Impressment — Chesapeake-Leopard Affair
Another maritime conflict centered around impressment, the practice of forcibly conscripting men into naval service. The British navy, after years of war, experienced chronic difficulty recruiting crews for its hundreds of ships. Impressment was a major source of men, and experienced sailors who were also British subjects were prime targets. But just who was a British subject? The United States was a relatively new nation, and many of its citizens were born elsewhere. Modern systems of documentation did not exist. The brutal practice of impressment combined with ambiguity of citizenship status led to numerous conflicts.
In some cases the Royal Navy impressed American citizens, in others the Navy contended the conscripted were actually deserters falsely claiming American citizenship. In 1806 and 1807, ships of the British navy cruised off the coast of North America looking to intercept French ships known to frequent the area. The British often docked in Virginia to bring on fresh water and food, and this provided many sailors the opportunity to desert. Disputes between the two governments about the return of deserters were frequent.
The Chesapeake-Leopard affair brought the conflict to a boiling point, challenging not only so-called sailors’ rights, but also offending the sovereignty of the young United States. On June 22, 1807, the U.S. frigate Chesapeake encountered H. M. sloop Leopard in the Atlantic Ocean. The Leopard’s captain, Salusbury Humphreys had intelligence indicating the presence of deserters on board the Chesapeake, and he demanded the Chesapeake turn them over. Master Commandant Charles Gordon, of the Chesapeake, refused, and the Leopard fired on the American ship for a few minutes, killing five men and wounding several more. Unable to mount a defense, the Chesapeake surrendered, allowing the British to board and arrest the suspected deserters. The Chesapeake-Leopard incident further soured relations between Britain and the United States and helped lead to trade restrictions imposed by U.S. President Jefferson.