Deserters and Broadsides - The Chesapeake-Leopard affair

The papers of the Buckinghamshire Archaeology Society contain a series of letters written to (and one a draft written by) Captain Salusbury Price Humphreys (1778-1845). He was from Clungunford in Shropshire but lived for a time at Weedon Lodge. His brief moment in the international spotlight came in 1807 when he was in command of the fifty gun fourth rate ship of the line called HMS Leopard. This was during the Napoleonic Wars against France and his vessel was on the North American Station blockading two French vessels in Chesapeake Bay.

Weedon Lodge on the 1900 Ordnance Survey mapWeedon Lodge, as shown on the 1900 Ordnance Survey

At that time relations between Britain and the new-born United States were poor and would lead to war five years later - the War of 1812. One issue between the two countries was the fact that a number of Royal Navy sailors had deserted and the United States had given them sanctuary. One deserter had even joined the crew of the American thirty-eight gun heavy frigate USS Chesapeake, commanded by Commodore James Barron.

 The commander of the North American Station, Vice-Admiral Sir George Berkeley, ordered HMS Leopard to board and search the USS Chesapeake to look for British deserters. Accordingly Humphreys intercepted the American warship off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia on 22nd June. Humphreys sent an officer over to the Chesapeake, probably with a letter stating his demand to conduct search for deserters. This officer returned evidently bearing a written reply from Commodore Barron which now forms part of the BAS collection [D-BAS/18/70/13]. Barron replied: "I know of no such men as you describe. The officers that were on the recruiting service for this Ship was particularly Instructed by the Government through me not to enter any Deserters from his B[ritannic] M[ajerty's] Ships, nor do I know of any being here. I am also Instructed never to permit the Crew of any Ship that I command to be muster'd by any other but her own Officers. It is my disposition to preserve harmony and I hope this answer to your despatch will prove Satisfactory".

The reply was not satisfactory and after hailing Barron and getting no reply HMS Leopard fired a shot across her bows. The British ship then opened fire with a full broadside into the Chesapeake. Barron, caught unprepared, was forced to strike his colours and suffered four dead and seventeen wounded. His letter of surrender to Humphreys is short and to the point but civil in the circumstances: "I consider the Frigate Chesapeak your prize and am ready to deliver her to any officer authoriz'd to receive her by the return of the Boat. I shall expect your answer" [D-BAS/18/70/14]. Four Royal Navy deserters were found on board. Three of them were American-born citizens (including two African Americans) and escaped serious punishment. The only British-born sailor, Jenkin Ratford, was hanged on 31st August.


Image of surrender of the ChesapeakeOfficers of the Chesapeake surrender to the Leopard, via Wikipedia

This incident, as might be imagined, greatly soured the already poor relations between Britain and the United States and stirred up a hornet's nest of indignation in the former colonies. It would be one of the factors which would lead to the War of 1812. Although Vice-Admiral Berkeley gave the orders, and suffered a brief check to his career, it was Captain Humphreys who would reap the greater punishment. When he returned to Britain later that year he was given no new ship to command. Indeed, he would never command a ship again. His letters include a number of affectionate letters from his old commander's wife, Emilia Charlotte Berkeley, expressing her disappointment at the way he was treated - "I am very sorry that you are not likely to be employed as your wish for being so is perfectly Sensible and good, in short like yourself, I am very X…" [D-BAS/18/70/22 - 6 May 1808].

Humphreys himself seems to lay his perceived poor treatment at the door of Henry Phipps, 1st Baron Mulgrave, who was First Lord of the Admiralty from 1807 to 1810. An angry draft letter from Humphreys survives in the collection [D-BAS/18/70/36] written to Mulgrave after he had left his post at the Admiralty - "I will endeavour humbly to recapitulate my reasons for deeming myself ill used & if they are facts & Your Lordship acknowledges them to be so your own feelings will compel you to avow that my case is without exception more tinctur'd with oppression than that of any other servant of the public whose character is, as I hope mine is, blameless … I am in short so very sore on this subject that I'm not perhaps sufficiently aware of the dignity of the person to whom I now address myself nor am I to the full extent aware of the prejudice - it may be to my professional ruin to write in this unguarded way to one of His Majesty's Ministers who may communicate all I say to the Head of my Department & ruin my prospects for ever … I feel unjustly singled out for persecution … I am not I hope given to Hypocrisy buy you may believe me when I say I have not gone thro' these details without a tear. And I give you full permission to hand over to your successor in office both this letter & my curse".


This correspondence was catalogued by the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies as part of the Hidden Buckinghamshire project. The project began in April 2018 and will run for two years. The aim is to catalogue over 11,000 items collected by Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society (BAS).

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