April 15, 2012
Painting by Patrick O’Brien showing the cutter Surveyor under attack by British forces on the York River in 1813. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.
On the rainy, foggy night of June 12, 1813, a two-masted cutter with sails furled dropped anchor in the York River off Gloucester Point.
The vessel, Surveyor, was one of several nimble, swift revenue cutters that were designated to patrol U.S. waters, enforce trade laws and collect customs duties.
In peacetime, these sleek, well-armed cutters did their part to halt smuggling and bring badly needed funds to government coffers. In wartime, they seized cargo and occasionally went into battle with enemy ships. This was wartime. The War of 1812, America’s second war for independence from Britain, had begun a year before.
The cutters owed their existence to Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, who asked asked Congress for authority to build sea-going vessels to enforce trade laws and tariffs. The approval on Aug. 4, 1790 is considered the birth date of the Coast Guard.
The Surveyor measured 68 feet on deck, with a girth of 19 feet and a draft of six. It carried a crew of about 25 officers and men, and the usual cutter armament of six 6-pound cannon.
It was calm and still that night on the York, one of the Surveyor’s officers related, with “fog resting in dense folds close to the surface of the river. The creaking of the thole pins in the guard or picket boat was distinctly heard, as the little force proceeded leisurely down the river, while the occasional patter of rain sounded monotonously along the deck of the Revenue Cutter.”
The quiet was shattered by sounds of musket shots. The guard boat that had been out on patrol encountered British barges loaded with troops, and the crew pulled hard for the Yorktown shore, exchanging several shots with the attackers before escaping.
The alarm had been sounded, and Capt. Samuel Travis readied the Surveyor for action. Gunports were opened, guns loaded and run out.
At about midnight, barges carrying more than 50 British officers and crew from the 32-gun frigate HMS Narcissus approached through the fog with muffled oars. They steered away from Surveyor’s six-pounders, so Travis armed his men with two muskets each and told them to wait until he gave the order to fire.
As the Surveyor officer remembered, “The boats were but a few yards distant, the forms of the men plainly discernible, when the commander . . . directed his men to aim low and fire. With the rattling volley, came the cheers of the attacking party, who dashed alongside, despite the leaden missiles, and a desperate hand-to-hand conflict ensued on the deck of the Surveyor.”
Although outnumbered and surrounded, the crew “contested every inch of the deck with stubborn courage,” killing three of the attackers and wounding seven more. Travis surrendered only after realizing that all was lost.
The next day, the lieutenant in charge of the attacking flotilla returned Travis’s sword to the ship where he was being held. He included a note:
“Your gallant and desperate attempt to defend your vessel against more than double your number excited such admiration on the part of your opponents as I have seldom witnessed, and induced me to return you the sword you had so ably used...I am at a loss which to admire most, the previous arrangement on board the Surveyor or the determined manner in which her deck was disputed inch-by-inch.”
This gritty battle turned out to be one of the most hotly contested cutter engagements of the war. There would be others. The swift-sailing vessels would run down ships attempting to bring supplies to the enemy. They would overtake barges loaded with enemy troops. They’d escort convoys of merchant ships and protect them from capture.
The cutters’ duties were far-reaching. They rescued mariners in distress. They went after and battled pirate ships on the high seas and stopped slave ships heading for U.S. ports. They fought in the Civil War. Then in 1915, just over100 years from that battle on the York, the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the Coast
Note: The Coast Guard is looking for anyone related to Captain Travis or who may know of any pictures or artifacts pertaining to him. They may contact the Atlantic Area Historian’s Office at 757-398-6643 or William.firstname.lastname@example.org.