The Long Blue Line: Combat Captain Hugh Campbell and Cutter Eagle in the Quasi War, Part 2

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

Today we continue the story of Capt. Hugh Campbell and Cutter Eagle during the Quasi War with France. To read what happened first, read Part One.

Commodore Thomas Tingey sat for this portrait, as did many naval leaders of the day. However, there is no painting, rendering or monument to commemorate the service of cutter Captain Hugh G. Campbell. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Commodore Thomas Tingey sat for this portrait, as did many naval leaders of the day. However, there is no painting, rendering or monument to commemorate the service of cutter Captain Hugh G. Campbell. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Spring 1799 had been a successful season for Campbell, but summer brought new missions. On June 13, Eagle and Richmond served as escorts for a convoy sailing from St. Kitts north toward Bermuda. The two warships left the convoy near the Virginia coast and July saw Eagle laid up in Norfolk, undergoing repairs and replacing personnel. Meanwhile, American squadron commodore Thomas Tingey wrote dispatches from St. Kitts to the Secretary of the Navy begging for the speedy return of his top combat commanders, including Campbell. On July 27, Campbell received a U.S. Navy commission as master and commandant. On August 2, the Treasury Department transferred official control of the cutter and its crew to the Navy.

In early August, Campbell received orders to sail south from Norfolk and rejoin the American squadron. By early September, Eagle had returned to St. Kitts and set sail with the 20-gun ship USS Delaware, capturing the French merchant sloop Reynold, laden with sugar and molasses. On September 19, Eagle encountered a French privateer towing the American brig North Carolina. Eagle drove off the privateer and retook the brig. On October 2, in company with Commodore Tingey’s 24-gun sloop USS Ganges, Eagle captured the French merchant schooner Esperance, carrying sugar and coffee.

Two days after capturing Esperance, while anchored at St. Bartholomew’s, Campbell became party to one of the most notorious mutinies of the day. Two weeks into a voyage to St. Thomas, three seamen took control of the schooner Eliza of Philadelphia. The mutineers murdered the mate, a seaman and the supercargo; however, they failed to kill the captain, who kept the ship’s only firearms locked in his cabin. Armed with his pistols, the captain managed to entrap the three men below decks, retake the ship and sail single-handed for 13 days before encountering the Eagle. Campbell assisted the merchant captain and put the three mutineers in irons. He later transferred the men to the USS Ganges bound north for Philadelphia. Upon the American warship’s arrival, local authorities tried and convicted the men on charges of murder and piracy, and hanged them on Wind Mill Island across the Delaware River from the city.

Over the next six months, Campbell enjoyed a string of successes: December 5, the Eagle crew retook the brig George; January 2, they recaptured the brig Polly; the 10th, Eagle together with the 28-gun frigate USS Adams, captured the French privateer Fougueuse, of two guns and 50 men, and recaptured the American prize ship Aphia; February 1, Eagle captured the French schooner Benevolence; on March 1, it recaptured the American schooner Three Friends; on April 1, it captured the French privateer Favorite; on May 7, Eagle retook the American sloop Ann; and, three days later, she recaptured the American schooner Hope.

Campbell’s combat record rested on his sound leadership, the proper maintenance of his ship, and care of his crew. But combat also required good judgment. Campbell had to take risks and know when to press an attack and when not to. In early February 1800, he spotted two strange vessels, pursued them, and found the ships to be French privateers with a fighting strength twice his own. He outsailed the privateers, but suffered numerous hits from their guns while making good his escape. In June, Eagle encountered an enemy privateer with three prize ships off St. Bartholomew’s. Campbell attacked and Eagle received severe damage to its sails and rigging before the privateer fled. Meanwhile, the three prize ships ran ashore, robbing Campbell of their salvage value.

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.

In June 1800, Eagle captured two French ships and a third in August. These vessels would be the last captures of Campbell’s two-year campaign in the Caribbean. Despite spending considerable time escorting convoys and refitting at home, Campbell’s Eagle had captured, or assisted in the capture, of 22 privateers, prize ships and enemy merchantmen.

Campbell not only had command presence and seafaring ability, he was lucky. By September 1800, Eagle was in bad shape with half her copper sheathing gone and much of her wood planking infested with shipworms. Campbell received orders to escort a convoy north, together with the 26-gun sloop USS Maryland, and then sail home for refitting and hull maintenance. While Eagle rode at anchor awaiting her convoy’s 50 merchantmen to assemble at St. Thomas, a major hurricane swirled to the north, forcing a number of American warships to fight for their survival. Top heavy with thick masts and spars, and dozens of large cannon, the frigate USS Insurgent was probably the storm’s first victim. She vanished from the sea’s surface with her entire crew of 340 men. The next victim must have been Eagle’s sistership Pickering, which had recently triumphed over the privateer l’Egypte Conquise. But the victor became the vanquished as the heroic cutter lost her battle with Mother Nature. A day later all that remained of Pickering was an overturned hull afloat in the calm seas. Another of Eagle’s sisterships, Scammel, survived the storm only by dumping her cannon and excess gear. What the enemy had failed to do against the American squadron in months of naval warfare, the violent storm executed in just hours. After the hurricane passed, Campbell and his crew raised anchor and sailed north with the convoy not knowing their course took them over the watery graves of 400 American souls lost with the Pickering and Insurgent.

Campbell’s faded headstone at the Congressional Cemetery, near the Washington Navy Yard, is the only memorial to his heroic exploits and service to his country. Courtesy of Historic Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Campbell’s faded headstone at the Congressional Cemetery, near the Washington Navy Yard, is the only memorial to his heroic exploits and service to his country. Courtesy of Historic Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

After Campbell completed this final escort mission, he set a course for Delaware Bay. On Sunday, September 28, Eagle dropped anchor at Newcastle, Delaware, and Campbell’s command of the cutter came to an end. After refitting in Philadelphia, Eagle served a final tour in the Caribbean under another captain. But, with the conflict nearing an end, the brig saw little action. After the war ended, the Navy scaled back the fleet to its larger warships in the interests of economy. Eagle sailed for Baltimore to be decommissioned and on Wednesday, June 17, the Navy sold her for the sum of $10,585.73. Five more cutters named “Eagle” would serve in the Revenue Cutter Service and modern Coast Guard, including the Barque Eagle, the Coast Guard’s training vessel and America’s tall ship.

With Hugh George Campbell’s wartime record of captures, commodores Thomas Tingey and Thomas Truxton saw him as their most aggressive combat commander. Out of the hundreds of casualties suffered aboard the American squadron’s warships, Campbell’s Eagle reported not one case of illness, disease, injury, drowning, combat wounds or men killed in action. This record attests not only to Campbell’s good fortune, but his care and oversight of his ship and crew. On October 16, Campbell received promotion to captain in the U.S. Navy and would rise to become a prominent officer in the Navy during the early 1800s. He was a member of the long blue line and one of America’s finest combat captains in the Age of Sail.

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