The War of 1812 is, to a significant degree, an overlooked or forgotten conflict in American history. Great Britain, the superpower of the day, faced off against the upstart United States.
What became quickly apparent was the American land forces were no match for the highly trained and well-equipped British army.
What also became apparent was the British navy had no answer for the highly skilled coastal fleet of the United States.
Unable to reliably supply its army across 3300 miles of ocean, the war ended in what is considered a military draw but established the United States as a country on the world stage that could effectively defend its borders.
A little-known incident in the Pamlico Sound that took place in July of 1813 illustrates the strengths of both nations in that war and why neither side would ultimately prevail.
The US Revenue Cutter Service was established in 1790 as an armed customs enforcement branch of the government. The cutters were typically two-masted schooners, rarely over 120’ in length, usually smaller. They were shallow draft vessels designed to patrol nearshore and the shallow estuaries of the East Coast. In 1915 the Revenue Service was combined with the Lifesaving Service to create the US Coast Guard.
The USRSC Mercury fit right into that mold. Built in Ocracoke and commissioned in 1807, she was based in New Bern and patrolled the waters of the Pamlico Sound. At that time, Ocracoke and Portsmouth were thriving seaports and New Bern, on the Neuse River, was one of the most important cities in the state.
The British had a simple master plan for the war—attack by land, blockade by sea, so it was only a matter of time before they tried to seize Ocracoke and Portsmouth en route to attacking New Bern and taking control of North Carolina.
The plan would have worked if not for the Captain of the Mercury, Master David Wallace, and the skill of his crew.
On July 13, 1813, the British made their move. In a letter to North Carolina Governor William Hawkins, Portsmouth Customs Collector Thomas Singleton describes what happened.
“About 9 p.m. (British ships) arrived off Ocracoke Bar and anchored within one mile of the Inlet. A British fleet consisting of one 74 (gun, ship of the line), three frigates, one brig, and three schooners, under the command of Real Admiral Cookburn, was discovered by the inhabitants of Ocracoke, some of whom apprised the inhabitants of Portsmouth before day. As soon as daylight appeared, I sent my trunk containing all the money and Custom House bonds belonging to the office, on board the Revenue Cutter Mercury which weighed anchor…Several of the barges proceeded immediately on without stopping to board the prizes, in pursuit of the Cutter…The Cutter narrowly escaped by crowding upon her every inch of canvas she had and cutting away her long boat. The Admiral did not hesitate to declare that it was his intention to have gone to New Bern, provided he could have reached that place, previous to the citizens receiving intelligence and returned.”
Singleton does not include in his report that the barges he describes were filled with British soldiers—some 1000 of them. Admiral Cookburn’s plan was simple and clear to see—with the element of surprise and 1000 men, he could easily overwhelm any resistance in New Bern and use the Neuse River to attack the interior of the state.
But, he seemed to have reasoned, without the element of surprise, any attack on New Bern would be too costly, even if it did succeed, or it would not succeed at all.
The British stay on Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands was brief and probably painful for residents. They left on July 16, making off with hundreds of heads of cattle and other livestock.
The Ocracoke and Portsmouth incident was not the only action the Mercury saw in the war.
According to the US Coast Guard Historian’s Office, the Mercury was probably the ship that captured a British brig sent to Beaufort for a court to decide how to dispose of the war prize. Later that month, a tender for the 74 HMS Ramilles ran aground off Ocracoke, and the ship and its eight-man crew were captured by the Mercury, the ship and the prisoners taken to New Bern.
There is a highway marker on Ocracoke commemorating the Mercury’s escape from British forces in July 1812. The marker is next to the Silver Lake ferry terminal.