First Prizes and Border Patrols
As they would in future conflicts, revenue cutters served as the U.S. military’s “tip of the spear” with the war’s first captures. On 25 June 1812, the Norfolk, Virginia, cutter Thomas Jefferson captured the British schooner Patriot, referred to by newspapers as the war’s “Prize No. 1.” The cutter James Madison, of Savannah, Georgia, captured the armed British brig Shamrock on 23 July. On 1 August, the Madison seized a second vessel, and the cutter Gallatin captured the armed British brig General Blake, sailing from London to Spanish Florida with a cargo of slaves and British war material.
During the war, revenue cutters continued their primary mission of interdicting smugglers. Smuggling operations focused not only on the U.S. border regions of Canada and Spanish Florida, but also around New Orleans, a city acquired by the United States in 1803 through the Louisiana Purchase. Here smugglers proved very aggressive and their activities verged on the piratical, so the Treasury Department built the revenue cutter Louisiana in Baltimore to control smuggling and enforce federal laws on shipping flowing through the port of New Orleans. The cutter’s master and commander, Angus Frazer, received his commission in 1810 and took command later that year.
In a strange twist of fate, on 11 August 1812, the Louisiana capsized in a severe hurricane at the port of New Orleans. According to an eyewitness: “There were 70 sail of vessels in the harbor, and upwards of half of them completely destroyed, with their cargoes on board—Flatboats, barges, and trading canoes are all destroyed. . . . The Revenue Cutter and all hands lost.” The New Orleans station would remain without another cutter until after the war.
Early in the 19th century, the Treasury Department stationed customs collectors at Great Lakes ports such as Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo and Rochester, New York. During the war, these ports were on the front lines of the conflict between opposing forces in the United States and Canada. The cities were too small to merit a revenue cutter, so most used “revenue boats,” small schooners generally no more than half the size of an oceangoing revenue cutter. The vessels became easy targets for British attacks on the American ports. On 19 July 1812, a British squadron from Lake Ontario, including the 20-gun sloop HMS Royal George and the 16-gun ship HMS Prince Regent entered Sacket’s Harbor, New York, and captured its revenue boat. The British kept the vessel as a prize and returned the crew to Sacket’s Harbor. On 21 July 1812, the Prince Regent trapped the revenue boat at Ogdensburg, New York. And on 6 October, British officers and men on barges launched from the Royal George captured the revenue boat stationed near Rochester, New York.
To deal with smuggling between Canada and Maine (then part of Massachusetts), the Treasury Department relied on the cutter Commodore Barry. Purchased in Long Island in March 1812, she began service in the spring under the command of Maine revenue-cutter master Daniel Elliott. Over the summer months, the Commodore Barry patrolled Maine’s Passamaquoddy District, located along the Canadian border. The cutter apprehended numerous smuggling vessels and brought them into port for adjudication by the local courts. On 27 June she seized the schooner Cranberry for carrying British goods in Maine waters. The next day, the Barry escorted the Cranberry along with the detained schooners Theresa and Rising Sun from Eastport, Maine, back to Portland. Just a day after arriving in Portland, the Barry detained the schooner Nymph for carrying an illegal cargo. By 2 August, the revenue cutter had apprehended five smuggling vessels, and five days later a local court adjudicated the cases of three more vessels seized by the Barry for carrying illegal British cargoes.
Fighters and Rescuers
During the War of 1812 revenue cutters established their role as effective shallow-water combat ships. The sailing warships of the U.S. Navy were too large to enter the inland waterways of the American coastline. Designed to catch smugglers in these waters, the cutters proved very effective in navigating such areas. The Commodore Barry was among the first federal vessels to engage units of the Royal Navy, when the cutter and an American privateer battled British forces at Little River, Maine. The Americans ran the two vessels ashore and mounted their guns behind a cordwood redoubt. On 3 August 1812, an overwhelming force of 250 Royal Navy seamen and marines attacked with heavy losses. The enemy eventually captured the cutter and three cuttermen, but the rest of the crew escaped into the Maine woods.
Among other missions, revenue cutters performed numerous rescues during the war. On 23 November 1812, crew members of the Wilmington, Delaware–based cutter General Greene used axes to cut open the bow of the capsized brig Rattlesnake, which had overturned during a severe storm. The cuttermen saved 18 men and a boy who had survived in frigid chin-deep water for four hours. On the 29th, the Wilmington, North Carolina–based cutter Diligence rescued survivors of the brig Defiance, bound from New York to Savannah, which had capsized in a violent offshore storm. The crew saved the cargo, buried the dead, and delivered the survivors to Wilmington.
