History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/II:1


Chapter 1: Internal ImprovementEdit

June 22, 1807, while Jefferson at Washington was fuming over Chief-Justice Marshall's subpoena, and while the grand jury at Richmond were on the point of finding their indictment against Burr, an event occurred at sea, off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, which threw the country into violent excitement, distracting attention from Burr, and putting to a supreme test the theories of Jefferson's statesmanship.

That the accident which then happened should not have happened long before was matter for wonder, considering the arbitrary character of British naval officers and their small regard for neutral rights. For many years the open encouragement offered to the desertion of British seamen in American ports had caused extreme annoyance to the royal navy; and nowhere had this trouble been more serious than at Norfolk. Early in 1807 a British squadron happened to be lying within the Capes watching for some French frigates which had taken refuge at Annapolis. One or more of these British ships lay occasionally in Hampton Roads, or came to the navy-yard at Gosport for necessary repairs. Desertions were of course numerous; even the American ships-of-war had much difficulty from loss of men,—and March 7 a whole boat's crew of the British sixteen-gun sloop "Halifax" made off with the jolly-boat and escaped to Norfolk. The commander of the "Halifax" was informed that these men had enlisted in the American frigate "Chesapeake," then under orders for the Mediterranean. He complained to the British consul and to Captain Decatur, but could get no redress. He met two of the deserters in the streets of Norfolk, and asked them why they did not return. One of them, Jenkin Ratford by name, replied, with abuse and oaths, that he was in the land of liberty and would do as he liked. The British minister at Washington also made complaint that three deserters from the "Melampus" frigate had enlisted on the "Chesapeake." The Secretary of the Navy ordered an inquiry, which proved that the three men in question, one of whom was a negro, were in fact on board the "Chesapeake," but that they were native Americans who had been improperly impressed by the "Melampus," and therefore were not subjects for reclamation by the British government. The nationality was admitted, and so far as these men were concerned the answer was final; but the presence of Jenkin Ratford, an Englishman, on board the "Chesapeake" under the name of Wilson escaped notice.

The admiral in command of the British ships on the North American station was George Cranfield Berkeley, a brother of the Earl of Berkeley. To him, at Halifax, the British officers in Chesapeake Bay reported their grievances; and Admiral Berkeley, without waiting for authority from England, issued the following orders, addressed to all the ships under his command:—

"Whereas many seamen, subjects of his Britannic Majesty, and serving in his ships and vessels as per margin ["Bellona," "Belleisle," "Triumph," "Chichester," "Halifax," "Zenobia"], while at anchor in the Chesapeake, deserted and entered on board the United States frigate called the 'Chesapeake,' and openly paraded the streets of Norfolk, in sight of their officers, under the American flag, protected by the magistrates of the town and the recruiting officer belonging to the above-mentioned American frigate, which magistrates and naval officer refused giving them up, although demanded by his Britannic Majesty's consul, as well as the captains of the ships from which the said men had deserted:
"The captains and commanders of his Majesty's ships and vessels under my command are therefore hereby required and directed, in case of meeting with the American frigate 'Chesapeake' at sea, and without the limits of the United States, to show to the captain of her this order, and to require to search his ship for the deserters from the before-mentioned ships, and to proceed and search for the same; and if a similar demand should be made by the American, he is to be permitted to search for any deserters from their service, according to the customs and usage of civilized nations on terms of peace and amity with each other."

The admiral's conception of the "customs and usage of civilized nations" did not expressly require the use of force; and any captain or commander who received this circular must at once have asked whether, in case the American captain should refuse to allow a search,—as was certain,—force should be employed. The order, dated June 1, 1807, was sent to Chesapeake Bay by the frigate "Leopard," commanded by Captain S. P. Humphreys; and since the "Leopard" was the admiral's flagship, Captain Humphreys was probably acquainted with the meaning of his instructions. The "Leopard" arrived at Lynnhaven on the morning of June 21; and Captain Humphreys reported his arrival and orders to Captain John Erskine Douglas of the "Bellona," a line-of-battle ship, then lying with the "Melampus" frigate in Lynnhaven Bay, enjoying the hospitality of the American government. Apparently Captain Douglas carried verbal explanations of the order from Captain Humphreys, for he made no attempt to qualify its extremest meaning. The "Leopard" remained twenty-four hours with the "Bellona," while the two commanders were in consultation. The next morning, June 22, at 4 a.m., the "Leopard" made sail,[1] and two hours later re-anchored a few miles to the eastward, and about three miles north of Cape Henry Lighthouse.

