The United States Coast Guard’s and the United States Navy’s early history are closely tied together. In the late 1790s the United States Revenue Marine had been raised to act as a maritime law enforcement agency tasked with collecting taxes and protecting American shipping lanes. In the early days, this mostly meant hunting down small coastal smugglers. But things would begin to change in 1798.
According to War History Online, the French had begun harassing American ships because they were angry that the Americans were still trading with the English, their ancient enemy, especially since they had helped the Americans in their revolution against the English. The United States had built the Revenue Marine around a fleet of highly maneuverable and fast ships called Cutters.
In 1798, the United States ordered this fleet of Cutters to take on the French war ships and Privateers. This would come to be known as the Quasi-War, a little known and rarely taught part of our early history.
One of these Cutters was called the Pickering. She was a sleek and agile ship with a brilliant Master and a skilled crew. Her keel was laid down in 1797 at Newburyport, Massachusetts for the United States Revenue Marine. And here you need to know that the Revenue Marine would later become known as the Revenue Cutter Service and, finally, in the early 1900s as the United States Coast Guard. Their early tradition of being a coastal protective service and a military force against those who would attack this country, remains true today.
The Pickering would have three different Masters in her first year: Jonathan Chapman, Lieutenant Edward Preble, who would later become Commodore Preble of the United States Navy, and Benjamin Hiller, who had served as First Mate under both previous Masters. He learned his seamanship and sailing skills under Preble very well and brought his own character to the job when it became his turn to Master the Pickering.
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This character and those skills would show themselves early on as he would captain the Pickering in quickly capturing 5 French warships. The French began to take notice of the Pickering and its captain as a result. They began to focus their attention on putting an end to the Pickering’s successes. They sent their much larger ship the L’Egypte Conquise against the Pickering.
On October 8, 1798 the Pickering and the L’Egypte Conquise had found each other in the Caribbean and entered into a battle that would last over the course of 9 hours. L’Egypte Conquise was a much larger ship. She normally carried 14 nine-pounder cannons and a complement of 120 men. The French still were operating in a tried and true European style of tactics. They thought that if they added more cannons and more men they would bring the force of might against the smaller Pickering. They had prepared for the Pickering by adding four more six-pounder cannons and doubled her crew to 250 men for boarding purposes. With the additional cannons, she could throw the power of a broadside of up to 75 pounds of iron at the Pickering. With the doubling of the crew, too, she was much heavier than usual and much slower.
The Pickering carried 14 four-pounder cannons and could put out a much smaller broadside punch of 28 pounds of iron and lead. This really made the fight a kind of David and Goliath encounter.
When the first shots were fired, Captain Hiller’s instincts, seamanship skills and battle tactics took over.
For the first five hours he had his ship darting into and out of combat. To paraphrase Mohammed Ali phrase, he “floated like a butterfly into and out of the range of L’Egypte Conquise’s guns and stung like a bee.”
After 5 hours, there was a one-hour ceasefire declared by both ships, to bury their dead and to feed their crews. After another hour the fighting began again and Hiller sailed the Pickering as he did before. She was too fast and agile and her crew was far more effective with her own guns. After another three hours, the French ship capitulated, striking her colors, ending the battle.
Hiller had accomplished the greatest victory of the so-called Quasi-War with the French. In this victory, Benjamin Hiller had set a precedent for every naval officer after him up to this very day.
From his example it became a leadership imperative that every naval officer is expected to know his ship, to know his crew and, in case of combat, to attack. That is good advice for any leader, but for a combat ship captain, it is essential.
Learn a little more about the history of the U.S. Navy in the video below.
The Veterans Site wishes to pass on its thanks to all who serve in the United States Coast Guard and the United States Navy.
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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.