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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4

Chapter Three

 p31  American Blood is Spilled

If fortune did not smile on George Canning at his birth, she made amends by endowing him with a splendid intellect and a consuming ambition. The son of a disinherited father and a penniless mother, the boy was sent through Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, with funds supplied by his wealthy uncle, Stratford Canning, a London banker.

George made good use of his time both at public school and at the University. Sir Spencer Walpole described him as the most distinguished boy ever known at Eton. At Oxford he maintained his reputation for brilliance by winning the Chancellor's prize for Latin verse. After her husband's death, when George was a year old, his mother went on the stage, and some of those who saw Canning perform in Parliament remarked wryly that he inherited from her a gift for acting. An actress mother was, in those days, scarcely advantageous to social preferment; but, during his time at Christ Church, George had learned to cultivate the right people. If, at the start, his position was precarious, he strengthened it by making an alliance with a lady and an heiress who brought him a fortune of £100,000. Fresh from the University Canning entered Parliament, and at the age of 26 was an undersecretary and one of Pitt's ablest lieutenants. He has gone down in history as being probably England's greatest foreign secretary in the nineteenth century, but this estimate refers no doubt to his maturer years. In his youth he was so impatient to get on with his career that not infrequently he exhibited a bland indifference to the amenities. It was said of him by his contemporaries that he was incapable of delivering a speech without making a new enemy. "It is Canning's misfortune," declared one critic, "that nobody will believe that he can take his tea without a stratagem";  p32 while another observed that "by an unhappy perversion of mind he always would rather have obtained his end by a crooked path than a straight one." Said a third, "Canning can never be a gentleman for more than three hours at a time." Added to these shortcomings was an irritability of temper and an astonishing lack of tact.

When, on March 18, 1807, the Grenville ministry fell and was succeeded in office by the Tory government of Lord Portland, Canning found himself elevated to the important position of Foreign Secretary. It was with Canning that the American commissioners now had to deal, and the radical change from the cordiality of Holland and Auckland to the frigidity of Canning must have been painful in the extreme. To a man of Canning's temperament, pitted as he was against the most power­ful and astute politician of Europe in the person of the Emperor Napoleon, it must have been equally irritating to have to give occasional ear to the persistent complaints of representatives of a small and insignificant country three thousand miles away.

Since the first of the year world conditions, instead of growing better, had become worse. Coincident with the transmission of the treaty by the commissioners to their home government in Washington, Great Britain had issued another order in council on January 7, in reply to the Berlin Decree. This order forbade all vessels to engage in the coastwise trade of France and her allies or of any ports to which British vessels were denied. It was a severe blow to American commerce in the Mediterranean where vessels were accustomed to sail from port to port, seeking the best market. Immediately upon publication of the Berlin Decree, John Armstrong, American Minister to France, had hastened to inquire its effect on American ships. He had been assured by Decrès, French Minister of Marine, that the decree was not intended to be applied to them. But anyone who had had dealings with Napoleon knew how valueless such assurance was likely to be.

As the months wore on and spring gave way to early summer Monroe and Pinkney approached Canning with a suggestion for the resumption of negotiations. Canning replied that it was impossible to resume negotiations upon a treaty which had been agreed upon, signed and then had been rejected by one of the contracting parties. And so it appeared that the two Americans would have plenty of  p33 leisure time to enjoy the beauties of England in the rare days of June. Canning was left to watch with penetrating eye the measures Napoleon was taking to ensnare his fellow emperor, Alexander of Russia.

That eye stood him in good stead when, in July, the two Emperors, meeting on a raft constructed over the River Niemen so that they might be insured absolute secrecy, agreed upon the measures that were to be embodied in the Treaty of Tilsit. One of the secret stipulations was that the Danish fleet, then lying in the harbor of Copenhagen, should be handed over to Napoleon. But before Napoleon had time to act, a British fleet entered the harbor, demanded the Danish fleet for safekeeping, and when the demand was denied, seized it. How Canning, in faraway London, discovered what was taking place on the raft in the River Niemen remains today one of the great mysteries of history. But discover it he did, and thereby accomplished the greatest coup of his career.

