Prologue Magazine

Summer 2012, Vol. 44, No. 2

The War of 1812
Stoking the Fires: The Impressment of Seaman Charles Davis by the U.S. Navy

By John P. Deeben

British officers inspect a group of American sailors for impressment into the British navy, ca. 1810, in a drawing by Howard Pyle. The practice angered Americans and was one cause of the War of 1812. But American naval officers engaged in the same practice against British sailors. (Library of Congress)

On the night of November 12, 1811, the 36-gun British frigate HMS Havannah lay anchored at Spithead, a sheltered strait near the naval harbors of Portsmouth and Gosport in Hampshire, England. Spithead served as one of the principal bases for the Royal Navy along the English Channel, and the Havannah, as a member of the Channel Fleet, regularly patrolled the area, watching for French vessels from Brest or Le Havre attempting to infiltrate coastal waters.

In the darkness, the deck watch suddenly heard splashing sounds and spotted a figure in the water swimming frantically toward them. Dropping a longboat from the gunwales, crewmen pulled aboard what they initially thought was an American deserter from the nearby frigate USS Constitution, which had recently put into Spithead for a courtesy call or to take on supplies. Instead, the drenched man identified himself as Irish seaman Charles Davis; he claimed to have just escaped from forced servitude in the United States Navy.

Davis subsequently recounted his ordeal to Capt. Robert Hall of the HMS Royal William, who communicated the incident to Adm. Sir Roger Curtis, commander-in-chief of the naval station at Portsmouth. In his report, Hall reiterated the pivotal assertion that Davis "never was in America before . . . he has been detained by the commanding officer of the Constitution.". It appeared to be a clear case of foreign impressment; however, there is little evidence to suggest anything further came of the incident in diplomatic circles, even though procedures were in place at that time to lodge a formal complaint with the United States government. (Since 1796, an American agent had been stationed in London to investigate impressment issues and secure the release of American victims). But for the fact that a copy of Hall's report eventually found its way into the general records of the U.S. State Department—along with a few other documents about impressed seamen of British origin—the ordeal of Charles Davis might have faded into history.

The impressment or forcible seizure of American seamen by the British Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries has traditionally been viewed as a primary cause of the War of 1812. Americans at that time regarded impressment as a deliberate and dastardly act perpetrated by a foreign power against innocent men. Although modern scholars now question the true extent and impact of the practice as a precursor to war—between 1789 and 1815, the British impressed fewer than 10,000 Americans out of a total population of 3.9 to 7.2 million—impressment nonetheless stoked popular outrage, provoking Congress into legislative action and raising diplomatic tensions with Britain. The experience of Charles Davis, however, illuminates a lesser known aspect about American culpability in the whole impressment issue. To a certain extent (and apparently not widely admitted by American officials), the United States reciprocated impressment against the British, seizing unsuspecting seamen to serve aboard American warships.

A British Maritime Tradition Collides with American Ideals

Impressment constituted a longstanding maritime tradition in Great Britain, a prerogative held by the Crown following centuries of development (reported instances of impressment occurred as early as the Anglo-Saxon period, followed by extensive usage from the Elizabethan era to the Commonwealth years under Oliver Cromwell). As Britain evolved into a strong seafaring nation, the Royal Navy gradually viewed impressment as a legitimate method of recruitment. When necessary, naval authorities orchestrated press gangs in British ports under the guise of the "impress service." Headed by a naval recruiting officer, the service hired local ruffians to comb the surrounding countryside for suitable recruits in exchange for traveling expenses and a fee for each conscript. Ostensibly, the gangs only targeted British subjects, including Royal Navy deserters and inhabitants of coastal areas who excelled in such necessary seafaring skills as rope and sail making, navigation, and ship carpentry. By the 18th century, Britain came to regard impressment as a maritime right and extended the practice to boarding neutral merchant ships in local waters and at sea.

