Today is the 200th anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war on Great Britain. Later known as the War of 1812, it began because of tension between the two nations over commerce restrictions and the impressment of American Sailors into the British Royal Navy. The war was concluded on February 18, 1815 with the Treaty of Ghent, which restored relations between the two nations with no territory loss for either. The following article, originally published in the November 1939 issue of Proceedings, shows the United States’ struggle with Great Britain over the issue of impressment.
An Old French Map of Martinique, Dated 1763
A Chapter From Genesis Of The War Of 1812
By Commander Lucius C. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)
In the long and troubled history of the United States Merchant Marine, no period proved more critical in respect to the demoralization of personnel and devastating losses in ships and cargoesprincipally through capture and confiscation-than the two decades immediately preceding the War of 1812.In fact, the war resulted largely from injuries to American shipping in that period, chief among which in point of damaging influence upon personnel was impressment.
Although the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the outstanding cause of the war-impressment-dates much earlier. Indeed, its genealogy may even be traced to the Anglo-French warfare in the immediate wake of the French Revolution.
Less than three weeks after January 21, 1793-when the Revolution’s bloodstained knife fell in execution of Louis XVI, France declared war on Great Britain. Whereupon began in earnest King George III’s maritime campaign of achieving and consolidating Britannia’s power at sea. And while a decade of peace with the United States lay behind her-following the American Revolution-yet there still remained to be gathered the fruits of victory at St. Vincent, Camperdown, the Nile, Copenhagen, and also that exemplifying Nelson’s genius at Trafalgar. In the prosecution of this eminently successful campaign on the sea, however, Britannia was impelled to resort to the highly questionable expedient of impressment in order to man her fleets.
The following paragraphs relating to impressment are extracted from President James Madison’s confidential message to Congress of June 1, 1812, in which he detailed the maritime grievances then current against Great Britain:
British cruisers have been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great highway of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it; not in the exercise of a belligerent right, founded on the law of nations against an enemy, but a municipal prerogative over British subjects ….
The practice, hence, is so far from affecting British subjects alone, that, under the pretext of searching for these, thousands of American citizens, under the safeguard of public law, and of their national flag, have been torn from their country, and from every thing dear to them; have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation, and exposed, under the severities of their discipline, to be exiled to the most distant and deadly climes, to risk their lives in the battles of their oppressors, and to be the melancholy instruments of taking away those of their own brethren.
After mature deliberation upon the issues involved, Congress declared war on Great Britain 18 days later.
But we must not get ahead of our story, for the documentary history here presented antedates that declaration of war by considerably more than a decade. A very special interest and professional importance is attached to these documents by the fact that they are, for the most part, from the pens of prominent naval officers serving the two nations involved.
The documents derive principally from the diplomatic mission upon which Captain Silas Talbot, U. S. Navy, proceeded to the West Indies, at the instance of Congress and the State Department, for the purpose of negotiating the release of such American Citizens-victims of impressment-as were then held on board British men-of-war operating in that area.
At that time Europe, a-bristle with bayonet and cannon, was striving desperately to maintain the balance of power doctine while the tricolor of France fluttered defiantly on land and sea. Napoleon Bonaparte, dreaming of exalted power and conquest yet to come, was successfully prosecuting the North Italy campaign. Britannia, with all sails set and decks cleared for action, scanned every horizon, looking for the foe-Frenchmen, Spaniards, Dutchmen-and rigidly executed her belligerent right of visit and search on board merchantmen sailing the high seas under neutral flags. Across the Atlantic, Great Britain, France, and Spain were playing a spirited game over the islands of the Caribbean and territory along the Spanish Main, with Great Britian predominantly in the lead; but in order to maintain her lead she was compelled to employ considerable naval and military force in that area. And, as previously observed, impressment had become a vital factor in the manning of her fleets.
As for the United States, not a single naval vessel had graced the water for several years, following the complete demobilization of her Navy of the Revolution. However, in accordance with the Congressional Act of 1794 the three frigates, Constellation, Constitution, and the United States, were now on the builing ways. Such naval affairs as then existed were administered by the War Department; and, save for a few small revenue cutters based on the coastal ports and operated primarily in enforcing customs regulations, the United States may be said to have possessed no regularly armed sea power. Hence, during that era, the United States Merchant Marine depended entirely upon its own resources for protection on the high seas. Our ships, while participating in the very lucrative West Indian and other blue-water trades, were subjected not only to the fortunes of wind and weather, but also ran the gauntlet of the regularly constituted naval forces, as well as privateers, of European belligerents. Britain, exercising her right of visit and search on the maritime trade routes, boarded American sloops and snows, brigantines, schooners, and rugged 3masted square-riggers in quest of contraband or fraudulent papers, and constantly seized the opportunity to impress men from the American crews. Consequently, in those early days of the Republic, there existed in mercantile shipping circles particularly, and among the American people generally, a very keen resentment against the Navy of the British Crown.
