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The Revenue Cutter Service in the War of 1812

Foundations of the modern Coast Guard

In the first six months of 2003, at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Coast Guard sent 11 cutters and four Port Security Units (PSUs) to Iraq in support of U.S. expeditionary forces. For patrolling the shallow waters of Iraq’s river deltas – such as the 40-mile-long, 200-yard-wide channel comprising the entrance to the southern port city of Umm Qasr – the ideal tools at the coalition’s disposal were the Coast Guard’s 110-foot Island-class patrol boats, such as the Coast Guard Cutter Wrangell, which was charged with protecting British minesweepers in the channel.

“In 2003, there were several 110s that actually penetrated further into enemy territory than any of the coalition naval vessels,” said Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian Bill Thiesen, Ph.D. “In part, that’s because they could navigate some of the shallows that other coalition vessels couldn’t.”

"Defense of the Cutter Eagle" by Aldis B. Browne, II

“Defense of the Cutter Eagle” by Aldis B. Browne, II. One of the murals depicting various incidents in Coast Guard history organized by the Works Progress Administration for the Coast Guard Academy. Courtesy of the Coast Guard

Coast Guard service members are the world’s recognized experts in port security and shallow-water combat – but those functions were not in the job description of the service’s precursor, the small fleet of revenue cutters established in 1790 at the request of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Though it was the only national maritime service until the U.S. Navy was created eight years later, the revenue fleet was not intended to be a military force. “From 1790 until the War of 1812,” Thiesen explained, “the cutters were largely responsible for what we call today law enforcement, which means enforcing legislation regarding trade, shipping, and revenue laws on merchant ships. That was their mission. But the cutters’ role expanded dramatically during the early 19th century. A lot of the missions that are performed today originated back in those days.”

In 1799, during what is known today as the “Quasi-War” with France, Congress set the precedent, followed ever since during wartime, of placing the revenue cutters under the Navy’s command. The cutters set some precedents in this Quasi-War, engaging in high seas combat and capturing nearly all of the French vessels taken early in the war, as well as assisting with the capture of several others. Cutters also performed escort duties for merchant vessels and convoys.

When the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin knew the American fleet faced the much larger and more powerful British Royal Navy. “We want small, fast sailing vessels,” he said in a message to Congress. “There are but six vessels belonging to the Navy, under the size of frigates; and that number is inadequate.” The performance of these cutters in the War of 1812 dramatically expanded the mission of the service, which, after less than three years, more closely resembled the modern Coast Guard than the revenue fleet conceived by Hamilton.

When war was declared on June 18, 1812, the missions of the cutters had expanded, overnight, to include the protection of American merchant commerce and its merchant fleet, in cooperation with the Navy. Most historians of the War of 1812, when recounting the exploits of the revenue cutters, tend to focus on the extraordinary bravery and resourcefulness of the captains and crew who were clearly outmanned and outgunned. These stories are now part of Coast Guard lore:

  • On June 25, 1812, the Cutter Thomas Jefferson, commanded by Capt. William Ham, made the war’s first capture of a British vessel, the merchant vessel Patriot, which carried a valuable cargo of sugar.
  • On July 23, 1812, the Cutter James Madison, under Capt. George Brooks, captured the 300-ton, six-gun brig Shamrock. James Madison also, in taking custody of the schooner Wade, acquired $20,000 in silver and gold for the U.S. Treasury.
  • In one of the fiercest naval battles of the war, Capt. Samuel Travis and the crew of the Cutter Surveyor fought against a surprise boarding attempt by British sailors, who outnumbered them nearly four to one. The bravery of the cutter’s crew in bloody hand-to-hand combat, in which three British seamen were killed, so impressed the commander of the capturing British barges that he returned Travis’ sword after the battle with a note commending his crew that read: “Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel … has excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed.”
  • The Cutter Vigilant, commanded by John Cahoone, performed what was perhaps the war’s most impressive capture by a cutter when it seized the Dart, a privateer sloop that, in capturing at least 20 American vessels, had become the terror of Long Island Sound. In October 1813, Cahoone chased down the privateer and surprised the vessel by firing on it with his cannons – forcing the Dart’s crew below decks. The Vigilant’s crew then boarded the sloop, took it as a prize, and captured its crew.
  • Capt. Frederick Lee and the crew of the Cutter Eagle, while on a mission to rescue a captured merchant crew, found themselves overmatched by the HMS Dispatch and ran the Eagle ashore in a narrow Long Island channel. Lee’s crew dragged the cutter’s cannons to the top of a high bluff and fought the Dispatch and its armed tender from there, exchanging musket and cannon fire throughout the day and into evening. As ammunition ran low, the crew tore up the cutter’s logbook for wadding, and returned fire with the small shot of the enemy, which they dug out of the hillside below them. Three times, crewmembers ran down to replace the cutter’s flag, which had been shot away during the exchange. Despite the Eagle’s eventual capture, this scene is memorialized today in the painting “Defense of the Revenue Cutter Eagle,” on display at the Coast Guard Academy.

