HMS Little Belt (1807)

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HMS Little Belt, at right, and the USS President fire upon each other
Career (Denmark) Danish Navy Ensign
Name: Lillebælt
Namesake: The Little Belt strait off Jutland
Launched: 31 August 1801
Captured: Captured by British at the Battle of Copenhagen on 7 September 1807
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Little Belt
Acquired: Captured at the Battle of Copenhagen on 7 September 1807
Commissioned: April 1808
Fate: Sold in 1811
General characteristics
Class and type: 20-gun post ship
Tons burthen: 460 tons[1]
Propulsion: Sails
Complement: 121

In Danish service: 22 guns[1]

  • Twenty 30-pdr carronades
  • Two 8-pdr long guns

In British service: 20 guns[2]

  • Eighteen 32-pdr carronades
  • Two 9-pdr long guns

Lillebælt was a Danish 22-gun warship launched in 1801.[3] The Danes surrendered her to the Royal Navy in 1807 and became the 20-gun post ship HMS Little Belt. The American USS President fired on her during peacetime, perhaps in retaliation for the Chesapeake-Leopard affair,[4] giving rise to the eponymous "Little Belt Affair".[3] Her Captain at the time, Arthur Batt Bingham, maintained that the Americans fired first and that he had not surrendered.[4] She was broken up in 1811.


She was built to a design by P.C. Hohlenberg as the 460-ton Danish 22-gun let fregat (light frigate or corvette) Lillebælt.[1] The British schooners Scorpion and Chippeway captured her by while she was trying to flee the scene at the Battle of Copenhagen on 7 September 1807.[5] She then sailed in convoy with the Cruizer class brig-sloop Calypso to Britain, arriving on 24 October at Woolwich. She was fitted there until 14 May 1809.[3]

She was commissioned under the anglicised version of her name, placed under the command of John Crispo and by 1808 was off the African coast. Crispo was promoted to Post-Captain on 21 October 1810; Bingham succeeded him as commander of the Little Belt in November 1810.[3] He sailed her to Halifax, to operate off the North American coast.

Little Belt Affair

By early 1811, Little Belt was in the Caribbean, where on 19 April she was instructed by Rear-Admiral Herbert Sawyer, based at Bermuda, to meet Captain Pechell in HMS Guerriere, who was cruising somewhere along the Atlantic seaboard between Charlestown and New York. If he was unable to make contact with Pechell, Bingham was instructed to cruise along the coast, protecting British ships and intercepting enemy vessels. He was warned to be careful to avoid a clash with the Americans, as relations between America and Britain were strained. In the event, Bingham did not locate the Guerriere, and continued to cruise along the coast.[2]

On the morning of 10 May, as the Little Belt was some 48 miles east of Cape Charles at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, a strange sail was sighted in the distance. Bingham made signal 275 (calling on a strange ship, if a British warship, to show her number). The other ship did not reply, and Bingham concluded that the mystery ship was a frigate of the United States Navy. He hoisted his colours and began to round Cape Hatteras. The frigate followed, closing the Little Belt, and appeared to be trying to manoeuvre into a position to rake the smaller British ship. Bingham wore ship three times to foil the American's attempts, while calling for the frigate to identify herself. Each time though the American demanded the same of Bingham. The frigate, actually the 44-gun USS President under Commodore John Rodgers, Bingham claimed, then opened fire on the Little Belt. Bingham returned fire and an engagement began, lasting three-quarters of an hour. The President was observed to have a fire onboard and drew away.[2]

The President then returned, and asked if Bingham had struck. Bingham replied that he had not, and the President again withdrew. Rodgers sent a messenger out to the damaged Little Belt the following morning, lamenting the 'unfortunate affair', and insisting that he would not have fired had Little Belt not fired first. Bingham denied this, and turned down Rodger's offer of putting into an American port for repairs. Instead he made for Halifax, hampered by a gale on the second day of the voyage which caused leaks in the already damaged ship. Little Belt had nine killed outright, and had 23 wounded, some mortally. Two died the day after the battle.

Rodgers claimed that he had mistaken the British ship for a larger frigate and was adamant that Bingham had fired first. The Admiralty expressed their confidence in Bingham; it promoted him to Post-Captain on 7 February 1812.[2]


Little Belt was paid off shortly after the battle. She was sold at Deptford in November.[2]