Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 60 The Chesapeake Outrage

AS though the headaches, physical and mental, which Jefferson suffered as a result of Monroe's ill-advised treaty were not sufficient, news cam e to Washington of an outrage committed by a British warship on the very doorstep of the United States that, under normal circumstances and in any other hands but Jefferson's, would have touched off an immediate war with Great Britain.

A British squadron had been lying in wait within the Capes of Chesapeake Bay for a French squadron that had taken refuge at Annapolis. On March 7, 1807, a boat's crew of the British sloop Halifax landed in Norfolk, claiming asylum as deserters. The indignant captain, receiving information that the deserters, together with three British sailors from the Melampus, had enlisted on the American frigate, Chesapeake, demanded redress. But Robert Smith, after inquiries, informed the complainant that the Melampus men were in fact American citizens who had been previously impressed by the British, and refused to give them up. He said nothing about the Halifax deserters.

The British admiral thereupon issued orders on June 1st that in the event any of his ships met up with the Chesapeake on the high seas, she was to be boarded and searched. He made no mention of what was to be done if the American warship refused to submit to search.

The Chesapeake was at the time being outfitted in the Washington naval yard and at Hampton Roads for service in the Mediterranean. On the morning of June 22nd, with Captain James Barron on board as commodore and Charles Gordon as captain, the American frigate stood out to sea. She carried an armament of twenty-eight eighteen-pounders and twelve thirty-two-pound carronades, but she was still in a state of unpreparedness. As the ship sailed down the Roads, she passed the British fleet and saw the Leopard, a frigate of the same class as herself, suddenly hoist sails and Stand out to sea.

Wholly unsuspecting, the American warship continued on her way. In midafternoon, when both ships were outside the territorial limits of the United States, the Leopard hailed the Chesapeake and megaphoned that she had dispatches for Barron. A boat came over, but Barron refused to allow the crew on board, though he was handed the order from the British admiral demanding the right to search for deserters. Only then, as the boat sheered off, did Barron become suspicious and give orders to prepare his ship for action.

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