Our scene opens in the wind-swept region of the Lesser Antilles, at the little town of Fort Royal, Martinique. The island was then under British dominion, having been captured from the French early in 1794 by forces under Admiral Jervis and General Grey, in an operation representing an outstanding excellent example of joint ArmyNavy planning and co-operation. (One is here constrained to remark in passing how unfortunate for the British that, a century and a quarter later, the Jervis-Grey doctrine was so consistently absent at the Dardanelles.) But we proceed with our opening scene. It is the 11th day of October, 1796. Captain Silas Talbot, U. S. Navy, carrying credentials sanctioned by President George Washington, makes his entry upon the stage. Tranquilly riding to an anchor near by in Fort Royal Bay is His Britannic Majesty’s ship Queen, fresh from England and flying the flag of Sir Hyde Parker, Vice Admiral of the Red and senior officer commanding British naval forces operating in the West Indies. Captain Talbot addresses the following letter to Vice Admiral Parker:
Fort Royal, Octr. 11th, 1796.
Permit me to make known to your Excellency, that I am informed that a Number of American Citizens have been impressed, and are now detained on board His Majesty’s Ships of War, the Queen, & the Valiant.
As I am particularly instructed to endeavour to obtain the release of all American Citizens, or others who have been impressed, when Sailing, conformably to the Law of Nations, under the protection of the American Flag, it becomes my duty to solicit your Excellency, to cause an enquiry to be made, on board such Ships as are under your Command, and that you will be pleased to cause all Persons of the above description, to be released; and that you will also be pleased to issue positive Orders to each of the Officers commanding Ships and Vessels of War, under your directions, to desist from impressing and detaining any Citizens of the United States, and instruct them to pay due regard to the protections, with which they may be furnished.
Sir, the practice of impressing the Citizens of the United States on board His Britannic Majesty’s Ships of War, has long afforded a just cause of complaint through the United States, and calls loudly for redress. If a mutual good understanding between Great Britain and the United States is considered by your Excellency, to be an object worth cultivating, I trust that a request so undeniably just as that which I now have the honor to make, will claim your Excellency’s attention.
I have the honor to be,
Sir, with all due respect
Your Excellency’s obedient
most humble Servant,
Sir Hyde Parker Kn’t.,
Vice Admiral of the Red &c. &c. &c.
From on board his flagship the British Commander in Chief very promptly replied as follows to Captain Talbot’s letter:
H.M.S. Queen, Fort Royal Bay, Martinique,
12th Octr. 1796.
I am acknowledging the receipt of your Letter of yesterday, wherein you say that you are informed of a Number of American Citizens being on board the Queen and Valiant. In answer to which I beg leave to observe that I cannot consistently upon such slight grounds, take any measures unless you are pleased to identify particular Men, and that you produce incontestible Proof, that the Individual is a Citizen of America, upon which proof I shall determine how to Act; for I must beg leave to observe that no Instruction has as yet been received from His Britannic Majestry’s Ministers, on the heads upon which your Mission is founded, nor has His Majesty’s Officers here been furnished with the Treaty subsisting between Great Britain and the United States of America.
Agreeable to your request I shall issue Orders, that no American Seamen be impressed, and that due regard shall be paid to the protection of all American Seamen.
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant,
Silas Talbot Esqr., &c. &c. &c.
Upon receipt of Admiral Parker’s foregoing letter, Captain Talbot at once undertook to procure from the State Department the latest authenticated list of impressed American citizens as shown in the official files at Philadelphia, then the seat of government. In those old windjammer days this required some little time. Meanwhile, Captain Talbot also set about compiling a list of impressed Americans from locally available intelligence, through his contacts with the captains and crews of American merchantmen trading in the neighboring ports and from marine circles generally. Fort Royal being one of the principal British naval bases in that area, their men-of-war were constantly operating in and out of that port against French and Spanish privateers, organizing convoys, and in the general protection of British shipping interests. British Army Headquarters for troops garrisoned in the “Vest Indian area were also on Martinique. Hence his sources of information were both varied and substantial.
The scene now shifts to Cape St. Nicholas Mole, Santo Domingo, then one of the principal British naval bases on the Jamaica Station, Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker having sailed from Fort Royal on November 1, 1796, to take command of that station. During that era the Caribbean and immediately adjacent areas were divided into two separate bailiwicks of British naval command: one, known as the Jamaica Station, comprising the Bahama Islands, and those of the West Indies to the westward of and including the Virgin Islands as well as the upper Spanish Main and the Gulf of Mexico; the other, the Leeward Islands Station, embracing the Lesser Antilles and the lower Spanish Main, commanded by Henry Harvey, Esq., Rear Admiral of the Red, whose flagship was the H.M.S. Prince of Wales. A third British naval command in the Western Hemisphere was the North American Station from Bermuda to Canada, Halifax being its principal naval base. George Vandeput, Esq., Vice Admiral of the White, commanded this station.
Captain Silas Talbot in the prosecution of his mission had also proceeded from Martinique to Cape St. Nicholas Mole, and, having now received from the State Department a list of impressed Americans, we find him there shortly after the turn of the new year addressing the following letter to Vice Admiral Hyde Parker:
Mole St. Nicholas, Jany. 28th, 1797.
His Excellency Sir Hyde Parker Kn’t.,
Vice Admiral of the Red &c.
