The President and the Little Belt by Montague Dawson - 40 x 50 inches Signed 20th century british marine ships naval battle was of 1812
Montague Dawson
(1895 - 1973)

The President and the Little Belt

Oil on canvas
40 x 50 inches

The sea battle depicted in Montague Dawson’s painting, The President and the Little Belt, records one of the many incidents leading up to the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. It also references the underlying antagonism between the two nations that shaped the historical context for the war. The direct causes of the war were quite clear: the forced recruitment of American seamen into the Royal Navy; British military support for the Native American tribes who were fighting the expansion of European settlers; and British restriction of United States trade with France. In contrast, Dawson’s painting illustrates a battle between a British sloop-of-war, Little Belt, and the US frigate, President, that was fundamentally a show-down between two ships that were reacting to the presumed insults suffered in earlier encounters between US and British vessels.

The first of the earlier incidents occurred in June 1807 when the British HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake after the captain refused permission for the British to board and search the American ship. Three men were killed, eighteen wounded, and four others were captured as “deserters” despite the fact that they were American citizens.

On May 1, 1811, an equally volatile confrontation ensued when the British frigate, Guerriere, stopped the USS Spitfire off the coast of New Jersey and impressed John Diggio, an apprentice sailing master, into the Royal Navy. As a direct result of this incident, the Secretary of the Navy ordered increased patrols along the Atlantic coast. Two weeks later, as the President was patrolling, Commodore John Rodgers spotted a ship that he believed to be the Guerriere. He immediately gave chase, only to realize that the ship was not, in fact, the Guerriere. However, he continued the chase in an effort to learn what ship it was, and why it was in US coastal waters.

Several hours later, the ships were in close enough proximity to hail each other, but both captains refused to respond to the other’s demand for identification. Eventually, one of the ships began firing, although who fired first remains uncertain, and a full-fledged battle began. The President was by far the larger and more well armed ship, and the battle was essentially over in approximately fifteen minutes. The Little Belt surrendered, having lost nine men and sustained serious injuries to both crew and ship. War on Britain was officially declared a year later on June 1, 1812.

Richard Green, London
Private collection, USA
Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York City, 2011
Private collection, USA