The Long Blue Line: Capt. Campbell and cutter Eagle in Quasi War, Part One

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.

William H. Thiesen, PhD
Atlantic Area Historian
United States Coast Guard

This painting held by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy shows Eagle re-capturing prize ships Nancy and Mehitable in May 1799. Coast Guard Academy Library.

This painting held by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy shows Eagle re-capturing prize ships Nancy and Mehitable in May 1799. Coast Guard Academy Library.

In the late 1790s, the United States and Revolutionary France began fighting an undeclared naval war known as the “Quasi War.” With only a small naval force available at the time, U.S. authorities called on the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to protect American merchantmen and defend them against French privateers.

In the early 1790s, the nation’s revenue cutters were small lightly armed vessels, cruising for only days at a time out of their homeports. The service quickly built a class of small warships, or super-cutters, which matched or exceeded the speed and armament of enemy privateers. This new class of cutters included Eagle, Pickering, and Scammel, which all participated in combat operations during the Quasi War. Pickering was one of the standouts of this class, capturing nearly 20 prizes and privateers, including l’Egypte Conquise. The French privateer carried almost double Pickering’s weapons and crew, and surrendered only after a brutal 9-hour gun battle. However, sailing under Master Hugh George Campbell, Eagle commanded the best wartime record of captures for any U.S. vessel.

In August 1798, Campbell arrived in Philadelphia to take possession of Eagle for the Revenue Cutter Service and prepare her for sea. The 187-ton vessel measured 58 feet on the keel, with a 20-foot beam and 9-foot hold. Eagle carried 14 6-pound carriage guns on her main deck. At about 6 feet in length and weighing around 700 pounds apiece, these 6-pounders required a high degree of skill, training and physical strength to maintain and operate. The cutter was likely pierced with 16 gun ports, two extra for ranging cannon forward and handling anchor lines through the bow.

Problems had emerged before Campbell arrived in Philadelphia adding weeks to Eagle’s departure on her first war cruise. The large cutter required a complement of no less than 70 men to sail her, man her guns, board enemy ships and supply prize crews for captured vessels. A yellow fever epidemic had struck the city and regulations forbidding enlistment of black seamen both delayed recruiting. Under orders from Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert, Campbell did his best to “Enlist none but healthy white men, and give preference to Natives if they are to be had.” The cutter’s crew ultimately included Campbell, mates (first, second and third), boatswain, carpenter, gunner, able seamen, ordinary seamen, cook, steward, boys and a contingent of 14 marines.

Based on records and documents, this modern profile view shows the cutter Eagle, which fought in the Quasi-War with France. Coast Guard Collection.

Based on records and documents, this modern profile view shows the cutter Eagle, which fought in the Quasi-War with France. Coast Guard Collection.

Local shortages of war material also delayed Eagle’s deployment. Before sailing for the theater of operations, Eagle required four months’ worth of provisions and two months’ supply of water. Philadelphia’s naval suppliers had to provide military stores, such as powder, flints, cutlasses, pistols, blunderbusses and gun carriages. Eagle required 40 cannon balls per 6-pound gun, or 560 cannon shot, which required additional time to acquire. By late November, Campbell was fully provisioned and ready to go in harm’s way with the swiftest vessel in the American fleet.

Eagle’s deployment came none too soon as rumors spread that French privateers were cruising in southern waters, causing concern among American merchants and shippers. Campbell received orders to patrol off South Carolina and Georgia coasts, so he raised anchor and set a course down the Delaware River. Campbell’s mission showed the U.S. flag along the coast and proved a success in the eyes of nervous merchants, but Eagle encountered no enemy cruisers during her deployment. In January 1799, Campbell received new orders to rendezvous with the American naval squadron based at Prince Rupert’s Bay, Dominica.

