The Chesapeake Connection

I’m a Genealogist, I see Dead People EVERYWHERE!

One of the odd things about being a Genealogist is that, just like in the film “Sixth Sense” – “I see dead people everywhere!”

Having been researching a Family Story for an American client I was deeply immersed in the War of 1812, in which their ancestors took part on the American side vs the British. This story would tip over into the present time and place personally with me on a trip to a local Antiques Emporium in the Village of Wickham, Hampshire, a few miles from where I live.

A seeming coincidence of name had occurred to me between the American Warship the USS Chesapeake, and the name of the Antiques Market the “Chesapeake Antiques Mill” (pictured below). The American ship was a factor leading to the outbreak of the war that my client’s family were involved in, as in 1807 the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard fought a Maritime Duel that would almost inevitably lead to the eventual War of 1812.

Humphrey Bolton / Chesapeake Mill, Bridge Street, Wickham

Abner and The War of 1812

My Client’s Ancestors had moved to Painted Post New York in the 1700’s from Massachusets, but decided to “Go West” to Ohio in the early 1800s, however their teenage son Abner decided to stay behind in New York State when the rest moved up country.

When War with Great Britain broke out in 1812, Abner joined the U.S. Militia, becoming a Corporal in the 1st New York Militia Regiment under Colonel Halsey. We know that Abner served at least from August to October 1814, he was also promoted from Private to Corporal during that time. He was tasked with escorting a wounded officer back home after an abortive invasion of Canada, and through a clerical error was logged as a deserter whilst he was fulfilling this duty, at the end of which assignment his agreed time in the Militia had elapsed and he simply returned home to the farm. However, despite eyewitness testimonies corroborating this account, he was denied a military pension from the Army in later life.

An Unwanted War

The War of 1812 was probably the only conflict in the History of warfare where neither side really wanted the War, and both sides could justifiably claim to have achieved their objectives, and therefore won the war. The Americans brought to an end the British habit of boarding American ships to catch deserters from the Royal Navy, especially American born deserters, and reinforced the boundary between the USA and British North America, and largely ended the proxy war carried out by British armed Native Americans against the American Colonies. For the British it stopped future attempts by the American Government to annexe parts of British North America (Canada) by force, as well as keeping the Americans from giving support to Napoleon and the French in the Napoleonic Wars, and it reinforced the Royal Navy’s supremacy in the Caribbean and South American Waters.

In the UK the War of 1812 is seen to be a fairly minor engagement and colonial footnote to the huge Napoleonic Wars in which Great Britain and her Allies were attempting to halt the Imperial ambitions of the French in Europe, whereas in the USA it is regarded as a major war in its own right. It was also a war where the populace of both sides, largely saw it as a political engagement between the Political
elites of both Nations. New Englanders like Abner saw it as “Mr Madison’s War” referring to the US President James Madison who reluctantly declared war under some pressure from Hawks in Congress, whilst in Great Britain the general populace was more interested in fighting the French and trading with the Americans, than going to war with their transatlantic cousins, as many British people had actual family and trading ties with the ex-colonies and tended to see the Yankees as English people who lived a bit further west than Cornwall.

Naval Confrontation leads to War

The main cause of the war was a flouting of American sovereignty by the Royal Navy in search of deserters and British seamen who were seen as fair game for impressment into the Royal Navy (both types of seamen were fairly common on American ships, both merchant ships and men of war). This came to a confrontation in 1807 when the British 4th class warship HMS Leopard, engaged and captured the American Naval vessel USS Chesapeake off the coast of Norfolk Virginia in 1807. The point of this engagement was to recapture Royal Navy deserters who had jumped ship whilst the British were blockading a number of French ships that had been pursued by the Royal Navy and had fled to Norfolk Virginia.


This blockade was a fairly civilised affair, with the British standing off the coast, and the French refusing to leave the safety of the American port. The crews from both sets of ships took shore leave in Norfolk over the period of the blockade and were well aware of each other’s presence in the Town without any particular personal animosity between the crews.

The situation was complicated by the fact that a number of the British Royal Navy sailors were actually Americans, they had joined the Royal navy freely, but some had then deserted once ashore in Norfolk. The situation was further aggravated by a Cockney British Naval Deserter named Jenkin Ratford. Now Jenkin Ratford was a particularly obnoxious and aggressive individual, who had spent his time after deserting verbally abusing the Officers of the Royal Navy in the streets of Norfolk whenever they went for shore leave.