The "Chesapeake," during the difficulties at Norfolk and afterward, lay in the Eastern Branch at Washington. The inefficiency of the Government in doing those duties which governments had hitherto been created to perform, was shown even more strikingly in the story of the "Chesapeake" than in the conspiracy of Burr. The frigate "Constitution" had sailed for the Mediterranean in August, 1803. The Government knew that her crew were entitled to their discharge, and that the President had no right to withhold it. The country was at peace; no emergency of any kind existed. A single ship of about one thousand tons burden needed to be fitted for sea at a date fixed three years beforehand; yet when the time came and the "Constitution" ought to have reached home, the "Chesapeake" had not so much as begun preparation. Captain James Barron was selected to command her as commodore of the Mediterranean squadron; Captain Charles Gordon—a native of the eastern shore of Maryland, the youngest master-commandant on the list—was appointed as her captain. Both were good officers and seamen; but Gordon received his orders only February 22, and could not take command until May 1,—long after he should have reached Gibraltar. Such was the inefficiency of the navy-yard at Washington that although the Secretary of the Navy had the "Chesapeake" under his eye and was most anxious to fit her out, and although Gordon fretted incessantly, making bitter complaints of delay, the frigate still remained in the mechanics' hands until the month of May. According to Commodore Barron the Washington navy-yard was more than incompetent. [2] "I have long known," he claimed to have written, "the perverse disposition of the rulers of that establishment." Yet he urged Gordon to complete his outfit at Washington, because the Norfolk yard was worse.[3] "I would by no means advise your leaving the navy-yard with any unfinished work and depend on Norfolk. You will experience more difficulty and trouble than you can imagine." As Burr's trial showed that the army was honeycombed by incompetence and conspiracy, so Barron's court-martial proved that nothing in naval administration could be depended upon.

For much of this, Congress and the people were responsible, and they accepted their own feebleness as the necessary consequence of a system which acted through other agencies than force; but much was also due to the Administration and to the President's instincts, which held him aloof from direct contact with both services. Jefferson did not love the deck of a man-of-war or enjoy the sound of a boatswain's whistle. The ocean was not his element; and his appetite for knowledge never led him to criticise the management of his frigates or his regiments so long as he could shut his eyes to their shortcomings. Thus while Wilkinson was left at his own pleasure to create or to stifle a rebellion at New Orleans, the crew of the "Constitution" were in a state of mutiny in the Mediterranean, and the officers of the "Chesapeake" were helpless under the control of the navyyard at Washington.

At length, in the earliest days of June, Gordon dropped down the Potomac. The "Chesapeake" was to carry on this cruise an armament of forty guns,—twenty-eight 18-pounders and twelve 32-pound carronades; but owing to the shoals in the river she took but twelve guns on board at Washington, the rest waiting her arrival at Norfolk. With these twelve guns Gordon tried to fire the customary salute in passing Mount Vernon; and he wrote to the secretary in exasperation at the result of this first experience:[4]

"Had we been engaged in an active war I should suspect the officers of the yard with having a design on my character; but fortunately Mount Vernon drew our attention to the guns before we could apprehend any danger from an enemy. In the act of saluting that place I was struck with astonishment when the first lieutenant reported to me that neither the sponges nor cartridges would go in the guns. I immediately arrested my gunner; but on his satisfying me that he had received them from the gunner of the yard I released him, and hold Mr. Stevenson responsible."

The mistakes were easily corrected, and the ship arrived in Hampton Roads without further incident. Commodore Barron, who first came aboard June 6, wrote[5] at once to the secretary, "that from the extreme cleanliness and order in which I found her I am convinced that Captain Gordon and his officers must have used great exertions. Captain Gordon speaks in high terms of his lieutenants. The state of the ship proves the justice of his encomiums."

