Some of you are familiar with the War of 1812 know that it began as a result of the British hassling US Navy and Merchant ships. They would stop our ships and steal our sailors and force them into the Royal Navy.
So gross became the affronts that these seizures occurred not only on the ocean, but in our immediate harbors. The worst of these outrages was the "affair of the Chesapeake," which occurred June 23, 1807, at a time of profound peace. The Chesapeake, a United States frigate, built and launched at De Rochebrun's shipyard, Fell's Point, Baltimore, in 1800, had just left Hampton Roads under Commodore James Barron of Virginia on route to the Mediterranean to deal with some rather nasty pirates. Unfortunately, the British were watching. In fact, nearly an entire crew had deserted from one of their Royal navy ships, the Halifax, and come ashore in Norfolk, so they were mad on the hunt of these rebellious sailors.
No sooner had the Chesapeake gotten out to sea, when, before she could be put in fighting trim, and, as Barron afterward confessed, while she was entirely "unprepared and unsuspicious," an officer of the HMS Leopard insisted on boarding her to "deliver despatches," but in reality to search for deserters. When Barron refused to let his crew be mustered for inspection, Captain Humphreys of the Leopard poured a broadside into the Chesapeake, which was followed within fifteen minutes by three additional broadsides. Three American seamen were killed, and eighteen wounded, including Commodore Barron.
As the Chesapeake was unable to return a shot, Barron ordered his flag hauled down. The captain of the Leopard refused to receive the Chesapeake as a prize, replying that, as he had taken off four deserters, he had fulfilled the admiral's orders. Three of these men, who were sentenced to a severe lashing, were afterwards found to be Americans, and were ultimately restored to the Chesapeake in Boston harbor in 1812, in time to avenge the gross abuse in the war against Great Britain.
Deprived of his flag, disgraced and humiliated, Commodore Barron returned to Hampton Roads, with his crew, cut to the quick by this insult to their honor. The affair was never forgiven nor forgotten by the American people. The excitement was intense and the country felt the premonition of war. In Baltimore, where the Chesapeake had been so proudly launched a few years before, a town-meeting was held and a vigorous appeal sent to the President to end this disgraceful state of affairs. Jefferson, who was opposed to another struggle, ordered all British vessels to leave our waters, and for a time the excitement was allayed.
Commodore Barron, who was suspended for five years for "lack of preparation, and for surrender without having fired a shot," felt himself a victim of circumstances. However, the saddest sequel to the unfortunate affair came later when he challenged Commodore Decatur, his successor in command of the Chesapeake, and his harshest critic in the court-martial, to a duel at Bladensburg. Unfortunately, Barron shot and killed Decatur, thus depriving American of one of its bravest naval heroes.
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