I have the honour to enclose for your Excellency’s information, a List of American Citizens that have been Impressed on Board His Britannic Majesty’s Ships of War, as furnished me by the Honourable Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State of the United States of America, and also a List of American Citizens that have been in like manner Impressed, and which are not contained in the List before mentioned, together with some other Papers that are offered as Evidences of their Citizenship, all which I have to request the favour of your taking into serious Consideration.
Permit me here to observe, Sir, that the United States loudly complain, and they are greatly agitated, on account of their Citizens being thus Impressed, and detained from their Family & Friends; they consider it as unjust in the utmost extreme, that a part of their Citizens are thus forcibly taken and compel’d to take up Arms, and hazard their Lives in the support of a cause in which neither they, nor their Country have any Interest, and in which many of them have already lost their Lives in Battle; the practice that many Officers of His Majesty’s Navy have adopted, of manning their Ships, in part, with the Citizens of the United States, is not only felt by the Inhabitants thereof as a very painful vexation, but exclusive of that, it has a direct tendency to involve them in difficulties with other Powers; it has already occasioned repeated remonstrances and complaints from the French Republic, and they recently and officially announced, to the Executive of the United States, that as a principle cause, which have induced them to commit that Havoc, on the American Commerce, which they are daily exercising.
Situated as the United States are, they rely on the honour and justice of His Britannic Majesty’s Principal Officers, and they cannot admit for a moment, but that they will on reflection be willing to adopt a liberal and Friendly arrangement of Liberating not only such a part of those, of their Citizens as are contained in the Lists now enclosed, but also all other Americans, and others (British Subjects excepted) so impressed and detained, when Sailing under the Protection of the American Flag, but which from the nature of their situation and other concomitant difficulties, unequivocal Proof cannot be produced of their Citizenship.
The measure I have now the honour to solicit on behalf of the United States, is conceived as altogether compatible with justice, and on that ground I appeal to your honor, and hope for a favourable reply, more particularly so, because I conceive that if the present cause of complaint should be removed, it will be the finishing Stroke to all the National difficulties that have subsisted between Great Britain and the United States, and because it will tend to establish that mutual and good understanding, that I conceive to be the true Interest of both Nations to Promote.
I have the honor to be
with great respect Sir
Your Excellency’s most Obedient
and most humble servant,
Agent of the United States of America.
In acknowledging receipt of the lists of impressed American citizens transmitted to him with the foregoing letter, the British Commander in Chief on the very next day addressed the following reply to Captain Talbot:
H.M.S. Queen, Cape Nicola Mole,
the 29th January 1797.
I yesterday received yours of the 28th Instant, with the several papers annexed, and shall as the Ships come under my Orders enquire into the particulars of the Individuals set forth in your numerous claims, but must beg leave to observe that many of the Ships named as having American Seamen on board, are not now on the Station.
I have the honor to be Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant,
Silas Talbot Esqr., &c. &c. &c.
On that same day the Commander in Chief also issued the following Squadron Order relative “to all Officers, that may hereafter be employed upon the impress Service” :
It having been represented to me that many American Seamen have been Impressed from Vessels belonging to the United States of America, and in several instances no regard been paid to Protections properly authenticated:
You are hereby required and directed to give the most positive Orders to all Officers, that may hereafter be employed upon the impress Service, not to impress American Seamen, from Vessels belonging to the United States of America, and that the Officers so employed do pay the strictest attention to Protections that may appear to them to be authentic.
Writing with some feeling of elation and satisfaction induced by Vice Admiral Hyde Parker’s expressed assurances to him in his latest letter, Captain Talbot replied as follows two days later:
Cape Nicola Mole,
the 31st January 1797.
I have the honour of your favour of the 29th Instant; the assurance you have been pleased to give me, that an enquiry shall be made on board such of His Majesty’s Ships of War, as may come under your Orders, relative to the particular Cases already stated, affords me a heart-felt satisfaction, because I presume their release to be the consequence; nor will the information be less pleasing to the United States, for I am confident that a total discharge of such of my fellow Citizens as may now be detained will diffuse through the Continent of America the most pleasing Consolation.
The satisfaction which the contents of your Letter gives me, Sir, might have been increased, had your honor been pleased to encourage me in the pleasing hope, that the enquiry and release in question should be extended with a view to ascertain all the Americans that may be on board such Ships, altho not contained in the Lists presented, because it is conceived there are some such on Board ….
Allow me here to enclose a List of five American Citizens that are now detained on board Ships of War at this Port, the two first named, to wit, Anthony Snell & Richard Mumford, I myself perfectly well know to have been born in America, and my confidence in regard to Pierce, that he is an American Citizen also, though not equally well founded as in the cases of the two former, yet nevertheless is next to positive.
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your most obedient
Agent of the United States,
His Excellency Sir Hyde Parker Kn’t.,
and Vice Admiral of the Red &c. &c. &c.
But, as will be apparent later, Captain Talbot’s expressed satisfaction was soon destined to be transformed into disappointment over any immediately favorable results of his mission. Opposition in British quarters afloat was then too formidable, presenting a problem difficult of solution, since impressment had become firmly grounded in Britannia’s whole system of complementing her ships, without proper discrimination between British and American subjects. Moreover, this expedient was especially intensified and motivated in the West Indian area through the heavy tolls exacted of the British crews by scurvy, tropical fevers, and other debilitating complaints, as well as desertions, coupled with the fact, of course, that American shipping during that epoch was absolutely devoid of naval protection. What a spectacle: Columbia, with brilliant Revolutionary record, possessing not a single frigate at her command! Naval officers-yes, but not a naval ship in the water.