Nevertheless much remained to be done, and in spite of the secretary's urgency the ship was still delayed in Hampton Roads. From June 6 to June 19, notwithstanding bad weather, the whole ship's company were hard worked. The guns were taken on board and fitted; water was got in; spars and rigging had to be overhauled, and stores for four hundred men on a three-years cruise were shipped. June 19 the guns were all fitted, and the crew could for the first time be assigned to their stations at quarters. According to the custom of the service, the guns were charged with powder and shot. They had no locks, and were fired by the old-fashioned slow-match, or by loggerheads kept in the magazine and heated red-hot in the galley fire whenever need for them arose.

June 19 Captain Gordon considered the ship ready for sea, and wrote to the commodore on shore,[6] "We are unmoored and ready for weighing the first fair wind." Both Captain Gordon and Commodore Barron were aware that the decks were more or less encumbered, and that the crew had not been exercised at the guns; but they were not warranted in detaining her on that account, especially since the guns could be better exercised at sea, and the ship was already four months behind time. Accordingly, June 21, Commodore Barron came on board, and at four o'clock in the afternoon the "Chesapeake" weighed anchor and stood down the Roads; at six o'clock she came to, dropped anchor, called all hands to quarters, and prepared to start for sea the next morning. From Lynnhaven Bay the "Leopard," which had arrived from Halifax only a few hours before, could watch every movement of the American frigate.

At a quarter-past seven o'clock on the morning of June 22 the "Chesapeake" got under way with a fair breeze. Her ship's company numbered three hundred and seventy-five men and boys, all told, but, as was not uncommon in leaving port, much sickness prevailed among the crew, and by the doctor's order the sick seamen were allowed to lie in the sun and air on the upper deck. The gun-deck between the guns was encumbered with lumber of one sort or another; the cables were not yet stowed away; four of the guns did not fit quite perfectly to their carriages, and needed a few blows with a maul to drive the trunnions home, but this defect escaped the eye; in the magazine the gunner had reported the powderhorns, used in priming the guns, as filled, whereas only five were in fact filled. Otherwise the ship, except for the freshness of her crew, was in fair condition.

At nine o'clock, passing Lynnhaven Bay, the officers on deck noticed the "Bellona" and "Melampus" at anchor. The "Leopard" lay farther out, and the "Bellona" was observed to be signalling. A story had been circulated at Norfolk that the captain of the "Melampus" threatened to take his deserters out of the "Chesapeake;" but rumors of this sort roused so little attention that no one on board the American frigate gave special notice to the British squadron. The "Melampus" lay quietly at anchor. Had Barron been able to read the "Bellona's" signals he would have suspected nothing, for they contained merely an order to the "Leopard" to weigh and reconnoitre in the southeast by east.[7] The British squadron was in the habit of keeping a cruiser outside to overhaul merchant-vessels; and when the "Leopard" stood out to sea, the officers of the "Chesapeake" naturally supposed that this was her errand.

At noon Cape Henry bore southwest by south, distant one or two miles. The day was fine; but the breeze then shifted to the south-southeast, and began to blow fresh. The change of wind brought the "Leopard" to windward. At about a quarter-past two the "Chesapeake" tacked in shore to wait for the pilot-boat which was to take off the pilot. The "Leopard" tacked also, about a mile distant. At the same time dinner was served at the commodore's table, and Barren, Gordon, Captain Hall of the marines, Dr. Bullus and his wife sat down to it. Captain Gordon afterward testified that as they were dining Commodore Barron noticed the British frigate through the larboard forward port of the cabin, and made the remark "that her movements appeared suspicious, but she could have nothing to do with us."[8] Barron positively denied ever having made the remark; but whether he said it or not, nothing more than a passing doubt occurred to him or to any other person on board. Gordon returned to his work; the crew began to stow away the cable; and at a quarter before three o'clock, the pilot-boat nearing, the "Chesapeake" again stood out to sea, the "Leopard" immediately following her tack.

At about half-past three o'clock, both ships being eight or ten miles southeast by east of Cape Henry, the "Leopard" came down before the wind, and rounding to, about half a cable's length to windward, hailed, and said she had despatches for the commodore. Barron returned the hail and replied, "We will heave to and you can send your boat on board of us." British ships-of-war on distant stations not infrequently sent despatches by the courtesy of American officers, and such a request implied no hostile purpose. British ships also arrogated a sort of right to the windward; and the "Leopard's" manœuvre, although one which no commander except an Englishman would naturally have made, roused no peculiar attention. The "Leopard's" ports were seen to be triced up; but the season was midsummer, the weather was fine and warm, and the frigate was in sight of her anchorage. Doubtless Barron ought not to have allowed a foreign ship-of-war to come alongside without calling his crew to quarters,—such was the general rule of the service; but the condition of the ship made it inconvenient to clear the guns, and the idea of an attack was so extravagant that, as Barron afterward said, he might as well have expected one when at anchor in Hampton Roads. After the event several officers, including Captain Gordon, affirmed that they felt suspicions; but they showed none at the time, and neither Gordon nor any one else suggested, either to the commodore or to each other, that it would be well to order the crew to quarters.

