Written by William Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian
On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain and the War of 1812 officially commenced.
At that time, the United States faced the Royal Navy’s 600 ships with a force of 17 commissioned U.S. Navy vessels, a fleet of small gunboats, and 14 revenue cutters.
On the day Madison signed the declaration of war, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin sent a one-sentence circular to the customs collectors, who controlled the revenue cutters, writing, “Sir, I hasten to inform you that War was this day declared against Great Britain”. Gallatin then ordered cutters stationed along the East Coast to dispatch the news to any underway Navy vessels.
As they would in future American conflicts, the revenue cutters went in harm’s way and participated in some of the first encounters of the war.
On Thursday, June 25, 1812, Norfolk, Virginia-based cutter Thomas Jefferson captured the British schooner Patriot bound from Guadeloupe to Halifax with a cargo of sugar. Termed “Prize No. 1” by the press, this was the first maritime capture in the War of 1812.
The Jefferson’s captain, William Ham, had worked his way through the ranks starting as a mate on cutters in 1791, before receiving his master’s commission in 1804. His first mare commission was the first commission signed by President George Washington and his master’s commission the second signed by President Thomas Jefferson. Ham commanded the cutter throughout the war and for several years thereafter.
While the Jefferson detained many vessels entering the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads, the local newspapers noted only a few cases. For example, on September 2, 1812, the Jefferson seized the brigs Ariadne and Rockland for carrying illegal cargoes and escorted them into Norfolk.
During the War of 1812, revenue cutters undertook new missions and established their reputation as effective shallow water, or “brown water,” naval vessels. The U.S. Navy sailing warships were too large to enter many inland waterways of the American coastline, however, revenue cutters were designed to catch smugglers in these waters and proved effective in shallow water combat operations.
After the British tightened their blockade of the Chesapeake Bay in early 1813, the Royal Navy began patrolling parts of the southern Chesapeake in search of unlucky American merchantmen. These British patrols often relied on shallow draft armed barges that relied on sail and oar power.
One of these armed patrols met their match on the James River in April 1813. On April 11, the Jefferson and a pilot boat with a contingent of local militiamen overhauled three Royal Navy barges. The barges attempted to escape up the river, but the Thomas Jefferson ran them down. Just as Ham was about to fire a broadside into them, the British commander ordered the white flag raised and surrendered. Ham ordered the nearly 60 British officers and men ashore under an armed guard of 40 riflemen. The Americans also repatriated the crew of the merchantman Flight, captured earlier by the enemy barges.
Ham and his cutter continued to fulfill wartime missions throughout the remainder of the conflict.
Shortly after capturing of the British barges, a Royal Navy squadron with troop transports entered Hampton Roads with the intention of capturing Norfolk and the frigate USS Constellation moored there. No records have survived indicating the role played by the Jefferson in the June 22 Battle of Craney Island, however, Jefferson’s cuttermen and cannon undoubtedly defended the port of Norfolk just as Constellation’s crew and guns served in that battle.
On Christmas Eve, 1814, representatives of the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, in Belgium, to end the War of 1812, however, in North America the war continued on until February 1815.
The Royal Navy sloop HMS Favorite delivered the peace treaty to New York City under a white flag on February 11, and the war concluded after President Madison signed it on February 16, 1815.