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U.S. Revenue Cutters In
The War of 1812

A Mariners Museum painting depicting the capture of the Revenue Cutter Surveyor in the War of 1812

The capture of the Revenue Cutter Surveyor
by forces of the Royal Navy, 1813.  A watercolor
by Irwin John Bevan.

Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum


U.S. Coast Guard Auxliary Historical Ships Company personnel portraying the uniforms worn by Revenue personnel in the 1800s.

During the War of 1812 the nation's revenue cutters primary wartime mission was supporting and augmenting the Navy with its shallow-draft cutters.  As Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin noted after the war began the Navy did not have "small, fast sailing vessels" because there were "but six vessels belonging to the Navy, under the size of frigates; and that number is inadequate...".

The cutters distinguished themselves during the war early but suffered significant losses.  It was a cutter, Jefferson, that captured the first British merchant vessel of the war when it seized the Patriot in June, 1812.  The following month the cutter James Madison captured the British Shamrock.  One of the more hotly contested wartime engagements of the war for the Revenue Marine was between the cutter Surveyor, commanded by Revenue Captain Samuel Travis, and boarding parties deployed from the British frigate HMS Narcissus.  Although Surveyor was captured after a bloody skirmish, the British commander considered his combat opponent to have shown such bravery that he returned Captain Travis' surrendered sword.  Another cutter, Commodore Barry, was captured by British assault forces on 3 August 1812 after her crew put up a stout defense.

The defense of the cutter Eagle against the attack of the British brig HMS Dispatch and an accompanying sloop was one of the more dramatic incidents of the war.  With the cutter run purposely aground on Long Island, the crew dragged some of the cutter's guns onto a high bluff.  From there Eagle’s crew, with the support of some local militia, fought the British from mid-morning until late afternoon.  When the cuttermen exhausted their large shot, so the popular legend goes, they tore up the cutter’s logbook to use as wads and fired back at their enemy with spent British cannon balls.

The war left few legacies for the small service.  They suffered their first prisoners-of-war taken by the enemy--the only POWs the service had until World War II.  Their treatment by their captors and then by an seemingly uncaring Treasury Department after the war led to controversy about their status as veterans, a controversy not fully settled until the creation of the Coast Guard in 1915.  Despite that and the grievous losses, however, the cutters proved they could lay alongside an enemy, fight on the decks in hand-to-hand combat and spill blood with the greatest naval force of the time.  The War of 1812 was a difficult and dangerous war for the cutters but one that firmly established the protection of the nation's coast and its coastal waters as one of the service's most important and long-lasing missions.  Even to this day cutters specialize in and continue to serve in littoral or "brown water" combat operations.


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Last Modified 1/12/2016