Barron went to his cabin to receive the British officer, whose boat came alongside. At a quarter before four o'clock Lieutenant Meade from the "Leopard" arrived on board, and was shown by Captain Gordon to the commodore's cabin. He delivered the following note:—

"The captain of his Britannic Majesty's ship 'Leopard' has the honor to enclose the captain of the United States 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 of the 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 remain undisturbed."

Having read Captain Humphrey's note, Commodore Barron took up the enclosed order signed by Admiral Berkeley. This order, as the note mentioned, designated deserters from certain ships. Barron knew that he had on board three deserters from the "Melampus," and that these three men had been the only deserters officially and regularly demanded by the British minister. His first thought was to look for "Melampus," in the admiral's list; and on seeing that Berkeley had omitted it, Barron inferred that his own assurance would satisfy Captain Humphreys, and that the demand of search, being meant as a mere formality, would not be pressed. He explained to the British lieutenant the circumstances relating to the three men from the "Melampus," and after some consultation with Dr. Bullus, who was going out as consul to the Mediterranean, he wrote to Captain Humphreys the following reply:—

"I know of no such men as you describe. The officers that were on the recruiting service for this ship were particularly instructed by the Government, through me, not to enter any deserters from his Britannic Majesty's ships, nor do I know of any being here. I am also instructed never to permit the crew of any ship that I command to be mustered by any other but their own officers. It is my disposition to preserve harmony, and I hope this answer to your despatch will prove satisfactory."

Such an answer to such a demand was little suited to check the energy of a British officer in carrying out his positive orders. If Barron had wished to invite an attack, he could have done nothing more to the purpose than by receiving Berkeley's orders without a movement of self-defence.

Meanwhile, at a quarter-past four the officer of the deck sent down word that the British frigate had a signal flying. The lieutenant understood it for a signal of recall, as he had been half an hour away, and as soon as the letter could be written he hurried with it to his boat. No sooner had he left the cabin than Barron sent for Gordon and showed him the letters which had passed. Although the commodore hoped that the matter was disposed of, and assumed that Captain Humphreys would give some notice in case of further action, he could not but feel a show of energy to be proper, and he directed Gordon to order the gun-deck to be cleared. Instantly the officers began to prepare the ship for action.

Had the British admiral sent the "Bellona" or some other seventy-four on this ugly errand, Barron's error would have been less serious; for the captain of a seventy-four would have felt himself strong enough to allow delay. Sending the "Leopard" was arrogance of a kind that the British navy at that time frequently displayed. In 1804, when the Spanish treasure-ships were seized, the "bitterest complaint of Spain was not that she had been made the unsuspecting victim of piracy, but that her squadron had been waylaid by one of only equal force, and could not in honor yield without a massacre which cost four ships and three hundred lives, besides the disgrace of submission to an enemy of not superior strength. The "Leopard" did indeed carry fifty-two guns, while the "Chesapeake" on this cruise carried only forty; but the "Chesapeake's" twelve carronades threw heavier shot than the "Leopard's" heaviest, and her broadside weighed 444 pounds, while that of the "Leopard" weighed 447. In tonnage the "Chesapeake" was a stronger ship and carried a larger crew than the "Leopard;" and a battle on fair terms would have been no certain victory. That Captain Humphreys felt it necessary to gain and retain every possible advantage was evident from his conduct. He could not afford to run the risk of defeat in such an undertaking; and knowing that the "Chesapeake" needed time to prepare for battle, he felt not strong enough to disregard her power of resistance, as he might have done had he commanded a ship of the line. To carry out his orders with as little loss as possible was his duty; for the consequences, not he but his admiral was to blame. Without a moment of delay, edging nearer, he hailed and cried: "Commodore Barron, you must be aware of the necessity I am under of complying with the orders of my commander-in-chief."