In the very moment of this gigantic triumph Canning had to pause to give attention to an annoying incident that had occurred a few weeks before off the Virginia Capes. In the month of June, 1807, several British men-of‑war lay in the American waters of Lynnhaven Bay, Virginia. Among them were the Leopard and the Melampus. Several sailors were reported to have deserted from the Melampus, rowed to Norfolk and there enlisted in the United States Navy. According to the advices which reached Vice-Admiral George Berkeley, in command of the British naval station at Halifax, the offending sailors had paraded the streets of Norfolk under the American flag and before the very eyes of their former commanders. Yet the American authorities had ignored demands for their return.

When Vice-Admiral Berkeley heard the story every fiber in his august body contracted. He sat down at once with quill pen and paper and dashed off an order to the British squadron in Lynnhaven Bay to the effect that if any British man-of‑war encountered on the high seas any American ship bearing the deserters, the commander of the British man-of‑war must immediately board the American ship and seize the deserters.

On June 19, fresh from the navy yard at Washington, the United States frigate Chesapeake put into Norfolk. She was under the command  p34 of Captain Gordon, and also bore the flag of Commodore James Barron. She was bound for the Mediterranean and, owing to the inefficiency of the navy yard, was already late for her rendezvous. She had halted briefly at Norfolk to fill up her crew. Having achieved this task she put to sea on June 21. Her guns had not been mounted; her crew had been mustered only three times. It was the intention of Commodore Barron to put her into shape when she got to sea and thereby save valuable time. He did not dream that any immediate danger awaited her.

However, as the Chesapeake sailed out, the Leopard hoisted anchor and followed. Just outside the three-mile limit the Leopard drew near and hailed. The Chesapeake luffed and waited while a boat was lowered from the Leopard and came a line. It contained an officer who presented the compliments of Captain Humphries of the Leopard and requested the Commodore to permit the officer to muster the crew and search for the four British deserters believed to be aboard. Commodore Barron replied that he had mustered the crew himself, that he had taken particular pains to see that no deserters were aboard and was satisfied that there were none. He added that it was against the regulations of the United States Navy to permit the officer of a foreign vessel to muster an American crew and, consequently, he must refuse the request.

The British officer returned to the Leopard which was now lying within pistol-shot distance of the Chesapeake. From the Leopard came a voice through a trumpet, "The Vice-Admiral's orders must be obeyed." Barron made no response. A moment later a shot from the Leopard crossed the Chesapeake's bow, followed almost immediately by a broadside that riddled her hull, tore through her rigging, killed three of her crew and wounded 18 more, including Commodore Barron. The bombardment continued 15 minutes. The Chesapeake was incapable of reply. Barron was desirous of having at least one shot fired and this was accomplished, an officer carrying a hot coal from the galley stove to the cannon. The Commodore then ordered the colors to be struck.

In a few minutes Captain Humphries came aboard and Barron offered to surrender his ship. Humphries declined the surrender,  p35 apologized for the damage he had done, but insisted upon searching the Chesapeake for the deserters. The four men sought were soon found in the hold and brought on deck. They admitted that they had deserted from the Melampus, but three of them claimed that they were Americans who had previously been impressed into the British service. According to some accounts all three were Negroes. The fourth was unquestionably a Briton, Ratford by name, who had escaped Barron's notice by enlisting under the name of Wilson.

Captain Humphries took his prisoners and departed for Halifax. Ratford later was hanged. One prisoner died in captivity and the other two several years later were returned to the deck of the Chesapeake from which they had been taken. The Chesapeake limped back to Norfolk to tell the distressing tale and to stir the country to wrath from end to end. For once Federalists and Republicans forgot party animosities. From north, south and west a universal cry for revenge went up. Senator Pickering and a few friends alone refused to join the tumult, instead asserting that Britain had acted within her rights. "At that moment," Jefferson later declared, "I had the issue of peace or war in my hand."

