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War along our shores: Tale of the Cutter Eagle

A modern painting depicting the October 1814 military engagement off Northville. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Academy Collection)
A modern painting depicting the October 1814 military engagement off Northville. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Academy Collection)

It’s 1814, and the United States is at war.

British frigates and brigs clog the East Coast’s trade routes, preying on merchant vessels and shutting down commerce.

On an October morning, an American cutter called the Eagle finds itself face-to-face with a Royal Navy brig nearly twice its size off Northville.

Below is a detailed account of the encounter that followed. 

Captain Frederick Lee was desperate to catch a British sloop that had just captured the American merchant vessel Susan. On Oct. 10, 1814, he rushed southeast from a Connecticut port with a few dozen volunteers aboard the U.S. Revenue Service cutter Eagle, a 60-foot, six-gun sailing ship designed to protect merchant vessels as the War of 1812 raged up and down the East Coast.

Eagle

Officially, he was supposed to stay in port. But this wasn’t the first time Capt. Lee had defied orders, and his superiors at the Revenue Service — a forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard — had already reprimanded him, warning that his ship was just a revenue cutter, not a warship. Capt. Lee couldn’t sail off into a war just because he wanted to, they wrote.

SEE THE MAP: CUTTER EAGLE

But that didn’t stop him. He knew that if he sailed across the Sound to Long Island, he might be able to catch the British and win back the Susan.

dispatch

Fog coated Long Island Sound on the morning of Oct. 11, 1814, making it difficult to find his prey. As it began to lift along the coast of the Hallock farm, Capt. Lee finally saw the British sloop sailing with her prize, though it was still too far east and out of range.

But looming between them was something far worse: the HMS Dispatch, an 18-gun Royal Navy brig-sloop nearly twice the Eagle’s size. Her two masts towered over the Americans’ tiny cutter. Her crew outnumbered the Eagle’s by nearly four to one.

The Eagle could not retreat. The wind had died, leaving the ship with no way to sail for safety. The Eagle was out-gunned and out-manned with nowhere to hide from the Dispatch’s guns.

majesty

The British launched two barges from the Dispatch to capture the Eagle, but the Americans repelled them. That victory was short-lived, though, as the Dispatch gave chase.

There was “no alternative left,” Capt. Lee would later write to his superiors. He ordered his sailors to turn toward the Northville beach. If the volunteers couldn’t match the British at sea, they’d beach the Eagle, drag the cannons atop the sandy bluffs and fight from the shore. 

Cannonballs recovered from the skirmish are on display at Hallockville Museum Farm. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Cannonballs recovered from the skirmish are on display at Hallockville Museum Farm. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The defense of the cutter Eagle has gone down as a founding legend of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard Academy in New London has a mural painted on wall of its library wall depicting the battle.

Capt. Frederick Lee’s legacy is still intact in his hometown near Madison, Conn., and with the Coast Guard, which named a patrol boat in his honor.

Viewpoints

But until recently, the true history of the battle was mostly forgotten by local residents, mixed up with another earlier engagement near Wading River and blurred by erroneous and exaggerated oral histories.

Even today, a historic marker is mounted along the Riverhead coastline near the wrong beach, bearing the wrong ship name and the wrong date.

“What intrigued me about it, as a historian, is how this story has come down to us in so many different versions,” said Richard Wines, who researched the battle and is leading the charge to commemorate its 200th anniversary this October at Hallockville Museum Farm.

In their accounts of the skirmish, all three parties involved — the Connecticut sailors, the locals and the British — omitted certain details and played up others, Mr. Wines found.

“People remember what they want to remember,” he said.

But taking the differing versions as a whole — exaggerations included — reveals a dramatic engagement that unfolded over three days in 1814, Mr. Wines said, when outmatched American sailors and Riverhead’s militia fought one, then two, British warships.

At 8 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1814, the Eagle was beached at Northville, where, to the volunteer sailors’ surprise, members of the local militia were already preparing to defend their shores. The farmers and fishermen had spotted the British warship and spread the word. According to one family story, 10-year-old Herman Hallock, who grew up in the 1765 homestead on the Hallockville property, was one of three messengers who took to horseback and rode up and down Sound Avenue warning of the British threat, like a Riverhead Paul Revere, Mr. Wines said.

As the Eagle’s crew rushed to unload four of its cannons and haul them up the cliffs to a more defensible position, two guns were left behind and used to fire on the British barges, keeping them at bay, according to contemporary reports and a log kept by Captain James Gallaway of the Eagle’s British opponent, the Dispatch.