In the 1790s, impressment became even more important as the outbreak of war between Britain and France in the wake of the French Revolution spawned a dire need for a much larger navy. Between 1793 and 1812, Parliament increased the size of the Royal Navy from 135 to 584 ships and expanded personnel from 36,000 to 114,000 seamen. By contrast, manpower in the British merchant marine in 1792 already stood at 118,000, reflecting a noticeable preferment for civilian over military service. The Royal Navy had a venerable and notorious reputation for long voyages, harsh discipline, and poor compensation—sailors' wages were often withheld for at least six months to discourage desertions—which paled in comparison to the more humane conditions in the civilian merchant fleet (where everyone's well-being hinged upon the success and profitability of each voyage). In response to the recruiting disparity, impressment became a vital tool.

Capt. Isaac Hull, famed master of the USS Constitution, engaged in impressment of British sailors, as did many other American officers. (Library of Congress)

The practice, however, immediately drew Britain into ideological conflict with the recently established government of the United States. Tempered by generations of local self rule and individual freedoms—reflected emphatically in the Declaration of Independence, the recent cathartic experience of the American Revolution, and the resulting Constitution and Bill of Rights—the United States strenuously disavowed impressment as an international right. The whole nature and purpose of press gangs represented an affront to human rights and national sovereignty; the act of forcing individuals to serve a foreign power against their will was an "arbitrary deprivation" of personal liberty devoid of the due process of law.

This perceived flouting of freedom on the part of the British also clashed directly with America's emerging attitude regarding the rights of neutrals on the high seas. International maritime law at that time limited the extent of national sovereignty to a country's warships and territorial waters, which often left civilian fleets vulnerable on the open seas. The sanctity and authority of a nation's flag did not necessarily exempt its merchantmen from aggression by belligerents engaged in the established rules of warfare, which allowed enemy goods, contraband, and personnel to be seized wherever they might be found. Nations at war thus asserted the right to stop and search neutral ships as a matter of course. Britain aggressively pursued such a policy as it waged open warfare at sea with France in the 1790s, invoking the right of impressment in the process.

Conversely, the United States, attempting to assert itself as an emerging naval power, not only championed the right of neutrals to engage in free trade with belligerents at war but also believed that neutrality protected all persons sailing under a sovereign flag regardless of national origin. As Secretary of State James Madison observed in 1804 to James Monroe, who was then serving as U.S. minister to Great Britain, "We consider a neutral flag on the high seas as a safeguard to those sailing under it. . . . [N]owhere will she [Great Britain] find an exception to this freedom of the seas, and of neutral ships, which justifies the taking away of any person not an enemy in military service, found on board a neutral vessel." The right of visitation and search, Americans maintained, should allow for a cursory examination of a vessel's papers or manifest but preclude the seizure of neutral civilians.

U.S. opposition to impressment increased dramatically as Britain's growing need for able-bodied sailors quickly exposed the apparent vulnerability of American seamen. Even though they disavowed any desire to impress U.S. citizens, the British openly claimed the right to take British deserters from American ships. (Quite often, British seamen composed 35 to 40 percent of U.S. naval crews in the early 19th century, enticed to serve by better pay and working conditions). Obvious similarities in culture and language complicated efforts to distinguish between American and British-born seamen as well, leading to frequent instances of wrongful impressment. Acknowledging the problem in 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson observed, "The practice in Great Britain of impressing seamen whenever war is apprehended will fall more heavily on ours, than on those of any other foreign nation, on account of the sameness of language."

On May 28, 1796, Congress finally passed legislation (1 Stat. 477) to counteract the impressment threat. Intended to identify and repatriate American victims, the act authorized the government to appoint agents to investigate impressment incidents and pursue legal means to obtain the release of the seamen. Masters of American ships at sea had to report incidents of impressment to the customs agent at the nearest American port, or to lodge a "protest" with the U.S. consulate if an impressment took place in a foreign port. An act of March 2, 1799 (1 Stat. 731), also required the submission of annual reports to Congress regarding impressment activity. In the midst of this official American reaction against the perceived horrors and injustice of impressment, however, similar behavior on the part of the U.S. Navy apparently occurred with little notice or comment. The effort to document American impressment cases ironically allowed the atrocities perpetrated against Charles Davis and other British seamen eventually to come to light as well.

