal to heave to. Barron chose to disregard this. Humphreys said that he then hailed the Chesapeake again, but found “the answers were equally evasive.” He claimed it was only after this, at about 1630, that he gave the order to open fire, beginning with the foremost gun on the lower deck.
The ships lay nearly abeam as the Leopard's side erupted in smoke and flame. Shot crashed into the Chesapeake, principally amidships. Wooden splinters flew in all directions.
Among the wounded was Barron, hit in the right leg and thigh by splinters. He was standing in the gangway, known as “the slaughterhouse” (because it was the most exposed part of the frigate). Before this Captain Gordon had discovered ship’s Gunner William Hook on the quarterdeck and gave him a key to the magazine. Hook unlocked and entered the magazine as the Leopard’s first broadsides crashed into the frigate. Conditions in the magazine that day were such that it would have been impossible for the Chesapeake to have carried on a sustained action. The “magazine appeared in great confusion, and the gunner could not find anything he wanted.”
Meanwhile, Barron hailed the Leopard twice, once from the gangway and once from abaft atop the signal locker. He said he would send a boat, but just then a second broadside thundered from the British warship. Seeing preparations for battle on board the Chesapeake, Humphreys interpreted Barron’s offer to be what Barron subsequently admitted it was: a ruse de guerre to gain time. With British firing continuing, however, Barron ordered a boat lowered, and Lieutenant Benjamin Smith got down the gig.
Barron seemed unable to comprehend why his guns were not firing. Three or four times he went from the gangway to the main hatch to hail the gun deck, asking whether the men there were ready to return fire. He said later that he could not understand why his subordinates had failed to return fire; he believed them guilty of disloyalty and dereliction. As British shot struck, he saw only chaos. He later charged that no officer on the quarterdeck made any effort to try to secure the rigging. His lieutenants later charged Barron was confused and indecisive. The court of inquiry later found that in the midst of the action he “drew his men from their guns to lowering down boats to send on board of the attacking ship and that he ordered his first lieutenant from his quarters during the attack, to carry a message on board of the Leopard at that time firing upon him.” Seamen, many of them wounded, huddled in the debris falling from aloft. Barron, who had climbed down from where he had hailed the Leopard to observe some of the damage to the rigging, cried out, “For God’s sake, gentlemen, will nobody do their duty?” He asked Sailing Master Brooke, “Is it possible we can’t get any guns to fire?” Brooke, whose duties involved maneuvering the vessel, replied that he “knew nothing of guns” and then noticed that Barron was bleeding in the leg and offered to bandage the wound. Although Barron said it was “of no consequence,” he did get up on the signal locker to allow Brooke to tie a handkerchief around his leg. Even the Marines on board the Chesapeake failed to return fire. Captain Hall refused permission to fire their muskets unless Barron ordered it. When he reported the men ready to Gordon, the latter did not reply. When he told Barron, the commodore said, “it is well,” but gave no order to fire. The Marines remained huddled around the arms chest throughout the encounter. Barron ordered Gordon to the gun deck “to get the guns to work.” Gordon went to Lieutenant Creighton’s third division, and Creighton said they were not firing because they had no powder horns. One man sent for matches returned wounded but with a loggerhead; it was, however, too cold to fire the guns.
In the second division Captain Gordon found three men wounded and a fourth dead. Hall arrived with a desperate message from Barron: “. . .for God’s sake to fire one gun for the honour of the flag, I mean to strike.” Gordon demanded of Allen what was holding up the return fire. The lieutenant said he needed powder horns and matches. Gordon went to the steerage, where he met a boy returning from the magazine with two filled powder horns. Gordon took these, ran the length of the gun deck, and tossed them across the hatch to Allen, who primed three guns. Gordon then returned to the quarterdeck, expecting that other powder horns and matches would soon follow and that with these “we should at that instant return a warm fire.” Allen tried to fire the forward gun with a loggerhead, but it was not hot enough. He finally fired off one of the primed 18- pounders by means of a burning coal from the galley stove at the other end of the deck.
