How many American sailors were impressed by the Royal Navy?
No one knows for certain how many American sailors were impressed by the Royal Navy; contemporary estimates ranged from 3,300 to 20,000. The definitive subject of the study, James F. Zimmerman’s Impressment of American Seamen (New York: 1925), estimates that between 1803 and 1812 about 6,000 American seamen were impressed by the British. Theodore Roosevelt in The Naval War of 1812 cites the British foreign secretary’s admitting in a parliamentary speech in January 1811 that 3,300 men claiming to be Americans were serving in the Royal Navy, as well as the U.S. State Department’s having on record 6,257 cases of impressed American seamen. Higher estimates abounded at the time and since. Roosevelt says that the State Department’s number “could represent but a small part of the whole, which must have amounted to 20,000 men, or more than sufficient to man our entire navy five times over.”
An accurate calculation is hampered not only by the lack of accurate contemporary reporting but by the fact that merchant seamen were for the most part drawn from the margins of society, people willing to or forced to seek their living in a low-paid, dangerous, lonely profession. And to be fair, around a quarter of the seamen employed on American merchant vessels were in fact British subjects lured by better pay, better working conditions, and relative safety.
“How many American seamen have been impressed, Mr. Fox?” Mr. Goodbody asked the American consul in Lisbon . “How many Americans have been kidnapped, in total? How many held hostage?”
“No one knows for sure, sir. Last year the Secretary of State’s clerk calculated that since 1803 there had been just over six thousand cases. Those who call for war say twenty thousand, but more sober men think barely a quarter that number.”
“But do not lose heart, Mr. Goodbody. Be patient. Releases are effected. You have read accounts in the newspapers.”
“The accounts in the newspapers are generally those of men who were impressed and have made good their escape, returning to their native land after long years, many adventures, and great dangers.”
“Such accounts make stories which newspapers love dearly, Mr. Goodbody, but the Royal Navy hangs deserters, and hanged men do not tell their tales in newspapers. It is better to hope that Mr. Lawrence will bear this tribulation patiently until we can effect his release.”
Want to know more? Colorful narratives by both impressed Americans and Englishmen are included in King and Hattendorf., eds., Every Man Will Do His Duty: An Anthology of Firsthand Accounts from the Age of Nelson (New York: Holt, 1997). The National Archives of the United States provides access to material on impressed Americans and efforts to regain their freedom through its web-site at http://www.archives.gov/research/military/war-of-1812