July 7, 1798, The Quasi-War with France

Today marks the anniversary of the start of the Quasi-War with Republican France in 1798. As most of us know, the Navy was virtually non-existent. The first three frigates were being completed just as the war began. New cutters with more potential as warships were replacing the original ten and Cutters Pickering and Eagle proved particularly useful. Eagle captured or assisted in the capture of 22 vessels and Pickering captured or recaptured 18 including four privateers. Pickering’s capture of the l’Egypte Conquise was particularly notable because the French privateer was much more heavily armed and had a crew reported as large as 350 compared to Pickering’s crew of about 70. Ultimately Pickering was lost with all hands in a hurricane in  September 1800 that also sank the frigate Insurgent which had been captured by the Constellation and taken into US service.

The Coast Guard History web site has an excellent article (pdf), “Benjamin Hiller & the Cutter Pickering in the Quasi-War with France.” William Thiesen, Sea History 122 (Spring, 2008), pp. 24-27; published with the permission of the National Maritime Historical Society.

Perhaps it is time to have cutters named for Benjamin Hiller and the Revenue Cutter Pickering.




8 thoughts on “July 7, 1798, The Quasi-War with France

  1. One small problem with the Pickering Story. Hiller was not a RCS officer and Pickering, built on public subscription, had virtually no RCS role.

    Jonathan Chapman had initial command of Pickering on July 12, 1798. Just eight days after the Navy Department was formed. In October 1798, Chapman wrote,as “Captain, U. S. Navy,” the Secretary of the Navy with the understanding that he only took command of the cutter on the condition that he would gain a greater rank and commission in the navy. Chapman also recommended Hiller for 1st Lt. in the same letter.

    By January 4, 1799, Lt Edward Prebble took command of Pickering. The Navy was quickly transiting the better cutters in to the navy and placing their officers aboard made it easier. The same day Chapman and the revenue crew were paid off and without any ceremony Pickering left the Revenue Service.

    Hugh Campbell aboard Eagle was taken into the Navy in May 1799.

    One interesting April 1799 capture of Eagle was one that caused, until recently, some confusion about the name of a captured sloop. Some accounts show Bon Pierre, others Bon Pere. However, the admiralty records of the South Court located in the regional archives in Morrow, Georgia, indicate her French registry as “Le Batteau le Bon Peŕre.” The court accepted “Bon Pere.” The Sloop was sold and became the Revenue cutter Bee after Judge Thomas Bee the Admiralty court judge in the Southern District.

    These admiralty records contain valuable information, if more nothing more than to settle long standing historical disputes.

    • I forgot to add Hillar’s Naval Register information.

      Lieutenant, 31 October, 1798. Commander, 8 February, 1800.

      His commission and that of John Mills, former Sailing Master to 2nd Lt., were sent to the Secretary of the Navy not the Treasury.

      • The article referred to indicates that prior to his Navy commission, Hiller was a Revenue Cutter service officer and that he served under both Chapman and Preble. We didn’t have much experience having cutters operate under the Navy at the time. I got the impression the Eagle was also in the Navy during this period. Apparently the ships and their officers and crews seemed to be swapped freely.

  2. I know about Hillar. He was, as I noted, aboard the cutter under Chapman but there is no record of him ever having a revenue commission. Hillar as the previous sailing master, which the RCS had no billet for in that era, he would not have had a commission. Warrants were not allowed in the RCS until the 1830s.

    Pickering was only in RCS service for about an undistinguished six months and then the Navy took it. They took all the good cutters and as soon as its fleet got up an running, it found the formerly useful cutters of 1798 (when there was no navy) deficient for naval purposes.

    It was not uncommon for them to commission officers on the cutters.
    The Naval Register shows,
    Appointed Captain, 10 September, 1798. Resigned January, 1799.”

    Chapman probably held dual commissions. He resigned because he was too senior to remain in Pickering and the Navy would not give him a, in his terms, “better” command.

    The point is, this is just another of those long standing myths in Coast Guard history. I’ve never understood why the Coast Guard claims service of vessels transferred to the Navy. The RCS had nothing to do with their actions or operations. Yes, Eagle too when to the Navy and Hugh Campbell became a commodore in the southern coast.

    Interestingly, the navy did not replace the vessels it took from the RCS. This became a long standing problem between the Coast Guard and Navy.

    Dr. John B. Hattendorf writing about naval history remarked,
    “Maritime history in the United States has four distinct audiences, each of which requires different approaches, levels of understanding, and vantage points: Congress and other government leaders, including uniformed members of the nonnaval services; the men and women of the U.S. Navy; academics; and the general public.”

    He includes the Coast Guard as having a naval history role, but the Coast Guard does not recognize that it has an audience at all beyond sound bytes and sixty second commercials. I’ve described the Coast Guard’s cultural outlook toward its history as a form of organizational Munchausen’s Syndrome.

    • Bill,

      Are good records of who was in the service available for this period? The article talks about records being destroyed when Washington was burned.

      • The “burned records” is an old excuse for poor research. In the book about the National Archives (I don’t have the title at hand), the author speaks that very few records were destroyed in the so-called “Federalist Bonfires” and a later one.

        The real culprits for the missing records are not unlike those of today. Poor storage, poor management, apathy and incompetence in keeping records. In the early 1880s, the Treasury Department realized that it had no lists of the revenue cutter officers nor of their service. They called out to all the Customs Houses for copies of all the records they had and these were numerous. Some were only one-liners and others contained more. They did not try to comb the Navy’s Records but did use the appointment records.

        The early officers are far more complete than those of later years. There were a number of “temporary” officers who received “inspector of revenue” commissions rather than “revenue service commissions.” However, they did command revenue cutters and boats. At the same time RCS officers commanded revenue boats too. There were no definite rules on this.

        I have transcribed about 3000 pages of officer, engineer, cadet and civilian records from microfilm. I have also added a dozen or so officers that I have found in other sources. I have also added more details as I have found them. At present, I have this all in an Excel spreadsheet of more than 1500 small type pages. I’d like to get them published but who would do it as my old friend Dennis Noble often says. I approached a genealogy publisher but he wasn’t interested. As a supplement, I’m working on a history of the officer corps to explain all was not so peachy-keen over the centuries. They were very poorly treated. Also, another myth holds Hopley Yeaton was the first commissioned officer. There is no historical evidence to support this or which of the twenty-one officers with the same date of commission was the first.

        However, according to the era’s rules, the date of commission meant little. It was the date of the oath of office that determined seniority and when salaries began. Not fair, but those were the rules. The first commissioned? My money is on Richard Taylor a Virginia-home boy. He was a personal friend of George Washington and a guest at Mount Vernon and was running the State of Virginia revenue cutter when commissioned in the federal service.

        No one has really ever looked at the appointment of the officers in a serious historical study. Everyone assumes it is all known.

    • Dennis, Dudley Knox did the compilations. They are important to the study of that sorta-war. However, Knox has been criticized for not editing the letters by adding information that is today a common practice.

      This does not, to me, detract from the works. If I need to know more, I just go and find it.

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