The Chesapeake Leopard Affair

The Royal Navy Warship That Almost Started A War With America

Built in Sheerness the Royal Navy's 50-gun HMS Leopard set sail in April of 1790.The Portland-class warship rapidly made a name for herself...

The Chesapeake Leopard Affair

Built in Sheerness the Royal Navy's 50-gun HMS Leopard set sail in April of 1790.

The Portland-class warship rapidly made a name for herself, seeing action in the French Revolutionary War, but it was an incident in 1807 that brought her lasting fame.

With the Napoleonic War in full swing several British ships had been sent to North America to engage and blockade French warships in the region.

In the Spring of 1807, and under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, HMS Leopard found herself helping to hound the French in Chesapeake Bay.

All was not well however among the ranks of six of the Royal Navy ships, with several sailors taking the opportunity to desert and seek sanctuary with the American authorities who were recruiting crew members for their own vessels.

One such ship was the USS Chesapeake, preparing to sail across the Atlantic on a voyage to Europe.

With written orders to board and search the Chesapeake for deserters Captain Humphreys intercepted her off the Virginia coast.

Initial discussions with Chesapeake's Commodore James Barron proved fruitless with the American ship refusing to submit. Humphreys ordered his men to open fire - a shot across the bow rapidly followed by a series of broadsides.

With most of her guns stowed in readiness for the transatlantic voyage the USS Chesapeake was unable to respond past a single shot.

With three of her crew dead and eighteen injured, including Commodore Barron, the humiliated ship struck her colours and surrendered.

Only four deserters were seized with one of them, a Jenkin Ratford, meeting the grisly fate of being hung from the yardarm of HMS Halifax.

What the incident did do however was nearly spark a war between Britain and America, the latter outraged and embarassed by their Navy's inability to defend itself.

President Thomas Jefferson came under immense pressure to retaliate with force and exclude British warships from US territorial waters.

Amid heightening tensions the statesman chose instead to go down the route of diplomacy and economic pressure.. a move that ultimately failed as America and Britain did eventually go to war with each other in 1812.

In an effort to mollify the USA Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys was never given another command although he was promoted to Rear-Admiral and later knighted.

Commodore James Barron was court-martialled and suspended for five years without pay. He later killed one of the men who had presided over his court martial in a duel. 

HMS Leopard was converted into a troop ship and lost off the coast of Canada in 1812, all hands on board however did survive. 

The USS Chesapeake was again captured by the Royal Navy in 1813 and sailed as HMS Chesapeake until 1820, her timbers now form much of Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, England. 

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