Turning the Tables: The Ordeal of Charles Davis

Charles Davis was born in the parish of St. Mary's in Dublin, Ireland, about 1786. In 1795, at the age of nine, he was apprenticed to a Dublin mariner named Edward Murphy, the master of a merchant vessel called the Valentine. Murphy taught the young lad the basic aspects of the seafaring trade for two years and then sent Davis to sea on several merchant vessels for practical experience. One voyage even drew Davis into the nefarious world of the Atlantic slave trade, when he sailed on the slave ship Princess Amelia from Liverpool to the coast of Africa and then to Santo Domingo and Grenada in the West Indies. While docked at the port of Antigua with the merchant brig Ann in February 1807, Davis experienced impressment for the first time when he was abducted by the HMS St. Lucia. That ordeal ended after two French privateers captured the British schooner. Davis finally returned to Liverpool in August 1807, where he worked in the dockyards as a rigger for about three years.

Capt. Robert Hall of the HMS Royal William recorded the testimony of British sailor Charles Davis in November 1811, after Davis escaped impressment on board the USS Constitution. Hall recounted the incident in his report to Adm. Sir Roger Curtis, commander-in-chief of the naval station at Portsmouth. (General Records of the Department of State, RG 59)

On August 5, 1810, Davis went back to sea on the merchant ship Margaret for what would prove to be his final civilian voyage. The Margaret brought Davis to America (contrary to his claim in the Hall report) for the first time on October 2, landing at the port of Charleston, South Carolina. After four days aboard ship, Davis and three shipmates went ashore to a local tavern. By his own admission, Davis imbibed too much and could not recall what happened next, except that "on the following morning he found himself on board the American United States sloop of war Wasp . . . he does not know by what means he was put on board her." Suddenly finding himself addressed as seaman Thomas Holland, Davis immediately applied to First Lieutenant Ingles of the Wasp to be returned to the Margaret, pointing out that he was British rather than an American citizen. Ingles bluntly refused, stating that he would see Davis "drowned first, 'for the English keep the Americans and I will keep you.'"

Thus began 13 months of forced labor in the U.S. Navy under an assumed name. The Wasp cruised for a time along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, during which Ingles put Davis in irons on several occasions for refusing to work and threatening to jump ship at the first opportunity. On November 20, 1810, he finally succeeded in slipping his chains after the Wasp returned to Charleston harbor. Swimming to shore, Davis walked 124 miles to Savannah where, unfortunately, another Charleston tavern keeper recognized him (his desertion had been well publicized by the captain of the Wasp) and caused Davis to be arrested. After Davis returned to the Wasp, the captain placed him in double irons for 72 days. For attempting to desert, Davis was also court-martialed and sentenced to 78 lashes with a cat-o-nine tails, with the punishment to be administered on board the USS John Adams in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Around the time of his trial and punishment (Davis never explained the exact time frame of the disciplinary action), the USS Constitution arrived at Hampton Roads in July 1811 to seek a draft of new men for her crew. Capt. Isaac Hull of the Constitution boarded the John Adams twice to requisition crewmembers while Davis was still on board. At first, Hull rejected Davis because of his nationality, which suggested there was indeed some validity to the latter's claim of being held illicitly on the naval ship. After returning for a second look, however, Hull decided to take Davis, reportedly commenting: "I do not care a damn let you be English or what you will. I will run the risk of taking you." With Captain Hull's pronouncement, Charles Davis boarded the Constitution on July 27 and began the voyage that finally ended with his dramatic escape at Spithead on November 12, 1811.

Clues Revealed about U.S. Impressment Activities

The USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere, August 19, 1812. (127-N-302108)

Limited information about British victims makes it difficult to estimate the full scope of impressments perpetrated by the U.S. Navy. As one of the more detailed surviving cases, however, the ordeal of Charles Davis certainly suggests a few generalities about the nature of American impressment activities. First, Davis's experience indicates that some well-known American naval commanders willingly engaged in the practice, in particular Isaac Hull, who later helmed the Constitution to its famous victory against HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. Hull's actions mirrored an earlier incident involving another rising naval officer, William Bainbridge. As the young captain of a civilian merchant vessel in 1796—two years prior to his appointment as a Navy lieutenant—Bainbridge retaliated against the impressment of one of his crewmembers by the HMS Indefatigable by seizing an English sailor from the next merchant vessel he came upon in open waters. This episode, enhanced even more when Bainbridge openly announced his intentions to the English sea captain, cemented his later naval reputation.

