Give a ship an unlucky name, and it will last throughout the whole of
her career. A sailor is proverbially superstitious, and he clings
jealously to tradition.
It is told that when the frigate Chesapeake was launched she stuck
fast on the ways, and did not reach the water until the following day,
which was Friday. Although she was a fine vessel to look at, she
grounded upon the bar upon her first attempt to sail, and, when once
free, behaved herself in such a lubberly fashion that those who
witnessed her starting out declared she was bewitched. Even after many
changes had been made in the length of her masts, in the weight of
spars, and the cut of sails, still she was considered by many a
failure. And, although her sailing qualities improved as time went on,
yet her bad name stuck to her, as bad names will.
Given this drawback, the unlucky captain of such a craft finds it
difficult to recruit a proper crew, and must often be content with
green hands, or the riffraff disdained by other ships' masters.
Commodore James Barron, who had been ordered to the Chesapeake, was a
brave officer. He had succeeded the peppery Commodore Preble in command
of the fleet that had so successfully negotiated the operations before
Tripoli, and there he had won for himself a name and reputation.
Nevertheless, he was not entirely popular with his officers. They
failed to find in him the graciousness of manner and deportment, the
strict adherence to the lines of duty, and yet the kindliness of
thought and conduct that distinguished young Captain Bainbridge; and
they missed, strange to say, the iron hand and stern rule of Preble,
Just before sailing from the Capes to relieve the Constitution on the
Mediterranean station, the Chesapeake had recruited, from Delaware
and Maryland, a green crew. Not above fifty of her complement were
men-of-warsmen. Perhaps one hundred more had seen service in deep-sea
craft, and had made long cruises; but the rest, numbering probably one
hundred and fifty, were longshoremen or landsmen. Lying inside the
mouth of Chesapeake Bay were several British men-of-war. As was usual
when in American ports, they were compelled to watch their crews most
closely, for the higher pay and the better treatment, which cannot be
denied, had tempted many an impressed seaman to leave his ship, and
take refuge under the American flag.
It was claimed by Vice-Admiral Berkeley in command of the English
fleet, that four British sailors had deserted from the Melampus,
and joined Barron's frigate. The following correspondence passed
between Robert Smith, the Secretary of the Navy at Washington, and
Commodore Barron, in relation to the matter. It explains in the best
way possible, how affairs stood at the outset.
WASHINGTON, April 6, 1807.
To Commodore James Barron:--
SIR: It has been represented to me that William Ware, Daniel
Martin, John Strachan, John Little, and others, deserters from a
British ship of war at Norfolk, have been entered by the recruiting
officer at that place for our service. You will be pleased to make
full inquiry relative to these men (especially, if they are
American citizens), and inform me of the result. You will
immediately direct the recruiting officer in no case to enter
deserters from British ships of war.
To this letter Commodore Barron made haste to reply, and the following
is taken verbatim from his note to the Secretary:--
"William Ware was pressed from on board the brig Neptune, Captain
Crafts, by the British frigate, Melampus, in the Bay of Biscay
(in 1805).... He is a native American, born at Bruce's Mills, on
Pipe Creek, in the county of Frederick, Maryland, and served his
time at said mills. He also lived at Ellicot's Mills, near
Baltimore, and drove a waggon several years between Hagerstown and
Baltimore. He also served eighteen months on board the U.S.
frigate, Chesapeake, under the command of Captain Morris and
Captain J. Barron. He is an Indian-looking man.
"Daniel Martin was impressed at the same time and place; a native
of Westport, in Massachusetts, about thirty miles to the eastward
of Newport, Rhode Island; served his time out of New York with
Captain Marrowby of the Caledonia; refers to Mr. Benjamin
Davis, merchant, and Mr. Benjamin Corse, of Westport. He is a
"John Strachan, born in Queen Ann's County, Maryland, between
Centreville and Queenstown; sailed in the brigantine Martha
Bland, Captain Wyvill, from Norfolk to Dublin, and from thence to
Liverpool. He then left the vessel and shipped on board an English
Guineaman; he was impressed on board the Melampus, off Cape
Finisterre; to better his condition he consented to enter, being
determined to make his escape when opportunity offered; he served
on board said frigate two years; refers to Mr. John Price and ----
Pratt, Esq., on Kent Island, who know his relatives. He is a white
man, about five feet seven inches high.