At last Jefferson, who little more than a year before had boasted of making the Gulf Stream the national boundary, who had threatened to teach England a lesson, realized the nation's utter unpreparedness for war. He let the issue slip from his grasp, if it ever had been there, and clung to the hope that the action of the Leopard had been a tragic error for which the British Government would make prompt and proper amends. Yet something must be done to appease the anger of the people. On July 2 the President issued a proclamation reciting the details of the outrage and forbidding British men-of‑war to enter the ports of the United States. Then, a painful reminder of the country's impotence, he added that, since there was no force to compel them to stay out, should British men-of‑war enter the ports in disregard of the proclamation, loyal citizens would deny them all aid and comfort. The proclamation did something to allay the storm, but the country still needed a scapegoat. Commodore Barron was the most suitable person to fill the role. He was charged with failure to prepare his ship for action, court-martialed, found guilty and retired from the service for five years without pay.  p36 The incompetence of the Navy Department, which was in large part to blame for delaying the departure of the Chesapeake, was thus neatly concealed.

No sooner did Canning learn of the encounter between the Chesapeake and the Leopard than he realized the blunder that Berkeley and Humphries had made. His Majesty's Government might be arrogant, but never in its bluffest moments had it claimed the right to board and search an alien man-of‑war. A merchantman might be treated indifferently, but an insult to a man-of‑war was an insult to a nation that thoroughly justified a resort to arms. British statesmen had been assured by their observers in America that the United States would never fight over impressment and the orders in council. But that she would not fight over an insult to the flag Canning could not be too sure. And, to be frank, Great Britain did not want war with the United States. She had her hands full enough in Europe. For all his pride Canning was ready to offer apology and punish the offenders. There seemed no other way out. On the other hand he had to consider the anti-American group in England, and also that Berkeley was the brother of a lord.

It was the irony of fate that the excuse Canning so much needed was presented to him by Monroe and Jefferson. Upon receiving the news Monroe seized upon it as a practical means of settling the whole issue of impressment, something for which he had waited so long that he had almost ceased hoping. On July 29 Monroe addressed a formal note to Canning in which he called attention to the aggression. He could not resist adding, "I might state other examples of great indignity and outrage."

Canning was prompt to divine Monroe's course. Replying on August 3, he assured Monroe that if the circumstances of the encounter between the Leopard and the Chesapeake were as Monroe had described them, His Majesty would have no difficulty in disowning the act and manifesting his displeasure with the conduct of his officers. He concluded somewhat tartly, "With respect to the other causes of complaint (whatever they may be) which are hinted at in your note, I perfectly agree with you, in the sentiment which you express, as to the propriety of not involving them in a question which is of itself of sufficient importance to claim a separate and most serious consideration."

 p37  Monroe hardly expected to be taken so literally in the matter of confining the conversations to the one issue. But Canning made it clear that he had no intention of allowing the Chesapeake affair to be used as an entering wedge for a renewal of the impressment controversy. Thus having defended himself against attack, Canning was waiting and ready to take the offensive. The opportunity came as soon as he received word of the President's proclamation. Up to this point he had been apologetic and conciliatory, but immediately his attitude stiffened.

Having received an unofficial copy of the proclamation from the British Minister to the United States, Canning sat down and penned a note to Monroe asking for verification. The following day Monroe replied that he had not yet heard from his government. For a month Canning was silent on the subject. So, on September 7, Monroe sent him a reminder. Canning permitted a fortnight to pass and then wrote a blistering letter. "Before I proceed to observe upon that part of it which relates more immediately to the question now at issue between our two governments," he began, "I am commanded, in the first instance, to express the surprise which is felt at the total omission of a subject upon which I had already been commanded to apply to you for information, the proclamation purported to have been issued by the President of the United States." In language which could not have been meant to be other than insulting, suggesting as it did that Monroe had not told him the truth, he continued, "Of this paper, when I last addressed you upon it, you professed not to have any knowledge beyond what the ordinary channels of public information afforded, nor any authority to declare it to be authentic." Canning then proceeded to demand from Monroe official acknowledgment of the proclamation. He pointed out that the whole matter now had resolved itself into one of reparation, but that the Government of the United States had taken reparation into its own hands by declaring its ports closed to British men-of‑war; that it had resorted to these measures of retaliation previous to any direct application for redress to the British Government or to the British Minister in America. He concluded with the categorical demand: "I am further to inquire whether you are authorized to withdraw the proclamation on the knowledge of His Majesty's disavowal of the act which occasioned its publication?"

