Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian
“I am at a 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.” – Lt. John Crerie of the Royal Navy described his admiration for Master Samuel Travis’s defense of the Revenue Cutter Surveyor in the Battle of Gloucester Point.
In 1813, the British blockade of the East Coast had brought the War of 1812 home to American shores, especially within the Chesapeake Bay. By this time, Revenue Cutter Surveyor was the last U.S. vessel to show the flag in the Royal Navy-dominated bay. The customs collector for the port of Baltimore had built the cutter to serve the Baltimore station. However, by 1813, the cutter had to evade Royal Navy warships by cruising in the southern Chesapeake.
Constructed in 1807, the Surveyor carried a wartime crew of 25 officers and men and an armament of six 6-pound carronade cannon, double-issue of muskets, cutlasses and pistols. Its captain, Samuel Travis, had received an appointment as first mate when Surveyor was commissioned and he served in that capacity until the Revenue Cutter Service, one of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, promoted him to the cutter’s master in 1811.
On Saturday, June 12, 1813, Travis anchored Surveyor off Gloucester Point, near Yorktown, Virginia. Not knowing the proximity of British naval forces to his ship, he sent out a picket boat manned by the third mate and three men to warn against an enemy attack. He also installed boarding nets to defend the cutter’s deck against boarding parties. That evening, the 32-gun frigate HMS Narcissus deployed three barges carrying a force of over 50 Royal Navy officers, men and marines to capture Surveyor. Under the cover of the thick evening haze, the barges used muffled oars to row silently toward the cutter’s anchorage. By midnight, the British watercraft had closed to within 150 yards of Surveyor. The cutter’s guard boat heard them, fired on the barges and commenced the Battle of Gloucester Point.
After Travis heard the warning shot, he armed his remaining crew of 17 men with two loaded muskets each. The British rowed swiftly toward Surveyor with the boat commanders deftly steering their barges under the cutter’s devastating six-pound carronades, rendering the main ordnance ineffective. Travis waited until the enemy had closed to within effective range of the muskets and ordered his men to fire. The crew loosed a volley at the enemy barges. After the first volley, Surveyor’s men had a chance to fire their second loaded muskets before they ran out of ammunition. By the last round, the cuttermen had killed three attackers and wounded several more. Despite their losses, the British marines and navy men still outnumbered the Americans by 2 to 1. Even though Travis had secured boarding nets on board Surveyor, the enemy eventually gained the cutter’s deck. Armed only with knives and cutlasses, the outnumbered crew was overwhelmed by the heavily armed boarding party.
After the battle, Travis found himself held prisoner aboard the British 44-gun frigate HMS Junon, anchored near the mouth of the James River. On Tuesday, June 22, he witnessed from the deck of the frigate, the Battle of Craney Island in which 2,000 British troops attacked the American earthen works fortification at Craney Island guarding the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia. With a force of 750 militiamen, Army regulars and crewmembers of trapped Navy frigate Constellation manning the defenses, the Americans drove off the British invaders with heavy losses. Two days later, the frustrated British carried out a punitive attack against lightly defended Hampton, Virginia, sacking the city and using the captured Surveyor to cover their landings.
After the Battle of Gloucester Point, the commander of the attacking flotilla, Crerie, returned Travis’s sword. In a personal note to Travis, Crerie commended the cutter master for the valiant defense of Surveyor in the face of overwhelming odds: “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.”
In early August 1813, the British paroled him at Washington, North Carolina. Upon his release, Travis returned to Virginia and lived in Williamsburg for the remainder of his life. The cutterman’s home in Colonial Williamsburg, Travis House, serves as a reminder of Travis’s bravery and the Battle of Gloucester Point. The ultimate fate of the gallant revenue cutter Surveyor remains a mystery to this day.
Samuel Travis and his men are members of the long blue line who fought valiantly against overwhelming odds. In 1927, the service honored Travis as the namesake of a 125-foot cutter and, in 2015, the Coast Guard named the Travis Building at Training Center Yorktown in his honor.