A Young Nation in a Dangerous World
Having won its independence in 1783, the United States soon found itself a minor power without the protection of the British flag. With the security of the Royal Navy removed, American shipping soon began falling prey to privateers from Revolutionary France and the Barbary pirates. These threats were met during the undeclared Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and First Barbary War (1801-1805). Despite success in these minor conflicts, American merchant ships continued to be harassed by both the British and the French. Engaged in a life-or-death struggle in Europe the two nations actively sought to prevent the Americans from trading with their enemy. In addition, as it depended upon the Royal Navy for military success, the British followed a policy of impressment to meet its growing manpower needs. This saw British warships remove American sailors from their ships for service in the fleet. Though angered by the actions of Britain and France, the United States lacked the military power to halt these transgressions.
The Royal Navy & Impressment
The largest navy in the world, the Royal Navy was actively campaigning in Europe by blockading French ports as well as maintaining a military presence across the vast British Empire. To provide enough sailors to man its ships, the Royal Navy was permitted a follow a policy of impressment which allowed it to draft into immediate service any able-bodied, male British subject. Often captains would send "press gangs" to round up recruits from pubs and brothels in British ports or from British merchant ships. The long arm of impressment also reached onto the decks of neutral commercial vessels, including those of the United States. British warships made a frequent habit of stopping neutral shipping to inspect crew lists and remove British sailors for military service.
Though the law required impressed recruits to be British citizens, this status was loosely interpreted. Many American sailors had been born in Britain and become naturalized American citizens. Despite possession of citizenship certificates, this naturalized status was often not recognized by the British and many American sailors were seized under the simple criterion of "Once an Englishman, always an Englishman." Between 1803 and 1812, approximately 5,000-9,000 American sailors were forced into the Royal Navy with as many as three-quarters being legitimate American citizens. Though the American government repeatedly protested the practice, British Foreign Secretary Lord Harrowby contemptuously wrote in 1804, "The pretention advanced by Mr. [Secretary of State James] Madison that the American flag should protect every individual on board of a merchant ship is too extravagent to require any serious refutation."
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
Three years later, the impressment issue resulted in a serious incident between the two nations. In the spring of 1807, several sailors deserted from HMS Melampus (36 guns) while the ship was at Norfolk, VA. Three of the deserters then enlisted aboard the frigate USS Chesapeake (38) which was then fitting out for a patrol in the Mediterranean. Upon learning of this, the British consul at Norfolk demanded their return. This was refused by Madison who believed the three men to be Americans. Subsequent affidavits later confirmed this, and the men claimed they had been impressed. The tensions were heightened when rumors circulated that other British deserters were part of Chesapeake's crew. Learning of this, Vice Admiral George C. Berkeley, commanding the North American station, instructed any British warship that encountered Chesapeake to stop it and search for the men.
On June 21, 1807, HMS Leopard (50) hailed Chesapeake shortly after it cleared the Virginia Capes. Sending a messenger to the American ship, Captain Salusbury Humphreys demanded that the ship be searched for deserters. This request was flatly refused by Commodore James Barron who ordered the to ship be prepared for battle. As the ship possessed a green crew, this procedure moved slowly. After several minutes of shouted conversation between Humphreys and Barron, Leopard fired a warning shot, then a full broadside into the unready American ship. Unable to return fire, Barron struck his colors with three men dead and eighteen wounded. Sending across a boarding party, Humphreys removed the three men as well as Jenkin Ratford who had deserted from HMS Halifax (18). Taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ratford was later hung while the other three were sentenced to 500 lashes each (this was later commuted).
In the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair an outraged American public called for war and President Thomas Jefferson to defend the nation's honor. Pursuing a diplomatic course instead, Jefferson closed American waters to British warships, secured the release of the three seamen, and demanded an end to impressment. While the British did pay compensation for the incident, the practice of impressment continued unabated. On May 16, 1811, USS President (58) engaged HMS Little Belt (20) in what is sometimes considered a retaliatory attack for the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.