However, before passing on to that phase of our narrative dealing with Captain Talbot’s disappointment over his lack of progress with his mission, we are afforded a colorful impression of proceedings in those old press gang days by a report submitted to Admiral Parker by one of the captains of his squadron. Three American seamen having been impressed on board H.M.S. Brunswick, a protest was duly registered by the United States government, through diplomatic channels in London; whereupon the British Admiralty referred the matter to Admiral Parker for investigation and report, who in turn forwarded the correspondence to the commanding officer of that vessel for a statement in the premises. Writing on board his ship, the Brunswick, then in Port Royal Harbor, Jamaica, Captain William G. Rutherford, on March 14, 1800, reported the episode as follows:
Pursuant to your Orders to me of the 27th January to make a Minute enquiry into the circumstances complained of by Mr. King, the American Minister, to my Lord Grenville I find as follows-That a Seaman, whose name may be Eliphalet Ladd, was struck by a Seaman, belonging to His Majesty’s Ship under my Command, with a Cutlass, for running away from a party I had in Kingston upon the impress Service, it being the only means this Seaman had of stopping him; the other two who call themselves John Eades, and Richard Carter, and am sorry to acknowledge for the Honor and good discipline of the Ship I command, that these Men were beat, but not in the degree they complained of, nor by first Lieutenant Harris’s Order, but upon their being ordered into the waste by Lieutenant Harris, my Ship’s Company were so exceedingly enraged against them, that they did beat them, and I find that Lieutenant Harris, like a good Officer, prevented it as much as possible, as I must do my Ship’s Company the Justice to say, that they
have ever been orderly and well behaved Men. I am convinced those people would not have been molested without the highest possible provocation, and I find that those two Men were seen Armed, and with a party of Sailors in that notorious place, West Street, Kingston, for the purpose of resisting our pressing party, several of our people were Wounded by those Sailors at that time. I cannot prove that those two Men did wound any of our people, but from their being seen Armed, there is every reason to suppose they would or might have done it; when it was fully proved to me afterwards that they were American Subjects, I sent them on Shore those three Men made use of every provoking expression they could think of to my Officers in the Boats, during their passage on board, and also on the Quarter Deck of this Ship after their coming on board.
We return now to Captain Silas Talbot at Santo Domingo. Feeling that to date his mission had been productive of but meager, if any, tangible results we find him expressing pointedly his reaction upon the slow progress of his negotiations in the following letter addressed to Vice Admiral Hyde Parker early in March:
Cape Nicola Mole,
3rd March 1797.
More than a Month having elapsed since my Official application to your Honor, for the release of a Number of real Citizens of the United States, that have been illegally impressed and held Confined, on board His Britannic Majesty’s Ships of War, some of whom were then in this Port; and altho the representation was accompanied with a List of Citizens so impressed and in some instances with the best proof of Citizenship annexed, yet no alleviation has been extended to those unhappy sufferers, and as many of those Ships of War have lately been ordered out of Port, and have carried with them the Bonifide Native Citizens of the United States in defiance of all Law, Justice the best founded, and the most respectful representation.
And whereas also the unlawful practice of Impressing the Subjects of Neutral Nations when voluntarily sailing under the protection of the American Flag, is still permitted and exercised, even in this Port by Officers under your immediate command, it therefore leaves no room to doubt of your determination, and it is with sincere regret that I feel myself thus necessitated to relinquish all hopes of obtaining from your Excellency, any satisfaction from the Offences & aggressions which I have been specially charged to represent, and to seek redress.
If the unexpected disappointment and want of success in the just application I have made, should lead to the adoption of measures, that are more or less unfriendly to the British Nation, it will be remembered, and to the Honor of the United States: that they previously made use of all Friendly means for the restoration of her Citizens to that Liberty they had been so unjustly deprived of ….
I have the honor to be with all due respect, Sir,
Your Excellency’s most Obedient
Agent of the United States of America.
To the above letter the British Commander in Chief replied that identical day as follows:
H.M.S. Queen, Cape Nicola Mole,
3rd March 1797.
I have received your Letter of this Day’s date, in which you are pleased to introduce the following menacing Paragraph, “If the unexpected disappointment and want of success, in the just application I have made, should lead to the adoption of measures more or less unfriendly to the British Nation, it will be remembered, and to the honour of the United States, that they previously made use of all friendly measures for the restoration of her Citizens, to that Liberty they had been so unjustly deprived of.”
In answer to this remark of yours, I can only say, I have taken every measure, in consequence of your very numerous claims, that I think consistent with the official situation, in which I stand, but in no instance have proofs been produced relative to the Names of those you have been pleased to style Citizens of America, sufficient to authorize me to discharge the Individuals from His Majesty’s Service.
The measures I have taken and the Orders given, in consequence of your representations, I shall transmit to His Majesty’s Ministers to whom only I hold myself accountable for my Conduct, whatever may be the consequences.