Campbell set sail for the rendezvous, initiating a 2-year rampage against enemy shipping and privateers. On March 2, before falling in with the American squadron, Eagle re-took from a French prize crew the captured American sloop Lark. As was the custom at the time, cutters and Navy ships received prize money for capturing enemy vessels, or a smaller amount of salvage money for re-capturing prize vessels. Lark proved the first of many re-taken vessels to line the pockets of Campbell and his men with salvage money. Also in March, Congress enacted legislation that brought the Revenue Cutter Service under the control of the U.S. Navy. After this legislation became law, revenue cutters would forever serve as part of the Navy during armed conflicts, as modern Coast Guard cutters do today.

In mid-March 1799, Campbell reported for duty to squadron commander John Barry, captain of the 44-gun frigate USS United States. Eagle fell in with the rest of the squadron, including her sister ship Pickering, en route to Prince Rupert’s Bay. By this time, Caribbean waters had become a lawless place of privateers and their prey; and, within weeks of the rendezvous, Campbell had re-captured a second prize ship and run ashore a French privateer at Barbuda.

This painting of the Cutter Eagle capturing privateer Le Bon Pierre illustrates the activities carried out by revenue cutters during the Quasi-War. Coast Guard Collection.

This painting of the Cutter Eagle capturing privateer Le Bon Pierre illustrates the activities carried out by revenue cutters during the Quasi-War. Coast Guard Collection.

At the time of Eagle’s entry into the war, enemy privateers operated out of French possessions, such as Guadeloupe and St. Martin. On Friday, April 5, Eagle gave chase to the Guadeloupe-based privateer Le Bon Pierre, pierced for 10 cannon, but mounting only four with a 55 man crew. The sloop fled and dumped two guns overboard to speed her escape. However, after a five hour chase, Eagle overhauled the privateer, whose crew offered no resistance. Campbell placed aboard the privateer a prize master and prize crew who sailed Le Bon Pierre to Savannah for adjudication. The Revenue Cutter Service purchased the sloop and converted her into the cutter Bee to serve the Savannah station, giving Campbell and his men shares of the privateer’s handsome $2,000 adjudication value.

In mid-April, Eagle joined the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution (a warship Campbell would one day command) to escort 33 British and American merchantmen out of the Caribbean. During such convoy operations, it was Eagle’s duty to fend off privateers and cruisers attempting to “cut out” merchantmen from the convoy. Eagle encountered at least one “strange sail” during the mission, but no merchantmen were lost. At the end of April, Eagle patrolled with revenue cutter Virginia and the 18-gun brig USS Richmond. Together, they captured the French schooner Louis before Eagle returned to base at Prince Rupert’s Bay.

Picture of Eagle and USS Constitution escorting a convoy out of the Caribbean. Picture by marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher.

Picture of Eagle and USS Constitution escorting a convoy out of the Caribbean. Picture by marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher.

Early in May, Eagle arrived at the squadron’s new base at Basseterre, St. Kitts, located north of Guadeloupe. From there, she re-joined USS Richmond and patrolled windward of Barbuda and Antigua. On May 15, the two brigs encountered the French privateer Reliance of 14 guns and 75 men in consort with two prize ships. These prize ships were the Massachusetts brig Mehitable, sailing home to Newburyport from Suriname; and the New Bedford whaler Nancy returning home from a one year voyage to the South Pacific. Outnumbered and outgunned, Reliance fled, leading the Richmond on a 14-hour chase, after which the privateer escaped under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, Eagle re-captured both Mehitable and Nancy, taking prisoner their French prize crews. Nancy alone carried tons of spermaceti oil valued at $50,000, a large fortune whose salvage value was shared out to her captors.

May 1799 proved lucrative for Campbell, including the final days of the month. On Wednesday, May 29, Eagle partnered with the 20-gun ship USS Baltimore to capture the privateer schooner Syren of four guns and 36 men. Later that day, Eagle and frigate USS United States re-captured the American sloop Hudson. These captures added to Campbell’s reputation as a combat commander and his net worth, greatly padding the wealth he would amass over the course of the war.

Campbell continued to prove himself with his command presence and seafaring ability as a member of the long blue line and as one of America’s finest combat captains in the Age of Sail. His story continues in next week’s installment of The Long Blue Line.

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