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James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

The Chesapeake-leopard Incident, The Court-martial, A Fatal Backfire

Defendant: Commodore James Barron
Crimes Charged: "Negligently performing the duty assigned him; neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear ship for action; failing to encourage in his own person his inferior officers and men to fight courageously; not doing his utmost to take or destroy the Leopard, which vessel it was his duty to encounter."
Defense Lawyer: Robert B. Taylor
Prosecutor: Lyttleton W. Tazewell, Judge Advocate
Senior Presiding Officer: John Rodgers
Court: William Bainbridge, Hugh G. Campbell, Stephen Decatur, Jr., John Shaw, John Smith, David Porter, Jacob Jones, James Lawrence, Charles Ludlow, Joseph Tarbell
Place: On board the USS Chesapeake, Norfolk, Virginia
Date of Trial: January 9-February 8, 1808
Verdict: Guilty on second charge
Sentence: Suspension from command for five years with loss of pay

SIGNIFICANCE: This was one of the most extraordinary court-martials in American history, occasioned as it was primarily by a clear need to find a scapegoat for a humiliating incident. It also exemplifies the incredible infighting that then afflicted the American navy. The punishment meted out was relatively mild, but it led to the most tragic of encounters, James Barron's duel with a major American hero, Stephen Decatur.

James Barron belonged to a Virginia family with a seafearing tradition. Enlisting in the navy as a youth, by 1799 he was serving as captain of the USS United States (which included in the crew a young midshipman, Stephen Decatur, Jr.). In 1806, Barron was promoted to commodore and in 1807 was assigned to command the USS Chesapeake. Although it had an inexperienced crew and poorly prepared equipment, it was hastily ordered by the navy to head for the Mediterranean on June 22, 1807.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832