The Long Blue Line: The Cutter Mercury and War of 1812 Operations in North Carolina

A vintage illustration depicts Royal Navy ships launching barges during the War of 1812. (Library of Congress)

 

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

Before the War of 1812, revenue cutters enforced trade laws and interdicted smuggling. During the war, the cutters cemented many of the combat and homeland security missions performed today by the U.S. Coast Guard, including intelligence gathering.

During the attempted British invasion of North Carolina, the Revenue Cutter Mercury proved the value of small maneuverable vessels in the shallow sounds and inland waterways of the Carolina coast. In 1807, Mercury was built and made its home port in the coastal city of Ocracoke, North Carolina. By 1809, its homeport was moved from Ocracoke to the inland city of New Bern. Mercury’s capable master, David Wallace, came from a prominent family from the state’s Outer Banks and had an intimate knowledge of the coast.

By late May, the blockade began to cut-off Southern cities, including the bustling port town of Ocracoke.

A vintage naval cutlass similar to those used during the War of 1812. (Coast Guard Collection)

Located next to a channel through the Outer Banks that served as the entrance to North Carolina’s vast inland sounds, Ocracoke proved easy prey for the British attackers. On May 21, the brazen British privateer Venus of Bermuda attempted a surprise attack on the Mercury and American ships anchored at Ocracoke. The local inhabitants detected the plot and raised an alarm before the British privateer could spring its trap. The enemy raider managed to escape and searched for easier prey offshore.

In 1813, the Royal Navy began to institute a close blockade of the east coast. In mid-summer, a more ominous threat loomed on the horizon, when a Royal Navy squadron appeared off Ocracoke. On July 12, 1813, the squadron launched a surprise attack sending ashore 15 armed barges, supporting approximately 1,000 British officers and men. The invaders captured two American privateers, but cutter Mercury managed to escape with the local customs house papers by “crowding upon her every inch of canvas she had, and by cutting away her long boat.” The British had hoped to take the cutter, so their barge flotilla could enter Pamlico Sound unnoticed and capture the important commercial center of New Bern.

A model of the Revenue Cutter Mercury. (Photo courtesy of The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, North Carolina Maritime Museum System)

Mercury outran the barges, sailing quickly to New Bern to warn city officials of probable attack by British invaders. Mercury’s early warning allowed New Bern’s military officials the time to muster army regulars and militia forces to defend the city. With their approach announced by Mercury’s captain, the British reversed their invasion plans. New Bern’s newspaper, the Carolina Federal Republican, wrote, “Captain David Wallace of the Revenue Cutter, merits the highest praise for his vigilance address and good conduct in getting the Cutter away from the enemy, and bringing us the most speedy intelligence of our danger.”

After the attempted invasion, the British retreated to their ships and departed North Carolina’s coast. In the final year of the war, Mercury remained active in North Carolina’s waters. On Nov. 5, 1814, a newspaper reported Mercury’s capture of a British brig that the cutter sent into Beaufort, North Carolina, for adjudication. And, on the November 12, the cutter captured in Ocracoke the grounded ship Fox, a tender for the Royal Navy ship-of-the-line HMS Ramilles. Mercury delivered to New Bern the vessel and its crew of a Royal Navy officer and seven enlisted men. Finally, by February 1815, Wallace and his men received the news that the war was finally over.

The cuttermen who served in the War of 1812, such as Master David Wallace and the crew of cutter Mercury, are now long forgotten and lost to the cobwebs of history. But these men who went in harm’s way to defend American freedom deserve recognition as some of the earliest heroes to walk the long blue line.

An historical marker honoring the wartime service of revenue cutter Mercury is unveiled July 12, 2013, in Ocracoke, N.C. (Photo courtesy of The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, North Carolina Maritime Museum System)

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