This constant barracking eventually led to the indignant Naval Officers applying to have the men who had deserted their ships returned, but this request had been turned down by the Americans, with a message from the head of the US shipyard that the deserters were now members of the American Navy aboard the USS Chesapeake.

The Battle

Indignant, the British simply waited for the Chesapeake to leave port, intercepted it, sent officers in a boarding party to ask for the return of the men. This request was refused, so the boarding party returned, and a warning shot was fired by the Royal Navy, and the return of the deserters demanded more vigorously. When this wasn’t immediately complied with by the Captain of the USS Chesapeake, the Leopard fired broadsides at the American ship. The Chesapeake answered with a single gun in return, but nothing else, and at that point having had 3 men killed and 18 wounded captain Baron of the USS Chesapeake promptly surrendered.

Boarding Party

Interestingly, the British boarding party kept to the letter of the law under their warrant, and took the four deserters that were named in their warrant as being onboard. This was despite the fact that scores of British Nationals were part of the crew of the Chesapeake, and the American Captain surrendered his command (pictured below). So having precisely exercised their warrant and taken the named deserters they had come for, the British party returned the Chesapeake to the control of its Captain and rowed back to HMS Leopard.

Naval officers of the US frigate “Chesapeake” surrender to the British frigate “Leopard,” 1807. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

Aftermath; Embarrassment for both sides

The deserters were taken to Nova Scotia, Jenkin Ratford was summarily tried and hanged from the yardarm of a British ship, ostensibly because he was born in England and was therefore a bona-fide deserter, but no doubt also because he had spent so much of his spare time taunting and abusing the Royal Naval Officers on shore in Norfolk Virginia. The other three deserters, two of whom were American born, and one claiming to be American was actually a Brazilian mixed race ex-slave who had been brought to the USA as a child, were sentence to 500 lashes each, for the sake of setting an example to the seamen who witnessed their capture. All three sentences were commuted, and the seamen eventually quietly returned to the USA and reparations paid by the British Government to the families of the American Sailors killed in the encounter.

As a footnote to this incident, the Chesapeake’s Captain Baron was Court Martialled, and the Commander of the British ship, Captain Berkley was recalled to Great Britain. Both sides being slightly embarrassed by the unexpected escalation.

In principle, America accepted the right of British crews to board US ships in British waters to take back deserters, and the British respected the right of US ships to refuse access to the crews of British ships in American waters, but what rights either party had to board the other’s vessels in international waters was a mute and risky question.

The “Little Belt” Incident

The Chesapeake incident although minor in itself, outraged political opinion in America, and in 1811 tensions escalated even further by the impressment of another deserter by the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Guerriere.

In response the United States sent out a naval patrol and the American warship USS President chased and cornered a small Royal Naval Sloop HMS Little Belt, thinking it was the much larger HMS Guerriere that had taken the deserter. The two ships faced a standoff after dark and refused to identify each to the other, a random shot was alleged to have been fired, no one claimed to know by whom, and a fire fight ensued between the 56 gun 1,576 ton President and the 20 gun 460 ton Little Belt.

Needless to say, the engagement was over swiftly. The Little Belt had all her guns put out of action, 11 dead, and over 20 wounded. The Captain of the USS President, Commodore John Rogers, ceased firing and asked the Captain of the Little Belt, Captain Arthur Bingham, if he had struck his colours, i.e. surrendered? Bingham replied that he had not. This left Commodore Rogers with the choice of finishing off the much smaller, and now unarmed vessel, with cannon fire, or attempting to board her and engage in a hand-to-hand fight with the stubborn British crew. Perhaps realising that he had chased the wrong ship and felt a little embarrassed by the one-sided nature of the encounter with a tiny ship, that now refused to surrender, and seemed determined to fight to the last man. Commodore Rogers did the Gentlemanly thing and retired.

The next morning Commodore Rogers sent a Lieutenant aboard to offer Captain Bingham and his badly damaged ship safe conduct to any American port, Bingham rejected the offer and demanded to know why the USS President had attacked his much smaller ship in such an unprovoked way, the Lieutenant replied that the attack had been provoked by the Little Belt, this Bingham rejected. The two ships then went their separate ways, the President to New York, and the Little Belt limped to Nova Scotia, latterly escorted by HMS Goree.

As a postscript, HMS Guerriere, which had precipitated the incident, would later go into her final and fatal battle against the formidable USS Constitution (nicknamed Old Ironsides) with the words “NOT THE LITTLE BELT” emblazoned across her foretopsail as a snub to the American Navy.

