In the late 1790s, the United States and Revolutionary France began fighting an undeclared naval war known as the “Quasi War.” With only a small naval force available at the time, U.S. authorities called on the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to protect American merchantmen and defend them against French privateers.
In the early 1790s, the nation's revenue cutters were small lightly armed vessels, cruising for only days at a time out of their homeports. The service quickly built a class of small warships, or super-cutters, which matched or exceeded the speed and armament of enemy privateers. This new class of cutters included Eagle, Pickering, and Scammel, which all participated in combat operations during the Quasi War. Pickering was one of the standouts of this class, capturing nearly 20 prizes and privateers, including l'Egypte Conquise. The French privateer carried almost double Pickering's weapons and crew, and surrendered only after a brutal 9-hour gun battle. However, sailing under Master Hugh George Campbell, Eagle commanded the best wartime record of captures for any U.S. vessel.
In August 1798, Campbell arrived in Philadelphia to take possession of Eagle for the Revenue Cutter Service and prepare her for sea. The 187-ton vessel measured 58 feet on the keel, with a 20-foot beam and 9-foot hold. Eagle carried 14 6-pound carriage guns on her main deck. At about 6 feet in length and weighing around 700 pounds apiece, these 6-pounders required a high degree of skill, training and physical strength to maintain and operate. The cutter was likely pierced with 16 gun ports, two extra for ranging cannon forward and handling anchor lines through the bow.
Based on records and documents, this modern profile view shows the US Revenue Cutter (USRC) Eagle, which fought in the Quasi-War with France. (Coast Guard Collection 1799)
Problems had emerged before Campbell arrived in Philadelphia adding weeks to Eagle's departure on her first war cruise. The large cutter required a complement of no less than 70 men to sail her, man her guns, board enemy ships and supply prize crews for captured vessels. A yellow fever epidemic had struck the city and regulations forbidding enlistment of black seamen both delayed recruiting. Under orders from Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert, Campbell did his best to “Enlist none but healthy white men, and give preference to Natives if they are to be had.” The cutter's crew ultimately included Campbell, mates (first, second and third), boatswain, carpenter, gunner, able seamen, ordinary seamen, cook, steward, boys and a contingent of 14 marines.
Local shortages of war material also delayed Eagle's deployment. Before sailing for the theater of operations, Eagle required four months' worth of provisions and two months' supply of water. Philadelphia's naval suppliers had to provide military stores, such as powder, flints, cutlasses, pistols, blunderbusses and gun carriages. Eagle required 40 cannon balls per 6-pound gun, or 560 cannon shot, which required additional time to acquire. By late November, Campbell was fully provisioned and ready to go in harm's way with the swiftest vessel in the American fleet.
Eagle's deployment came none too soon as rumors spread that French privateers were cruising in southern waters, causing concern among American merchants and shippers. Campbell received orders to patrol off South Carolina and Georgia coasts, so he raised anchor and set a course down the Delaware River. Campbell's mission showed the U.S. flag along the coast and proved a success in the eyes of nervous merchants, but Eagle encountered no enemy cruisers during her deployment. In January 1799, Campbell received new orders to rendezvous with the American naval squadron based at Prince Rupert's Bay, Dominica.
Campbell set sail for the rendezvous, initiating a 2-year rampage against enemy shipping and privateers. On March 2, before falling in with the American squadron, Eagle re-took from a French prize crew the captured American sloop Lark. As was the custom at the time, cutters and Navy ships received prize money for capturing enemy vessels, or a smaller amount of salvage money for re-capturing prize vessels. Lark proved the first of many re-taken vessels to line the pockets of Campbell and his men with salvage money. Also in March, Congress enacted legislation that brought the Revenue Cutter Service under the control of the U.S. Navy. After this legislation became law, revenue cutters would forever serve as part of the Navy during armed conflicts, as modern Coast Guard cutters do today.
In mid-March 1799, Campbell reported for duty to squadron commander John Barry, captain of the 44-gun frigate USS United States. Eagle fell in with the rest of the squadron, including her sister ship Pickering, en route to Prince Rupert's Bay. By this time, Caribbean waters had become a lawless place of privateers and their prey; and, within weeks of the rendezvous, Campbell had re-captured a second prize ship and run ashore a French privateer at Barbuda.
