Flawed Judgement: The Court-Martial of Commodore James Barron
Latshaw, K. Michael, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
by K. MICHAEL LATSHAW*
ON the morning of 4 January 1808, a general court-martial to hear charges preferred against Commodore James Barron convened on board the United States frigate Chesapeake, riding in her berth at Norfolk, Virginia. The charges resulted from an unprovoked attack on the vessel, then under Barron's command, by the British warship Leopard the previous June. As the trial began, the weather turned gray and bitter cold, the coldest January anyone in Norfolk could remember. The bright promise and warm weather of June had become faded memories for Barron. Then he had been at the height of his career, having attained the honorary but highly coveted title of commodore in command of the United States Mediterranean squadron. That cold January morning proved to be the beginning of the ultimate vilification of his reputation. On 8 February 1808, the court found Barron guilty of failing to ready his ship for action when he knew the Leopard was about to attack. It immediately suspended him from naval service without pay for five years.
Charges were also referred to this same court against Master Commandant Charles Gordon, acting captain of the Chesapeake during the attack, William Hook, the ship's gunner, and Captain John Hall, commanding officer of the marine detachment. Gordon and Hall were each found guilty of failing to perform their respective duties but were sentenced only to reprimands, which were never issued. Hook, also convicted of failing to carry out his duties, was immediately dismissed from service. No one else on board the hapless ship, including the lieutenants who occupied command positions between Gordon and Hook, was brought to task for the dreadful fate she suffered.
Historians have generally agreed with the judgment of the court insofar as Barron's guilt is concerned but have disagreed about the quality of the proceedings. Biographer Charles Oscar Paullin concluded the court-martial "was always spoken of with respect for its motives and impartiality."' This view was shared by Marshall Smelser, who wrote that "a competent court-martial suspended the irresolute Barron for five payless years, finding lack of foresight and premature surrender."2 Some commentators have paid only passing attention to Barron's trial and presumed that the navy was better off rid of him. Stephen Howarth, for example, referred to Barron as an "ineffectual ... commander" and asserted that the best that could be said of the court-martial was that the navy was spared his incompetent leadership.3
In their comprehensive study of the colorful personalities of early United States naval history, Leonard F. Guttridge and Jay D. Smith were more circumspect. "From a legal standpoint," they wrote, "the Chesapeake tribunal was said to have `first set the example to the service of rigid adherence to principles, forms, and precepts'; yet as a model of dispassionate justice it is short on luster, for it is marked by prejudice and duplicity."4 They did not, however, disagree with the judgment regarding Barron. Most recently, Spencer C. Tucker and Frank T. Reuter have accepted the court's finding on Barron's culpability but questioned the virtual exoneration of Gordon and the ship's lieutenants.5
Although these studies acknowledge in varying degrees that prejudgment and prejudice against Barron severely compromised the integrity of the court-martial, none clearly focuses on the court-martial itself as a legal proceeding. A careful legal analysis of the record of proceedings and of the court's application of the rules of evidence reveals the court's guilty judgment against Barron was drawn from facts placed into the record in disregard of clearly established rules of evidence of such a magnitude as to question the validity of the verdict. Part of the blame for this shortcoming must fall on Barron's attorney and cousin, celebrated Norfolk lawyer Robert Barraud Taylor, who failed to insist on strict enforcement of the rules of evidence. …