The Battle of Boston Harbour

The USS Chesapeake was eventually captured by the British on the 1st June 1813, by HMS Shannon in the Battle of Boston Harbour, after what became a brief encounter, but the bloodiest engagement in such a short engagement in the history of sail.

Once again the American ship USS Chesapeake was in port, whilst the HMS Shannon was off the coast. The USS Chesapeake had just received a new Captain, James Lawrence, an experienced commander who had had some success in engaging British ships, but after a dispute over prize money, the previous crew had walked off the ship, and were replaced by a new crew of experienced sailors, but had not worked the ship together as a full crew, and under a new Commander. Conversely the ship was fully fitted out and provisioned and ready to make sail.

The Captain of HMS Shannon, Captain Philip Broke was also an experienced Commander, and unusually was a student of naval gunnery science. He used this knowledge to fit specialist sights to his guns, and carried out frequent drills to bring his crews to a peak of effectiveness in naval gunnery, this even went as far as carrying out drills with his crew blindfolded aiming and firing guns simple based on orders from their officers and still hitting targets. He probably commanded the most efficient and effective gunnery crews in any navy anywhere in the world at that time. This was very different from the average gunnery on British ships which was mediocre to say the least, and regarded by many in the US Navy as inferior to their own. The downside was that the Shannon had been continuously at sea in mainly hostile waters for the best part of two months, and was running low of provisions.

Captain Broke of the Shannon was determined to bring an equivalent US ship to single combat, and went as far as burning at least one US “Prize” captured merchant ship, rather than sending it back to a British Port to claim the prize money, as he didn’t want to deplete his crew by having to man it for the journey. This was a testimony to the discipline of the crew as that represented money out of their pockets, but there was no hint of unrest among them.

Captain Shannon initially sent officers into Boston to propose an engagement to single combat ship to ship, but got nowhere with his challenge, and so decided to send a written invitation to combat to Captain Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, that he believed Lawrence would not be able to refuse, as he had issued a similar challenge himself to a British captain earlier in the war. Incredibly a transcript of the original letter was published in 1837:

“As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her maindeck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarterdeck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We have both noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.” — Philip Broke

As it happened, he needn’t have bothered. The overly confident Captain Lawrence had already set sail to meet the Shannon in combat under his own volition. Most likely Lawrence held the average British ship and crew in less than high regard, and was fully confident of being able to take an equivalent one on in a single ship to ship engagement. He also had a slight advantage in the number of crew should it come to a hand to hand fight.

And so, on 1st June 1813, the USS Chesapeake closed head on with the HMS Shannon, whilst the populace of Boston turned out along the entire headlands of the coastline and even in small boats out into Boston Harbour, to watch the grand entertainment.

Captain Broke of the Shannon, in a gentlemanly fashion, refused to fire on the Chesapeake as the ship sailed out of Boston Harbour and bored down on him, as the Shannon was broadside on to the approaching vessel that meant that the Chesapeake would be unable to return any great fire, thus Broke laid aside a considerable advantage given the abilities of his crew’s gunnery, in order to allow for a fair fight. Similarly, Captain Lawrence did not rake the Shannon as the Chesapeake approached her, rather, he decided to approach and fight broadside to broadside. A Gentlemanly approach on both sides, that, given the superiority of the Shannon’s gunners would prove fatal for the Chesapeake.

Once the two ships closed the battle began in earnest, and ferociously, it lasted a maximum of fifteen minutes. The Lawrence on USS Chesapeake followed the standard rule of the time of attacking HMS Shannon’s masts and rigging to prevent the Shannon from manoeuvring, the hope being to bring the Shannon to a standstill, and then board her, bringing the Chesapeake’s weight of numbers to bear. In contrast Broke had the Shannon’s guns target the guns and decks of the Chesapeake, the point being to kill the crew; in Broke’s own words to his crew prior to the engagement:

“Throw no shot away. Aim every one. Keep cool. Work steadily. Fire into her quarters – maindeck to maindeck, quarterdeck to quarterdeck. Don’t try to dismast her. Kill the men and the ship is yours.”

Once the ships were little more than one hundred feet apart, the Battle commenced. Cheasapeake’s guns gave a good account of themselves, but Broke’s tactics and gunnery training paidoff, knocking out guns and gun crews on the Shannon, and even forcing some to shelter in safer positions, at a crucial point the Shannon’s gunners manning a smaller cannon that had been specifically installed for the battle on her quarter deck, killed the three officers and men manning the Chesapeake’s wheel on her quarter deck, and then blew away the wheel itself, leaving the Chesapeake without steering, in response the Chesapeake knocked out the forward gun of the Shannon, but the damage was done, and when the Chesapeake’s foremast was knocked out she “luffed up” that is, stalled in her forward momentum, and was pushed backwards into the Shannon as the Shannon swung around to form the cross of the “T” to the Chesapeake’s aft (back).