Second, American complicity in press gang activity appeared to be widespread, rivaling some of the State Department's myriad evidence about American victims. Davis alluded to the existence of many other British victims in his own testimony to Admiralty officials, asserting "there are about 60 or 70 H.B.M. [His Britannic Majesty's] subjects now on board the said ship Constitution . . . he does not know their names but he believes they would come forward and own themselves as such subjects if any officer was to claim them." Davis noted in particular that numerous "forecastle men have told him they were Englishmen," many of whom "expressed . . . a desire to get away from the Constitution." Another British seaman, William Bowman, who was pressed into the U.S. Navy in New York on or about June 4, 1811, likewise reported "there were a great many English on board" the USS Hornet, "several of whom would be glad to quit her."

Not surprisingly, U.S. Navy records are sufficiently vague about the exact nature of forced recruitments. Muster rolls for the USS Wasp simply show that Charles Davis, aka Thomas Holland, first appeared on board at Charleston on October 25, 1810, and later transferred to the USS Constitution for detached service on July 27, 1811. Without knowing the other side of the story, the records appear to document a typical enlistment. Likewise, the deck logs of the Constitution noted the acquisition of new crewmembers on July 27—including 10 pursers, 2 quartermasters, 29 seamen, and 32 ordinary seamen—but suggested nothing contentious about the nature of the transfers. The only specific reference to Davis's ordeal appeared in the Constitution's log for November 13, 1811, when the deck officer noted at "1/2 past 8 p.m. an officer came alongside from the Havannah frigate and said they had taken up a man which had swam from the Constitution. It proved to be Thomas Holland, a seaman."

British sailors also apparently faced treatment of equal brutality at the hands of the Americans, despite the prevailing perception of better conditions in the U.S. Navy. Davis aptly illustrated several methods of harsh punishment in his own story, including placement in irons for long periods of time for resisting authority and lashings with a cat-o-nine tails for attempting desertion. Similarly, Bowman, after being taken aboard the Hornet, faced the threat of undetermined punishment for contacting his wife after the American warship arrived at Cowes, an English seaport on the Isle of Wight, near the port of Southampton. When Elizabeth Elinor Bowman came to the Hornet to see her husband, the American officers treated her with equal roughness. At first, they refused to allow Elizabeth on board and then only granted her a half-hour visit. Afterward, the officers denied Elizabeth permission to leave and detained her for several days.

The opening page of Charles Davis's deposition on November 16, 1811, after his escape from the USS Constitution. (General Records of the Department of State, RG 59)

The manner in which Davis wound up in American custody suggests the U.S. Navy also engaged in the tactic of "shanghaiing" potential victims for compulsory service at sea. Although the term itself became more commonly associated with later maritime kidnappings along the California coast in the 1850s, this allegedly popular method of impressment involved snatching incapacitated victims from dives and hostels in local seaports (especially after they had been deliberately drugged or intoxicated). After getting drunk at a Charleston tavern on the night of October 6, 1811, and unable to explain how he later found himself aboard the USS Wasp, Davis subsequently learned that the real Thomas Holland, the proprietor of the tavern, had in fact delivered him to the crew of the Wasp soon after Davis passed out. For unknown reasons, Holland gave his own name to the crew when he presented his "recruit," causing Davis to serve under the alias "Thomas Holland" during his entire time with the U.S. Navy. While it is impossible to determine if Davis was intentionally drugged, his account still intimates the possibility of collusion between the tavern keeper and American naval personnel and likewise demonstrates that some U.S. officers willingly took advantage of impaired sailors to bolster their crews.

