William Aiken, 1855
ex-Eclipse; later Petrel
The governor of South Carolina from 1844 to 1846 and a member of Congress from 1851 to 1857.
COMPLETED: 1855 (Purchased)
DISPOSITION: Surrendered to the state authorities of South Carolina
DISPLACEMENT (tons): 82 57/95
The revenue cutter William Aiken, also referred to as simply Aiken, began service as a Charleston, South Carolina, pilot boat named the Eclipse. She was purchased by the Revenue Service from Hugh Vincent of that city for $4,500 in 1855. She was renamed William Aiken.
She was surrendered to the state authorities of South Carolina by her commanding officer, Revenue Captain N. L. Coste, on 27 December 1860. She was the first Federal vessel taken by the seceding states (South Carolina had moved to secede 20 December 1860). The Confederate Navy found her to be unseaworthy and the State put her up for sale. She was sold by the State to Henry Buist, Maier Triest and eight other Charlestonians, who were issued a letter of marque, 10 July 1861 at Charleston.
The new owners renamed the vessel Petrel. Petrel's life as a privateer was short: off her home port on her first cruise, 28 July, she was overhauled and sunk by USS St. Lawrence after a four-hour chase. Captain William Perry ran up the Confederate flag and fired three shots; one passed through the pursuer's "mainsail and took a splinter out of the main yard," whereupon St. Lawrence unlimbered her fo'c'sle battery, made two hits, "one of which struck her bows." Petrel sank in 30 minutes. Captain Hugh Y. Purviance, USN, noted laconically in his log, "Got out the boats and picked up the crew," thus learning Petrel's name and the fact that two of her men had drowned; he took no time then to file a report. The 36 prisoners were transferred to Flag at Savannah, then taken to Philadelphia to be tried for their lives as "pirates"—one of the early test cases by which this doctrine of "piracy" proved impracticable to enforce.
There was also a Lighthouse tender Governor Aiken, named for the same individual that the cutter William Aiken was, in service at the time. These were two separate vessels.
Cutter History File. USCG Historian's Office, USCG HQ, Washington, D.C.
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Vessels. Washington: USGPO.
Donald Canney. U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.
U.S. Coast Guard. Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790 - December 31, 1933. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934; 1989 (reprint).
U. S. Navy, Naval History Division. Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865. Washington: USGPO, 1971.