The Long Blue Line: Rogue cutter James Madison and first Coast Guard POWs

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.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

President James Madison, namesake of Savannah’s revenue cutter. Photo courtesy of Library of Virginia, Richmond.

President James Madison, namesake of Savannah’s revenue cutter. Photo courtesy of Library of Virginia, Richmond.

A Revenue Cutter cannot be expressly fitted and employed for the purpose of cruising against an enemy except under the 98th Section of the collection law in which case the Cutter must be placed under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy.
–Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, Dec. 28, 1812

In the above quote, Secretary Albert Gallatin wrote to Boston’s customs collector regarding the proper use of revenue cutters. This letter was likely in response to the case of the rogue cutter James Madison. In August 1812, the Madison set sail on a cruise out of Savannah, Georgia, in consort with two privateers to capture British merchantmen. It would be the cutter’s last cruise.

On June 26, 1807, the Treasury Department had authorized the Baltimore customs collector to build the cutter James Madison. Measuring 86 feet in length and 22 feet wide, the cutter served out of Baltimore during 1808 and, in January 1809, it sailed from Baltimore to take up station in Savannah. Nearly two years later, in December 1811, George Brooks received his commission as revenue cutter master and took command of the cutter. He had received a commission as its first mate a year earlier.

 facsimile of the Revenue Cutter Service ensign flown during the War of 1812. Coast Guard Collection.

facsimile of the Revenue Cutter Service ensign flown during the War of 1812. Coast Guard Collection.

On Thursday, June 25, 1812, a week after President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, his namesake cutter began a cruise to capture enemy merchant vessels. On July 5, the Madison detained the British schooner Wade at Amelia Island, in Spanish, Florida, after its capture by U.S. Navy gunboats. Before the war, Amelia Island had been a center for smugglers bringing illegal cargoes into the United States. Wade’s cargo included pineapples, $20,000 in specie, and live turtles – considered a delicacy at the time. In the War of 1812, federal vessels received prize money for captured enemy vessels and their cargo. Wade proved the first of several enemy merchantmen to line the pockets of Brooks and his men.

On Friday, July 17, Brooks announced he would set sail from Charleston, South Carolina, to capture more British ships. Cutter Madison departed Charleston and chased six “unprotected” British merchantmen sailing up the east coast from Jamaica. On July 23, Brooks’ cutter took the 300-ton British brig Shamrock after an eight-hour chase. Carrying six guns and a crew of 16 officers and men, Shamrock was bound from London to Amelia Island with a cargo of arms and ammunition. On August 1, Brooks and the Madison also captured the Spanish brig Santa Rosa near Amelia Island and brought it into to Savannah for adjudication.

Lines of the cutter James Madison drawn by noted naval architect and maritime historian Howard Chappell. Courtesy of Howard I. Chappell, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: Norton & Co., 1949), p. 247.

Lines of the cutter James Madison drawn by noted naval architect and maritime historian Howard Chappell. Courtesy of Howard I. Chappell, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: Norton & Co., 1949), p. 247.

In August, Brooks got word of a large British convoy sailing off the coast bound from Jamaica. On Thursday, August 13, he set sail with privateers Paul Jones and Spencer and on August 21, he located the fleet. According to newspaper reports, the revenue cutter “cut out” two merchantmen and sent the captured ships into port. It seemed the Madison and its men were destined for greater glory, but these prize ships would be the last of James Madison’s captures.

An artist’s rendering of the cutter James Madison. Coast Guard Collection.

An artist’s rendering of the cutter James Madison. Coast Guard Collection.

On Thursday, August 22, Brooks’s luck finally ran out. He attacked the convoy at night and mistook the 32-gun frigate HMS Barbados for a large merchantman. According to reports, Brooks ordered his gunners to fire several cannon into the enemy ship and attempted to board the British frigate. After realizing his error, Brooks altered course and sailed off with the frigate in pursuit. The cutter jettisoned two cannon and, after several hours, appeared to make good its escape until the wind died and becalmed it. The British frigate’s captain, Thomas Huskinsson, deployed oared barges to tow his larger warship, which caught up to the cutter. At a standstill and greatly outgunned, Brooks had no choice but to strike his colors and surrender. A second British escort vessel, the 64-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Polyphemus, sent a prize crew of 20 men to sail the Madison. Meanwhile, the cuttermen were shipped back to the two British warships.

On Oct. 7, 1812, the Royal Navy formally designated the James Madison’s captured crew as “prisoners of war.” They were among 90 American cuttermen captured during the war. The British paroled Brooks and his junior officers several weeks after their capture. In late November, the British placed all of Madison’s officers onboard the cartel brig Diamond, which sailed under the white flag for New York. According to the New York Evening Post, “Among the prisoners arrived at New York, Tuesday, November 24, 1812, by Cartel Brig Diamond, are Captain Brooks and his officers of the Revenue Cutter Madison of Savannah.” As part of their parole, the officers were sworn not to engage in military action against British forces. No record exists of George Brooks serving again as an officer during the war or afterward.

A painting by Peter Rindlisbacher of the Cutter James Madison capturing the British merchantman Shamrock. Coast Guard Collection.

A painting by Peter Rindlisbacher of the Cutter James Madison capturing the British merchantman Shamrock. Coast Guard Collection.

James Madison’s enlisted men fared worse than her officers. Four enlisted men were sent to Boston and nine were held at the military prison located on Melville Island at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The rest were sent to England and kept on prison ships at Chatham. Four cuttermen, considered black slaves, were captured with Madison as well as three men, described as “mulatto,” who were likely freedmen, and sent to England as POWs. Of the latter group, 15-year-old Beloner Pault of Savannah is the youngest POW in the history of the Coast Guard. Regarding the conditions found on British prison ships, an American Navy POW recounted that, “Here were 250 men, emaciated by a system of starvation, cooped up in a small space, with only an aperture of about two feet square to admit the air, and with ballast stones for our beds!”

On May 28, 1813, Madison seaman, John Barber, became the first cutterman in Coast Guard history to die in captivity. He perished onboard the British hospital ship Le Pregase at Chatham.

Illustration of a British prison ship or hulk similar to those that held American POWs during the War of 1812. Photo courtesy of National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Illustration of a British prison ship or hulk similar to those that held American POWs during the War of 1812. Photo courtesy of National Archives of the United Kingdom.

HMS Barbadoes’s captain Thomas Huskinsson, had noted James Madison’s fast sailing qualities. However, the Royal Navy surveyed the James Madison at a dockyard in October and pronounced it unfit for naval service. On June 16, 1813, the ex-James Madison was sold to the 2nd Earl of Belmore of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. The earl converted it into an armed yacht and renamed it Osprey. After the end of the War of 1812, Gallatin wrote the customs collector in New York regarding the construction of new schooner-rigged vessels to replace cutters, such as the James Madison, which were lost in the war.

Brooks and his men had sailed revenue cutter James Madison in a high stakes gamble against the Royal Navy. Brooks beat the odds for a time, but his luck finally ran out. He also sacrificed the freedom of his enlisted crewmembers, one of whom paid the ultimate price in England’s ghastly prison-ship system. Brooks and his men were members of the long blue line, who went down in history as the service’s first POWs.

Painting of the ex-James Madison after her sale to the 2nd Earl Belmore and the former cutter’s conversion to the armed yacht Osprey. Photo courtesy of the collection of John Armar Lowry-Corry, 8th Earl Belmore.

Painting of the ex-James Madison after her sale to the 2nd Earl Belmore and the former cutter’s conversion to the armed yacht Osprey. Photo courtesy of the collection of John Armar Lowry-Corry, 8th Earl Belmore.

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