War of 1812: Service expands missions

Two hundred years ago, the United States, independent for less than 30 years, went to war with Great Britain to preserve its economy, its way of life and its independence. Beginning in 2012 and continuing through 2015, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard will commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and historic moments that occurred throughout the war, including the birth of The Star Spangled Banner.

As part of the commemoration, Compass would like to share with you the historic ships, patriots and moments that laid the foundation for our great nation. Check with us throughout the year as we join in celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

A replica revenue cutters' ensign during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard photo illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn.

A replica revenue cutters' ensign during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard photo illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn.

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

Many of the legacy skills of the modern-day Coast Guard can be traced to the War of 1812. During this time, a marked expansion of responsibility set in motion an important legacy of service to America, further distinguishing the Coast Guard as a multi-mission, maritime, military service.

Click the above image to see a video of Chief Warrant Officer Peter Valente discussing the first Coast Guard prisoners of war during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard video.

Click the above image to see a video of Chief Warrant Officer Peter Valente discussing the first Coast Guard prisoners of war during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard video.

Some historians dispute the timing of the war; others postulate that Britain’s complex and time consuming entanglement with Napoleon may have provided an ideal time and impetus to declare war. Yet when President James Madison declared war Jun. 18, 1812, U.S. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin sent a circular to customs collectors containing only one sentence, “Sir, I hasten to inform you that War was this day declared against Great Britain.”

That important news was disseminated to U.S. naval vessels by revenue cutters stationed at Savannah, Ga., Norfolk, Va., Charleston, S.C., New York City, Portsmouth, N.H.; and Wilmington, Del. This move underscores one of the earlier roles played by the Revenue Cutter Service. Other missions expanded after war broke out included:

Capt. Eric Jones (left), commanding officer of Coast Guard Barque Eagle, holds the end of a replica commissioing pennant before Lt. j.g. Jonathan Heesch (right) raises it aloft aboard Eagle. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Hill.

Capt. Eric Jones (left), commanding officer of Coast Guard Barque Eagle, holds the end of a replica commissioning pennant before Lt. j.g. Jonathan Heesch (right) raises it aloft aboard Eagle. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Hill.

  • Escort and protection – defending merchant vessels and convoys along the Atlantic coast to ensure safety and the flow of commerce.
  • Intelligence and news gathering – cutters provided customs, military personnel, elected officials and the media, with vital news of enemy and privateer movements. They also supplied accurate details about American naval and merchant vessel movements.
  • Port and coastal security - revenue cutters shouldered responsibility within the shallow waters to catch smugglers, seize and detain cargoes, expertly understand required paperwork and customs law and diplomatically search vessels entering or leaving port.
  • Transport and communications – during wartime, the cutter fleet delivered messages to U.S. naval units while also transporting naval personnel and diplomats.

The War of 1812 helped prove the value of the nation’s oldest, continuous, seagoing service as they protected American commerce and economic interests. The dramatic mission expansion that occurred during the War of 1812 proved so vitally important to our nation, they have endured to this day.

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  • Bill Wells

    “The War of 1812 helped prove the value of the nation’s oldest,
    continuous, seagoing service as they protected American commerce and
    economic interests.”

    For all the hoopla, the cutters were virtually useless. They were not taken into the Navy Department and they served few naval functions.  In total, six cutters were lost, with a possible seventh, a laying up of a couple other; this shut down cutter operations for the war. 

    Apart from a couple defensive operations and the capture of the smaller privateer Dart  by the cutter Vigilant, the cutters served no real purpose. 

    The upside of the War of 1812 for the Revenue Cutter Service was it was able to obtain new cutters.  I suppose the historical lesson is to loose your old ones to get new ones.

  • george hannifin

    Bill-  go back and review some history.  Although not part of the Navy, the RCS did augment their vessels with the Cutters.
    True:  the Vigilant did capture the British privateer Dart.

    But there is much more… and great heroes from the Coast Guard predecessor.   This history is easy to find.  It is even available on Wikipedia…… so

    Never forget the RCS Surveyor that captured the first British vessel, the frigate Narcissus.  Further, as the Surveyor was eventually captured after significant engagement.  The British captain  displayed his respect for RCS Captain Travis by returning his sword to him accompanied by a letter which said:
    “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 testimony of mine…I am at 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.”

    And an even more stunning story is that of the cutter Eagle  and British brig Dispatch.  Badly outgunned, by the Dispatch, RCS Captain Lee beached the vessel on Long Island Sound to avoid sinking, and continued the fight by moving his two guns up a 160 foot cliff to fire on the Dispatch until they ran out of shot… and reused those that were fired at them from the Dispatch!  They even used the ship’s logbook as wadding to continue the fight.

    SO I assert that you have it wrong.  Way wrong.

    Semper Pa!

    Pat Hannifin

  • Jnyontz

    The RSC Jefferson Captured the first war prize of The War of 1812.

  • Steve Shupe

     I loved this article on the War of 1812.  This history lesson by Petty Officer 1st Class, Judy L. Silverstein was great.  As a citizen, I am very proud of the U.S. Coast Guard and the role it plays and the professionalism it exhibits.  Well done.