"William Ware and John Strachan have protections. Daniel Martin
says he lost his after leaving the frigate.
 Papers proving their American citizenship.
"John Little, alias Francis and Ambrose Watts, escaped from the
Melampus at the same time, are known to the above persons to be
Americans, but have not been entered by my recruiting officer."
The foregoing proves beyond all manner of doubt what ground Commodore
Barron had in taking the stand he did further on in the proceedings.
But Admiral Berkeley was a very proud, obstinate man. His feelings had
been hurt by the refusal of the Yankee commodore to give up his men,
and he bided his time.
On Monday, June 22, 1807, the Chesapeake put to sea with her
ill-assorted and undisciplined crew. In the harbor of Lynnhaven lay the
British squadron under the command of Commodore Douglass, acting under
the orders of Vice-Admiral Berkeley. It consisted of the Bellona,
seventy-four, the Triumph, seventy-four, the Leopard, fifty, and
the Melampus, thirty-eight. Why it was that the Leopard was
selected for the work which was to follow, is easy to surmise.
Vice-Admiral Berkeley had determined, at all hazards, to search the
American vessel to ascertain if she had in her complement those
"British seamen" who had deserted from the fleet. Barron's refusal to
allow a search made of his vessel while she was in port had been backed
up by the United States Government. This had exceedingly exasperated
the English commander, and he determined to wait until the Chesapeake
was at sea before putting his cherished project into practice. As soon
as the Chesapeake set sail, the Leopard was despatched to bring
her to. The Melampus was not sent because she was too near the
Chesapeake's armament, and resistance might be successfully made to
any attempt at high-handed interference. Nor did he take the trouble to
despatch one of his seventy-fours, which might have brought the
Chesapeake under her guns, and compelled her to submit by the law
that "might makes right"; but the Leopard was sent because she was
just large enough to insure success, and yet to humble the American
from the mere fact that he must inevitably yield to a vessel to which
he should by rights make some resistance.
It was a calm day with just enough wind to move the ships through the
water. The Leopard, that had really got under way first, overhauled
the smaller vessel, after a few hours' sailing. At three o'clock, when
forty-five miles off shore, she hove to across her bows, and the slight
wind that had wafted them from the Capes died away almost at the
moment. Hailing the American ship's captain, Humphreys stated that he
would like to send despatches by her--a privilege always accorded one
friendly nation by another.
On the Chesapeake's deck, chatting with the officers, were two lady
passengers, who were bound with four or five gentlemen passengers for
the Straits. Part of the cabin had been allotted to the use of the
ladies and their maids. As they had come on board at a late hour, their
trunks and luggage were yet on the deck. Amicable relations existed
between America and England, and there was nothing especially
unfriendly in the attitude of the English frigate, although her action
excited much comment on board the ship, and gave rise to many surmises.
Captain Barron was on the quarter-deck, when news was brought to him
that the Leopard had lowered a boat with an officer in it, and that
it was making for the Chesapeake's side. The ladder was dropped,
the side boys were piped to the gangway, and Barron himself stepped
forward to greet the Lieutenant, extending his hand and welcoming him
graciously. Standing close by was Dr. John Bullus, a passenger, the
newly-appointed consul to the Island of Minorca, and the naval agent to
the United States naval squadron in the Mediterranean.
"Captain Humphreys' compliments," began the Lieutenant. "And he
requires the privilege of searching this vessel for deserters."
"What are their names, may I ask?" inquired Barron.
The officer replied, reading from a list he carried in his hand, but
describing the men as subjects of "His Majesty, King George."
When he had finished, Barron frowned.
"There has been a careful and full inquiry into the cases of these
seamen," he said at last, "and after a minute investigation into the
circumstances, the British Minister, Mr. Erskine, is perfectly
satisfied on the subject, inasmuch as these men were American citizens,
impressed by officers of the Melampus. This gentleman," turning
to Dr. Bullus, "our naval agent, is particularly acquainted with all
the facts and circumstances relative to the transaction. He received
his information from the highest possible source."