Hardly more than five minutes passed between the moment when the British officer left Commodore Barron's cabin and the time when Barron was hailed. To get the ship ready for action required fully half an hour. Barron, after giving the order to clear the guns, had come on deck and was standing in the gangway watching the "Leopard" with rapidly increasing anxiety, as he saw that the tompions were out of her guns and that her crew were evidently at quarters. He instantly repeated the order to prepare for battle, and told Gordon to hurry the men to their stations quietly without drum-beat. Gordon hastened down to the gun-deck with the keys of the magazine; the crew sprang to their quarters as soon as they understood the order. Barron, aware that his only chance was to gain time, remained at the gangway and replied through his trumpet: "I do not hear what you say." Captain Humphreys repeated his hail, and Barron again replied that he did not understand. The "Leopard" immediately fired a shot across the "Chesapeake's" bow;[9] a minute later another shot followed; and in two minutes more, at half-past four o'clock, the "Leopard" poured her whole broadside of solid shot and canister, at the distance of one hundred and fifty or two hundred feet, point-blank into the helpless American frigate. Before the gunner of the "Chesapeake" got to his magazine he heard the first gun from the "Leopard;" just as he opened and entered the magazine the "Leopard's" broadside was fired.

No situation could be more trying to officers and crew than to be thus stationed at their guns without a chance to return a fire. The guns of the "Chesapeake" were loaded, but could not be discharged for want of lighted matches or heated loggerheads; and even if discharged, they could not be reloaded until ammunition should be handed from the magazine. Time was required both to clear the guns and to fire them; but the "Leopard's" first broadside was thrown just as the crew were beginning to clear the deck. The crew were fresh and untrained; but no complaint was made on this account,—all were willing enough to fight. The confusion was little greater than might have occurred under the same circumstances in the best-drilled crew afloat; and the harshest subsequent scrutiny discovered no want of discipline, except that toward the end a few men left their guns, declaring that they were ready to fight but not to be shot down like sheep. About the magazine the confusion was greatest, for a crowd of men and boys were clamoring for matches, powder-flasks, and logger-heads, while the gunner and his mates were doing their utmost to pass up what was needed; but in reasonable time all wants could have been supplied. On the upper deck both officers and men behaved well. Barron, though naturally much excited, showed both sense and courage. Standing in the open gangway fully exposed to the "Leopard's" guns, he was wounded by the first broadside, but remained either there or on the quarter-deck without noticing his wound, while he repeatedly hailed the "Leopard" in the hope of gaining a moment's time, and sent officer after officer below to hurry the men at the guns. Neither among the officers nor among the crew was courage the resource that failed them. Many of the men on the upper deck exposed themselves unnecessarily to the flying grapeshot by standing on the guns and looking over the hammocks, till Barron ordered them down. Careful subsequent inquiry could detect no lack of gallantry except in the pilot, who when questioned as to the commodore's behavior had the manliness to confess his alarm, "I was too bad scared myself to observe him very particularly."

The British account, which was very exact, said that the "Leopard's" fire lasted fifteen minutes,—from 4.30 to 4.45 p.m.,—during which time three full broadsides were discharged without return. No one could demand that Commodore Barron should subject his crew and ship to a longer trial when he had no hope of success. The time in which the "Leopard" could have sunk the "Chesapeake" might be a matter of doubt; but in the next battle between similar ships, five years afterward, the "Constitution," with about the "Leopard's" armament, totally disabled the "Guerriere" in less than thirty minutes, so that she sank within twenty-four hours,—though at the time of the action a heavy sea was running, and the "Guerriere" fought desperately with her whole broadside of twenty-five guns. June 22, 1807, the sea was calm; the "Leopard" lay quietly within pistol-shot; the "Chesapeake" could not injure her; and if the "Leopard" was as well fought as the "Constitution" she should have done at least equal damage. If she did not succeed, it was not for want of trying. The official survey, taken the next day, showed twenty-two round-shot in the "Chesapeake's" hull, ten shot-holes in the sails, all three masts badly injured, the rigging much cut by grape, three men killed, eight severely and ten slightly wounded, including Commodore Barron,—which proved that of the seventy or eighty discharges from the "Leopard's" guns a large proportion took effect.