A final aspect of the Davis case suggests a similarity between British and American efforts to document impressment incidents against each other. In a manner comparable to the U.S. State Department's instructions to compile lists and depositions about American victims, the British Board of Admiralty—the supervisory authority over the Royal Navy in the early 19th century—made systematic attempts to solicit firsthand evidence and official correspondence regarding the impressment of British sailors. Davis's detailed testimony and accompanying letters between Adm. Sir Roger Curtis and John Wilson Croker, first secretary to the Admiralty, demonstrated a methodical effort to implement directives of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and obtain timely information from British sailors who escaped American warships. Curtis even acquired evidence about the condition of William Bowman (readily supplied by his wife, Elizabeth) while the latter was still detained aboard the USS Hornet in January 1812.

* * * *

The experience of Charles Davis—filled with details of questionable motives, tactics, and treatment—highlighted American culpability as an equally ruthless participant in the whole issue of naval impressment. Although the United States took a decidedly high-minded stance against the maritime practice, insisting on the democratic rights of seamen and sovereign vessels of all nationalities on the high seas—an ideal that eventually drew the U.S. government into a second war with Great Britain in 1812—evidence of duplicitous behavior on the part of the American naval establishment certainly existed. In the end, impressment proved to be a commonly accepted practice, perhaps even a necessary evil, among maritime powers in an age of routine warfare on the high seas. The ordeal of Charles Davis simply highlighted the other side of a turbulent issue in America's seafaring history, revealing useful insights about ordinary seamen living through extraordinary times.

John P. Deeben is a genealogy archives specialist in the Research Support Branch at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. He earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from Gettysburg College and Pennsylvania State University, respectively.

Note on Sources

Very few general studies about the history of impressment have been produced in scholarly circles, the most useful being a 1960 reprint of a 1925 dissertation by James Fulton Zimmerman, Impressment of American Seamen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1925), which gives the figure of fewer than 10,000 Americans being impressed. A few general histories of the War of 1812 also touch on the subject, including Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962); and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989). Hickey has also dealt more recently with disputed facts and misconceptions about impressment and other issues in Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006). The episode about William Bainbridge's impressment activities is recounted in Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801–1805 (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003).

The Charles Davis impressment deposition, dated November 15, 1811, is reproduced in National Archives Microfilm Publication M1839, Lists and Miscellaneous Papers Relating to Impressed Seamen, 1796–1814. This publication also includes related correspondence of the British officials who investigated the Davis case, including letters from Capt. Robert Hall, HMS Royal William, to Adm. Sir Roger Curtis, commander-in-chief, Portsmouth, dated November 13, 1811, and Curtis to John Wilson Croker, secretary to the Board of Admiralty, dated January 25, November 16, and December 20, 1811. Also quoted is a related deposition from Elizabeth Elinor Bowman, wife of impressed seaman William Bowman, dated January 25, 1812. These records are all part of the subgroup "Records Relating to Impressed Seamen, 1793–1815," in Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State. Muster rolls for the USS Wasp and USS Constitution are reproduced in National Archives Microfilm Publication T829, Miscellaneous Records of the Office of Naval Records and Library, while the Constitution deck logs are located in Microfilm Publication M1030, Logbooks and Journals of the U.S.S. Constitution, 1798–1934.

References to U.S. legislation about impressed seamen include "An Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen," April 28, 1796, U.S. Statutes at Large, 4th Congress, 1: 477; and "An Act to Revive and Continue in Force Certain Parts of the 'Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen,' and to Amend the Same," March 2, 1799, U.S. Statutes at Large, 4th Congress, 1: 731. Quotations from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison regarding the negative impact of impressment on American citizens and the rights of neutrals on the high seas are from American State Papers, Foreign Relations, 1: 131 (Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, February 7, 1792) and 2: 730 (James Madison to James Monroe, January 5, 1804).

The author has previously researched aspects of impressment and available records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This research, including an assessment of the Charles Davis case, appeared in the published articles, "The Flipside of Impressment: British Seamen Taken by the U.S. Navy Prior to the War of 1812," The Journal of the War of 1812 10 (Spring 2006): 10–16, and "Taken on the High Seas: American Seamen Impressment Records at the National Archives, 1789–1815," New England Ancestors 7:4 (Fall 2006): 17–22.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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