A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 8 - The Naval Engagements
"The Chesapeake Incident"

From 1793, except for a eighteen month intermission in the years 1802-1803, the English and the French were at war. British warships were working out of Halifax, busy capturing French ships. It was not just French ships. Under the law of nations any ship was liable to be captured and confiscated where it was determined contraband of war was in its holds. The British had been sailing the eastern coast of American and taking such vessels since 1793. The number of British warships on such missions varied, usually according to the degree of the threat of the French crossing the Channel to invade England. There was not much of a threat after 1805, the year that Nelson's fleet knocked out the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. The scene we now draw is set in 1807. The British, who were then in a position to send more of their resources to America, picked up the pace. They were aggressively combing the Atlantic off the busy ports of northeastern United States. They were on the outlook for contraband, and they were looking for sailors who had deserted British warships.

From the chapters in this part we are able to see that desertion was a serious problem for the British Navy. The opportunity for desertion would come for dissatisfied crew members of a British ship when it came into an American port for water and supplies.1 The officers took every precaution to keep the crew aboard. Shore leave was not generally available and guards with guns at the ready watched all possible escape routes. But still a considerable number of them got away. Every effort was made to recapture these men so that they could be made to be an example to the rest of the crew. Once a man got away and mixed in with Americans, however, it was rare that he would be found again.

Once a seaman, then always a seaman. Good seaman can always find a job. Indeed, the young American Navy needed experienced crews for its frigates. It was not necessary for a seaman to give a work history to a recruitment officer. The principal questions were whether the prospective crewman was in good health and did he know the ropes. The captain of an American warship was glad to have the man who passed these two simple tests. There was, however, a requirement to look at the man's American citizenship papers.

It was easy for an Englishman to become an American. He needed to obtain the services of a lawyer who swore him to his affidavit that he was a resident of the United States. There was a certain representative of North Carolina who reminisced about his time in the navy in the early part of the 19th century: "[I]t was an ordinary mode of procuring a little spending money to get protection from a notary for a dollar, and sell it to the first foreigner whom it all fitted for fifteen or twenty."2

In March of 1807, a British squadron3 was blockading two French 74-gun ships in the Chesapeake. Among the squadron was the 18-gun Halifax.4 She was at anchor in Chesapeake Bay on March 7th, 1807, when

"the first lieutenant sent five men with midshipman Robert Turner to go in the jolly boat and recover a kedge anchor which had been dropped for the purpose of swinging the ship. Taking advantage of the dusk and rain the five men, William Hill, George North, Richard Hubert, Henry Saunders and Jenkin Rutford, deserted ashore at Sewel's point, Hill threatening to knock the midshipman's brains out. Saunders acted under duress and tried later to return to the ship but was threatened by Rutford."5
Intelligence was to get through to Vice-Admiral Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, then at Halifax, to the effect that certain of the British seaman who had deserted in the Chesapeake had been enlisted as crew members of the American, 38-gun frigate, Chesapeake.6
"In 1807, the British Consul had requested the return of three British deserters from the HMS Milliamps [36-gun Melampus], who were thought to be enlisted in the crew of U.S.S. Chesapeake. He made his request to Captain Stephen Decatur, who was then in command of the Gasport Shipyard. Decatur refused to deal with the request, pointing out that enlistments were not under his jurisdiction. The British Consul took his request to the captain of Chesapeake, Commodore James Barron. Barron interrogated the men, determined that they were American citizens, refused the Consul’s request, and went on fitting out his ship for a voyage to the Mediterranean."7
Vice-Admiral Berkeley was of the view that he was being shrugged-off. He gave specific orders to Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys8 of the 50-gun Leopard to seek out the Chesapeake and ask for any British seaman to be turned over. (The Leopard was Berkeley's flagship, however, Captain Humphreys was in charge when the Leopard brought on the "Chesapeake Incident.")

In 1807, it would not seem peculiar to see a British warship at anchor in an American harbour, and, sometimes, within viewing distance of an American warship. In the month of June of that year, the 50-gun, Leopard was at anchor in the Chesapeake and from all appearances was taking on supplies, which the Americans were only too happy to sell the Britisher. Over the rails of the Leopard's quarterdeck could be seen the occasional flash of a telescope. The object of attention was the 38-gun frigate, U.S.S. Chesapeake, which, as it happened, was not far off from the Leopard. The Chesapeake, heavily loaded with supplies for the American ships then in the Mediterranean, left Norfolk on the 22nd of June. Commodore James Barron (1769-1851) was aboard and in charge. Barron was just recovering from an illness and content to stay in his cabin. Generally, he was of the view that he was but on a delivery mission. When the Chesapeake weighed her anchor, the Leopard "lifted her anchor and preceded the Chesapeake to sea by several miles."9

Here is an account of what followed:

"A British frigate, Leopard, was waiting as Chesapeake officially left American waters. Leopard, standing only twenty yards away from Chesapeake, hailed Barron’s ship, and sent Lieutenant John Meade, R.N. on board, carrying a polite letter from her captain, Salusbury Pryce Humphries [Humphreys], enclosing Berkeley’s order to search the ship for British Navy deserters. When Barron politely refused, Meade politely left, and as Barron and his captain, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, stood at the gangway, he noticed with surprise Leopard's opened gun ports, with her guns positioned to fire on Chesapeake. He ordered Gordon to clear the ship for action.
Almost immediately, Leopard fired on Chesapeake. Barron confirmed this astounding attack was not accidental, when through the clouds of smoke, he could hear the commands of Leopard's officers and her guns reverberating into position to fire again.
[On Barron’s ship] ... Gun ports were not open, guns were not loaded, powder horns were not filled and there were no matches to be found. Chesapeake was carrying several passengers, whose luggage still crowded the decks. Even the galley fire was still lit, which enabled Third Lieutenant William Henry Allen to light one gun with a live coal, discharging the only shot fired by Chesapeake during the fifteen-minute battle.
Leopard continued to fire on Chesapeake. After three sailors were killed, and eighteen wounded, Barron, wounded in his right leg and thigh, faced the inevitable and struck his colors. The British then climbed aboard, claiming four soldiers as deserters. Though Barron repeatedly asked for his ship to be captured as a prize, which would designate the attack as an act of war, but the captain of Leopard refused, and Barron, disgracefully returned his ship to Norfolk. Leopard, amazingly, returned to lie in American waters.
The above quote sets out an American version. Here is a British version. (Keep in mind that war had yet to break out between the two countries.)
"Both ships, having coming up into the wind and so to slow down, spoke by hailing to one another; Commodore Barron for the Chesapeake, Captain Humphreys for the Leopard. Humphreys let it be known he was there on instructions from his superior to search for deserters; and Barron let it be known he was not aware that he had deserters aboard and that, at any rate, his instructions from his superiors "were not to permit the ship's company to be mustered (all gathered together on deck) by any but their own officers. The Leopard then edged down towards the American frigate," ... and Captains Humphreys said, 'Commodore Barron, you must be aware of the necessity I am under of complying with the orders of my commander-in-chief." These words were twice repeated, to which the only reply returned was, " I do not understand what you say;" which words were distinctly heard on board the Leopard, although to windward. The Leopard then fired a shot across the bows of the Chesapeake, which was followed by a second; and as nothing but evasive answers were returned to the repeated hails of Captain Humphreys, the Leopard fired her broadside. Commodore Barron then hailed, that he would send a boat on board; but, as the frigate was evidently making preparations for action, the Leopard continued her fire. A few straggling shots were discharged from the guns of the Chesapeake; but at 4h. 15m., on the Leopard's firing her third broadside, the American colours were hauled down, and Lieutenant Smith, of the Chesapeake, came on board the Leopard with a message from Commodore Barren, to the effect that he considered the American frigate to be the prize of the Leopard. At 5h. p.m., Lieutenants Gordon Thomas Falcon, George Martin Guise, and John Meade, with a party of men, proceeded on board the Chesapeake, and mustered her ship's company, when about twelve were recognized as deserters; but four only, three belonging to the Melampus, and one to the Halifax, were brought away. The Leopard then made sail for Lynnhaven Bay, and the Chesapeake returned to Hampton Roads. The Leopard had no one hurt; but the Chesapeake, besides being greatly damaged, had three seamen killed, and the commodore and seventeen men wounded.11
News soon spread from the docks of Hampton roads of the unprovoked attack of Britain on an American naval ship and the carrying off of American seamen. With the news went talk of war. President Jefferson called a cabinet meeting and issued the Chesapeake Proclamation ordering all armed British vessels to leave American waters immediately and forbidding any communication with any remaining ships.

One of the men taken out of the Chesapeake was Jenkin Radford (or Rutford, or Rutkin). Radford was found hiding below and was recognized by the purser of Leopard. He belonged to the Halifax. Radford was brought to Halifax where he was tried by court martial aboard the 50-gun Bellisle. The trial took place on Wednesday, August 26th, 1807. Part of his evidence was that the reason he was found hiding below decks on the Chesapeake was his fear that the Americans would make him fight against his country. Radford was found guilty of desertion. Five days later, he was executed from the fore yard-arm of Halifax.12

John Liddell, a merchant at Halifax, made this entry into his journal on August 31st: "This morning the two seaman, who were taken from on board the Frigate Chesapeake in conformity to the sentence passed upon them last week, was inflicted, one of them undergoing the flogging thro the fleet died at nine o'clock the other was hanged on board the Halifax Sloop-of-war."13

The British did not much change their ways after the "Chesapeake Incident." They did lay down a protocol when looking for British seamen.14 It was apparently not much followed. As for Admiral Berkeley at Halifax: he was recalled, as a mark of his Majesty's disapproval. He arrived in England in the beginning of 1808 in the company of the Leopard. After a very short display of disappointment, the admiralty sent both men off on further appointments. Both careers seemed to have prospered in spite of the event, or maybe because of it.15

Unlike Berkeley and Humphreys, the career of Commodore Barron came to an end as a result of the Chesapeake Incident. Barron was requested to appear before a Court of Inquiry, which he did during October. After the hearing Barron was found guilty of “neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action,” and “for not doing his utmost to take or destroy the Leopard, which vessel it was his duty to encounter.” He was “to be suspended from all command in the Navy of the United States, and this without any pay or official emoluments of any kind for the period and term of five years, from this day the 8th of February, 1808.” Barron went back into civilian life, trying his hand in trade. He did what he knew best, that is commanding a ship at sea. In 1809, he sailed to Brazil. In 1812, he sailed a merchantman to Copenhagen, Denmark, were he took up residence.16

After 1807, it would not appear that the Leopard returned to the Halifax Station. Through the years, 1808 to 1810, she was in the East Indies. She was last seen to be at Spithead in 1814. As for the Chesapeake -- well, she came together with another British frigate, the Shannon, approximately six years later, at a time when a state of war did exist between Great Britain and the United States. On June 1st, 1813, off Boston, the Shannon took the Chesapeake in what was one of the most decisive and quickest naval battles ever. We shall in time come to the description of that event.17

[NEXT: Pt. 5, Ch. 9 - "Two Notable Naval Engagements:
The Little Belt v. President & The Belvidera v. the American Fleet."

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