The two ships structures crushed together and entangled, seeing the potential advantage this gave the Shannon, the boatswain of the Shannon a Mr Stevens, lashed a projecting boom of the Chesapeake to the Shannon’s superstructure to keep the ships crushed together, he managed to complete this clever trick despite losing an arm in the process. This meant that the Shannon could bring a full broadside into the Chesapeake with little return of fire from the American ship.

Captain Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake seeing the situation and realising his only chance was to board the British ship, called for his bugler, unfortunately nerves of the frightened inexperienced bugler broke (William Brown a “loblolly boy” i.e. non-combatant Surgeon’s assistant) and he failed to sound the order, so only a handful of crew mustered around their Captain, in the confusion all the officers around Lawrence and finally Lawrence himself were wounded by British gunnery, leaving some confusion, as reinforcements arrived, but Captain Lawrence was carried below deck badly wounded, giving the order as he was carried below:

“Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the ship!”

At the same time Captain Broke of the Shannon gave the equivalent order to board the Chesapeake, and his disciplined crew rushed across a gangplank lead by Captain Broke assisted by his purser and clerk firing pistols as they went, both the purser and clerk were killed outright in the crossing, but Captain Broke made it to the Chesapeake’s deck, and a horde of British Sailors followed behind.

The British had initial success, but two brave American Lieutenants, Ludlow and Budd rallied their men and mounted a counterattack that pushed the British back along the deck. However, reinforcements were streaming across from the Shannon, Lieutenant Ludlow was cut down by a cutlass, then a ferocious Irishman from the Shannon rushed into the American ranks wielding a deadly boarding pike, swearing in Gaelic and as he put it “And then did I not spit them, be Jaysus!” Lieutenant Budd was then brought down with a cutlass, and officer-less the American crew started to flowback below decks, much to the anger of Lieutenant Cox who shouted at them, “You damned cowardly sons of bitches! What are you jumping below for?”

Whilst this was happening on the deck a separate battle was happening high above in the masts, where respective platforms of British and American sharpshooters were fighting a closeup duel high above the decks below, until a young midshipman (the lowest and youngest of the officer class) lead his men across from the Shannon’s forecastle to the Chesapeake’s Forecastle and kill all the American defenders.

As this happened, the two ships broke apart, and reinforcements could not cross from the Shannon to the Chesapeake, so the fifty or so British Sailors were cutoff, but fortunately for them, American resistance had died away to a great extent as the largely leaderless Chesapeake’s defenders had retreated below.

Captain Broke and a party of men attacked the Chesapeake’s forecastle and after initial success he was ambushed by three sailors who swung down from the rigging, the first Broke killed outright, the second hit Broke with a rifle but, stunning him, and the third sliced his head open with a cutlass. but before he could finish Broke off with another cut, a British Marine ran the defender through with a bayonet. This targeted ambush on Broke was later thought to have been carried out by three British Sailors who had deserted the Royal Navy and enlisted with the American Navy, and would therefore have been hanged if taken prisoner, they therefore had nothing to lose in the “all or nothing” attack. A British Lieutenant attempted to raise the British flag above the American Forecastle, but this move was misinterpreted by a British gun crew, and he was cut down with grapeshot.

The fighting initially started to die down with the American Crew holed up on the lower decks, until a random American sailor inadvisably, shot up through a hatch and killed a British Sailor, at which the other British sailors poked their pistols and muskets through the hatch and started blasting away at the Americans below. A British Officer restored order, by threatening to “blow the brains out” of the next man who fired a shot, and then ordered the Americans to send up the man who had fired the initial shot and then disingenuously warned the Americans below decks that “We have three hundred men aboard. If there is another act of hostility you will be called up on deck one by one – and shot.”  His actions calmed things down on both sides.

The Chesapeake was taken as a prize and sailed with its American crew holed up below decks to Halifax Nova Scotia escorted by the Shannon. The cruise was not without incident, the American prisoners greatly outnumbering the British Prize Crew, and a number of American Officers were clapped in irons (the irons belonged to the Chesapeake and had been brought along by the Americans to be used on captured British prisoners) and transferred to the Shannon. To stop further threats of of violence, the British ship’s carpenter cutting scuttles (holes) in the main deck through which two eighteen-pound cannon were pointed at the captured Americans for the remainder of the voyage.

