Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, 1807

1897 depiction of the Leopard firing upon Chesapeake, by Fred S. Cozzens. Original believed to be in the public domain.

Location Norfolk, Virginia
Year
1807
AD/BC
AD
History

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had a crew shortage. They attempted to solve this, in part, by impressment, effectively kidnapping people off the streets. Understandably, this did not go over very well with the "impressed" and desertion to foreign countries and the merchant navy was high. Consequently, the British began stopping ships to search for deserters, and frequently took anyone who looked like they might be a deserter. On 22 June, 1807, HMS Leopard, a 50-gun Fourth-rate ship of the line, came upon the USS Chesapeake, one of the original six frigates built for the US Navy. Leopard sent over a boat to present her search warrant to Chesapeake, but the discussion went nowhere. After the boat returned, Leopard's captain demanded that Chesapeake submit to the search via voice trumpet, and fired a warning shot across her bow. This was immediately followed by several broadsides into the unprepared American frigate, forcing her to strike her colors. Besides four dead and seventeen wounded, four deserters were taken aboard Leopard. Chesapeake was then sent on her way. There was a brief public outcry in the US over the incident, and President Jefferson tried to capitalize on it, but Congress backed down and the public lost interest. This led to him imposing an embargo on England instead. One of the four deserters was actually British, and was hanged, the other three were eventually returned to the US.