The Chesapeake affair was a naval encounter in 1807 of America’s USS Chesapeake and Britain’s HMS Leopard, which resulted in the Chesapeake’s defeat. This encounter was one of the reasons to fuel the war in 1812.
The background of the Chesapeake affair included the conflict of the USA and Great Britain regarding relations with France. Britain was hostile because of the Napoleon wars, and the continental system was developed by France, which restricted Britain’s trade opportunities. At the same time, America was not affected by that and did not support Britain’s blockade and military action. Another antecedent factor was the quality of sailors’ lives on British ships. The working and living conditions were far from perfect, with people serving involuntary because of the need for men during the state of blockade. This situation resulted in many people deserting British vessels, and some of them went to the USS Chesapeake.
Listing the USS Chesapeake facts upon the encounter with HMS Leopard not only the presence of deserters can be named but also that the Chesapeake had 40 guns on board, while the Leopard owned 50. The two vessels met in June of 1807, along the Virginian coast, near Norfolk. The Chesapeake had “Its decks scattered with cargo and its guns unwisely stowed”, and the Leopard was willing to take revenge for the British people who had deserted to the Chesapeake. The British commander Salusbury Humphreys requested to examine the American ship for the purpose of finding the escaped men, but the Chesapeake’s captain Commodore James Barron refused. Humphreys answered with a broadside, which injured eighteen men, including Barron himself, and killed three. After the attack, the British crew boarded the Chesapeake and took the deserters they came for.
In American society, everyone was grasping the Chesapeake affair importance, and the reaction was quite dramatic, as many considered it to be humiliating. Moreover, war fever overtook the whole of the United States, with politicians and commoners calling for action. Yet President Jefferson understood that America could do little in a military battle with Britain. The Chesapeake affair significance is quite controversial because Britain acted in its own interests mistreating America, but a counterattack could do even more damage to the country. Instead of a war, a decree was signed “ordering all British vessels out of American waters, and …a call for 100,000 militia men to be mobilized to enforce his decree.”
Given the poor condition of the American army, President Jefferson opted for economic coercion, which was worsened a few months later by introducing the Embargo Act. This act was aimed at protecting American ships, forbidding them to trade with other countries, as no harm could be done to a vessel if it was not at sea. It helped to make sure that America could not be dragged into a war, which it was not prepared to fight in. So following the Chesapeake affair, the Embargo Act was the most rational decision president Jefferson could come to in order to protect the country from further conflict and destruction.
As for other Chesapeake affair effects, the men taken prisoners by the crew of the Leopard were tried, and one was found guilty and hanged, and the other three were imprisoned. Commodore Barron was also subjected to martial court and accused of not getting his ship ready for a potential attack and was not allowed to serve in the navy for five years. The Embargo Act was soon repealed, as it damaged America’s economy.