"From none less than the Honorable Robert Smith, the Secretary of our
Navy," put in Dr. Bullus, "and I am most willing to go on board the
Leopard and inform your commander to that effect, Mr. Erskine----"
"I do not recognize Mr. Erskine in this business," interrupted the
young Lieutenant arrogantly. "Nor do I wish to talk with any one but
Captain Barron. There is much more to be said."
Barron took the doctor to one side. "You will pardon me for placing you
in a position to receive such an insult. I did not suppose it
"Make no mention of it," was the return; "I understand." With that the
agent walked away.
The Englishman could not have helped noticing the confusion upon the
American's decks. The crew were engaged under the direction of the
petty officers in coiling away the stiff, new running-gear and cables,
men with paint-pots and brushes were touching up the bulwarks and paint
work; others were polishing the brass; and it was altogether a peaceful
scene that struck his eye, even if the presence of the ladies had not
added the finishing touch.
On the quarter-deck, leaning carelessly against the railing, was a
young officer, Lieutenant William Henry Allen, third in rank. He was
but twenty-three years of age, a tall, boyish-looking fellow, with
beautiful features, clear eye and complexion, and ruddy cheeks. He
noticed the glance the English officer had given, and his face clouded.
He was near enough to hear what passed between Barron and the
"It is of such importance," went on the latter, continuing his previous
remarks, "that I should desire to speak to you in private, sir. If we
could but retire to your cabin----"
"With the greatest pleasure in the world," Barron returned, indicating
that the Lieutenant should precede him; and with that they disappeared
from view. Once seated at the cabin table, the Englishman broached the
subject without preamble.
"Commodore Douglass," he began, "is fully determined to recover the
deserters that are now harbored on board this ship. It is my desire to
warn you that it is best that you submit to a peaceable search, and in
return my commanding officer will permit you to do the same, and if any
of your men are found in our complement, you are welcome to take them
with you. This should bear great weight in helping you to form your
decision. Here is his letter."
Captain Barron took the paper, broke the seal, and read as follows:--
The Commander of H.B. Majesty's ship, "Leopard," to the Captain
of the U.S. ship, "Chesapeake":--
AT SEA, June 22d, 1807.
The Captain of H.B. Majesty's ship, Leopard, has the honor to
enclose the Captain of the U.S. ship, Chesapeake, an order from
the Honorable Vice-Admiral Berkeley, Commander-in-chief of His
Majesty's ships on the North American Station, respecting some
deserters from the ships (therein mentioned) under his command, and
supposed to be now serving as part crew of the Chesapeake.
The Captain of the Leopard will not presume to say anything in
addition to what the commander-in-chief has stated, more than to
express a hope that every circumstance respecting them may be
adjusted in a manner that the harmony subsisting between the two
countries may remain undisturbed.
"As I before remarked," said the Lieutenant, noting that Barron had
finished the letter, "Captain Humphreys offers you the privilege of a
Captain Barron smiled. The idea that he should find any of his own men
serving on board King George's vessel was rather amusing.
"I have missed none of my crew," he said quietly, "and, while grateful
for the privilege, I do not desire to make use of it."
"And your answer?" broke in the Lieutenant.
"You will take this letter, that I shall write, to Captain Humphreys,
give him my best compliments, and of course inform him that I regret
that I can neither avail myself of his courtesy, nor with honor can I
permit a search to be made of my vessel."
"As you decide," returned the Lieutenant, sententiously.
For some minutes nothing was heard from the cabin. Barron was busily
employed in inditing the epistle, and when it was delivered, the two
officers came out together.
The following is a copy of the letter to Captain Humphreys:--
To the Commander of His Majesty's ship, "Leopard":--
AT SEA, June 22d.
I know of no such men as you describe. The officers that were on
the recruiting service for this ship were particularly instructed
by my government through me not to enter any deserters from H.B.
Majesty's ships. Nor do I know of any being here. I am also
instructed never to permit the crew of any ship under my command to
be mustered by any other than their own officers. It is my
disposition to preserve harmony, and I hope this answer to your
despatch will prove satisfactory.