After enduring this massacre for fifteen minutes, while trying to fire back at least one gun for the honor of the ship, Commodore Barron ordered the flag to be struck. It was hauled down; and as it touched the taffrail one gun was discharged from the gun-deck sending a shot into the "Leopard." This single gun was fired by the third lieutenant, Allen, by means of a live coal which he brought in his fingers from the galley.

The boats of the "Leopard" then came on board, bringing several British officers, who mustered the ship's company. They selected the three Americans who had deserted from the "Melampus," and were therefore not included in Berkeley's order. Twelve or fifteen others were pointed out as English deserters, but these men were not taken. After a search of the ship, Jenkin Ratford was dragged out of the coal-hole; and this discovery alone saved Captain Humphreys from the blame of committing an outrage not only lawless but purposeless. At about seven o'clock the British officers left the ship, taking with them the three Americans and Jenkin Ratford. Immediately afterward Commodore Barron sent Lieutenant Allen on board the "Leopard" with a brief letter to Captain Humphreys:—

"I consider the frigate 'Chesapeake' your prize, and am ready to deliver her to any officer authorized to receive her. By the return of the boat I shall expect your answer."

The British captain immediately replied as follows:

"Having to the utmost of my power fulfilled the instructions of my commander-in-chief, I have nothing more to desire, and must in consequence proceed to join the remainder of the squadron,—repeating that I am ready to give you every assistance in my power, and do most sincerely deplore that any lives should have been lost in the execution of a service which might have been adjusted more amicably, not only with respect to ourselves but the nations to which we respectively belong."

At eight o'clock Barron called a council of officers to consider what was best to be done with the ship, and it was unanimously decided to return to the Roads and wait orders. Disgraced, degraded, with officers and crew smarting under a humiliation that was never forgotten or forgiven, the unlucky "Chesapeake" dragged her way back to Norfolk.

There she lay for many months. Barron's wrong was in the nature of a crime. His brother officers made severe comments on his conduct; and Captain Gordon and some of his fellow-sufferers joined in the cry. One of his harshest critics was Stephen Decatur. Public sentiment required a victim. A court of inquiry which sat at Norfolk in October reported strongly against the commodore. He was charged with neglect of duty, with having failed to prepare his ship for action, with having surrendered prematurely, with having discouraged his men; but beneath all these charges lay an unjust belief in his want of courage. After six months delay, Barron was brought before a court-martial Jan. 4, 1808, and allowed to make his defence.

The court-martial took place at Norfolk, on board the "Chesapeake,"—his own ship, which recalled at every moment his disgrace. The judges were his juniors, with the single exception of Captain John Rodgers, who was president of the court. Among them sat Stephen Decatur,—a brilliant officer, but one who had still to undergo the experience of striking his flag and of hearing the world suspect his surrender to be premature. Decatur held strong opinions against Barron, and not only expressed them strongly, but also notified Barron of them in order that he might, if he pleased, exercise the privilege of challenging. Barron made no objection, and Decatur unwillingly kept his place. In other respects Barron was still more hardly treated by fortune; the first lieutenant of the "Chesapeake" had died in the interval; Dr. Bullus, whose evidence was of the utmost importance, could not appear; Captain Gordon turned against him, and expressed the free opinion that Barron had never meant to resist; Captains Murray, Hull, and Chauncey, on the court of inquiry, had already made a hostile report; and the government prosecutor pressed every charge with a persistency that, as coming from the Department, seemed almost vindictive.

From January 4 to February 8 the court-martial tried charges against Barron, after which it continued until February 22 trying Captain Gordon, Captain Hall of the marines, and William Hook the gunner. The result of this long, searching, and severe investigation was remarkable, for it ended in a very elaborate decision[10] that Barron was blameless in every particular except one. He had not been negligent of his duty; he was not to blame for omitting to call the crew to quarters before he received Captain Humphreys' letter; he did well in getting the men to quarters secretly without drum-beat; he did not discourage his men; he had shown coolness, reflection, and personal courage under the most trying circumstances; he was right in striking his flag when he did,—but he was wrong in failing to prepare for action instantly on reading Admiral Berkeley's order; and for this mistake he was condemned to suspension for five years from the service, without pay or emoluments.

