Tensions leading to the War of 1812

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Two hundred years ago, the United States, independent for less than 30 years, went to war with Great Britain to preserve its economy, its way of life and its independence. Beginning in 2012 and continuing through 2015, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard will commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and historic moments that occurred throughout the war, including the birth of The Star Spangled Banner.

The services have partnered with the International Council of Air Shows, the Navy League, the Naval Historical Foundation and Operation Sail to create world-class events around the country, with signature events in New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland. As part of the commemoration, Compass would like to share with you the historic ships, patriots and moments that laid the foundation for our great nation. Check with us throughout the year as we join in celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Lines of the revenue cutter James Madison drawn from a British Admiralty plan by Howard I. Chapelle.
Lines of the revenue cutter James Madison drawn from a British Admiralty plan by Howard I. Chapelle.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard.

In the first 20 years of service, the revenue cutters were the only defense against attempts to circumvent customs duties, and the new nation’s only source of income beside the sale of public lands. The various peacetime tasks specifically assigned to the cutters included boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers; sealing cargo holds of incoming vessels; and seizing those vessels in violation of the law. In addition, the cutters deterred smuggling by sailing out their homeports and intercepting smugglers well out of the harbor but within sight of the coast. Here, smugglers unloaded their cargoes into smaller “coaster” vessels or directly onshore to avoid customs duties.

War of 1812 vintage revenue cutter ensign.
War of 1812 vintage revenue cutter ensign.

Soon, the federal government assigned the cutters other missions unrelated to law enforcement, including charting local coastlines; carrying official passengers and papers; carrying supplies to lighthouses; and enforcing local quarantine restrictions. During this period, rescuing or assisting mariners in distress on the high seas fell unofficially upon the revenue cutter fleet since the cutters patrolled U.S. waters regularly and witnessed numerous sinkings, strandings and disasters at sea.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and France both violated American neutrality. French privateers captured unsuspecting American merchantmen despite their neutral status, while British warships stopped U.S. vessels and impressed American seamen. In 1807, the most flagrant case of impressment involved the seizure of four crewmembers from the frigate USS Chesapeake after an attack and boarding by the Royal Navy frigate Leopard. President Thomas Jefferson did not heed calls for war and chose to respond instead with diplomacy and trade sanctions.

For these and other reasons, the Jefferson and Madison administrations used the Embargo Act in 1807 and Non-Intercourse Act in 1809 to assert American neutrality. The revenue cutters were required to enforce these unpopular laws, which prevented many U.S. ships from sailing to foreign ports and put thousands of Americans out of work. Congress repealed all but the Non-Intercourse Act by early 1812, but these trade restrictions greatly increased tensions between Great Britain and the United States.

Revenue Captain Frederick Lee. Coast Guard Academy Art Collection.
Revenue Captain Frederick Lee. Coast Guard Academy Art Collection.

The Madison administration re-asserted economic pressure on the British in the spring of 1812 with a temporary ninety-day embargo. However, after a concerted effort to remain neutral through trade sanctions, the United States could no longer avoid conflict with Great Britain and, on June 18, 1812, Madison signed the declaration of war. At that time, the United States faced the Royal Navy’s 600 ships with only 16 navy warships, a fleet of small navy gunboats and 14 revenue cutters.

On the day war was declared, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin sent a one-sentence circular to his customs collectors, writing “Sir, I hasten to inform you that War was this day declared against Great Britain.” Gallatin ordered the cutters to dispatch the declaration of war to U.S. Navy vessels then underway off the East Coast. At the start of the War of 1812, the revenue cutters already served a multi-mission role in service of the federal government. Over the course of the conflict, they would expand this role to include several new naval and combat-oriented missions.

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