The incident between the USN Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard was set in play by the desertion of four men. William Ware, Daniel Martin, and John Strachan, three Americans who had been pressed into service by the British Navy, and Jenkin Ratford, a British sailor, deserted from the HMS Halifax and HMS Melampus as they patrolled off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. The ships were looking for the French ships Sybelle and Patriot who had sought safe harbor after being damaged in a hurricane in 1806. The men stole a boat and rowed ashore where Ratford boasted that he had escaped to “the land of liberty”.
Desertion was common. Vice Admiral George Cranfield Berkeley, commander in chief of the British ships stationed on the St. Lawrence River, along the coast of Nova Scotia, the Island of St Johns and Cape Breton, the Bay of Funday, and around Bermuda and Somers Islands, heard about these desertions. He ordered all captains to look for deserters from the Belleisle, Bellona, Triumph, Chichester, Halifax, and Zenobia the moment they found United States ships at sea to board them and seize any deserters. They were also to allow the commander of the Chesapeake to search the British ships for their own deserters.
The four men joined the crew of the USN Chesapeake, flagship of Commodore James Baron; Ratford had joined under a different name. The Chesapeake was a 36-gun frigate weighing around 1244 tons. It had been built at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. On June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake sailed from Norfolk to the Mediterranean. With its decks littered with cargo and its guns stowed, it was the perfect target when the
HMS Leopard intercepted it off the coast of Norfolk. Captain Salusbury Humphreys, commander of the Leander, requested permission to board to look for deserters. Commodore Baron investigated his men and found the suspected men were Americans. He did not know Ratford was a British deserter due to the false name and he refused to muster his crew for inspection. The Leopard opened fire with a barrage of broadsides, killing three American sailors and wounding eighteen. The British then boarded and took two African Americans, one white American, and Jenkin Ratford.
The American public was infuriated and war fever thundered along the coast of the United States. Thomas Jefferson claimed the event had left the country more exasperated than any other time since the Battle of Lexington Green, which started the Revolutionary War, and “even that did not produce such unanimity”. Both Republicans and Federalists clamored for a response and war seemed likely. But there was nothing the ill prepared United States could do since its small navy was in the Mediterranean fighting Barbary pirates and the army had been reduced by Republicans wanting to reduce government spending. President Thomas Jefferson passed the Embargo Act and made a proclamation that all armed British ships were to leave U.S. waters.
Commodore Barron was court martialed and found guilty of “neglecting on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action”. He was suspended from the navy without pay for five years.
On August 31, 1807 Jenkins Ratford was tried by court martial for mutiny, desertion, and contempt toward a British naval officer. He was sentenced to death and was hung from the fore yardarm of the HMS Halifax, his former ship.
The Naval Chronicle for 1807 contains documents relating to the Chesapeake incident, an extract of a letter from a man who was on the HMS Leopard, resolutions passed in a meeting in New York on July 2, 1807 with De Witt Clinton as the chair, Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation, letters between the mayor of Norfolk and Captain Douglas of the HMS Bellona, and William Cobbett’s perspective of the U.S. response to the attack on the Chesapeake on pages 116-130.
“Embargo Of 1807”. 2018. Monticello.Org. Accessed June 18 2018. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/embargo-1807#Embargo_of_1807
“Founders Online: Search “Thomas Jefferson and Chesapeake From June 22, 1807 On”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018.
“Founders Online: Proclamation Re British Armed Vessels, 2 July 1807”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-5863
“Founders Online: To James Madison From David Montague Erskine, 13 July 1807”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018.
“Founders Online: To James Madison From David Montague Erskine, 1 September 1807”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018.
“Founders Online: From James Madison To David Montague Erskine, 13 September 1807”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018. https://founders.archives.gov//documents/Madison/99-01-02-2129
“Founders Online: To James Madison From David Montague Erskine, 14 September 1807”. 2018. Founders.Archives.Gov. Accessed June 18 2018.
Petch, Alison. 2018. “HMS Leopard 1884.54.44”. Web.Prm.Ox.Ac.Uk. Accessed June 12 2018.
“Summer 1807: The British Attack The USS Chesapeake And Remove American Sailors (U.S. National Park Service)”. 2018. Nps.Gov. Accessed June 12 2018. https://www.nps.gov/articles/chesapeake-leopard-affair.htm
“The Atlantic Monthly”. 2018. Google Books. Accessed June 18 2018. https://books.google.com/books?id=qfg3AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA592&dq=Captain+Lewis++and+Captain+Whitby+of+the+Leander&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhw6jr5c7bAhXB2lMKHXnODHQQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=Captain%20Lewis%20%20and%20Captain%20Whitby%20of%20the%20Leander&f=false
“The Mariners’ Museum: Birth Of The U.S. Navy”. 2018. Marinersmuseum.Org. Accessed June 12 2018.
“The Naval Chronicle: Containing A General And Biographical History Of The Royal Navy Of The United Kingdom With A Variety Of Original Papers On Nautical Subjects.: Free Download, Borrow, And Streaming: Internet Archive”. Internet Archive. Accessed June 12 2018. Pages 116-130.
“William Cobbett | British Journalist”. 2018. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 18 2018.