The Long Blue Line: Master Lee and the Fight for Eagle III

During the War of 1812, the Treasury Department required revenue cutters, such as the Connecticut-based Eagle, to enforce tariffs and trade laws, and protect American maritime commerce. Frederick Lee was one of the most noted revenue cutter captains at the time, bravely facing enemy fire against the Royal Navy. Revenue Cutter Eagle was the last cutter lost in the war.

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This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

A contemporary illustration of Royal Navy barges deployed from British warships for a shore attack similar to those units sent to beat back Capt. Frederick Lee’s forces Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
A contemporary illustration of Royal Navy barges deployed from British warships for a shore attack similar to those units sent to beat back Capt. Frederick Lee’s forces Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

William Thiesen
Atlantic Area Historian
United States Coast Guard

During the War of 1812, the Treasury Department required revenue cutters, such as the Connecticut-based Eagle, to enforce tariffs and trade laws, and protect American maritime commerce. Connecticut native Frederick Lee, one of the most noted revenue cutter captains at the time, commanded Eagle out of her homeport of New Haven. Born in 1766, Lee was too young to see action in the Revolution. Instead, he became a shipmaster and received a cutter master’s commission in 1809, at the ripe age of 43.

A profile view of the War of 1812 Cutter Eagle, showing hull lines and sail rig. Coast Guard Collection.
A profile view of the War of 1812 Cutter Eagle, showing hull lines and sail rig. Coast Guard Collection.

Built in New Haven in 1809, the topsail schooner-rigged Eagle was the third revenue cutter to bear that name. She had dimensions of 60 feet in length on deck and 18 feet wide, with small arms of muskets, pistols and cutlasses, and ordnance of four 4-pound and two 2-pound cannon. During the War of 1812, her primary mission was to apprehend British merchant ships as well as American merchantmen carrying illegal British cargoes. In August 1812, Lee’s Eagle seized the brig Harriot of Bristol, England, and a brig from Liverpool, both bound for New York, and sent them into New London for adjudication. In October 1813, Eagle also apprehended American brigs Patriot, Harriet and Ann McLane and sent them into New Haven for carrying illegal British cargoes.

A rare miniature portrait of Captain Frederick Lee painted by Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. This is the only contemporary illustration of a cutter captain known to exist. Image courtesy of Henry Whitfield State Museum, Guilford, Conn.
A rare miniature portrait of Captain Frederick Lee painted by Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. This is the only contemporary illustration of a cutter captain known to exist. Image courtesy of Henry Whitfield State Museum, Guilford, Conn.

With U.S. Navy warships cruising far off shore and Navy gunboats often moored in port cities, the speedy revenue cutters became effective maritime intelligence gathering tools. They monitored enemy naval movements, identified British privateers, and provided the latest news regarding Navy vessel movements. Master Lee’s cutter gathered and shared this information with customs collectors, local officials, and military leaders. For example, on Tuesday, July 14, 1812, Eagle sighted a British squadron of four large warships patrolling off Montauk Point, Long Island, and transmitted their location by letter to the Navy agent at New York City. On July 24, Lee also notified the New York Navy agent that famed frigate USS Constitution had narrowly escaped a British squadron of nine warships after a four-day chase.

During the war, cutters also enforced over half-a-dozen trade restrictions passed by Congress. Revenue cutter officers and crew were well versed in these numerous laws, for American merchants and ship captains would often challenge in court any seizures, forfeitures or detentions of U.S. ships they believed to be illegal or wrongful. These restrictions included the Non-Intercourse Act, which was in force throughout the war. In October 1813, Eagle apprehended the fast-sailing Boston to New York packet for “Breach of the Sabbath.” Federal authorities indicted, incarcerated, and fined the crew and passengers according to the law.

Eagle also escorted convoys of American merchantmen, a revenue cutter tradition established during the Quasi War with France in the late 1790s. Between 1813 and 1814, Eagle regularly served as escort for convoys of merchantmen between Connecticut and New York that ranged in size from three vessels to as many as 20. On June 17, 1814, a New York newspaper noted, “Yesterday at 4 P.M. Passed the New-Haven Revenue Cutter Eagle, Lee, from New York, with 20 sail of coasters under convoy, standing into New-Haven.”

