Impressment of sailors was the practice of Britain's Royal Navy of sending officers to board American ships, inspect the crew, and seize sailors accused of being deserters from British ships.
Incidents of impressment are often cited as one of the causes of the War of 1812. And while it is true that impressment happened on a regular basis in the first decade of the 19th century, the practice was not always viewed as a terribly serious problem.
It was widely known that large numbers of British sailors did desert from British warships, often because of the severe discipline and miserable conditions endured by seamen in the Royal Navy.
And many of the British deserters found work on American merchant ships. So the British actually had a good case to make when they claimed that American ships harbored their deserters.
Such movement of sailors was often taken for granted. However, one particular episode, the Chesapeake and Leopard affair, in which an American ship was boarded and then attacked by a British ship in 1807, created widespread outrage in the United States.
The impressment of sailors was definitely one of the causes of the War of 1812. But it also was part of a pattern in which the young American nation felt like it was constantly being treated with contempt by the British.
History of Impressment
Britain's Royal Navy, which constantly needed many recruits to man its ships, long had a practiced of using "press gangs" to forcibly recruit sailors. The working of the press gangs were notorious: typically a group of sailors would go forth into a town, find drunken men in taverns, and essentially kidnap them and force them to work on British warships.
The discipline on the ships was often brutal. Punishment for even minor violations of naval discipline included flogging.
The pay in the Royal Navy was meager, and men were often cheated out of it. And in the early years of the 19th century, with Britain engaged in a seemingly endless war against Napoleon's France, sailors were told that their enlistments never ended.
Faced with those conditions, there was a great desire for British sailors to desert. When they could find a chance, they'd leave the British warship and find escape by finding a job aboard an American merchant ship, or even a ship in the U.S. Navy.
If a British warship came alongside an American ship in the early years of the 19th century, there is a very good chance that British officers, if they boarded the American vessel, would find deserters from the Royal Navy.
And the act of impressment, or seizing of those men, was seen as a perfectly normal activity by the British.
The Chesapeake and Leopard Affair
In the early years of the 19th century the young American government often felt that the British government paid it little or no respect, and really did not take American independence seriously. Indeed, some political figures in Britain assumed, or even hoped, that the United States government would fail.
An incident off the coast of Virginia in 1807 created a crisis between the two nations. The British stationed a squadron of warships off the American coast, with the purpose of capturing some French ships which had put into port in Annapolis, Maryland, for repairs.
On June 22, 1807, about 15 miles off the Virginia coast, the 50-gun British warship HMS Leopard hailed the USS Chesapeake, a frigate carrying 36 guns. A British lieutenant boarded the Chesapeake, and demanded that the American commander, Captain James Barron, muster his crew so the British could look for deserters.
Capt. Barron refused to have his crew inspected, and the British officer returned to his ship. The British commander of the Leopard, Captain Salusbury Humphreys, was furious and had his gunners fire three broadsides into the American ship. Three American sailors were killed and 18 were wounded.
Caught unprepared by the attack, the American ship surrendered, and the British returned to the Chesapeake, inspected the crew, and seized four sailors. One of them was actually a British deserter, and he was later executed by the British at their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The other three men were held by the British and finally released five years later.
Americans Were Outraged By the Leopard and Chesapeake Incident
When news of the violent confrontation reached shore and began to appear in newspaper stories, Americans were outraged. A number of politicians urged President Thomas Jefferson to declare war on Britain.
Jefferson chose not to enter a war, as he knew that the United States was not in a position to defend itself against the much more powerful British Navy.
As a way of retaliating against the British, Jefferson came up with the idea of imposing an embargo on British goods. The embargo turned out to be a disaster, and Jefferson faced many problems over it, including New England states threatening to secede from the Union.
Impressment As a Cause of the War of 1812
The issue of impressment, by itself, was not cause for war, even after the Leopard and Chesapeake incident. But impressment was one of the reasons given for the war by the War Hawks, who at times shouted the slogan "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights."