Stephen Decatur - Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

After overseeing the completion of gunboats, Decatur returned to Norfolk in March 1807 and was given command of the Naval Yard at Gosport. While commissioned there he received a letter from the residing British consul to turn over three deserters from the British ship Melampus who had enlisted in the American Navy through Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair, who was recruiting crew members for the USS Chesapeake, which was at this time in Washington being outfitted for its coming voyage to the Mediterranean. Since the recruiting party was not under the command of Decatur, he refused to intervene. Sinclair also declined to take any action, claiming that he did not have the authority or any such orders from a superior officer. The matter was then referred to the British minister at Washington, a Mr. Erskine, who in turn referred the matter to the Navy Department through Commodore Barron, demanding that the three deserters be surrendered to British authority. It was soon discovered that the deserters were Americans who were forcibly impressed into the British Navy, and since the existing American treaty with Britain only pertained to criminal fugitives of justice, not deserters in the military, Barron accordingly also refused to turn them over.

Soon thereafter the Chesapeake left Norfolk, and after stopping briefly at Washington for further preparations, set sail for the Mediterranean on June 22. In little time she was pursued by HMS Leopard, which at the time was part of a British squadron in Lynnhaven Bay. Upon closing with the Chesapeake, Barron was hailed by the captain of the Leopard and informed that a letter would be sent on board with a demand from Vice-Admiral Humphreys that the Chesapeake be searched for deserters. Barron found the demand extraordinary and when he refused to surrender any of his crew, the Leopard soon opened fire on the Chesapeake. Having just put to sea, the Chesapeake was not prepared to do battle and was unable to return fire. Inside twenty minutes, three of her crew were killed and eighteen wounded. Barron struck the ship's colors and surrendered his ship, whereupon she was boarded and the alleged deserters were taken into British custody. Not having any other designs on the Chesapeake, Humphreys allowed Barron to proceed with his ship at his own discretion, where he had little choice but to return home with the battered vessel, reaching Hampton Roads on June 23 with twenty-two shots through her hull, crippled fore- and mainmasts and more than three feet of water in her hold. News of the incident soon reached President Jefferson, the Department of the Navy, and the general population in America. As commander at Gosport, Decatur in particular was outraged over the incident as he was the one who was first confronted with the matter. The incident soon came to be referred to as the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, an event whose controversy would lead to a duel between Barron and Decatur some years later, as Decatur served on Barron's court-martial and later was one of the most outspoken critics of questionable handling of the Chesapeake.

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