On the morning of 22 June 1807, the U.S. frigate Chesapeake slipped past Cape Henry at the mouth of the bay for which she was named and headed for the open sea. Snapping from her masthead in the freshening breeze was the broad pennant of Commodore James Barron.
Although her captain, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, had declared the Chesapeake ready for sea, and Barron as senior officer on board had accepted Gordon’s evaluation, the frigate was less than shipshape. Because she was transporting a number of civilian officials to the Mediterranean, her decks were cluttered with their furniture and other personal effects, many of her cannon were not properly mounted, and most of the crew did not yet know where their battle stations were. But the United States was not at war, and the long voyage ahead would give time for Gordon to prepare her for duty.
Earlier, as the frigate had passed a squadron of Royal Navy ships lying at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, Barron noticed a flurry of signal flags running up several of the British ships’ halyards, and the 50-gun frigate Leopard had weighed anchor and was following the Yankee frigate down the channel.
When the Chesapeake was about ten miles south of Cape Henry Light, the Leopard bore down with a request to send dispatches on board. Such a procedure was not unusual; British and U.S. ships often carried dispatches to foreign stations for each other, so Barron gave permission to heave to.
As the Leopard drew closer, her gun ports were open and her cannons’ tampions had been removed. This too was not unusual, for it was common practice for warships to take these precautions when drawing close to another warship. However, the same precaution apparently did not occur to either Barron or Gordon.
Upon boarding, a British lieutenant presented an order from the British commander of the North American Station requiring that captains of all British ships search for deserters from the Royal Navy. He also delivered a letter from the Leopard’s captain expressing hope this could be accomplished without upsetting the harmony between the two countries.
The order had its roots in the ongoing conflict between Britain and France. Britain’s strategy included long periods of blockade duty and extended deployments, and these arduous circumstances were causing many Royal Navy sailors to desert. Many of these deserters were finding employment on U.S. ships, and the British understandably were vexed.
But a sovereign nation could not expect to maintain its sovereignty with any measure of credibility were it to allow another nation to board and search its naval vessels, no matter how seemingly justified. So captains in the U.S. Navy were under standing orders forbidding such searches, and Barron refused.
As the lieutenant was being rowed back to the Leopard, Barron ordered Gordon to clear for action. Not wanting to appear provocative, the order was passed quietly, without the customary drumbeat summoning the crew to their battle stations. But the Chesapeake was not a taut ship, and the order was not properly transmitted. Consequently, the drummer sounded his urgent beat for several seconds before he could be silenced. This not only alerted the British but also added to the confusion, causing some of the American sailors to assume the order had been rescinded.
Confusion reigned in the Chesapeake as the Leopard fired a shot across her bow. Moments later, a full broadside erupted, smashing into the Chesapeake’s hull and tearing into her rigging.
Several more British broadsides followed, none of which were returned. Not only were many of the American guns not mounted, but no matches could be found to fire the few that were. As the Leopard continued to fire, Barron—now wounded—ordered Gordon to strike his colors in surrender, but not before someone could “fire one gun for the honor of the flag.” Plucking a hot coal from the galley, Lieutenant William Henry Allen juggled it in his bare hands as he carried it to one of the few guns that had been prepared to fire. He touched off the shot just as the Stars and Stripes was hauled down.
Four Americans died and another 20 were wounded. A British boarding party subsequently arrested four men they identified as deserters. The shattered Chesapeake was then left to limp back to Hampton Roads.
Barron subsequently was tried by a court-martial and found guilty of “negligent performance of duty.” He was suspended from the Navy for five years without pay.
Although many Americans called for war against Britain, President Thomas Jefferson’s only retaliation was to order all British ships to leave U.S. ports. For five years a fragile peace was maintained, but the so-called Chesapeake-Leopard affair would prove to be a harbinger of greater conflict in 1812 as U.S. and British frigates would again do battle, this time with very different results.