The Fall of the Chesapeake

by Josiah Audette

(The following is my third lecture in a series on “God’s Providence in Canadian History.”)


We commence where we left off. America is experiencing severe hostility from the British trade blockade and their impressment of American sailors. Furthermore, America is still encountering contentions with the Indians of Ohio Valley, specifically the Shawnee tribe headed by that impressive Indian leader, Tecumseh. Today we will observe a highly providential episode between America and Britain. The fall of the American Frigate, the Chesapeake by the British man of war the Leopard in 1807 was decisive in thrusting America into a declaration of war.


The United States frigate Chesapeake was one of the six small ships commissioned in the relatively new American navy. At secretary Knox’s suggestion, President Washington had constructed three 44 gun ships, among them the Chesapeake, and two additional 36 gun frigates. The Chesapeake had been docked four years in the navy yard at Washington as out of service when William Henry Allen received orders in January of 1807 to bring the ship back into service. Once operable Allen would join her as third lieutenant under the command of commodore James Barron, to relieve the Chesapeake’s counterpart, the Constitution, which lay in the Mediterranean ever since the end of the Tripolitan war.


Traveling into Philadelphia, Allen was given the daunting task to find 170 seamen and boys for the voyage. After three months of searching, Allen managed to get 47 thuggish men aboard a pack boat to join the Chesapeake. Later he recruited 10 more but had to release 4 and 6 others disappeared with the advance pay Allen gave them. Not only was Allen seriously undermanned but of the men he did have many were unfit or difficult to reign in for the mission at hand. “My guardian genius of good fortune certainly slumbered a little when she suffered me to be sent here” Allen wrote to his father, “What do you think of 60 or 80 Sailors, no doubt some of them wild Irishmen, let loose in this city after you have advanced them 18 to 70 dollars each… I never had so much trouble with a pack of rascals in my life.” 


Finally leaving the navy yard in Washington on May 9, Allen and his rascals sailed off to Norfolk where the ship was to complete here final fitting for sea. They sailed less than a mile into their two hundred mile journey when they struck and were grounded on a sandbar. Eight days into their journey the unversed crew managed to fell a spar while attempting to fix some improper rigging. The spar crashed to the deck instantly killing two men and seriously injuring a third. A few days afterward a clumsy sailor fell overboard and consequentially drowned. If this was not sufficient enough inconvenience for Henry Allen, 60 to 85 of the crew became sick with a virulent infection and remained so for the entire first leg of the voyage, three of the sick men died in the first few weeks, a dozen deserted the blighted Chesapeake making off with her boats, the ship struck shoals once again, and the cable broke while the crew heaved her off the shoal. On June 4 the ship finally arrived at Norfolk after a voyage cursed with ill luck.


Even when not sailing troubles still assailed them while in dock at Norfolk. The ship’s senior officer, Commodore James Barron, complained that the gunpowder supplied by the navy yard was frankly, “Not fit for service.” The navy department spitefully replied that he could have it “remanufactured” when he reached the Mediterranean. To make circumstances worse, Henry Allen found that half of the  cannon cartridges were the wrong size for the ship’s guns as he was performing a customary sixteen-gun salute to the grave of George Washington. Being docked at Norfolk, the Chesapeake received more bodies on board. Most were passengers who arrived with enough luggage that the ship’s deck had to be used to store it all, and four joined as sailors, all of whom were deserters of the British navy. Three were Americans who just escaped their impressment from the British ship, Melampus. Their escape account is a notable one. While officers of the Melampus were having a dinner party the “three musketeers”  jumped the captain’s rig and sailed for bay. Under a hail of musket lead they rowed to shore as mad men and safely arrived by sheer providence. The first of these remarkable deserters was an African American named Daniel Martin, the second was William Ware an American Indian, and the third was a white man, John Strachan. As for the forth recruiter on the Chesapeake, his name was Jenkin Ratford. Ratford was a British deserter from the British ship Halifax. Under the cover of a sudden squall aboard the HMS Halifax, Ratford jumped ship and rowed for shore. The captain of the Halifax himself stormed into Norfolk after him, but was only greeted by a verbal lashing from the rather foot lose and fancy free sailor. The Chesapeake while already having experienced more than enough trouble, would not give up the deserters to the British on account of their desperate need for manpower. This was too much for British Vice-Admiral George Cranfield Berkley. He forthwith sent off a rigid order for every British vessel to stop the Chesapeake at sea and take by force these deserters who had so pretentiously bit their thumbs at the British flag. “Whereas many Seamen, subjects of His Britannic Majesty, and serving in His Ships and Vessels as per margin, while at Anchor in the Chesapeake deserted and entered On Board the United States frigate called the Chesapeake, an openly paraded the Streets of Norfolk in sight of their Officers under the American flag, protected by the Magistrates of the Town, and the Recruiting Officer belonging to the above mentioned American Frigate… the Captains & Commander of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels under my Command are therefore hereby required and directed in case of meeting with the American frigate the Chesapeake at Sea, and without the limits of the United States to shew to the Captain of her this Order; and to require to search his Ship for the deserters from the before mentioned Ships… and if similar demand should be made by the American, he is to be permitted to search for any Deserters from their Service, according to the Customs and usage of Civilized Nations in terms of peace and Amity with each other.”  Troubles were undoubtably brewing while the Chesapeake  was at bay.


