Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Little Belt Affair
It involved the American USS President and the British HMS Little Belt , a sloop-of-war, and they conducted the incident off of the North Carolina coast. The Little Belt Affair was also one of many incidents and events that led to the War of 1812. Part of the reason for the attack was to try to avenge the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807, in which the HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake, killing three, wounding 18, and capturing four men to serve on the Leopard as per the terms of impressment. Secondly, the President had been patrolling the American coast after the HMS Guerriere, a frigate, impressed John Diggio a citizen of Maine and the master apprentice of the USS Spitfire , a brig, on May 1, off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton, ordered the President, along with the USS Argus to patrol the coastal areas from the Carolinas to New York.
The commodore (commanding officer) of the President, John Rodgers, caught sight of the Little Belt, at approximately noon, believing it to be the Guerriere; he had the President pursue it. Unfortunately, the Little Belt, originally a Danish ship that the British had captured in the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen, had seen the President around an hour before Rodgers's order. The Little Belt's captain during the Little Belt Affair was Arthur Bingham . When Bingham had the Little Belt ask the President for identification and received none, he noticed a blue pennant designating the ship's nationality. He continued on his way past Cape Hatteras, but the President continued its pursuit, Commodore Rodgers interested in identifying the ship that he now knew was not the Guerriere. By 3:30, the President was close enough to the Little Belt for Rodgers to make out part of its stern. However, the angle at which Rodgers was seeing the Little Belt made it appear larger than it actually was. In truth, the Little Belt was much weaker than the President. The Little Belt weighed only 460 tons compared to the President's 1,576; the smaller ship had 20 guns, 38 less than the President.
By 6:30, fearing an attack and the improbability of getting away before nightfall (around 7:10), Bingham decided to identify his ship. At the time, this action was calling "hoisting colors". According to Rodgers, Bingham did so at 7:15, but it was too dark to correctly identify Britain's flag. The Little Belt came about and the leaders of the two ships each called out the standard hailing, "What ship is that? " Neither answered, each believing that he had hailed first and therefore deserved a reply first, so Bingham and Rodgers both hailed again.
The story is divided at this point. According to the Americans, the Little Belt fired a cannon whose ball hit the President's mast. The President also fired a cannon at the Little Belt, apparently without the orders of Rodgers, who was hesitant to respond. A sloppy broadside erupted from the Little Belt. Now offended, Rodgers gave the order to fire, and the battle commenced for, as Rodgers believed, 15 minutes at most. Then, he claims that he hailed the Little Belt once more and learned of its presence in the Royal Navy.
Bingham's account varies in a number of ways. First, he claims that the President shot a complete broadside (not a single shot) at his ship after Rodgers's second hail. Bingham then says that he responded with cannon fire, and the battle commenced for about 45 minutes, three times longer than Rodgers's estimate.
The President sustained only one human injury; the Little Belt took ten deaths and 22 injuries. The Little Belt was badly damaged in the attack. On the morning of May 17, American Lieutenant John Creighton went to the Little Belt to apologize for the "unfortunate Affair" and to offer space at any of the "Ports of the United States", which Bingham declined. When the captain asked why the President had attacked his much smaller ship, Creighton claimed that it was because the Little Belt had provoked the President. Bingham staunchly denied the account.
Creighton returned to his ship, and the President and the Little Belt parted ways. The President sailed to New York City, but the Little Belt limped to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Despite the end of the Little Belt Affair, both nations continued to argue about how the battle began for several months.
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