Barron had argued that although his judgment on this point proved to be mistaken, it was reasonable, and in accord with his instructions. He produced the orders of the Secretary of the Navy, dated May 15, 1807, written with full knowledge that the deserters from the "Melampus" had been claimed by the British minister, and that a British squadron was lying in Chesapeake Bay. "Our interest as well as good faith requires," said the secretary, "...that we should cautiously avoid whatever may have a tendency to bring us into collision with any other Power." Barron urged that if he had given the order to prepare for battle as required by the court-martial, he must have detained by force the British lieutenant and his boat's crew, which would have had a direct "tendency to bring us into collision," or he must have let them go, which would have hurried the collision. He said that he had tried to gain time by keeping the appearances of confidence and good-will. He admitted that he had failed, but claimed that the failure was due to no fault which could have been corrected at that moment by those means.

The defence was open to criticism, especially because Barron himself could claim to have made no use of the time he gained. Yet perhaps, on the whole, the court-martial might have done better to punish Barron for his want of caution in permitting the British frigate to approach. This was his first error, which could not be retrieved; and Barron could hardly have complained of his punishment, even though every officer in the service knew that the rule of going to quarters in such cases was seldom strictly observed. The President and the Secretary of the Navy could alone say whether Barron had understood their orders correctly, and whether his plea, founded on the secretary's instructions, was sound. In the light of Jefferson's diplomacy, Barron's course accorded with his instructions; and perhaps, had the President claimed his own share in the "Chesapeake's" disaster, he would have refused to degrade a faithful, able, and gallant seaman for obeying the spirit and letter of his orders. Unfortunately such an interference would have ruined the navy; and so it happened that what Jefferson had so long foreseen took place. He had maintained that the frigates were a mere invitation to attack; that they created the dangers they were built to resist, and tempted the aggressions of Great Britain, which would, but for these ships, find no object to covet; and when the prediction turned true, he was still obliged to maintain the character of the service. He approved the sentence of the court-martial.

So far as the service was concerned, Barron's punishment was not likely to stimulate its caution, for no American captain, unless he wished to be hung by his own crew at his own yard-arm, was likely ever again to let a British frigate come within gunshot without taking such precautions as he would have taken against a pirate; but though the degradation could do little for the service, it cost Barron his honor, and ended by costing Decatur his life.

Meanwhile, Captain Humphreys reported to Captain Douglas on the "Bellona," and Captain Douglas reported the whole affair to Admiral Berkeley at Halifax, who received at the same time accounts from American sources. The admiral immediately wrote to approve the manner in which his orders had been carried out. "As far as I am enabled to judge," he said[11] in a letter to Captain Humphreys, dated July 4, "you have conducted yourself most properly." The inevitable touch of unconscious comedy was not wanting in the British admiral, whose character recalled Smollett's novels and memories of Commodore Hawser Trunnion. "I hope you mind the public accounts which have been published of this affair as little as I do," he continued; "we must make allowances for the heated state of the populace in a country where law and every tie, both civil and religious, is treated so lightly." No broader humor could be found in "Peregrine Pickle" than in one breath to approve an act so lawless that no man of commonsense even in England ventured to defend it as lawful, and in the next to read the Americans a moral lecture on their want of law and religion; yet grotesque as this old-fashioned naval morality might be, no man in England noticed either its humor or its absurdity.

As though to show that he meant no humor by it, the admiral, August 25, called a court-martial, which the next day sentenced Jenkin Ratford to be hanged, and the three American deserters from the "Melampus" to receive five hundred lashes each. The last part of the sentence was not carried out, and the three Americans remained quietly in prison; but August 31, Jenkin Ratford was duly hanged from the foreyard-arm of his own ship, the "Halifax."


  1. James's Naval History, iv. 329
  2. Barron's Court-martial, p. 241.
  3. Barron to Gordon, May 1, 1807; Court-martial, p. 239.
  4. Captain Gordon to the Secretary of the Navy, June 22, 1807; Court-martial, p. 259.
  5. Barron to the Secretary of the Navy, June 6, 1807; Court-martial, p. 371.
  6. Gordon to Barron, June 19, 1807, p. 367.
  7. James's Naval History, iv. 329.
  8. Court-martial, p. 101.
  9. James's Naval History, iv. 330.
  10. Court-martial, pp. 337-350.
  11. Marshall's Naval Biography, iv. 895.