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.

EagleOfficially, 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.


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.

dispatchFog 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.

majestyThe 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.