British losses amounted to 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Americans lost 48 killed and 99 wounded. An additional 23 men from the crews died of their wounds in the two weeks following the action.

The 320 American sailors were interned on Melville Island for the remainder of the war, their officers paroled in Halifax, but after causing a riot in umbrage at the singing of a song by locals, celebrating the capture of the Chesapeake, some were imprisoned, and others and others kept under stricter control.

Postscripts of the War of 1812

A short time after the end of hostilities, the USS President, that had mauled HMS Little Belt, was hunted down by a patrol of four British ships, and captured by one of them, HMS Endymion a smaller ship, but the fastest fighting ship in the British Navy, neither ship being aware that hostilities had ceased, and that the USA and Great Britain were now at peace. Whilst the USS President concentrated on firing on the Endymion’s rigging to slow the Endymion down and allow an escape from the rest of the British flotilla that was approaching, the Endymion concentrated her guns, like the Shannon had in the encounter with the Chesapeake, on the President’s guns and decking to rob the American ship of her fighting power. The USS President’s Commander, Commodore Decatur eventually struck his colours and surrendered. However, the Endymion lacking boats to send over a prize crew totake the surrender, and Commodore Decatur no doubt feeling embarrassed by being captured by a smaller ship, attempted to run with his ship after dark, only to be captured again; by the standards of the time, he added dishonour to military failure.

A few years later in 1820, Captain Baron, the temporarily disgraced Captain of the USS Chesapeake (that had been boarded by the British looking for deserters and then later captured) sought revenge against Stephen Decatur, mentioned earlier as Commander of the USS President, for it was Decatur who had told the British that the deserters they sought were on the Chesapeake when he was Commander of the Naval Dockyard of Gosport Virginia, leading to Captain Baron’s temporary disgrace. Baron challenged Decatur to a duel and mortally wounded him, Baron was also wounded in
the duel.

Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake died of his wounds and was interred with full military honours in Halifax his coffin carried by a party of British Naval Officers, and his body was eventually repatriated to New York where it was re-interred.

Captain Broke was lauded in Great Britain on his return but was so badly wounded (his brain having been exposed by the cutlass blow on the Chesapeake) that he never commanded a ship again, and although he suffered from physiological problems for the rest of his life, he lived till he was 64.

The Chesapeake Mill Wickham Hampshire England

HMS Shannon served till 1839 before being de-commissioned. The Chesapeake was initially renamed HMS Chesapeake (usually captured ships were renamed, so keeping the original name was a mark of respect towards the ship and crew) she was sailed to Portsmouth in England loaded with American Prisoners bound for internment in Dartmoor Prison alongside French Prisoners of War.

Finally HMS Chesapeake was decommissioned in 1819 at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, and sold to a Mr Holmes of Portsea for £500 (perhaps the equivalent of £400,000 in today’s relative wealth), Holmes broke up the vessel to salvage several tons of valuable Copper from her, and put the rest up for sale by auction.

Many of timbers went to builders in Portsmouth, but a large number were sold in 1820 to a Mr John Prior for £200. John Prior was a Miller from Wickham in Hampshire , who pulled his old Flour Mill down, and used the timbers of the USS Chesapeake to build a new mill at Wickham. The Mill was built in proportion to the size of the timbers: The deck timbers were 32 feet long and 18 inches square and were placed unaltered horizontally in the Mill to support floors, walls, and ceilings. The Purlins of the deck were 12 feet long and used unaltered for joists.

Interestingly it was still possible to see the Chesapeake’s Timbers quite clearly in the Mill (as well as some of the Mill paraphernalia, like grain chutes etc) and there are said to be grapeshot,musket, and cutlass marks in the beams, however such signs are harder to detect after 200 years of whitewashing of the timbers! During the 19th century the Mill was a place of interest to American tourists visiting Hampshire to touch the beams of the Chesapeake.

And so, we come full circle, The Mill is now “The Chesapeake Mill Antiques Emporium”. The USS Chesapeake’s 200 year old timbers can still be clearly seen supporting the floors of the building. To think if those beams could speak, what a story they would tell!

And just to prove my point about Genealogists “Seeing dead people everywhere” there is a nice touch of a list of long dead sailors from both the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon proudly displayed in the MiIl, with no hard feelings.

© Timedetectives 2022

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