The Long Blue Line: Operations of cutter Active in War of 1812

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

Painting of a War of 1812 cutter similar to the Active. U.S. Coast Guard collection.

Painting of a War of 1812 cutter similar to the Active. U.S. Coast Guard collection.

“The night was dark and the wind fair. As we have heard nothing of them since they sailed, they undoubtedly made good their passage.” The Connecticut Mirror, Aug. 2, 1813

The newspaper quoted above related the latest news regarding the revenue cutter Active and the convoy the ship escorted from Connecticut to New York. Best suited to swiftness and agility, revenue cutters provided a multi-mission platform during the War of 1812. Beside their peacetime mission of law enforcement, the cutters also escorted convoys of American merchantmen, provided vital naval intelligence, delivered important military officials and documents, and operated with units of the U.S. Navy.

One of the busiest revenue cutters to operate during the war was named Active. The Treasury Department purchased and commissioned the cutter in 1807, and it served out of New York City under the command of Master Caleb Brewster. On Jan. 20, 1797, Brewster received a commission as first mate in the Revenue Cutter Service; and, on July 28, 1801, he received a commission as revenue cutter master for the state of New York.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Historical Ships Company participated in a living history program displaying sailors' items from the 1800s at the Mariner's Museum, Feb. 27, 2012. The USCGAUXHSC is comprised of military, historians and educators throughout the Virginia tidewater region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Historical Ships Company participated in a living history program displaying sailors’ items from the 1800s at the Mariner’s Museum, Feb. 27, 2012. The USCGAUXHSC is comprised of military, historians and educators throughout the Virginia tidewater region. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn.

With naval vessels cruising at sea and naval gunboats stationed in port cities, revenue cutters became the military’s most effective maritime intelligence gathering tools. Their speed and agility made the revenue cutters the most reliable source of this intelligence. They monitored enemy naval movements, located British privateers, and provided news about American merchantmen. Cutter captains gathered and shared this information with customs collectors, local officials, newspapers and military personnel.

Under the command of Brewster, Active proved one of the most effective intelligence gathering cutters, reporting such intelligence as numbers and positions of enemy ships, landing of troops, and provisioning of enemy vessels. Former member of a spy ring for Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Brewster had plenty of experience in intelligence gathering. On May 26, 1813, a New York newspaper reported that cutter Active braved a “strong south gale” near Montauk Point, Long Island, to maintain surveillance of three British men-of-war about 10 miles out to sea. Using local small craft, Brewster passed the information to Commodore Stephen Decatur, whose flotilla was anchored in Long Island Sound.

The official Revenue Cutter Service ensign flown during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard collection.

The official Revenue Cutter Service ensign flown during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard collection.

In the summer of 1813, Brewster sailed Active through the British squadron blockading Decatur’s flotilla of USS United States, USS Macedonian, and USS Hornet on the Thames River, near New London, Connecticut. Active also provided force protection for Decatur’s warships and delivered reports, messages and vital information between Decatur’s flotilla and military authorities in New York. Brewster continued providing this intelligence to New York officials until the war’s end.

During the war, Active also protected American merchantmen against marauding enemy privateers and British warships. After the Royal Navy blockaded the East Coast in 1813, this mission became especially important to American merchantmen navigating coastal sounds, bays and inland waterways. Active typically escorted convoys of several coasters or merchantmen under cover of night from Connecticut to New York City. On Aug. 2, 1813, the Connecticut Mirror reported that on “Monday night, sailed brig James Monroe, Joseph Skinner, master Revenue Cutter Active, Capt. Brewster, Packet Juno, Howard, master, and some smaller craft, all for New-York. The night was dark and the wind fair. As we have heard nothing of them since they sailed, they undoubtedly made good their passage.”

Ship model rendering of a War of 1812 cutter, such as Active. Graveyard of the Atlantic Maritime Museum, North Carolina.

Ship model rendering of a War of 1812 cutter, such as Active. Graveyard of the Atlantic Maritime Museum, North Carolina.

Unlike Navy ships, revenue cutter crews could legally board merchant vessels to enforce maritime laws. This law enforcement role exposed criminal activity, such as smuggling, defrauding the government and failing to observe federal laws. Such a case occurred on Jan. 22, 1814, near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when Active’s boarding party inspected merchant ship Fair American, which held special papers to sail for Liverpool, England. In what became a sensational story at the time, Brewster’s crew found 11 men holding no passports concealed in the ship’s cargo spaces and several men of wealth disguised as seamen. Active’s men caught others among the ship’s crew trying to destroy illegal documents. Active’s boarding party found bills, orders, and drafts for supplying the Royal Navy and the British military in Canada and the West Indies and arrested a number of passengers, including two smuggled British prisoners of war. A New York newspaper reported that the incident demonstrated “the development of a most nefarious and long continued system of smuggling, victualing the British and contravening the most imperious laws and highest interests of the country.”

Active and its heroic master, Brewster, demonstrated the importance of revenue cutters in wartime. In February 1815, the Army general in command of American forces in New York sent Active out to sea on her final wartime mission. She delivered papers from Secretary of War James Monroe notifying the blockading British squadron that a peace treaty had been signed and the war was over.

Cutter master Brewster remained in the service until 1816, and the cutter Active sailed until 1817. Brewster died in 1827 and was laid to rest in Fairfield Cemetery in Fairfield, Connecticut. These early cutters and men like Brewster who sailed them are part of the history and lore of the long blue line.

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