I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your most obedient
very humble servant,
In the meantime the scene shifts once again to Philadelphia where, on February 8, 1797, the British Minister, Mr. Robert Liston, addressed a communication to Vice Admiral Hyde Parker, touching upon certain current aspects of Anglo-American relations. The British Vice Admiral replied to Mr. Liston in both a public and a private letter, in each of which he outlined in some detail the circumstances attending his correspondence with Captain Talbot. “I had the honour of receiving your letter of the 8th Feb’y, and return you my thanks for your polite offer of services,” he wrote in his public letter to the British Minister, from on board his flagship Queen in Isabella Bay, on April 9, 1797. Passing on to the subject of AngloAmerican relations, he continues:
With respect to the States of America, you may be assured that nothing can afford me more pleasure than manifesting on every occasion the strongest inclination on my part, to cultivate and promote the most perfect, friendly understanding between them and Great Britain, for which purpose I have not only ordered the Captains of the Squadron under my Command to give their Trade every protection in their power, but whenever required, to convoy their Vessels as far as the King’s Service will admit; to which I must add for your Excellency’s information that, on the 24th Feb’y, perceiving an American Brig, turning into Cape Nicola Mole, to be in the possession of a French Privateer Schooner, then towing her round the Point; the Boats of the Squadron were immediately Mann’d and Armed, and sent under the Command of Lieutenant Spread of this Ship, to retake her, in which he succeeded and afterwards destroyed the Vessel that had Captured, and begun to plunder her.
Evidently Mr. Liston, through his Philadelphia associations, had been informed of Captain Talbot’s optimism in the early stages of the negotiations with the British Commander in Chief, and had referred to that phase of the subject in his letter; for Vice Admiral Hyde Parker continues in his public reply to Mr. Liston:
That the success of Mr. Talbot has made the impression on the minds of the People of America, which you expected, gives me the greatest satisfaction, as it has been my constant wish and endeavor to comply, as far as it was practicable with that Gentleman’s desires, but as his letter to me of the 3rd of last Month, not only expressed much dissatisfaction, but is written in rather a menacing style, have thought it necessary that you should be acquainted therewith. I have therefore enclosed (as I have done to the Admiralty) Copies of our correspondence, with the Orders given to all Captains not to impress American Seamen properly protected. I have likewise given Orders, whenever any application has been made by Mr. Talbot, for that purpose, to discharge all American Seamen from the Ships I command, who can produce sufficient Documents of their being Citizens of the United States, or be identified as such; but out of the very great number mentioned by Mr. Talbot, very few have been identified or found able to give the smallest testimony of their being Citizens of America, and those voluntarily entered into the Service, and had receiv’d the King’s Bounty.
After commenting upon the findings of the Court of Enquiry which he had ordered “to examine minutely into the Conduct of Captain Pigot of His Majesty’s Ship Success for assaulting and ill-treating Mr. Jessup, Master of the Mercury, American Vessel” the commander of the Jamaica Station closed his public letter to Mr. Liston with the following reassuring paragraph respecting his own proposed future efforts for improving Anglo-American relations:
I flatter myself that while I have the honour to Command on this Station, there will be no additional grievances to complain of, as it will not only be my constant study to prevent them, but to unite the States of America and Great Britain by kind offices in a solid and friendly connection with each other.
Three days after penning his foregoing public letter, Vice Admiral Parker also addressed a private communication to the British Minister at Philadelphia, the context of which is as illuminating in its revelation of the seriously delicate personnel situation contemporarily obtaining in the British Navy as it is unmistakable in sentiment, contrasting sharply in tone with that expressed in his foregoing public letter upon the subject. In this private letter he wrote Mr. Liston as follows:
By this opportunity I furnish you with public Documents which have passed between Mr. Talbot the Agent of the United States and myself in consequence of his Demands of Seamen, styled American Citizens, in which Mission he has not been very successful in this Quarter, and upon which subject I feel myself in some degree, under a necessity of explaining to you, privately, the Motives upon which I have Acted.
The first feature of this Mission, although hid under the plausibility of Justice and Right of Nations, is of all others the most serious stroke ever aimed at the very existence of the British Navy, as you cannot, Sir, be ignorant that the British Navy is mann’d by impressing Seamen into the Service, the Prime Seamen are raised by that arbitrary although necessary method, and from Custom is no longer considered a grievance; the Men rais’d in consequence of Bounties and by the New Acts of Parliament are Landsmen, and the very dregs of Mankind from the several Parishes. Under these circumstances what would have been the consequence of my giving into Mr. Talbot’s demands, the draining of every discontented Seaman out of the Fleet, for from speaking the same Language, every Man of that description would have been an American Citizen, nor would Mr. Talbot have been wanting in those proofs to have constituted every One (who either from Information of his spies, or, in the course of the several duties of the Ships Companies on Shore, he could have had communication with) to be Americans, by those sort of flimsey proofs he was induced to produce; nor am I so ignorant of the Americans as not to know, that even when Oaths are wanting they would not hesitate a moment in producing even that Solemn Document, to answer the object they have in view.