The Englishman was escorted to the side, and once in his boat, his
crew, as if urged to special exertion, made all haste to gain their
Allen turned and spoke to Benjamin Smith, the First Lieutenant. "I do
not like the look of things," he said.
"Nor I," responded Smith, advancing toward the Captain, who had stopped
to speak to one of the lady passengers. He saluted his commander, and
speaking in a low voice, he suggested the propriety of asking the
ladies to retire below, and of clearing ship.
"Tut, tut," replied Barron, carelessly; "you are over-nervous, Mr.
Smith. My letter to Captain Humphreys will convince him that our
actions are perfectly proper and peaceable, while any movement to prove
to the contrary might lead him to suppose that I wished to precipitate
some trouble. Nothing will occur, I warrant you."
"Had we not better open the magazines, sir?" asked Captain Gordon,
coming up at this moment.
"It is not necessary," Barron returned, and once more joined the
The keys of the magazine are always kept in the possession of the
ship's captain, and by him they are handed to the gunner, and are never
delivered to any one else. As was customary, the Chesapeake's
broadside guns were loaded and shotted, for a ship generally sailed
with them in this state of preparation; but they were not primed, and
but thirteen powder horns had been made ready, and they were locked
safe in the magazine. Around the foremast and in the cable tiers were
plenty of wads and sponges, and ready on deck, before each gun, was a
box of canister. But there were no matches prepared for service.
The peaceful work went on. The crew continued touching up the paint
work, and in the sunlight the brass shone brightly. From the galley
came the clatter of dishes, and from below came the sound of a
sea-song, chanted by one of the men off watch.
Barron called Captain Gordon to him on the quarter-deck. "Captain,"
said he, "I think that fellow yonder hailed us a moment since; I could
not make out what he said however. Perhaps we had better send the men
to their stations quietly."
"Very good, sir," returned the Captain, and he strolled forward
leisurely, for he, like Barron, suspected no surprise.
Allen had left the quarter-deck and had stepped forward to speak to Mr.
Brooks, the sailing-master. They stopped at the entrance to the galley,
which was in a caboose or deckhouse. Suddenly Lieutenant Smith looked
out across the water at the Leopard, that was swinging lazily
along at about the distance of a pistol shot.
Surely he could not be mistaken. The muzzle of one of the forward guns
was slewing around to bear upon the ship. Probably they were just
exercising; but there! another followed suit, and then three more, as
if moved by one command. His face blanched. What could it mean? But one
thing! He whirled and saw that Barron had gone below to his cabin.
Rushing to the ladies, he grasped them by the arms and having hardly
time to make explanations, he hurried them to the companionway.
"Below as far as you can go! Down to the hold!" he cried. "Don't stop;
As he spoke he could scarce believe his eyes. A burst of white smoke,
with a vivid red dash of flame from the centre, broke from the forward
gun on the Leopard's main deck. There was a crash just abaft the
break of the forecastle. A great splinter fully six feet long whirled
across the deck. The shock was felt throughout the ship. A man who had
been painting the bulwarks fell to his knees, arose, and fell again.
His shoulder and one arm were almost torn away; his blood mingled with
the paint from the overturned pot. He shrieked out in fright and agony.
"Beat to quarters!" roared Lieutenant Smith.
Up from below the men came tumbling. Barron ran from his cabin, with
his face as white as death. "To quarters!" he roared, echoing the
Everything was confusion. The men gathered at the useless guns. The
belated drummer began to sound the roll. Hither and thither rushed
officers and midshipmen. The green hands stood gawking about; some
overcome by fear and the suddenness of danger, plunged down the
companionway. Where were the matches? Where were the priming horns?
Barron turned to go to his cabin for the keys to the magazine. They
were locked in the drawer of his heavy desk, and now there came another
shot. It struck fair in the bulwarks, and the hammocks and their
contents were thrown out of the nettings. Three men were wounded by the
shower of splinters. And not a shot was fired yet in return.
