In Defense of the Cutter Eagle, 200 Years On

Ran across an account of the defense and subsequent loss of the Revenue Cutter Eagle by the “Riverhead News-Review.” It is a pretty good read. Could not help but notice that the frigate HMS Narcissus, that took the Cutter Surveyor was also involve in this incident.

Oct 11-13 will be the 200th anniversary of the incident. From the report it sounds as if the anniversary will be recognized by the local community. Hopefully the Coast Guard will also participate in some way.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Cutter Eagle, 200 Years On

  1. As would any good fighting fish, I rose to the surface to take Chuck’s lure.

    This story is another example of wishful history and a favorite one of the Coast Guard Academy–by geography more than deed. I understand the attempt but I addressed this, and the other captures, during the War of 1812 in my article apply named, “U. S. Revenue Cutters Captured during the War of 1812,” The American Neptune, Vol 58, No. 3 (Summer 1998), 225-241.

    The engagement began, as mentioned, by Eagle chasing after the evil Brits that took the sweet Susan. However, Frederick Lee did not depart in disobedience to orders but rather to chase the possibility of prize money. He had already scored a couple prizes and there nothing like success to breed the lust for more money. The Collector of Customs did not mind him bringing in prizes because the Collector also got a cut of the proceeds. Besides, what else was the cutter to do? The Brits, both Royal Navy and privateers, had things fairly well bottled up.

    To help retake Susan and maybe grab the offending Brit too, Lee summoned thirty of the local militia, under the command of Captain John Davis, with two 2-pounders. These added to the twenty-three man cutter crew and the two 2-pounders and two 4-pounders. The militia would have never gone had the collector not allowed it. The local and hyperbolic press called them “volunteers.” However, are not militiamen volunteers?

    When Lee found himself outmatched by the Brits — Despatch (the actual spelling) mounted sixteen 32-pounders and two 6-pounders. The Narcissus mounted twenty-six 18-pounders, four 9-pounders, six or eight 24-pounders and two 6-pounders. The sloop that had captured Susan also got into the action.

    Lee’s first instinct, and the correct one, was to run. He decided to run into Wading Creek where he hoped the Brits would not take Eagle as a prize. However, the water was too shallow and he ran aground. The next thing was to escape the British Marines and sailors. Barge tactics were common. They were cheap to do and losses were minimal. Three of the cutters captured came from British assaults by barge. A barge could hold about thirty or so men.

    Lee and militia scurried up the 200-foot bluff of “Negro Head” that was later changed to “Friar’s Head. The militia took their 2-pounders and the cutter got the two 4-pounders up the bluff. While they were at it, they had time to strip the cutter of all her sails, blocks, rigging, all spars and all the small arms, some shot, and a probable 150 pounds of gun powder.

    The arms of the cutter and militia combined with the height of the bluff were reasons for the British not to make an assault on the cutter or its men. They could wait. They controlled the area and there was no hurry.

    Although the newspapers wrote of hot action and heroics, this must be taken in context of the era. It was the Second American War against England in the living memories of many. There had to be patriotic and uplifting comments.

    It is odd that the Coast Guard had no better historical knowledge when it commissioned the CGA mural. The RCS did not have official uniforms until 1829. I have argued this point many times. I doubt the would have worn a “pom-pom” and the officer would not have rated two epaulettes. And, where are the militia men in the mural.

    In the end, the militia out of powder and shot, and certainly out of pocket for their adventure, walked off to find a passage home. Lee found the Sloop Lutor to carry himself and crew to New Haven only a little worse for the wear and most certainly poorer.

    The Eagle incident pales in comparison to Surveyor and Commodore Barry. However, no one has painted a mural of those actions.

    Are people aware that Frederick Lee began his RCS career as a contractor commanding his own vessel, Potomac, for the 1809 embargo? Yep, the Treasury Department had him on a six-month contract.

    • Bill, I think you may being to hard on Lee, he had used the Eagle previously to escort US merchant vessels, a task that offered no reward in the form of prize money and got him in trouble with his boss. Really look like he was an energetic officer with a lot of initiative and that he was doing his best for the local maritime community.

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