This painting of the US Revenue Cutter Eagle capturing privateer Le Bon Pierre in 1799 illustrates the activities carried out by revenue cutters during the Quasi-War. (Coast Guard Collection)
At the time of Eagle's entry into the war, enemy privateers operated out of French possessions, such as Guadeloupe and St. Martin. On Friday, April 5, Eagle gave chase to the Guadeloupe-based privateer Le Bon Pierre, pierced for 10 cannon, but mounting only four with a 55 man crew. The sloop fled and dumped two guns overboard to speed her escape. However, after a five hour chase, Eagle overhauled the privateer, whose crew offered no resistance. Campbell placed aboard the privateer a prize master and prize crew who sailed Le Bon Pierre to Savannah for adjudication. The Revenue Cutter Service purchased the sloop and converted her into the cutter Bee to serve the Savannah station, giving Campbell and his men shares of the privateer's handsome $2,000 adjudication value.
In mid-April, Eagle joined the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution (a warship Campbell would one day command) to escort 33 British and American merchantmen out of the Caribbean. During such convoy operations, it was Eagle's duty to fend off privateers and cruisers attempting to “cut out” merchantmen from the convoy. Eagle encountered at least one “strange sail” during the mission, but no merchantmen were lost. At the end of April, Eagle patrolled with revenue cutter Virginia and the 18-gun brig USS Richmond. Together, they captured the French schooner Louis before Eagle returned to base at Prince Rupert's Bay.
Image of marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher's painting of the USRC Eagle and USS Constitution escorting a convoy out of the Caribbean during the Qqasi War with France in the 1799. (Image provided by U.S. Coast Guard Academy Library)
Early in May, Eagle arrived at the squadron's new base at Basseterre, St. Kitts, located north of Guadeloupe. From there, she re-joined USS Richmond and patrolled windward of Barbuda and Antigua. On May 15, the two brigs encountered the French privateer Reliance of 14 guns and 75 men in consort with two prize ships. These prize ships were the Massachusetts brig Mehitable, sailing home to Newburyport from Suriname; and the New Bedford whaler Nancy returning home from a one year voyage to the South Pacific. Outnumbered and outgunned, Reliance fled, leading the Richmond on a 14-hour chase, after which the privateer escaped under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, Eagle re-captured both Mehitable and Nancy, taking prisoner their French prize crews. Nancy alone carried tons of spermaceti oil valued at $50,000, a large fortune whose salvage value was shared out to her captors.
This painting held by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy shows the USRC Eagle re-capturing prize ships Nancy and Mehitable in May 1799. (Image provided by U.S. Coast Guard Academy Library)
May 1799 proved lucrative for Campbell, including the final days of the month. On Wednesday, May 29, Eagle partnered with the 20-gun ship USS Baltimore to capture the privateer schooner Syren of four guns and 36 men. Later that day, Eagle and frigate USS United States re-captured the American sloop Hudson. These captures added to Campbell's reputation as a combat commander and his net worth, greatly padding the wealth he would amass over the course of the war.
Spring 1799 had been a successful season for Campbell, but summer brought new missions. On June 13, Eagle and Richmond served as escorts for a convoy sailing from St. Kitts north toward Bermuda. The two warships left the convoy near the Virginia coast and July saw Eagle laid up in Norfolk, undergoing repairs and replacing personnel. Meanwhile, American squadron commodore Thomas Tingey wrote dispatches from St. Kitts to the Secretary of the Navy begging for the speedy return of his top combat commanders, including Campbell. On July 27, Campbell received a U.S. Navy commission as master and commandant. On August 2, the Treasury Department transferred official control of the cutter and its crew to the Navy.
In early August, Campbell received orders to sail south from Norfolk and rejoin the American squadron. By early September, Eagle had returned to St. Kitts and set sail with the 20-gun ship USS Delaware, capturing the French merchant sloop Reynold, laden with sugar and molasses. On September 19, Eagle encountered a French privateer towing the American brig North Carolina. Eagle drove off the privateer and retook the brig. On October 2, in company with Commodore Tingey's 24-gun sloop USS Ganges, Eagle captured the French merchant schooner Esperance, carrying sugar and coffee.
Two days after capturing Esperance, while anchored at St. Bartholomew's, Campbell became party to one of the most notorious mutinies of the day. Two weeks into a voyage to St. Thomas, three seamen took control of the schooner Eliza of Philadelphia. The mutineers murdered the mate, a seaman and the supercargo; however, they failed to kill the captain, who kept the ship's only firearms locked in his cabin. Armed with his pistols, the captain managed to entrap the three men below decks, retake the ship and sail single-handed for 13 days before encountering the Eagle. Campbell assisted the merchant captain and put the three mutineers in irons. He later transferred the men to the USS Ganges bound north for Philadelphia. Upon the American warship's arrival, local authorities tried and convicted the men on charges of murder and piracy, and hanged them on Wind Mill Island across the Delaware River from the city.
