The Long Blue Line: Commodore Barry and the Battle of Little River

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.

Artist’s rendering of a revenue cutter from the War of 1812 era. Coast Guard Collection.

Artist’s rendering of a revenue cutter from the War of 1812 era. Coast Guard Collection.

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

“[At] about 1 p.m. five launches of men (about 250) started from them [Royal Navy ships] for the harbor. In a few minutes the firing commenced and continued for nearly two hours, then it ceased.”
Maine fisherman who witnessed the Battle of Little River, Aug. 3, 1812

In the quote above, an anonymous Maine fisherman recounted the engagement between Revenue Cutter Commodore Barry and units of the Royal Navy. It was the first of many wartime encounters between revenue cutters and the enemy in which brave cuttermen were vastly outnumbered and outgunned yet fought bravely nonetheless.

During the War of 1812, revenue cutters pursued their missions in American waters despite regular patrols by units of the Royal Navy. Missions of the revenue cutters included law enforcement and interdicting smugglers and the busiest areas for smuggling included the U.S. border with Canada. To deal with smuggling between Canada and Maine, the Department of the Treasury relied on cutters, such as the Commodore Barry. Purchased on Long Island in March 1812, the two-masted six-gun schooner began service in the spring under the command of Maine revenue cutter master Daniel Elliott.

Section of antique chart showing rocky shore of Downeast Maine and Little River Harbor (lower left) located between Machias and Campobello Island. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chart Collection.

Section of antique chart showing rocky shore of Downeast Maine and Little River Harbor (lower left) located between Machias and Campobello Island. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Chart Collection.

In early summer 1812, the Barry patrolled the Passamaquoddy District of Maine, located along the border with Canada. The cutter apprehended numerous smuggling vessels and brought them into port for adjudication by local courts. On June 27, the Barry seized the schooner Cranberry for carrying British goods in U.S. waters. Next day, the Barry escorted the Cranberry along with detained schooners Theresa and Rising Sun from Eastport, Maine, back to Portland. Just a day after arriving in Portland, Commodore Barry detained the schooner Nymph for carrying an illegal cargo. In all, the revenue cutter apprehended five smuggling vessels and, early in August, a local court adjudicated the cases of three more vessels seized by Barry for carrying illegal British cargoes.

In the summer of 1812, the Royal Navy’s Halifax squadron deployed on a mission to capture or destroy American shipping along the Maine coast. Comprised of 38-gun frigate HMS Spartan, 36-gun frigate HMS Maidstone, 18-gun brig HMS Indian and 12-gun brig HMS Plumper, the squadron deployed to Downeast Maine near the border of British Canada. On Sunday, Aug. 2, Elliott first learned of this squadron after hearing cannon fire between the British warships and armed American privateers in Haycock Harbor, to the east of his anchorage in Little River, near Machias. By then, it was too late to escape and there was nowhere to hide. For self-defense, Elliott beached the cutter next to the American privateer Madison and the two ships’ crews set up shore batteries behind fortifications improvised from cordwood. At about 1 p.m. on Aug. 3, the British deployed five armed barges with approximately 250 officers and men to attack the trapped American crews and their makeshift defenses. The British paid dearly for the attack, suffering as many as 20 dead and wounded, but they carried the day. All but three of the cutter’s crew escaped into the woods, and these three cuttermen became the first prisoners of war in Coast Guard history. The British took their prisoners to Halifax, where they were the first of many cuttermen incarcerated at the military prison on Melville Island.

Watercolor painting by Irwin Bevan of the Battle for of Little River depicting the vastly outnumbered Commodore Barry crew defending their cutter on Aug. 3, 1812. Image courtesy of the Mariners Museum Collection.

Watercolor painting by Irwin Bevan of the Battle for of Little River depicting the vastly outnumbered Commodore Barry crew defending their cutter on Aug. 3, 1812. Image courtesy of the Mariners Museum Collection.

After the battle, the British troops plundered the surrounding area, burned the beached privateer and re-floated the cutter. When the squadron sailed for Saint John, Nova Scotia, it brought along the Commodore Barry. Local authorities there had been searching for a vessel to protect local merchant shipping from American privateers and purchased the Barry to serve that role. Saint John authorities fitted out the former cutter, re-named it Brunswicker and sailed until July 4, 1815, when they sold the vessel out of service.

Prison camp on Melville Island in Halifax, home to three Commodore Barry cuttermen after their capture. Image courtesy of Oakville Public Library, Ontario, Canada.

Prison camp on Melville Island in Halifax, home to three Commodore Barry cuttermen after their capture. Image courtesy of Oakville Public Library, Ontario, Canada.

Elliott continued to serve as a revenue cutter officer for his district even after the loss of his cutter. After the capture of the Barry, Elliott took command of the smaller, but swift revenue boat Income, stationed out of Machias. By September of 1813, the newspapers reported that the revenue boat had captured a former prize ship captured by the British privateer Dart and sent to Halifax. The captured schooner had a British prize crew aboard, except for one American prisoner, who piloted the schooner through thick fog into the hands of Elliott and his revenue boat.

A flintlock pistol from 1810 similar to those used by cuttermen during the War of 1812. Coast Guard Collection.

A flintlock pistol from 1810 similar to those used by cuttermen during the War of 1812. Coast Guard Collection.

In February 1814, while sailing off Jonesport, Maine, Elliott encountered the British privateer Hare of St. Johns. Elliott beached the Income at nearby Sawyer Cove and his crew took cover with small arms. The privateer’s armed landing party rowed to shore to seize the revenue boat. With the aid of local militiamen, Elliott’s crew killed one, wounded two and captured another of the British landing party before the privateersmen escaped back to their ship. In addition, on March 4, 1814, Elliott took possession of British prize vessel Porpoise from the American privateer Nonsuch and sent the captured vessel to Machias for adjudication.

Naval style cutlass similar to those used on board cutter Commodore Barry. Coast Guard Collection.

Naval style cutlass similar to those used on board cutter Commodore Barry. Coast Guard Collection.

War of 1812 cuttermen, such as Elliott and the brave crew of Commodore Barry, 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.

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

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

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