Eagle’s most important wartime mission was to protect American merchantmen against marauding enemy privateers and British warships. After the Royal Navy tightened its East Coast blockade late in the war, this mission became especially important to American coasting vessels navigating the sounds, bays and inland waterways of the East Coast. On Monday, May 30, 1814, Lee learned that the British privateer Liverpool Packet had captured a locally owned sloop just outside New Haven Harbor. Lee brought on board Eagle 44 volunteer militiamen and pursued the British privateer together with a local merchant vessel hastily armed with field artillery. Eagle and her consort had to turn back after sighting a British frigate and two more Royal Navy warships sailing in their direction and preparing to attack Eagle and the armed merchantman. The local newspaper stated “The spirit which animated all who embarked on the expedition, is worthy of praise and imitation, and renews a confidence that the sons of Connecticut will still perform their duty, spontaneously, whenever a fit occasion demands.”

Painting of Cutter Eagle on wartime patrol in Long Island Sound by marine artist Patrick O’Brien. Coast Guard Collection.
Painting of Cutter Eagle on wartime patrol in Long Island Sound by marine artist Patrick O’Brien. Coast Guard Collection.

Eagle’s ability to protect American commerce was put to the test in October 1814. On Monday, October 10, news arrived from Long Island Sound that a privateer had captured an American merchantman. Despite the threat of Royal Navy vessels patrolling the Sound, Lee showed no hesitation in pursuing the enemy. He assembled local militia to join his cutter and sailed into the night to re-capture the American vessel and take the British privateer. At daybreak, Lee found his cutter dangerously close to the 18-gun brig HMS Dispatch and an armed tender; and he narrowly escaped capture from deployed armed barges by running Eagle onto the northern shore of Long Island. The cutter’s crew stripped the cutter of her sails and dragged her cannon up the bluffs to duel with the British warships and armed barges.

With only six cannon, and 50 men armed with muskets, Lee managed to fend off the two ships and their barges for another day. Of the battle, a contemporary newspaper account stated that:

Having expended all the wadding of the four pounders on the hill, during the warmest of the firing, several of the crew volunteered and went on board the cutter to obtain more. At this moment the masts were shot away, when the brave volunteers erected a flag upon her stern; this was soon shot away, but was immediately replaced by a heroic tar, amidst the cheers of his undaunted comrades, which was returned by a whole broadside from the enemy.

In all, the British shot away Eagle’s flag three times, but volunteers from Lee’s crew replaced it each time. After they had exhausted their cannon shot, Eagle’s gun crews tore up the cutter’s logbook to use as wadding and fired back enemy small shot that lodged in the hill.

Painted by Aldis Browne, this mural image in the Henriques Room of the Coast Guard Academy’s Chase Hall depicts the heroic battle for Cutter Eagle by Capt. Frederick Lee, his crew and militia forces. Coast Guard Collection.
Painted by Aldis Browne, this mural image in the Henriques Room of the Coast Guard Academy’s Chase Hall depicts the heroic battle for Cutter Eagle by Capt. Frederick Lee, his crew and militia forces. Coast Guard Collection.

By Wednesday, October 12, the Royal Navy warships departed to locate reinforcements while Lee patched up and refloated the damaged Eagle. Early the next day, at low tide, the British gun brig and her tender returned bringing with them the 32-gun frigate HMS Narcissus. Lee’s men ran the damaged cutter into shallow water again. Later that morning, the Royal Navy ships launched a boarding force of seven armed barges with covering fire from the three warships. Lee’s men kept up a brisk musket fire against the barges and, according to Lee, “Our guns were loaded nearly to the muzzle with grape and canister, and the fire reserved until they were within a handsome distance, and then discharged.” The Americans fended off the British with withering cannon and musketry fire for nearly an hour. After that, the incoming tide re-floated Eagle and an enemy barge secured a line to the cutter. At around noon October 13, the British finally towed Eagle away from shore and the range of Lee’s cannon and riflemen. Lee’s men survived to fight another day prompting him to write, “The officers and crew, together with the volunteers, on board the cutter, have done their duty as became American sailors.”

During the War of 1812, five cutters were lost, including one whose magazine exploded, another lost in a hurricane, and three captured by the enemy. Eagle was the last cutter lost in the war. In November 1814, a month after the Royal Navy flotilla captured her, a Boston newspaper reported, “American revenue cutter, the Eagle, prize to H.M.B. Dispatch, sailed under convoy of the Narcissus.” Two more revenue cutters named “Eagle” later served out of New Haven, one built in 1816 and another constructed in 1824. Frederick Lee would remain a cutter master until 1829. He was a member of the long blue line and served honorably for 20 years before retiring from the Service at the age of 63.

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