The two opening paragraphs of the Vice Admiral’s private letter not only expound his own interpretation of the doctrine of impressment, but reflect a very definite trace of opposition to Captain Talbot’s stated mission. Perhaps his unfavorable view of Americans might have been but an echo of some unforgotten experience of the past, dating back even a quarter of a century to pre-Revolutionary days, when during 1771-72 he commanded one of His Britannic Majesty’s naval vessels on the Virginia Station, based on Norfolk. But let us follow him through to the end of his letter. He continues:
Permit me, Sir, also to make another remark on the mode adopted by the United States, of making, or, constituting a Man a Citizen of America; can it be possible that Great Britain can submit her Subjects, and the most valuable part of them, to be released from their Oaths of Allegance, and become Subjects of another State, in consequence of a Man going before a Justice of Peace and making oath he is an American Citizen, and in consequence of the Justice’s Certificate, this Man is to be deemed a Citizen of America; what English Seaman is there that would not go through this form, or Marriage, to keep clear of a Man of War, in War Time; it is, Sir, perfectly well known to us, that two thirds of the Seamen that Navigate the American Trade are what is called in America Old Country Men, or English Seamen; this is a fact on which there cannot be a doubt as several Masters of those Vessels have confess’d it.
Had I been pliable enough to have given into Mr. Talbot’s demands in the first instance, I am well aware from the increase of their demands I should have found myself under the necessity of resisting them, the probable consequence of which would most likely have been mutiny in the Fleet.
I therefore, Sir, upon these and many other strong reasons I could urge have resisted Mr. Talbot’s claims, of American Citizens, and have no doubt, whatever may be the Opinions in America, my reasons will be a sufficient justification of my conduct, with administration.
Next in duly reporting his view of the situation to the British Admiralty, Vice Admiral Parker wrote, on April 12, 1797, “for some months past, I have been much embarrassed by the applications of Mr. Talbot, authorized by the Government of the United States of America as their Agent, to claim Seamen that he deems American Citizens.” He continues:
Having received a menacing Letter from him of the 3d of last month and conceiving in consequence thereof, that a representation may come from the American Government to His Majesty’s Ministers, I think it my duty to lay the whole of the Correspondence before their Lordships, together with my public and private Letters to His Excellency Mr. Liston, His Majesty’s Minister in America. My private Letter will fully explain to their Lordships the motives which induced me to act with the caution I conceived absolutely necessary, for the good of His Majesty’s Service, not having received any Instructions on the subject from their Lordships.
Having in all instances of Mr. Talbot’s numerous claims had recourse to the necessary enquiries of the Captains of the Ships as they joined me; there have been but few Men who have been able to produce Documents as proofs of their being Subjects of the United states, and those mostly have received his Majesty’s Bounty.
Faced with such effective opposition to his mission in high circles afloat, Captain Talbot next resolved to seek relief for the impressed Americans through recourse to habeas corpus proceedings in the civil courts of Jamaica, which alternative may be said to have produced results somewhat more favorable than those of his direct negotiations with the British Commander in Chief. The legal aspect of his latest endeavor is indicated in the following extract from a report submitted by Captain S. P. Forster, commanding H.M. sloop Albecore, to Vice Admiral Hyde Parker, on June 7, 1797, while that vessel was in Port Royal Harbor, Jamaica:
Immediately on my arrical at Port Royal I was applied to by Mr. Talbot, the American Agent, to discharge three Men from the Albecore, claimed as Americans, their Names-Richard McKenzie, taken out of an English Merchant Brig, and has recieved the Bounty; Oliver, a Negro, taken out of a Spanish Brig, a Volunteer also, and James Daly, Impressed, I think an Irishman; on my not compying I was served with a Writ of Habeas Corpus, in consquence of which, I sent the Chief Justice, a Copy of your Order, left with Mr. Dick, but paid no attention to the writ.
I sail tomorrow morning to assist in collecting the Convoy.
But the commanding officer of the Albecore was soon to learn that evading the demands of legal processes was to prove less simple than he had originally supposed. For in reporting the incident to the Admiralty a few days later Vice Admiral Parker wrote that,
Captain Forster of His Majesty’s Sloop Albecore, on being served with Writs for three Seaman belonging to the said Sloop-and on his refusing to give the Men up (in obedience to my Orders until reference had been made to me) I understand an Attachment has been issued to Arrest Captain Forster’s person, and if taken, must go to Jail, until he has recieved Judgement, not being bailable. This appears to be such cruel persecution on the part of the Chief Justice of Jamaica that nothing can justify.
The legal strategy thus finally resorted to by Captain Talbot in requiring the British naval captains to produce in the Jamaica courts the persons of allegedly impressed American citizens held on board their vessels was designed to bring individual cases out into the revealing influences of tropical daylight, to the end that justice might be done according to the ajudged merits in each given case.
The British Vice Admiral, however, regarded the legal course adopted by Captain Talbot with as little favor as he had previously manifested in his direct negotioations with the American agent. Writing on baord his flagship Adventure at Cape St. Nicholas Mole, on June 24, 1797, he informed the Admiralty:
I had the honour of transmitting to you … the Correspondence … that had taken place, between me, & Mr. Silas Talbot, Agent of the the United States of America,respecting American Seamen.
