Defense Media Network

When the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Grew Up

For the young shallow-draft fleet that would become the Coast Guard, the War of 1812 was a transformative experience.

When the United States declared war on England in 1812, the tiny U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, consisting of 16 naval vessels and about a dozen revenue cutters, was pitted against England’s Royal Navy, the most powerful in the world, with 600 warships.

The fleet of shallow-draft revenue cutters, formed in 1790 at the request of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, was not intended to be a naval fighting force. “From 1790 until the War of 1812,” explains the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area historian Bill Thiesen, Ph.D., “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 thing. But that expanded dramatically during the early 19th century.”

Overnight, the U.S. declaration of war had expanded the mission of the cutters. For one thing, Thiesen says, “Each cutter was responsible for the security of its homeport.” In cooperation with the Navy, the cutters were also charged with protecting American merchant commerce and its merchant fleet, not only from British naval vessels, but also from the numerous privateers who prowled U.S. ports in search of prizes.

One of the most notorious privateers of the War of 1812 was the Dart, a heavily armed sloop that had become the terror of the Eastern Seaboard, capturing about 25 American merchant ships in Long Island Sound during the war’s first year.

In October 1813, the Dart and her crew met their fate off the coast of Newport, R.I., where the revenue cutter Vigilant had been built in 1812. When the Dart brazenly appeared off Newport with two freshly caught prizes, the Vigilant’s commander, Capt. John Cahoone, took 20 Navy volunteers aboard to augment his regular crew and gave chase.

After sunset, Vigilant overtook the much larger, heavily armed sloop near the eastern shore of Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, and surprised the Dart with cannon fire that forced many of her crew below decks.

The Dart returned a heavier volley, and Cahoone, realizing he was doomed to lose a cannon duel, ordered the cutter alongside. A boarding party quickly scrambled aboard and overwhelmed the stunned captain and crew, taking the Dart as a prize. It was one of the most surprising and impressive naval captures of the war.

The port and coastal security service performed by Vigilant and other revenue cutters during the War of 1812 set the revenue marine on course to become a multimission service, with both military and domestic law enforcement duties. Vigilant continued to patrol the Eastern Seaboard after the war, capturing British and Spanish smugglers, but Cahoone and his crew have gone down in history as the men who captured the Dart and demonstrated the usefulness of the nation’s shallow-water domestic fleet in protecting its ports and coastline.

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