When he lectures about the revenue fleet in the War of 1812, Thiesen is glad to regale audiences with tales of these and other swashbuckling escapades – but as a Coast Guard historian, he has paid careful attention to how the service’s mission profile was broadened by the necessity of circumstance during the war. In the War of 1812, he points out, the cutters – which would not be formally named the Revenue Cutter Service until 1863 – took on several new missions that gave it a much closer resemblance to today’s Coast Guard, including:

  • Shallow or “brown-water” combat. The cutters, designed to catch smugglers in shallow inlets and waterways, proved effective; Thomas Jefferson captured three Royal Navy barges, along with more than 60 British officers and men, in the shallows of Hampton Roads in April 1813. Three months later, the Cutter Mercury – with all cash and bonds collected by the customs collector at Portsmouth, N.C., aboard – escaped an enemy ambush in the shallow harbor of Ocracoke, N.C., and warned the nearby city of New Bern of a pending attack.
  • Naval and merchant marine escort duty. Several cutters were assigned the duty of transporting naval officers to and from their ships, as well as providing protective escort for merchant vessels and convoys along the Atlantic coast.
  • Port and coastal security. By the order of local customs collectors, each of the revenue cutters, Thiesen points out, was responsible for the security of its homeport. These duties often involved the engagement of British privateers who prowled nearby in search of prizes, with the legendary battle between the Vigilant and the Dart being the most famous example.
  • Intelligence gathering. Cutters provided customs, military personnel, local officials, and the press with news of enemy naval and privateer movements, as well as information about American naval and merchant vessels. This was, Thiesen has written, the primary mission of the Cutter General Greene during the British blockade of Delaware Bay – to monitor the movement of enemy vessels and report details about numbers, locations, and activities. Cutters Eagle, Mercury, Vigilant, and Active were also valued scouts and/or reconnaissance vessels.
  • Transport and communication. In wartime, the quick, nimble cutter fleet delivered messages to U.S. naval units and transported naval personnel to and from other ships. Cutters also carried diplomats and important documents – including the order, carried by the cutter Active, for cessation of hostilities after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
Revenue Cutter Surveyor 1812

“The capture of the Revenue Cutter Surveyor by forces of the Royal Navy, 1813,” a watercolor by Irwin John Bevan. Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

By war’s end, the revenue fleet had suffered considerable losses – the Cutters Commodore Barry, Eagle, Surveyor, and James Madison had been captured, and several others were so worn-out by their war service that they lasted only a few more years. The Cutter Louisiana was lost with all hands on deck in a hurricane on Aug. 11, 1812. The Cutter Gallatin, which had seized one British brig on its own and several vessels in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson, was lost when it exploded in Charleston Harbor on April 1, 1813.

Despite the significant loss of men and ships, the revenue fleet – which would not become the United States Coast Guard for another century, in 1915 – had grown considerably in terms of its utility to the American nation. It was now a multi-mission force, combining domestic law enforcement and (as yet unofficially) lifesaving duties with security and defense functions. The defense of the nation’s coastal and inland waters, through the conduct of port security and shallow-water combat missions, is a hallmark of the modern Coast Guard, and the expertise of its practitioners is recognized around the world. Certainly, the service’s Port Security Units and its 110-foot shallow-water cutters have earned the respect of their partners – and of their enemies – in the Middle East. It all started 200 years ago, during the War of 1812, with the work of a handful of revenue cutters and their stalwart captains and crew.

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...