Friday, April 29, 2011

President-Little Belt Affair, 200th Anniversary

As we approach the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, it is important remember the incidents that precipitate the war. May marks the 200th anniversary of one of the more inflammatory incidents.

Upon hearing that the British frigate HMS Guerriere had stopped the American warship Spitfire and impressed one of her sailors, Commodore John Rodgers and the frigate President sortied from Hampton Roads in search of the British warship. With the humiliation of the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard affair still fresh in the American psyche, Rodgers had every intention of properly upholding American honor.

After a few days of searching, watches aboard President spotted a sail and Rodgers ordered a pursuit. According to Rodgers, his ship pursed the unknown sail for several hours until the two vessels closed to within a hundred yards. Rodgers hailed the unknown ship several times with the question "What ship is that?" The unknown ship, again according to Rodgers, replied with gunfire.

The American commodore ordered an immediate response. His ship, one of the most heavily armed frigates in the world, unleashed five minutes of devastating fire. After a short ceasefire, the unknown ship fired two more shots. Rodgers ordered a second broadside, which lasted another five minutes. The unknown ship struck and identified itself as the sloop-of-war HMS Little Belt.

Over the next several months, public investigations were held and diplomatic notes passed. Both sides claimed the other fired first and both sides claimed the other failed to identified itself. Both sides praised their commanding officers for upholding their respective flags. The British government asked for reparations. The Madison administration responded that when His Majesty's Government was willing to pay for damages to Chesapeake, he would be willing to talk about Little Belt.

Niles' Register, a Baltimore-based newspaper, labeled the incident an "affair." The editor quickly added the sarcastic, but prophetic comment "everything is an affair nowadays."

Read first hand accounts of the action here.

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