Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard.
Before the War of 1812, revenue vessels enforced trade laws, interdicted smuggling, facilitated the operation of lighthouses and performed rescue operations. During the war, the revenue cutters cemented many of the combat and homeland security missions performed today by the U.S. Coast Guard, including port and coastal security, convoy and escort duty, shallow-water combat operations and intelligence gathering.
Leading up to the war
In the years leading up to the War of 1812, United States revenue cutters supported a variety of missions. Law enforcement and maritime safety comprised the revenue cutter’s original missions dating to the 1790 establishment of the fleet. Prior to hostilities, new missions unrelated to tariff enforcement were assigned to the revenue cutters, including enforcing quarantine restrictions, charting and surveying the American coastline, supplying lighthouses and marking navigable channels.
Revenue cutters and boats also deterred smuggling, which was rampant in the border areas in the early years of the republic. Rescuing mariners in distress on the high seas fell unofficially to the cutters since they patrolled U.S. waters regularly and witnessed a large number of sinkings, strandings and disasters at sea.
At the start of the war, revenue cutters served as the U.S. military’s “tip of the spear” with the conflict’s first captures. On June 25, 1812, just a week after the declaration of war, the cutter Thomas Jefferson captured the British schooner Patriot, referred to by newspapers as “Prize No. 1.” Cutter James Madison of Savannah captured the armed British brig Shamrock on July 23. And, on August 1, cutter Gallatin captured the armed British brig General Blake, sailing from London to Spanish Florida with a cargo of slaves and war material.
Revenue cutters were some of the first federal vessels to meet the enemy, engaging units of the Royal Navy as early as July and August 1812. And when the Royal Navy instituted its blockade of the East Coast in early 1813, the cutters served as front-line units in securing American ports and surrounding waters from enemy attack.
During the War of 1812, revenue cutters established their role as effective shallow water naval vessels. The sailing warships of the U.S. Navy were too large to enter many of the inland waterways of the American coastline. Designed to catch smugglers in these waters, the revenue cutters proved very effective in navigating and fighting in such areas.
One of the revenue cutters’ primary missions was protecting American maritime commerce, requiring them to defend coasting vessels navigating the sounds, bays and inland waterways of the United States. During the war, several revenue cutters carried on the tradition of escorting convoys, which had been established ten years earlier in the Quasi-War with France.
To keep regional waters secure for American commerce also meant fighting British privateers that patrolled off East Coast ports and preyed on American merchantmen and battles between cutters and privateers occurred periodically. This included the last use of armed boarding parties by revenue cutters in the Age of Sail.
With U.S. naval vessels cruising far off shore and navy gunboats often stationed in port cities, revenue cutters became the country’s foremost maritime intelligence gathering tool. They monitored enemy naval movements, identified British privateers and provided the latest news regarding U.S. Navy vessels. Because of their speed and agility, the revenue cutters proved the most reliable source of this naval intelligence.
Revenue cutter Mercury
During the attempted British invasion of North Carolina, the revenue cutter Mercury, homeported in the city of New Bern, proved the value of small maneuverable vessels in the shallow sounds and inland waterways of the Carolina coast. Mercury’s master, David Wallace, came from a prominent family from the state’s Outer Banks and had an intimate knowledge of the coast. By late-May 1813, the British blockade began to encircle the Southern port cities, including Ocracoke. Located next to a channel through the Outer Banks that served as the entrance to North Carolina’s inland sounds, Ocracoke proved easy prey for British attackers. On May 21, the brazen British privateer Venus of Bermuda, attempted a surprise attack on cutter Mercury and American vessels anchored at Ocracoke. The local inhabitants detected the plot and raised an alarm before the British privateer could spring its trap. The enemy raider managed to escape and searched for easier prey sailing offshore.
In mid-summer, a more ominous threat loomed on the horizon, as a Royal Navy squadron appeared off Ocracoke. On July 12, 1813, the cutter Mercury saved the day after the squadron launched a surprise attack. Fifteen armed barges, supporting approximately 1,000 British officers and enlisted men, captured two American privateer brigs, but Mercury managed to escape with the local customs house papers and bonds by “crowding upon her every inch of canvas she had, and by cutting away her long boat.” The British had hoped to take the cutter, so their barge flotilla could enter Pamlico Sound and capture the city of New Bern. Mercury thwarted those plans by outrunning the barges, sailing quickly to New Bern and warning city officials of probable attack by British troops.
Mercury’s early warning allowed locals the time to muster the necessary army and militia forces to defend the city and the British reversed their invasion plans. New Bern’s newspaper, the Carolina Federal Republican, wrote, “Captain David Wallace of the Revenue Cutter, merits the highest praise for his vigilance address and good conduct in getting the Cutter away from the enemy, and bringing us the most speedy intelligence of our danger.”
Afterward, Mercury remained active in North Carolina waters. On Nov. 12, 1814, the cutter captured the ship Fox, used as a tender by ship-of-the-line HMS Ramilles, and delivered to New Bern the vessel and its crew of a Royal Navy officer and seven enlisted men.
The cuttermen who served in the War of 1812, including Wallace and the crew of the cutter Mercury, have been forgotten and lost to the cobwebs of history. But these men who went in harm’s way to defend American freedom deserve the respect and recognition as some of the Coast Guard’s greatest heroes.