 p38  Without doubt, by failing to demand redress before issuing his proclamation Jefferson had given Canning an excuse. But, having gone thus far, the President was unwilling to acknowledge the original error. Worse still, Monroe received from him in September instructions to demand a disavowal of the principle of impressment along with a disavowal of Berkeley's order. This was a stipulation that Jefferson ought to have known was incapable of fulfillment. No doubt he was goaded into action by the public outcry that followed that attack on the Chesapeake. He did not realize that Canning, too, was being goaded by the London press which had rushed to the defense of Berkeley. Once more Canning refused to treat on these terms, the matter of reparations reached a stalemate instead of redress being accorded while the incident was fresh in the public mind. In fact on both sides the will to conciliate was lacking and, in spite of the brilliance of the master minds of Canning and Jefferson, the two countries were permitted to drift farther apart.

After what had occurred Monroe's usefulness in London was clearly at an end and he was recalled, Pinkney succeeding him as Minister. Canning promised that the British Government would send a commissioner to Washington to continue negotiations over the Chesapeake affair. Berkeley was recalled, but that was as far as Canning was willing to go. There was no court-martial.

As the year 1807 was growing to a close, several events took place in quick succession that made the American position even most untenable. When Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree the French Minister of Marine, Decrès, as we have seen, assured the American Minister that the decree did not apply to American ships. Nevertheless there had been seizures. On October 7 Champagny, Duke of Cadore, French Foreign Minister, reversed what Decrès had said a year before and admitted that American ships were included. His excuse was that this had been made necessary by the British orders in council. Actually Napoleon here saw an opportunity to embroil the United States in a war with Great Britain. Besides, he was badly in need of funds and seizure was merely a step toward confiscation.

On November 11 Great Britain issued a new order in council. It reasserted a blockade of all the ports and places of France, or her allies, and of all countries from which British ships were excluded. All trade in articles produced or manufactured in such countries was  p39 forbidden and ships engaged in it were declared subject to search and seizure along with their cargoes. However, on the same date another order appeared permitting neutral ships to carry goods from the enemy's ports to the ports of Great Britain upon payment of duties, and to re‑export from the British ports subject to British regulations. In other words, while ostensibly laying down a blockade, Great Britain was insisting upon a control of American trade as strict as that which had existed in the days of the colonies. She was demanding that a sovereign country should proceed with its trade only by having its vessels enter a British port, pay a duty to the British Government and continue the voyage under British regulations. And, to cap the climax, the British Government had issued a proclamation recalling all of its sailors and announcing that those who did not obey the order would be hunted out from the ships on which they had taken refuge. The proclamation not only closed the doors to any compromise on impressment but was, in fact, a reassertion of the right.

When Napoleon heard of the order in council requiring neutral ships to touch at British ports and pay a duty he immediately retaliated. From Milan, on December 17, he issued another decree declaring that any ship which, in obedience to the order, should enter a British port and pay a duty would be regarded as denationalized and, in effect, British property.

American ships trading with Europe found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. If they obeyed the decrees of Napoleon they were subject to seizure by Great Britain. If they obeyed the orders in council they were subject to seizure by France. Under such circumstances neutral trade was well-nigh impossible. As Napoleon had, through his military conquests, forced all the countries of Western Europe to enter into a compact not to trade with Great Britain, he now hoped to accomplish the same end with the United States through his decrees. Great Britain might have been expected to thwart his purpose by courting favor with the United States. Instead she adopted a course which could not fail to annoy, irritate and estrange the United States.

These several events of the last months of 1807 were not immediately known to Jefferson, for news traveled slowly across the ocean. But he knew enough to realize the critical position of American commerce  p40 and sense that it was becoming more critical. It gave him an opportunity to try an experiment which was close to his heart, a substitute for war in the guise of peaceable coercion. At his instigation, during the last days of the dying year, Congress passed the Embargo Act, forbidding all American vessels to depart from American ports and excluding all foreign ships from the same ports. Such was his answer to the decrees and orders. American ships would be kept at home so that they would run afoul of neither. Great Britain and the Continent would be denied cotton and other American products which they sorely needed. As soon as they began to feel the force of their deprivations, Great Britain and France would adopt a more conciliatory attitude, and without striking a single blow the United States would achieve her ends. That was what Jefferson hoped and prayed for.

Page updated: 25 Jun 13