“[The Dispatch] was a fairly small ship so it was fairly flexible and useful around the world,” said James Davey, curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, near London, England.

The Dispatch first launched in 1812 and set sail for the north coast of Spain; as the Napoleonic War dragged on, Britain had little interest in dealing with the upstart Americans, Mr. Davey said.

“They essentially have bigger fishes to fry,” he said. “They’re fighting Napoleon. They’re fighting for their national survival.”

But the Dispatch was ultimately sent to North America after Napoleon was weakened by his infamous attempt to invade Russia in December 1812.

Under Capt. Gallaway’s command, the Dispatch preyed on American merchant fleets until encountering the Eagle that October morning.

This mural at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is an artist's interpretation of the October 1814 engagement. It was painted in 1933 by Aldis B. Browne II. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Collection)
This mural at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is an artist’s interpretation of the October 1814 engagement. It was painted in 1933 by Aldis B. Browne II. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Collection)

Unable to take the Eagle using her barges, the Dispatch was content to fire at it from afar.

A ship beached on the shore may seem like a sitting duck, but the Dispatch’s cannonades — shorter cannons designed for close-range ship-to-ship combat — weren’t very accurate at that range, Mr. Wines said. Cannonballs aimed too low slammed into the bluffs harmlessly; those aimed too high flew over the cliffs and crashed into the farm fields beyond.

Meanwhile, the volunteers — with the help of the local militia — set up four of the Eagle’s cannons on the bluffs, planted an American flag nearby and steeled themselves with “a determination not to ‘give up the ship,’<\!q>” according to a volunteer’s account reported by the Connecticut Journal newspaper.

For hours, the Dispatch pounded the Americans’ position, splintering both of the Eagle’s masts. Yet the British couldn’t get close enough to capture the stubborn Americans’ ship and couldn’t budge them from their high ground.

At least once, the British tried to land on the beach. It had been reported by Samuel Terry Hudson, a Riverhead man who documented an oral history of the battle nearly a century later, that the Americans wiped out the landing party, killing many British soldiers. But Mr. Wines thinks this account is a gross exaggeration. While the Connecticut Journal’s report mentions landings, Capt. Lee himself wrote that the landing parties never came within range of the Eagle’s guns. And Capt. Gallaway of the Dispatch doesn’t mention the failed landing attempt in his log.

By 4 p.m., the Eagle, battered again and again by cannon fire, had been mangled.

“In the course of three hours they … shot her through above water in every direction,” Capt. Lee wrote.

The British kept up their fire into the evening, according to some accounts. The Americans, meanwhile, set up watches to guard the beach overnight. By the morning of Oct. 12, Capt. Gallaway realized that the Eagle was water-logged. He headed to Connecticut in the Dispatch to drop off prisoners from the Susan, leaving the Eagle a pockmarked wreck on the beach.

But Capt. Lee and his men patched up their ship and floated it back into the Sound.

Having delivered his prisoners, Capt. Gallaway headed southeast in the Dispatch on Oct. 13. It was then he encountered a fellow British warship. A massive fifth-rate frigate, the HMS Narcissus was fitted with 32 guns and hardened by more than a dozen years of naval warfare.

Unlike the relatively new Dispatch, the Narcissus was a distinguished ship with a long history of military success. It was first launched in 1801. The Narcissus was ordered to the North American coast in 1814.

The Dispatch signaled to the Narcissus that an American “schooner” was beached on the Long Island shore and was protected by four gun emplacements. The two ships — along with the British sloop that had captured the Susan days before — turned west together and sailed back to Northville, only to discover that the Americans had refloated the Eagle.

The three British ships took up positions around the Eagle and Capt. Lee ordered his vessel beached again, although this time it became stuck on a sandbar.

Seven barges were launched from the three ships, followed by a barrage of cannon fire.

Yet the Americans fought on. But luck was not on Capt. Lee’s side. By noon, the British threw a line onto the Eagle and dragged it off the sandbar. They sailed away with their prize, leaving Capt. Lee stranded on Long Island.

Capt. Lee would serve another 13 years before retiring at age 63.

The Eagle was towed toward Nova Scotia, but its ultimate fate is unknown. And to many, the skirmish was quickly forgotten.

The British barely acknowledged the engagement and few American histories outside the Coast Guard’s records make note of it. Though cannonballs were found in Riverhead farm fields in the decades following the battle — and will be part of the 200th anniversary display — the memory of the battle has faded, for now.