Over the next six months, Campbell enjoyed a string of successes: December 5, the Eagle crew retook the brig George; January 2, they recaptured the brig Polly; the 10th, Eagle together with the 28-gun frigate USS Adams, captured the French privateer Fougueuse, of two guns and 50 men, and recaptured the American prize ship Aphia; February 1, Eagle captured the French schooner Benevolence; on March 1, it recaptured the American schooner Three Friends; on April 1, it captured the French privateer Favorite; on May 7, Eagle retook the American sloop Ann; and, three days later, she recaptured the American schooner Hope.
Campbell's combat record rested on his sound leadership, the proper maintenance of his ship, and care of his crew. But combat also required good judgment. Campbell had to take risks and know when to press an attack and when not to. In early February 1800, he spotted two strange vessels, pursued them, and found the ships to be French privateers with a fighting strength twice his own. He outsailed the privateers, but suffered numerous hits from their guns while making good his escape. In June, Eagle encountered an enemy privateer with three prize ships off St. Bartholomew's. Campbell attacked and Eagle received severe damage to its sails and rigging before the privateer fled. Meanwhile, the three prize ships ran ashore, robbing Campbell of their salvage value.
Campbell's faded headstone at the Congressional Cemetery, near the Washington Navy Yard, is the only memorial to his heroic exploits and service to his country. (Image courtesy of Historic Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.)
In June 1800, Eagle captured two French ships and a third in August. These vessels would be the last captures of Campbell's two-year campaign in the Caribbean. Despite spending considerable time escorting convoys and refitting at home, Campbell's Eagle had captured, or assisted in the capture, of 22 privateers, prize ships and enemy merchantmen.
Campbell not only had command presence and seafaring ability, he was lucky. By September 1800, Eagle was in bad shape with half her copper sheathing gone and much of her wood planking infested with shipworms. Campbell received orders to escort a convoy north, together with the 26-gun sloop USS Maryland, and then sail home for refitting and hull maintenance. While Eagle rode at anchor awaiting her convoy's 50 merchantmen to assemble at St. Thomas, a major hurricane swirled to the north, forcing a number of American warships to fight for their survival. Top heavy with thick masts and spars, and dozens of large cannon, the frigate USS Insurgent was probably the storm's first victim. She vanished from the sea's surface with her entire crew of 340 men. The next victim must have been Eagle's sistership Pickering, which had recently triumphed over the privateer l'Egypte Conquise.
But the victor became the vanquished as the heroic cutter lost her battle with Mother Nature. A day later all that remained of Pickering was an overturned hull afloat in the calm seas. Another of Eagle's sisterships, Scammel, survived the storm only by dumping her cannon and excess gear. What the enemy had failed to do against the American squadron in months of naval warfare, the violent storm executed in just hours. After the hurricane passed, Campbell and his crew raised anchor and sailed north with the convoy not knowing their course took them over the watery graves of 400 American souls lost with the Pickering and Insurgent.
After Campbell completed this final escort mission, he set a course for Delaware Bay. On Sunday, September 28, Eagle dropped anchor at Newcastle, Delaware, and Campbell's command of the cutter came to an end. After refitting in Philadelphia, Eagle served a final tour in the Caribbean under another captain.
But, with the conflict nearing an end, the brig saw little action. After the war ended, the Navy scaled back the fleet to its larger warships in the interests of economy. Eagle sailed for Baltimore to be decommissioned and on Wednesday, June 17, the Navy sold her for the sum of $10,585.73. Five more cutters named “Eagle” would serve in the Revenue Cutter Service and modern Coast Guard, including the Barque Eagle, the Coast Guard's training vessel and America's tall ship.
With Hugh George Campbell's wartime record of captures, commodores Thomas Tingey and Thomas Truxton saw him as their most aggressive combat commander. Out of the hundreds of casualties suffered aboard the American squadron's warships, Campbell's Eagle reported not one case of illness, disease, injury, drowning, combat wounds or men killed in action.
This record attests not only to Campbell's good fortune, but his care and oversight of his ship and crew. On October 16, Campbell received promotion to captain in the U.S. Navy and would rise to become a prominent officer in the Navy during the early 1800s. He was a member of the long blue line and one of America's finest combat captains in the Age of Sail.
By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
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