"Matches! give us the matches!" roared some of the men at the guns, as
they tried to bring their harmless weapons to bear upon the Englishman.
A deadly broadside struck the helpless Chesapeake. Blocks and spars
fell from aloft. Suddenly from the entrance of the deckhouse ran a
hatless figure. Men made way for him. It was Lieutenant Allen! His jaws
were set and his eyes were glaring. Tossing between his hands, as a
juggler keeps a ball in the air, was a red hot, flaming coal.
"Here, sir!" cried one of the gunner's mates. "This one's primed, sir.
For God's sake, here, sir!"
Just as Allen reached forward, a shot from the Leopard struck the
opening of the port. The man who had spoken was hit full in the breast.
Five of the eight surrounding the piece fell to the deck, wounded by
the murderous splinters. But Allen dropped his flaming coal upon the
breech of the gun, and pushed into place with his scorched and
It was the lone reply to the Englishman's dastardly gun practice! For
fifteen minutes the Leopard fired steadily by divisions.
Covered with blood that had been dashed over him from the body of the
man the round shot had killed, Allen ran aft. The ship was full of
groans and shrieks and cursing. Forth from the cabin came Barron. He
looked an aged, heart-broken man. When he saw the young Lieutenant, he
stepped back a pace in horror. The scene of carnage on the deck
"The keys! the keys!" shrieked Allen, almost springing at his
commander's throat. "Let us fight, if we must die!"
The thought that flashed through Barron's mind must have been the
uselessness of resistance, the terrible death and destruction, and the
inevitable loss that would be sure to follow. Almost resting himself
upon the group of officers, he raised both hands above his head, the
palms open and outstretched.
"Haul down the flag!" he ordered faintly.
A sailor, standing near by, caught the words and springing to the
halliards, down it came, tangling almost into a knot, as if to hide its
folds. The Leopard ceased her murderous work; but the confusion was
great on board the Chesapeake. Men wept like babies. Wounded men were
being carried below. Curses and imprecations on the English flag and on
the distant ship rent the air. Many openly cursed their own commander.
"Tell him to come here, and look at this!" cried an old sailor,
pointing to one dead body on the deck. "Then will he lower the flag?
Give us a chance, for God's sake, to fight like men!"
Barron had hurried into the cabin.
"Send for the officers of the ship." They were all there to a man,
except the surgeon, who was busy down below. "Your opinions,
gentlemen," he faltered. There was not a sound. Captain Gordon was
silent. Tears were rolling down the First Lieutenant's cheeks. He tried
to speak, and could not.
"Sir, you have disgraced us!"
It was Allen speaking. To save his life he could not have helped
blurting out what he felt to be the truth. Barron spread out his arms
weakly, then dropped his head into his hands. It was then presumed that
he was wounded also, for blood was running down his wrists. They left
What use the rest of the story? The search was made, four men were
taken. All claimed to be Americans; they were prepared to prove it.
Captain Humphreys refused to accept the surrender of the vessel.
Barron, hitherto known as brave and capable, was dishonored and
relieved from all command, was sentenced to five years retirement
without pay. Oh yes, the British Admiral was sentenced also. Of course
the Board of Admiralty could not recognize such doings. They even made
apologies and all the rest of it, and returned two of the men, all
there were left, for one was hanged and another died. They sentenced
their Vice-Admiral with a smile of covert approval, and they promoted
him shortly afterwards.
The unfortunate officers who had been innocent parties to the surrender
felt keenly their position. They could not go through explanations to
every one. They became morbidly sensitive upon the subject. No less
then seven duels grew out of the affair, and Allen, who had fired the
gun, wrote to his father thus: "If I am acquitted honorably, if Captain
Barron is condemned, you may see me again. If not, never."--Poor Allen!
No disgrace shall ever be attached to his name. He died of wounds
received while bravely fighting on the deck of his own little vessel,
the Argus, some years later, and he was buried in foreign soil by a
guard of honor of his enemies, who appreciated his bravery and worth.
As for the Chesapeake, her bad name clung to her. And of her end,
there is much more to tell that will be told. But "Remember the
Chesapeake" became a watchword. This was the beginning, that was the
beginning of the end.