James Barron, an American naval officer, born in Virginia in 1768, died April 21, 1851. He served under his father, James Barron (died 1787), who held the rank of commodore in the Virginia navy during the revolution. The son was commissioned lieutenant on the organization of the United States navy in 1798, and the next year promoted to be captain, and under the command of his elder brother, Commodore Samuel Barron, was ordered to the Mediterranean, where he became known for his skill in seamanship as well as his scientific attainments. On June 22, 1807, the frigate Chesapeake, 38 guns, Capt. Gordon, bearing the broad pennant of Com. Barron, got under way from Hampton Roads, bound to the Mediterranean, and was almost immediately boarded by a boat from the British ship Leopard, of 50 guns, Capt. Humphreys, conveying a despatch, signed by Vice Admiral Berkeley, ordering all captains under his command, should they fall in with the Chesapeake any-where on the high seas, to search her for certain deserters from the British navy, concerning whom correspondence had taken place in Washington between the British minister and the secretary of state, their surrender being refused on the ground that they were American citizens who had been impressed into the British navy.
Com. Barron refused to submit to this extraordinary demand, and in a very few moments afterward the Leopard fired a broadside into the Chesapeake. The American ship was in no condition to return it; besides her inferior force, she was in utter confusion on first coming out of port, and although the guns had been loaded, rammers, wads, matches, gun locks, and powder horns were all wanting. The Leopard continued to fire until Barron, finding that no resistance could be made, ordered the colors struck. A single gun was fired by the Chesapeake just as her colors were hauled down. There being no matches at hand, it was discharged by means of a coal brought from the galley. The ship received 21 shot in her hull, and 3 were killed and 18 wounded; among the latter were Com. Barron and his aid, Mr. Broom. Four men claimed as English were taken out of her, and she returned to Hampton Roads the same evening. Intense excitement was created throughout the country by this outrage. Barron was court-martialled under four charges, which embraced 22 specifications.
He was entirely acquitted of three of the charges, but was found guilty of two specifications of a charge "for neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action," and sentenced to be suspended for five years, without pay or emoluments. The court closed its finding on the subject of the personal conduct of the accused in the following language: "No transposition of the specifications, or any other modification of the charges themselves, would alter the opinion of the court as to the firmness and courage of the accused; the evidence on this point is clear and satisfactory." Admiral Berkeley's conduct was disavowed by the British government, and he was recalled from his command. Capt. Humphreys was placed on half pay. Two of the alleged deserters were afterward returned; one had been executed, and the fourth died. Barron entered the merchant service during his suspension, and remained abroad till 1818, when an attempt was made to restore him to duty. This was resisted by many officers, including Decatur, who had been a member of the court martial, and after a long and bitter correspondence Barron sent Decatur a challenge. The duel was fought at Bladensburg, March 22, 1820. Both fell at the first fire.
Decatur died the same night, and Barron recovered after months of great suffering. During the latter years of his life he held several important commands on shore. The command of the squadron in the Pacific was tendered to him, but declined.