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James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

The Chesapeake-leopard Incident

At this time Britain was at war with France and it was engaging in the practice known as "impressment"—stopping American ships at sea to search for men it regarded as deserters from its own navy. The Chesapeake was barely 10 miles offshore that day when a British warship, the HMS Leopard, sailed up to her and demanded the right to look for British citizens. Barron refused and suddenly the Leopard fired three broadsides into the Chesapeake, killing three crewmen and wounding 18 (including Barron). Barron had one shot fired but, recognizing that further resistance was futile—for one thing, the Leopard had 50 guns to his own 36—had his flag lowered in surrender. The British then boarded and took away four men. (One was hanged, another died in captivity, and the other two were eventually returned to U.S. Navy service.) The Chesapeake limped back to Norfolk, Virginia.

As word quickly spread from Virginia throughout the American states, there was a tremendous outcry and even a call for war. President Thomas Jefferson himself stated, "Never since the battle of Lexington, have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation." But above all, there was a call for some assignment of responsibility, and inevitably the finger pointed at Commodore James Barron. The indignation was fanned by six of the junior officers, who wishing to free themselves from blame, quickly submitted a letter casting all responsibility on Barron.

In October, the secretary of the navy convened a court of inquiry composed of three naval officers to look into the incident and Barron's role. In November, the panel reported that Barron should be held responsible and called for a general court martial.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832James Barron Court-Martial: 1808 - The Chesapeake-leopard Incident, The Court-martial, A Fatal Backfire