Commenting upon later developments he continues:
Since the date of my Letters on that Subject, the prosecutions carried on against the Captains and Commanders of His Majesty’s Ships & Vessels, by the Civil Courts of Jamaica, through the means of Writs of Habeas Corups, issued on the representations of the said Silas Talbot; joined to the great injury His Majesty’s Service sustains by forcing Men from on board His Ships, who are actually English Subjects and Seamen that have receiv’d the Bounty; are such Grienvances that I feel it my indispensible Duty, again, to trouble their Lordships upon the Subject; in the hope that the Government take some measures to put a stop to an Evil that threatens the very existence of the Navy of Great Britain.
He then cited specific instances of grievances and alleged injustices in the manner by which British seamen procured protections and certificates of American citizenship. “I have the honour,” he wrote, “to transmit an Affidavit of an English Seaman relative to the manner of procuring a Certificate from the American Consul at Lisbon, with the identical Certificate that the Bearer is an American Citizen of the United States of America.” Of another instance he continues:
Lieut. Duncombe, who lately Commanded the Rattler by Order, has reported to me that during the time he Commanded that Sloop, he met a Flag of Truce going to Jamaica, on board of which was an English Prisoner whom he took out; and the Man’s story is, that he came from America on board an American Vessel as a part of her Crew-that on some quarrel arising between him & the Master about Wages, he was deliver’d up by the Master to the French, & put into Prison as an English Subject, & was then on his way to be discharged as a Prisoner of War.
Of still another episode he writes:
Upon the Ceres being on shore on the Spanish Main, seven of her Crew took the Barge & Deserted to the Spaniards. On the Spanish Governor being applied to, he would have deliver’d them up, had not the American Consul claim’d them as American Citizens.
In concluding his letter to the Admiralty he returns to the attack upon the proceedings instituted by Captain Talbot in the civil courts of Jamaica, also relating other local circumstances affecting the personnel and disciplinary situations of his squadron then basing on that island:
These proceedings, backed by the Colonial Laws, which are never omitted being put in full force by the Judges & Magistrates of Jamaica against the Naval Department, joined to every seduction of Seamen, practis’d by Crimps with impunity at Port Royal, and the inactivity of the Civil power at Kingston in apprehending Deserters from His Majesty’s Ships, which even goes the length of allowing them to insult their Officers in the open Day, in Town, and by every aggravating means brave them to the attempt of apprehending their Persons, press so severely on the Public Service, that unless Government takes some means of putting a stop to such iniquitous practices, the Squadron under my Command will, by those Evils, join’d to Sickness, be rendered wholly unserviceable-for at present, it is impossible for any Ship to go to Jamaica, (or to send thither Men in prizes) without returning with her Complement greatly diminished in numbers.
Upon these Subjects I have, already, made two Representations to the Governor & Council of Jamaica but have not, yet, been honour’d with an answer.
Having in the mean time returned to Cape St. Nicholas Mole, Vice Admiral Parker again had occasion to report to the Admiralty upon certain phases of the civil court proceedings initiated by Captain Talbot at Jamaica; from on board his flagship Queen in that Santo Domingo harbor he wrote, on July 19, 1797, as follows:
Having in my former Letters acquainted you … with the vexatious prosecutions carried on at Jamaica, by Writs of Habeas Corpus, against the Captains and Commanders of His Majesty’s Ships & Vessels under my Command, to the great hindrance & prejudice of His Majesty’s Naval Service.
I have now to acquaint you that thinking such prosecutions, which must be defended, as severe a hardship on my Officers, as they are detrimental to the Public Service, esteem it but an act of Justice to such Captains & Commanders, that all expences attending them should be defrayed by Government, I therefore, shall pay & include the same in my Contingent Account, trusting that their Lordships will not only approve thereof, but be pleased to give the Navy Board directions to allow the same.
In addition to the large number of cases of bona fide native born citizens of the United States impressed on board British men-of-war, there were also instances of British seamen attempting to claim American protections, some of whom had obtained American certificates of citizenship, it being alleged in one instance that an irregularity had been committed by the master of an American merchantmanacting in collusion with an American justice of the peace-in obtaining an American certificate of citizenship and protection for a member of his crew who was a British subject, born in England. Indeed, Vice Admiral Parker, on August 29,1797, while at Cape St. Nicholas Mole transmitted to the Admiralty an affidavit designed to prove the above mentioned allegation of irregularity on the part of the American master and justice of the peace.
That Captain Talbot also took occasion to make effective his mission by direct negotiations with some of the British naval captains with whom he came in contact in the West Indies is confirmed in the report which Captain John Loring, commanding officer of H.M.S. Carnatic, submitted to the Commander Chief of the Jamaica Station, on the subject of the famous case of search and seizure of some Americans on board the U.S.S. Baltimore off Havana, in November, 1798. In connection with this incident-which by the way, resulted in the first instance of a commanding officer of the United States Navy being dismissed his ship-Captain Loring wrote:
I then asked him [Captain Isaac Phillips, commanding U.S.S. Baltimore] if he had any British Seamen on board his ship; he said he had. I told him that the Squadron had some Americans who expressed a wish to return to their own Service, and that I was not only well inclined to give them up in exchange for the British Seamen in his Ship; but that I had pledged my word to Mr. Talbot, the American Commissioner appointed to inspect their Seamen in the English Service that I would, if I met any Vessels of that Nation at Sea, exchange every American that I had for an equal number of British Seamen…
Came the year 1798, especially notable for the Congressional Act separating the administration of American naval affairs from the War Department and creating the United States Navy Department, followed by the appointment of the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert. That year also witnessed the Completing and commissioning of the first three frigates, United States, Constitution, and Constellation, superintended in construction and commanded respectively by Captains Barry, Nicholson, and Truxtun-and resumption of work on the remaining three originally authorized in 1794, as also the official arming of American merchantmen for engaging in the coming three years’ Franco-American naval war which began in July of that year. Verily, once again was Columbia putting to sea in earnest under a fair breeze, with guns loaded and flag flying. Indeed, that year, preceding by exactly a round century the naval epoch of Manila Bay and Santiago, marked by another distinct phase in the development of American sea power.