Allen was about to fire a second gun when Barron hailed down the hatchway, “Stop firing, stop firing. We have struck, we have struck.” Before the flag could be hauled down, another British broadside hit the frigate. Both the flag and commodore’s broad pendant came down. British fire then stopped. Gordon asserted that the Leopard had fired four or five broadsides. Humphreys and the British maintained that the Leopard fired only three, over a span of 10 to 15 minutes. In his report, Humphreys said only “a few American shot” were fired; none struck the Leopard. The Chesapeake had three seamen killed and eight men seriously wounded, ten less seriously, including Barron. One of the wounded, Robert McDonald, died later at Norfolk.
It is difficult to imagine any other outcome from the encounter, given the untrained state of the Chesapeake’s crew. The only possibility of a U.S. victory would have been effective fire from the frigate’s 32-pounder carronades. Likely only honor would have been salvaged. After the Americans struck, Barron sent Lieutenant Sidney Smith to the Leopard with a message for Captain Humphreys: “Sir, I consider the frigate Chesapeake your prize, and am ready to deliver her to an officer authorized to receive her.” Barron, no longer able to stand, retired to his cabin.
Barron then summoned the remaining lieutenants and Brooke, ordered the servant outside, shut the doors, and asked for their comments relative to what had transpired. At first there was hesitation, but Gordon finally spoke: “In my opinion Sir you have spared the effusion of blood, but it would have been better had we given her a few broadsides first.” Lieutenant Crane said, “It had been better if the Chesapeake were blown from under us than to be thus dishonored.” Lieutenant Allen had difficulty concealing his disgust. He felt the surrender was an unforgivable act of cowardice. “We have disgraced our flag,” he told Barron. Crane then said: “The Leopard mounted but ten guns more than we did, we were able to contend with her, and you had better sir have suffered your ship to have been blown from under you than thus shamely dishonored us.” To this Barron replied, “Gentlemen I am sorry you differ in opinion with me, I acted for the best. I have heard enough.” He dismissed them.
After the meeting, Gordon went to the quarterdeck, where he saw four sailors, alleged by the British to be deserters, standing apart from the rest of the crew. A British officer told Gordon that there were between 12 and 15 others among the crew who were British subjects, but that they would not be taken. Humphreys reported that these men “did not claim the protection of the British flag, and [were] not within the limits of my orders from the Commander-in-Chief, I therefore allowed them to remain.”
At about 1930, the Leopard’s boat returned to the British frigate with the boarding party and the four prisoners. Immediately after they departed, Barron sent a boat of his own with Lieutenant Allen and this letter to Captain Humphreys: “Sir, I consider the frigate Chesapeake as your prize, and am ready to deliver her to any officer authorized to receive her. By the return of the boat, I shall expect your answer; and have the honour to be, Sir, Your most obedient, Humble servant, James Barron.”
At 2000, Allen returned to the Chesapeake with word that Humphreys refused the surrender of the Chesapeake. His message to Barron was: “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. . . .” He did, however, offer to render “every assistance in my power” and also said that he “most sincerely deplore[d], that any lives should have been lost in the execution of a service, which might have been adjusted more amicably, not only with respect to ourselves, but to the nations to which we respectively belong.
The Leopard made sail and stood tack to Lynnhaven Bay. The Chesapeake made sail and stood in toward shore as her crew spliced, patched, and pumped 3.5 feet of water from her hold. On 23 June, she limped back to land, passing Cape Henry and anchoring in Hampton Roads. The political, diplomatic, and military repercussions of the affair, however, had just begun.
Primary sources for this article are Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron, Captain Charles Gordon, Mr. William Hook, and Captain John Hall, of the United States' Ship Chesapeake, in the Month of January, 1808 and Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, Held at the Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York, Upon Captain James Barron of the United States Navy, in May 1821. For specific notes, see Spencer C. Tucker and Frank T. Reuter, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1996).