The morning of June 22 the Chesapeake sailed off from Norfolk bound for the Mediterranean. As she sailed past a British squadron anchored in the American waters a fifty-gun man-of-war, the Leapard, detached itself from the squadron and sailed off in pursuit of the Chesapeake. This did not go unnoticed to Henry Allen who closely watched as the Leopard, several miles behind, unmistakably began to dog the American’s course. Within a mile, the Leopard came in sight, and to Henry’s consternation he noticed the Leopard’s lower gunports were open. By three in the afternoon the Leopard shot up on her windward quarter with all guns out, their tompions removed, now closing the gap between the Chesapeake to a dangerous sixty yards. The Leopard’s captain, Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, hailed that he had dispatches for the commander of the Chesapeake to which Commodore James Barron bellowed back from the Chesapeake that he would heave to. One of the ships sailing masters muttered, “This fellow is coming on board of us to demand deserters and if they are not delivered up we shall have hell to hold.”


Standard orders for every warship of every navy would have called for Commodore James Barron to order the Chesapeake’s men to their battle stations upon the approach of another ship of war. Yet Barron did not believe the British would attack and so made no attempt strike the drum roll signaling the men to clear the Chesapeake’s decks for action. Besides, the decks were full of baggage which the passengers from Norfolk had brought. In addition, dozens of immobilized and ailing seamen were lying on the deck taking in the fresh air and sun on the Chesapeake’s doctor’s orders. Barron had left the deck in such a state of disarray on account that the long voyage to the Mediterranean would provide plenty of time to get everything shipshape. Having heaved to, a young lieutenant from the Leopard, boarded the Chesapeake and inquired for an audience with Captain James Barron. Commodore Barron received the British Lieutenant, John Meade, in his cabin at a few minutes before four o’clock. The Briton handed the American a single dispatch, the written order from the British Vice-Admiral, George Berkley. Attached to this was a brief note from the Leapard’s captain, Salusbury Humphreys, which was his attempt, “As a gentleman, to soften and ameliorate the apparent severity and harshness” of the Vice-Admirals orders. “The Captain of the Leopard will not presume to say anything in addition to what the commander in chief had stated, more than to express a hope, that every circumstance respecting them may be adjusted, in a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two countries, may remain undisturbed.” Barron asked the lieutenant to wait as he wrote a reply. Barron took his time, a precious half hour passed before he handed over his answer in which he stated that he knew of no deserters on ship (A clear lie) and added that he was, “Instructed never to permit the crew of any ship that I command to be mustered by any other but her own officers.” Only as the lieutenant was being rowed back with the fateful message did Barron finally whisper to a ship’s officer, “You had better get your gun deck clear.”


The men were to get to their battle quarters without being seen or heard so as the British could not, as Barron explained, “Charge us with making the first hostile show.” The marine drummer not comprehending this uncommon procedure of silence, started beating his drum only to be walloped by the hilt of one of the ship’s officers swords. The crew did not know how to interpret this incident with the drummer and thought Barron’s order had been counter-commanded. Henry Allen, as captain of the second division of guns, rushed to his station and got his men clearing the 720 feet of six-inch anchor cable that encumbered the ship’s cannons. The passenger’s baggage, barrels and casks were thrown down the main hatch, and the sick men were carried into the cockpit. Meanwhile, the Leopard’s captain received the Commodore’s refusal and then hailed his opposite number warning the American to comply with the demand for inspection. Barron understood that if his ship was to stand any chance he would have to buy his men time. He attempted a delay by shouting back that he could not hear Humphreys. Humphreys hailed again and Barron replied, “I do not hear what you say.” Humphreys responded this time with a cannon shot which cut across the Chesapeake’s bow. Another shot followed which pierced the Chesapeake’s mast. Two more broadsides hit directly into the hull. One set loose a shower of splinters which tore into Commodore Barron’s right calf. A twenty-four-pound ball, barely missing Henry Allen, nailed right through the chest of a gunner standing beside him. Another solid shot manage to rip into the hull of the American frigate. Canister shot – small balls of lead and iron packed in sawdust, rained down upon the Americans. A second of the Leapard’s broadsides blasted the Chesapeake, rapidly followed by a third. A superior dashed to Henry Allen and screamed, “For God’s sake fire one gun for the honor of the flag, I mean to strike.” Allen shouted back that he needed powder to prime the guns, and with that Gordon himself charged to the magazine, grabbed two horns, dashed the length of the deck, and tossed them across the open main hatch down to Allen all through the piercing hail of canon, lead, and ship debris. Allen primed the guns but they would not fire because the iron was not hot enough to ignite the inferior gunpowder. Desperately, Allen drove his bare hands into the coal fire and with the red ambers he fisted, managed to fire off the first and only shot which the Chesapeake would make in return to the Leopard’s seventy five charges. Barron shouted down hatch to Allen, “Stop firing, stop firing! We have struck, we have struck.”


