War of 1812: Cutters thwart privateering

By Written by Petty Officer 1st Class, Judy L. Silverstein.


To best understand the environment in 1812, it’s worth looking at what was happening in our nation’s brown water ports and harbors as well as on the high seas. It’s been said that the War of 1812 was the second phase of the American Revolution. In part, that’s because Britain never treated our independent nation with the respect it sought. A quote from The Washingtonian, published in Windsor, Vt. on Aug. 16, 1813, underscores the outrage felt by some American citizens about Britain’s persistent harassment and blockades.

“Whether there is any thing less frightful and alarming now, In Commercial Restrictions— In Oppressive Taxation—In Revenue Officers—and In a Military Despotism—than there was in ’76?”

During the six-year period between 1806 and 1812, the administrations of presidents Jefferson and Madison worked with Congress to establish American neutrality on the high seas, through economic restraints. Several unpopular laws were enacted, often impeding our own trade capabilities. The Revenue Cutter Service, precursor of the modern-day U.S. Coast Guard enforced these laws. Yet Britain persisted in antagonizing our fledgling nation with blockades at home and abroad.

Impressment of sailors

The impressment of sailors was a thorny sticking point that irritated our citizens and particularly, some members of Congress. For decades, diplomatic efforts had failed.

American Privateer Baltimore Clipper in the War of 1812.
American Privateer Baltimore Clipper in the War of 1812.

Britain had about 600 ships in her fleet, translating to a need for close to 100,000 sailors. Engaging in conflicts across the globe meant the Royal Navy was busy. Because of this high tempo, British sailors deserted to U.S. merchant ships, where the conditions were better and the pay a bit higher.

In contrast, America had a slew of well-trained merchant captains who had garnered a good deal of experience during the American Revolution and the Quasi War with France. Since Britain needed sharp sailors, she felt no qualms about impressing both known and so-called deserters into service. This further intensified American outrage.

Further, British support of Native Americans out west aggravated a growing mistrust of Britain. Native American leaders Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh formed a confederation of tribes to block westward expansion by the United States. Cleverly, the British seized the opportunity to provide the tribes with arms to thwart American expansion efforts westward and protect their interests in Canada. This move only fueled hostilities between the U.S. and Britain.


As if hostilities weren’t complicated enough, privateering was common practice on the open seas. Privateers helped move armed ships and crews without delays caused by debates over government funding. The practice wrought havoc on a nation in its infancy, as goods were seized by privateer vessels. Dependent upon tariffs, imports and exported goods, British privateers interfered with our economic viability.

Early American Privateer Avon circa 1815.
Early American Privateer Avon circa 1815.

Privateers were a blend of self-appointed pirates and government-sanctioned ships in and around our harbors and coasts. The legitimate ones operated under a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, issued by the American president, or by foreign governments. In those hectic Spring days of 1812, it may have been challenging to discern who was legitimate. Yet in the background, cries for war by some members of Congress were growing louder, as irritation over British naval blockades, illegal vessel boardings, and impressment of our sailors continued. Diplomatic maneuvers had also proven unsuccessful.

Dart is captured

American privateers proved successful as historic documents show they captured or sank roughly 1,700 British merchant vessels during the war. Though diminutive in size, the Revenue Cutter Service proved its mettle during the War of 1812, though the ships were outmanned and outgunned by the British.

Revenue Cutter Vigilant vs. British privateer Dart, Oct. 4, 1813.
Revenue Cutter Vigilant vs. British privateer Dart, Oct. 4, 1813.

“The capture of the British privateer Dart, on Oct. 4, 1813, by the Revenue Cutter Vigilant, was impressive,” said William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. “To keep regional waters secure for American commerce also meant fighting British privateers that patrolled off East Coast ports and preyed on American merchantmen.”

In hot pursuit out of Newport, R.I., Master John Cahoone led his 17 crewmembers to what may be the most historic capture by a cutter during the War of 1812. Coming alongside the sloop Dart in the waters off Block Island, R.I., they mounted a decisive surprise attack including canons, driving Dart’s crew below deck. An armed boarding of Dart ensued, ending a vicious period that included the capture of 20 American merchantmen. Dart had actually been a former American ship that a British privateers had captured. That’s why the capture was immortalized in the Columbian Patriot, only 16 days later.

“Captain Cahoone, with the volunteers under his command, deserve the highest credit for the spirit and promptitude with which this affair was conducted; and it is of the utmost importance, as it is probable she [Dart] would, but for this, have been almost a constant visitor during the ensuing season, when the mischief she would have done is incalculable.”

That resourcefulness and skill continues to define our service today. Revenue Cutter captains were not only masterful mariners, they were also well-versed in customs-specific paper work, maritime law enforcement, diplomacy, search and seizure laws and tariff collection. These remain requirements for modern-day Coast Guardsmen.

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