By the end of 1798, and during the succeeding three years,a steadily increasing chain of American men-of-war and armed merchantmen began extending itself across the broad Atlantic, down into the West Indies and along the Spanish Main, veering round the Cape of Good Hope and onward to the Far East, searching out, cpaturing, or destroying French public vessels and privateers.
During the period of the Franco-American naval war a considerable moderation was noticeable in the British practice of impressing American seamen. And while no semblance of an alliance ever existed between the two countries, Washington’s “no foreign entanglements,” then but so recently uttered, still ringing loudly with true conviction inhis countrymen’s ears-there nevertheless was manifrested some very valuable co-operation between the two English-speaking navies against the common enemy-France. There was fairly close Anglo-American naval collaboration during the Franco-American naval war of 1798-1801, manifested by at least four distinct and important operational features, as follows:
(1) Mutual exchange of recognition signals between the two navies.
(2) Reciprocal use of port facilities of the two countries
(3) Convoying each other’s merchantmen on the high seas.
(4) Recapturing each other’s prizes taken by the French.
In due course, as the war progressed, we observe Captain Talbot relinquishing charge of his West Indian mission in aid of the impressed American seamen and returning to the United States to take command of the frigate , as relief of Captain Samuel Nicholson, U. S. Navy. Talbot returned to the West Indies a short time later, however, as captain of the Constitution, where he vigorously operated against the French in the protection of American commerce.
As previously stated, the British practice of impressing American seamen moderated considerably during the FrancoAmerican naval war; but that it did not totally subside and that Admiral Parker continued to figure prominently in connection with some of its West Indian proceedings is indicated in the following letter, dated over a year after commencement of the Franco-American naval conflict, which William Savage, who succeeded Captain Talbot as Agent of the United States at Kingston, addressed to the American Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering:
17th Septr. 1799.
On the 9th Instant, I had the Honor to receive your letter of 3d July, with another paper under the Seal of the United States, designating me the Agent for the States, also Instructions for my government which I shall attend to-
I have on all occasions given my best advice and every humane attention has been paid to the American Seamen, many of whom have experienced much distress-
In my capacity as a Magistrate I have been fortunate in liberating many Seamen that have been impressed on Shore, but when they are once on the water my power ceases; Admiral Parker pays no kind of attention to my applications, and in a Letter I received from him a few days since, he expresses his surprise, that I should make any further applications for the release of American Seamen, after the letter he wrote me under date of 7th July, a Copy of which I did myself the honor to transmit you-my motive for application was to relieve eleven unfortunate Americans in the Naval Hospital at Port Royal, whose names are distinguished in the list that accompany’s this, by the letter N in red Ink against them-
From the best information I have been able to collect, I have reason to believe there are upwards of Two hundred and fifty Americans on board the squadron on this Station, the list is by no means so correct, as I could wish, which arises from the very imperfect manner in which the Individuals have represented themselves, and in many instances from the imperfect manner the protections have been fill’d up, by the Collectors of the different ports; I beg leave to recommend that the name of the Town be inserted where each person was born or last resided-
I hope and trust some measure may be adopted to give relief to this unfortunate class of men; but in the intermediate time, protections with a letter from Mr. Liston I have no doubt will have the desired effect-…….. .
/s/ WM. Savage,
Agent for the United States of America.
A few months later, as a direct result of differences emerging from certain disciplinary action instituted by Admiral Parker against one of his subordinate flag officers, the British Admiralty ordered a change in the high command of the Jamaica Station. Admiral Parker returned to England where he later was appointed Commander in Chief of the naval expedition against Copenhagen, with Admiral Lord Nelson serving as his immediate second in command.
Our narrative now advances to the year 1801, the early months of which found the outstanding differences satisfactorily composed between the French and American governments, bringing to a close the Franco-American naval war. The closing months of that year also brought a temporary cessation of hostilities between France and England; but that armistice was of short duration and hostilities were soon resumed (1802).
Moreover, British impressment persistently continued as a pricking thorn in America’s flesh. Day by day, week by week, and month by month the pain sank deeper into the American national consciousness, with attendant fevers of righteous indignation and festering inflammation. Another decade passes by. Clinically, the expedient of relief appeared crystal clear to President James Madison’s administration: Remove the thorn and heal the wound.
And now forgotten documents of that era offer conclusive testimony that the successful cure necessitated a major operation-the War of 1812.