Other notable cases included the 1813 rescue of the prize ship Lady Johnson by the crew of the General Greene. Sailing in the winter, the prize ship was trapped by thick ice that pushed it toward the Delaware Bay shore. Captain Sawyer and his cuttermen made their way over the pack ice to the stricken vessel, rescued the nearly frozen crew, and moved the vessel to a safe anchorage at Wilmington, Delaware. And on 4 June 1814, the cutter Vigilant helped refloat the grounded and fire-damaged American brig Little Francis, towing the vessel into Newport, Rhode Island, after marauding Royal Navy units tried to destroy the merchantman with cannon fire.
In addition to the Non-Intercourse Law, which was in force throughout the war, the revenue cutters also enforced seven other trade restrictions passed by Congress during the conflict. Officers and crews had to be thoroughly familiar with the fine print of numerous laws, for American shippers and ship captains would often challenge in court any ship seizure, forfeiture, or detention they believed to be illegal or wrongful. Like the revenue-cutter crews, the vessels themselves had to be versatile. Best suited to swiftness and agility, cutters provided a multimission platform during the war, delivering sensitive military papers, naval dispatches, and treaties and transporting high-ranking government officials and military personnel.
On the East Coast, the Royal Navy established a blockade by early 1813, requiring the diminutive cutters to serve as frontline units against Royal Navy barges and warships. One of their primary missions was protecting U.S. revenue, requiring them to defend American coasting vessels navigating the sounds, bays, and inland waterways of the United States. Several cutters carried on the tradition of escorting convoys, established by revenue cutters during the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790s. During the War of 1812, the cutters Active and Eagle kept very busy escorting merchantmen between New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
Under orders from the local customs collectors, each revenue watercraft served as guard ship, securing its home port and surrounding coastal waters. The Thomas Jefferson proved a worthy example of a revenue vessel securing its base of operations. On 11 April 1813, in the shallows near Norfolk, Virginia, the Jefferson ran down and captured three Royal Navy barges, manned by 60 British officers and men, and repatriated the crew of an American merchantman captured by the barges. A contemporary newspaper reported:
as the Cutter was about to pour a broadside into them [the enemy barges], the [Royal Navy] lieutenant displayed a white flag and said, that it was not their intention to make any resistance . . . Capt. Ham ordered them ashore and sent them under an escort of forty riflemen to Hampton. The loss of so many men and barges . . . will embarrass the enemy not a little, as it will weaken very considerably his means of annoyance.
Observe and Report
With U.S. Navy ships cruising at sea and American naval gunboats stationed in port cities, revenue cutters became the most effective maritime intelligence-gathering tools. They monitored enemy naval movements, located British privateers, and provided news regarding American merchantmen. Because of their speed and agility, the revenue cutters proved the most reliable source of such information.
On 12 July 1813, the North Carolina–based cutter Mercury saved the day by escaping enemy barges at Ocracoke. The British hoped to capture the cutter, so that their naval force could take the city of New Bern by surprise. The Mercury thwarted those plans by outrunning the barges and sailing to the city with news of probable attack by the British, allowing authorities time to muster militia and regular Army forces.
Of the war’s revenue-cutter masters, Captain Caleb Brewster of the Active proved the most experienced intelligence-gatherer, having been part of an effective spy ring supplying information to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. On 26 May 1813, a New York newspaper reported that the Active braved a “strong south gale” near Montauk Point, Long Island, to maintain surveillance of three British men-of-war about ten miles out to sea. Employing local small craft, Captain Brewster sped the information to U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur, whose squadron was trapped in Long Island Sound. Brewster continued providing military intelligence to New York officials regarding enemy naval operations until the war’s end.
On 20 March 1813, the Wilmington, Delaware, customs collector ordered the General Greene to observe and report all activities and movements of Royal Navy forces blockading the Delaware Bay. And on 6 September 1814, the Committee of Defense for the Delaware River requested Treasury Secretary George Campbell send the General Greene on daily trips to monitor enemy movements, stating, “the revenue cutter appears to us particularly well adapted to this service” of observing “movements of the enemy, in or towards the [Delaware] bay.” Within two weeks, the Wilmington customs collector received instructions to send the General Greene on regular reconnaissance missions into Delaware Bay. While the Active, General Greene, and Mercury proved the most notable intelligence-gathering revenue cutters, the other cutters also reported important military intelligence, such as numbers and positions of enemy ships, landing of troops, and provisioning of enemy vessels.
In the Thick of the Fray
During the war, revenue cutters served occasionally with units of the U.S. Navy. On 25 August 1812, the General Greene and Navy gunboats stopped and boarded the ship Superior loaded with illegal British goods. During the summer of 1813, the cutter Active sailed through the British squadron blockading Commodore Decatur’s flotilla near New London, Connecticut. The Active provided force protection for Decatur’s warships and delivered reports, messages, and naval intelligence between the commoedore’s flotilla and authorities in New York.
One of the more active cutters to operate with Navy vessels was the New Hampshire. In 1813 she operated temporarily with Commodore Isaac Hull’s flotilla based out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On 3 November the cutter sailed out of Portsmouth with the flotilla in pursuit of two Royal Navy brigs. The flotilla eventually returned to port after it appeared that the brigs were setting a trap with an enemy frigate waiting offshore. In the summer of 1814, the cutter sailed with U.S. Navy Gunboat 88 and captured the armed tender for the British 38-gun frigate HMS Tenedos and an American prize ship the tender had captured. By April 1814, Congress recognized revenue cutters serving on Navy missions by passing an act that provided pensions for revenue cuttermen who received wounds in connection with Navy operations.
During the British blockade of 1813, the Royal Navy focused its attention on the Chesapeake Bay and its local waterways. Not knowing the proximity of enemy forces to his cutter Surveyor anchored near Yorktown, Virginia, Captain Samuel Travis set out a picket boat and installed boarding netting around the cutter’s deck. On the rainy night of 12 June 1813, British barges with nearly 50 officers and men approached with muffled oars. By the time Travis could see them, the watercraft were too close to use the ship’s cannon, so he armed his 19 crew members with two loaded muskets per man. Despite the cuttermen’s heroic last stand, the British finally made it on deck and captured the ship after the loss of three seamen and the wounding of several more. The commander of the enemy forces later returned Travis’ sword and penned a note to him:
Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more than double your number excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the sword you had so ably used . . . . I am at loss which to admire most, the previous arrangement on board the Surveyor or the determined manner in which her deck was disputed inch-by-inch.
Fights between cutters and privateers occurred periodically and included the battle between the cutter Vigilant and the British privateer Dart. This engagement was one of the most impressive captures of an enemy warship by a revenue cutter. The sloop Dart, formerly an American ship, as an enemy privateer had captured more than 20 American merchantmen. News of the raider reached Newport, Rhode Island, on 4 October 1813, so Captain John Cahoone placed additional armed men aboard the Vigilant and set out in search of the privateer. Cahoone located the Dart off the east end of Block Island, fired on her, then steered alongside and ordered his men to board her. The cuttermen and militia chased the enemy crew belowdecks and took her as a prize. It was the last known use of an armed boarding party by a revenue cutter during the Age of Sail.
Meanwhile, Captain Daniel Elliott had continued to serve as the customs naval officer for Downeast Maine even after the loss of his revenue cutter, the Commodore Barry. Elliott took command of the smaller, but swift revenue boat Income, stationed out of Machias, Maine. By September 1813, the newspapers reported that the revenue boat had captured one of the Dart’s prize ships, which was sailing for Halifax, Nova Scotia. The schooner had a British prize crew on board plus one remaining American, who piloted the schooner through thick fog to the patrolling revenue boat. In February 1814, while sailing off Jonesport, Maine, Elliott encountered the British privateer Hare of St. Johns. Elliott beached the Income at nearby Sawyer Cove, and his crew took cover with small arms. An armed landing party rowed ashore from the privateer to seize the revenue boat. With the aid of local militiamen, Elliott’s crew killed one and wounded two of the British landing party before the enemy escaped back to the privateer.
Unlike U.S. Navy vessels, revenue cutters regularly boarded merchant vessels to enforce laws. This maritime-interdiction role often exposed criminal activity— smuggling, defrauding the government, failing to observe federal laws and tariffs—by American merchant shippers. One such case occurred on 22 January 1814 near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when a boarding party from the Active inspected the merchant ship Fair American, which had special papers to sail for Liverpool, England. In what became a rather sensational story at the time, Caleb Brewster’s crew found 11 men without passports concealed in the ship’s hold and several men of wealth disguised as seamen. They caught others among the crew trying to destroy illegal documents. The Active’s boarding party found bills, orders, and drafts for supplying the Royal Navy and the British military in Canada and the West Indies and arrested a number of passengers, including two smuggled British prisoners of war. A New York newspaper described the incident as demonstrating “the development of a most nefarious and long continued system of smuggling, [and] victualing the British and contravening the most imperious laws and highest interests of the country.”
Toward the end of the conflict, revenue cutters fought for their very survival against larger units of the Royal Navy. In New Haven, Connecticut, on 10 October 1814, word spread that a privateer in Long Island Sound had captured an American merchantman. Captain Frederick Lee quickly assembled local militia to join him on board the cutter Eagle and sailed into the night to recapture the American vessel and take the British vessel as well. The next morning, Lee found his cutter dangerously close to the 18-gun brig HMS Dispatch and her armed tender, but he managed to escape capture from the Dispatch’s barges by running the cutter ashore on Long Island. Lee’s crew stripped sails, dragged the Eagle’s cannon up the bluffs, and dueled with the enemy. After two days’ fighting the Dispatch left in search of reinforcements, and Lee managed to patch and refloat his damaged cutter. But on 13 October, the British brig and tender returned with the 32-gun frigate HMS Narcissus. Later that day, this enemy flotilla delivered an overwhelming force of seven armed barges, whose officers, marines, and seamen fought off Lee’s men and towed away the damaged cutter. Lee later wrote: “The officers and crew, together with the volunteers, on board the cutter, have done their duty as became American sailors.”
Cutter Service Crucible
Before the War of 1812, revenue vessels already protected shipping, enforced U.S. trade laws and quarantine restrictions, interdicted smuggling, facilitated the operation of lighthouses, and, unofficially, conducted rescue operations. During the war, the service’s watercraft adopted new missions, including port and coastal security, convoy and escort duty, shallow-water combat operations, intelligence gathering, and a variety of other naval-support missions.
The wartime achievements of the Revenue Cutter Service came at a great cost, with a total of 90 revenue cuttermen captured by the British. The British sent these POWs to the military prison located on Melville Island at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and to prison ships in England. Of these prisoners, 15-year-old James Madison cutterman Beloner Pault was the youngest POW in Coast Guard history and one of the first African-Americans to serve on board a revenue cutter. Madison crewmember John Bearbere was the first cutterman to die in prison. An American POW later wrote regarding conditions on prison ships: “Here were two hundred and fifty men, emaciated by a system of starvation cooped up in a small space, with only an aperture of about two feet square to admit the air, and with ballast stones for our beds!”
The war proved a baptism of fire for the Revenue Cutter Service in other ways. In addition to the capture of dozens of cuttermen, the service lost 6 of 14 saltwater cutters, and virtually all revenue watercraft in the Great Lakes were wiped out. These losses were not only due to enemy action, but also include one vessel that suffered a catastrophic explosion and another that sank in a hurricane. In addition, approximately two dozen cuttermen were either killed or lost in action during the War of 1812.
“Account of Eagle’s Encounter with British Dispatch, War of 1812,” Coast Guard Magazine, August 1931, 34–35.
Donald L. Canney, U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790–1935 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, vols. 1–3 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985–2002).
Stephen H. Evans, The United States Coast Guard, 1790–1915: A Definitive History (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1949).
Robert Gardiner, The Naval War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
Paul H. Johnson, “The Search for Captain Frederick Lee,” The Bulletin, March–April 1977, 34–36.
Irving H. King, The Coast Guard Under Sail: The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1789–1865 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).
Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard, 1790–December 31, 1933 (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 1989).
H. D. Smith, “Capture of the United States Revenue Cutter Surveyor: An Historical Incident of the War of 1812,” United Service Magazine, no. 7 (April 1892), 363–71.
H. D. Smith, Early History of the United States Revenue Marine Service or United States Revenue Cutter Service, 1789–1849 (Washington, DC: U.S. Coast Guard, 1989, reprint of 1932 ed.).
William R. Wells II, “US Revenue Cutters Captured in the War of 1812,” American Neptune, vol. 58, no. 3 (Summer 1998), 225–41.