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War of 1812 - Cutter Vigilant and Master John Cahoone
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
January 9, 2017

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I revere that long line of expert seamen who by their devotion to duty and sacrifice of self have made it possible for me to be a member of a service honored and respected, in peace and in war, throughout the world. Creed of the United States Coast Guardsman

The passage above taken from the Coast Guardsman’s Creed reflects the sort of actions taken by a long forgotten cutterman and his crew over 200 years ago during the War of 1812.

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, officially starting the War of 1812. That same day, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin sent a circular to the customs collector at Newport, Rhode Island, with the sentence: “Sir, I hasten to inform you that War was this day declared against Great Britain.”

Two months before Madison signed the declaration, Newport shipbuilder Benjamin Marble had signed a contract and received $1 to start building a revenue cutter to be named “Vigilant.” On August 21, the Newport customs collector paid Marble the balance of $8,499 for completing the new topsail schooner-rigged cutter. Similar to other cutters of the day, she measured 60 feet on deck, 19 feet wide and drew nearly 10 feet. Vigilant displaced 65 tons and had a coppered hull for less drag and added speed. For armament, she carried muskets, cutlasses and flintlock pistols, and a main armament of six cannon mounted on gun carriages with three guns to each side of the cutter.

Portrait of Master John Cahoone wearing the 1829 version of the Revenue Cutter Service officer’s uniform. (Photo courtesy of Louis Roth via U.S. Coast Guard)The Vigilant was the third Revenue Cutter Service vessel to bear the name and she carried a crew of 17, including Master John Cahoone (left - 1829 portrait). Born in 1757, Cahoone came from a prominent shipping family located in Newport. A man of decisiveness, command presence and initiative, he was a recognized leader in Newport and senior to local naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. On Jan. 25, 1812, at the age of 55, Cahoone had received a revenue cutter master’s commission from the State of Rhode Island. Like Perry, he would earn fame in combat during the War of 1812.

At the start of the war, the U.S. faced the Royal Navy’s 600 ships with 16 U.S. Navy ships, 14 revenue cutters, and a fleet of small Navy gunboats. Navy warships and American privateers battled British ships on the high seas; however, America’s domestic naval force of revenue cutters, and gunboats had to defend the East Coast against a close blockade by the Royal Navy. Cutters protected coastal shipping and had to fight Royal Navy warships and barges deployed for shallow water operations.

Revenue cutters also fought British privateers hovering off east coast ports to prey on coasters and small craft. The engagement between Vigilant and British privateer Dart stands as probably the most impressive engagement between a cutter and a privateer during the war. It pitted Vigilant against the 47-ton sloop Dart, formerly the American merchantman Actress captured by the British and converted into a privateer.

Dart held certain advantages over the war’s armed merchantmen and revenue cutters. Like most privateers, it carried a large crew necessary for manning its guns, boarding vessels and sailing home captured prize vessels. Its crew of 25 included Capt. James Ross and his officers and men from Saint John, New Brunswick. Like most privateers, Dart boasted greater firepower than any ship its size. The heavily armed raider carried one 12-pound and two 9-pound carronades, guns that could kill resistant ship crews like huge shotguns. It also carried two long-barreled 6-pound cannon that could pierce wooden hulls, four smaller swivel guns, and small arms of muskets, flintlock pistols and cutlasses.

Dart began its second privateering cruise in July 1813. By the end of the summer, the crew had robbed or captured nearly a dozen American coasters. In early October 1813, Dart took up station near the mouth of Narragansett Bay to take American coasters down-bound from Maine and Massachusetts to New York. On Monday, October 4, lookouts in the hills above Newport observed Dart stopping merchantmen and coasters off the Rhode Island coast. The observers notified local authorities and, according to the newspapers, “Capt. John Cahoone, commanding the Revenue Cutter Vigilant, immediately made preparations to go out and capture this daring marauder.” Cahoone also conscripted an extra 25 men with muskets from the naval militia to supplement his small crew.