Three of the Chesapeake’s men were dead, eight were seriously wounded, one of which would later die from his wounds. Two boats from the British ship rowed over and boarded the tattered American frigate. The interrogation lasted three hours. Ratford was found hiding in the coal hold and he with the three Americans from the Melampus were taken in irons to the Leopard. The Leopard blithely took up her customary anchorage within the sovereign territory of the United States. The Chesapeake, on the other hand, with her mainmast shot through in three places, seven of her main and fore shrouds shot away, her mizzen rigging disintegrated, twenty four balls buried in her hull, and three and a half feet of water in her hold, slowly made for Norfolk. It was a humiliating return voyage, one which required them to pass the same squadron of anchored British ships they passed just that morning. But the Chesapeake was not the only one destroyed, the prisoners from the Chesapeake were transported aboard the Bellona to Halifax. Convicted of mutiny, desertion, and contempt at a court hearing where Ratford was given no counsel and offered no defense, he was hanged at 9:15 a.m from the fore yardarm of the ship he originally deserted. The three others, “In consideration of their former good conduct” were sentenced “Only to Corporal punishment.” Corporal punishment which entailed five hundred lashes apiece.


The battle only lasted fifteen minutes but its consequences were long lasting. The news made its way from port to port. In Norfolk, the militia was summoned to control the crowds. British diplomat to America Augustus J. Foster, who understood the rage of American mobs, hastened out of his carriage in New York and proceeded incognito as soon as he heard the news. It was fortunate he did so, for a crowd almost immediately congregated and threatened to throw his horse and curricle into the Hudson River. An armed mob in Hampton boarded tenders which had come ashore from the British squadron and demolished two hundred casks of fresh water and burned one of the boats. The funeral of the Chesapeake man who died from his wounds, Robert MacDonald, brought out four thousand citizens, officials, and dignitaries. Multitudes of Americans called for war, but such a measure was not a compatible tenet of President Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. Nonetheless the government did act. Secretary of State James Madison, upon hearing the news wrote to Jefferson, “Having effected her lawless & bloody purpose, [The Leopard] returned immediately to anchor with her squadron within our jurisdiction. Hospitality under such circumstances ceases to be a duty; it becomes a degradation.” Consequentially, Jefferson issued a proclamation which declared American waters off-limits to all British ships and furthermore that the “Interdicted ships are enemies”  and should the British land any men, his orders were to “Kill or capture them as enemies.”  On July 5, the cabinet called on state governors to make a militia force ready 100,000 men strong. Six months after the attack on the Chesapeake, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which effectively banned all trade between the United States and all other nations, essentially informing England and France to stop interfering with American vessels. Naturally this act caused exports to plummet. They fell indeed, at an alarming $22 million from a comfortable $108 million just before the Act. The government realized its self afflicting blunder, and the act was repealed in March 1809, the day before Madison was sworn in. Seven hundred gathered in Norfolk and gave a solemn toast to the wounded and dead of the Chesapeake to these bold words, “Their blood cries for vengeance, and when our Government directs, vengeance we shall have.”


While the British squadron did not leave, they certainly lied low until the sense of American rage began to ease. In England, the Vice-Admiral’s rigid order was disavowed by the Admiralty and he was recalled to London. Humphreys too was sent back to England and placed on half pay never again to command a ship at sea. The government offered to pay compensation to the families of the American seamen who were killed and publicly announced that it was contrary to British policy to stop national ships belonging to neutral power. Despite these conciliatory acts, the British government adamantly denied a comprehensive resolution halting the impressing of sailors on American ships. In Canada, British General Isaac Brock noted that “Every American newspaper teems with violent and hostile resolutions against England, and associations are forming in every town for the ostensible purpose of attacking these Provinces.” It wasn’t only the newspapers, president Thomas Jefferson himself stated, “If the English do not give us the satisfaction we demand, we will take Canada.”


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This 14th century rhyme reminds me of the Chesapeake. For want of proper gunpowder, correct cannon cartridges, a cleared deck, manpower, and command the Chesapeake fell to the Leapard. From the moment the ship left the Washington dock, to the every ill circumstance it encountered, to the passengers and their overwhelming baggage, to the four deserters enlisting with the Chesapeake, and to the disastrous event which followed the Chesapeake testifies to a carefully designed providence in our history.