Abstract

The bombardment of the USS Chesapeake by the HMS Leopard on June 22, 1807, outraged citizens of the young republic. Not only had three sailors been killed and eighteen more wounded, but the British had forcibly removed four other men that they claimed belonged to them. Angry Americans condemned the incident, demanded satisfaction, and prepared for war. Although the crisis abated, diplomatic negotiations failed to resolve the issue until late 1811, and the surviving sailors were not returned until the start of the War of 1812. How Americans recalled the Chesapeake disaster has never been satisfactory examined. The episode was, to be sure, a diplomatic cause celebre, suggesting that the U.S. flag afforded no protection against a British navy intent upon impressment. Yet the memory of the incident also reveals the contours and limits of American compassion toward sailors. If mariners received praise for economic contributions and wartime heroism, they nonetheless attracted suspicion when ashore. While concerned about issues of trade and neutral rights, Americans proved less interested in protecting and retrieving sailors seized by the British. The four impressed men from the ChesapeakeÐJenkin Ratford, David Martin, John Strachan, and William WareÐillustrate this social phenomenon. If Ratford received publicity because of his 1807 execution, the other three men, two of whom were persons of color, generally remained unnamed and ignored, not unlike other impressed sailors. As such, the Chesapeake episode illuminates American ambivalence toward the sailors of the young republic. Class and race rendered sailors anonymous in the public memory.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 445-474
Launched on MUSE
2005-10-17
Open Access
No
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