At 4:00 p.m. on the October 4, Vigilant set sail from Newport in search of the enemy cruiser. By 10:00 p.m. on a clear moonlit night, Cahoone spotted Dart near the east end of Block Island and the chase was on. With her copper bottom and topsail schooner rig, Vigilant proved the swifter of the two ships. Once they came within range of their deck guns, the opposing vessels exchanged cannon fire. On small warships of about 60 feet, the gun crews had to fight from an exposed position. Unlike larger warships, there were no covered gun decks. Consequently, crews either fought from the main deck behind flimsy wooden bulwarks, or took cover below decks–there was no other way. It was during this exchange of cannon fire that one of Vigilant’s round shots killed Dart’s first officer.

U.S. Cutter Vigilant attacks and captures the enemy British privateer Dart off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island on October 4, 1813. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)
U.S. Cutter Vigilant attacks and captures the enemy British privateer Dart off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island on October 4, 1813. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

After trading cannon fire with Dart, Cahoone knew he was outgunned by the privateer. Rather than risk severe damage from Dart’s guns, he decided to close within small arms range of the privateer. He sailed closer to Dart and ordered his men and the naval militiamen to loose a fusillade of musket fire at Dart, which wounded still more of the privateers. Next, Cahoone steered the cutter alongside the enemy vessel so his men could climb onto the enemy ship. Cahoone’s boarding party made the deck of the privateer, but it suffered two wounded members and one lost overboard and drowned. The Americans finally drove the British defenders below decks and captured the Dart. Of this fight, the newspaper Columbian Patriot would write, “Captain Cahoone, with the volunteers under his command, deserve the highest credit for the spirit and promptitude with which this affair was conducted . . .” 

After the battle, Cahoone selected a prize crew and assigned them to sail the Dart and its prisoners in consort with Vigilant. The revenue cutter and its prize vessel sailed into Newport Harbor at 2:00 a.m., Tuesday morning. The Columbian Patriot reported, “. . . it is of the utmost importance, as it is probable she [Dart] would, but for this, have been almost a constant visitor during the ensuing season, when the mischief she would have done is incalculable.”

Back in Newport, Cahoone sent the British prisoners to Navy officials for incarceration. After sunrise the next day, Cahoone fired a cannon salute to celebrate the victory. Meanwhile his crew exchanged Vigilant’s inferior weapons for those found onboard Dart, including its cannon and cutlasses. Dart would not be the last vessel taken by Vigilant during the war; however, it was the last enemy vessel taken in combat by a revenue cutter through the use of boarding.

Photograph of living history interpreters in vintage-style revenue cutter uniforms during the War of 1812. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn)
Photograph of living history interpreters in vintage-style revenue cutter uniforms during the War of 1812. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Shinn)

Cahoone and his crew remained active for the remainder of the war. On October 26, Vigilant captured a British prize schooner that carried a cargo of wood and sought the shelter of Newport Harbor after a storm had damaged its sails and rigging. The British crew escaped in the ship’s boat, but later surrendered to authorities in Connecticut. On June 4, 1814, Vigilant towed into Newport the damaged brig Little Francis, bound from St. Barts to New England with molasses and sugar. The merchant vessel had been run aground and set on fire by a Royal Navy brig.

In early August 1814, peace negotiations began in Europe and, on Christmas Eve, 1814, representatives of the United States and Great Britain negotiated the peace treaty. On Feb. 11, 1815, a Royal Navy sloop delivered the treaty to New York and the president signed it five days later. President Madison’s signature had started the conflict and it ended it as well.

After the War of 1812, Vigilant remained in service for nearly 30 years, an incredible lifespan for a wooden sailing ship. During this time, the crews enforced federal laws and assisted vessels in distress. In 1817 and 1818, Vigilant pursued and captured the armed brigs “B” and Belle Corunnes, respectively. The ships had set sail from New England with foreign crews to engage in piracy in the Caribbean. The Revenue Cutter Service finally decommissioned and sold Vigilant in 1842. Vigilant was the third of 10 cutters to bear the name “Vigilant,” which holds the record for the number of Coast Guard cutters to bear the same name.

Cahoone and his heroic crew proved over 200 years ago the value of cutters in a combat role. In September 1836, after serving for over 20 years, he died at the age of 79 and was laid to rest in Newport’s common burial ground. He was one of the longest serving cutter captains in the early history of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Service named a medium endurance cutter for him 100 years after his death. Cahoone and his men were a few of the many brave cuttermen of the long blue line who have gone in harm’s way to defend the nation in time of war.

By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
Provided through Coast Guard
Copyright 2016

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