Little Belt Affair

Little Belt Affair

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Little Belt Affair

caption=An May 16, 1811 engraving shows USS "President" battling HMS "Little Belt" on May 16, 1811.
partof=the events leading to the War of 1812
date=May 16, 1811
place=off North Carolina
result=American Victory
combatant1=flag|Great Britain
combatant2=flag|United States|1795
commander1=flagicon|Great Britain Arthur Bingham
commander2=flagicon|United States|1795 Commodore John Rodgers
strength1=1 sloop-of-war
strength2=1 frigate
casualties1=1 sloop damaged
10 killed
22 wounded
casualties2= 1 wounded
The "Little Belt" Affair was a naval battle on the night of May 16, 1811. It involved the American frigate USS "President" and the British sixth-rate HMS "Little Belt", a sloop-of-war, which had originally been the Danish ship "Lillebælt" (Little Belt, after a location in Denmark), before being captured by the British in the 1807 Battle of Copenhagen. The incident took place off the North Carolina coast.The "Little Belt" Affair was one of many incidents and events that led to the War of 1812.


The American attack was motivated in part as an act of vengeance for the "Chesapeake"-"Leopard" Affair in 1807, in which HMS "Leopard" had attacked USS "Chesapeake", killing three, wounding 18, and capturing four men to serve on the "Leopard" as per the terms of impressment. Furthermore, "President" had been patrolling the American coast after an incident involving HMS "Guerriere", a frigate. On May 1 the "Guerriere" had stopped the brig USS "Spitfire" off Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It had impressed Maine citizen John Diggio, the master apprentice of the "Spitfire". The Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton, ordered the "President", along with USS "Argus", to patrol the coastal areas from the Carolinas to New York.

The commanding officer of the "President", Commodore John Rodgers, caught sight of "Little Belt" at approximately noon, believing it to be the "Guerriere"; he had the "President" pursue it. However, "Little Belt" had seen "President" around an hour before Rodgers's order. "Little Belt's" captain was Arthur Bingham. When Bingham had "Little Belt" ask "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 "President" continued its pursuit because Commodore Rodgers was interested in identifying the ship that he now knew was not "Guerriere". By 15:30, the "President" was close enough to "Little Belt" for Rodgers to make out part of her stern. However, the angle at which Rodgers was seeing "Little Belt" made her appear larger than she actually was. In truth, "Little Belt" was much weaker than "President", weighing only 460 tons compared to "President's" 1,576; the smaller ship had 20 guns, whilst "President" had 58.


By 18:30, fearing an attack and the improbability of getting away before nightfall (around 19:10), Bingham decided to identify his ship. At the time, this action was calling "hoisting colors". According to Rodgers, Bingham did so at 19:15, but it was too dark to correctly identify the British flag. "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, "Little Belt" fired a cannon whose ball hit the "President's" mast. "President" also fired a cannon at "Little Belt", apparently without the orders of Rodgers, who was hesitant to respond. A sloppy broadside erupted from "Little Belt". Now offended, Rodgers gave the order to fire, and the battle commenced for, as Rodgers believed, 15 minutes at most. Rodgers claimed that he hailed "Little Belt" once more and learned of its presence in the Royal Navy.

Bingham's account varies in a number of ways. He claimed that "President" shot a complete broadside (not a single shot) at his ship after Rodgers's second hail. Bingham said that he responded with cannon fire, and the battle commenced for about 45 minutes, three times longer than Rodgers's estimate.


"President" sustained only one human injury; "Little Belt" took ten deaths and 22 injuries, and the sloop was badly damaged in the attack. On the morning of May 17, American Lieutenant John Creighton went to "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 "President" had attacked his much smaller ship, Creighton claimed that it was because "Little Belt" had provoked the action. Bingham staunchly denied the account.

Creighton returned to his ship, and "President" and "Little Belt" parted ways. "President" sailed to New York City, and "Little Belt" went to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The two nations continued to argue about how the battle began for several months.

ee also

*"Chesapeake" Affair
*List of naval battles


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