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James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

The Court-martial

The court that met in January 1808 in Barron's own quarters on the Chesapeake was composed of some of the most distinguished officers in the U.S. Navy at that time. Barron's relations with several of them were at best ambiguous, most especially with Captain John Rodgers, the presiding officer. Not much more than a year before, Rodgers had challenged Barron to a duel over allegedly "slanderous rumors," and only the intervention of other officers had led them to a formal if cool reconciliation. Meanwhile, Stephen Decatur, who was befriended by Barron at the outset of his naval service, had for some reason taken the lead in criticizing him for what happened with the Leopard.

In addition to Barron, two officers and one chief gunner were also standing trial, but it was quite clear that Barron was the major target. In fact, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, one of those charged with negligence, was also the chief witness for the prosecution against Barron. Gordon's role was important, because it was he who had actually been responsible for assembling the crew and supplies and readying the ship before Barron took command only two days before sailing. To the extent that the crew was not properly prepared, the decks were obstructed with supplies, and the ship's guns were not battle ready, Gordon was as responsible as Barron.

Yet, the prosecution allowed Gordon to evade answering crucial questions. For instance, a letter was produced in which Gordon on June 19 assured Barron: "We are … ready for weighing the first fair wind.… The guns are all charged and if possible we have an exercise this evening." Yet the examination of the witness went thus:

Judge Advocate: Were your guns exercised on the evening of [June 19]?

Gordon: I decline answering that question.

Judge Advocate: Had they been exercised before?

Gordon: I decline answering that question.

For his defense, Barron did not take the stand but submitted a long letter responding to all the charges. In general, he argued that it was the navy's practice to hold a man in Gordon's position responsible for assuring that a ship was seaworthy; that the Navy Department knew that the four disputed men were aboard and that the British had their ships offshore; that he was under clear orders to avoid "whatever may have a tendency to bring us into collision with any other power"; that had he done anything to initiate hostilities against the Leopard, "to what censure would I not have exposed myself?"; and finally, that the decision to surrender was based on his seasoned judgment that resistance was futile.

After four days of deliberation, the court appeared with its verdict. It started with exonerating Barron of the third and fourth charges that impugned his courage and his judgment in the face of the Leopard's overwhelming advantages. They also found him not guilty of the first charge, general negligence. But they did find him guilty of the second charge, "neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action." The sentence: to be suspended from all command and pay for five years. Gordon and the other officer were both found guilty of negligence but were let off with a reprimand; the gunner was also found guilty of failing to perform his duties and was dismissed from the navy.

Additional topics

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