Sea History 153 - Winter 2015-2016

Page 34

Cutterman Hugh George Campbell: Master and Commander of Super-Cutter Eagle and Forgotten Hero of the Quasi War by William H . Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, Uni red Srares Coas r G uard n rhe !are 1790s, rhe U n ired Srares and Revolurionary France began fighring an undeclared naval war know n as rhe " Qu as i W a r," sremming from di sagreemenrs over rrearies and American neurraliry regarding rhe conflicr berween France and G rear Brirain . Wirh only a sm all naval force available ar rhe rime, federal aurho riries called on rhe US Revenue C urrer Service to prorecr American m erch antmen and d efend againsr French privaree rs. The narion's firsr revenue cuners we re small lighrly armed vessels rhar cruised for only days ar a rime our of rheir homeporrs along rhe Easr Coasr. The service quickly builr a class of small wa rships, or "super-currers," rh ar marched or exceeded rhe speed and armamenr of rhe enemy's priva reers. This new class of cuners included rhe Eagle, Pickering, and Scammel, which all parricipared in combar operarions durin g rhe Quasi W ar. Pickering was one of rhe srandours of rhis class, capruring nearly rwenty prizes and privareers, including l 'Egypte Conquise, a privareer rhar carried almosr double Pickering's weapons and crew, and surrendered only afrer a brural nine-hour barde. Sailing under M as rer Hugh George Campbell, Eagle commanded rhe bes r warrime record of captures for any Unired Srares vessel.


Hugh Campbell was born in Sourh Ca rolina in 1760. T he son of Irish immigranrs, he was a sober and indusrrious yourh who turned to seafaring ar an early age. In 1775, he rhrew in his lor wirh rhe parriors and volunteered to serve on board rhe schooner Defence, rhe firsr warship commissioned by Sourh Carolina in rhe W ar of Independence. Afrer rhe war, he made Charleston his home and spenr much of his n aval career based our of Sourh Carolina and neighboring Georgia. H e was a member of Sr. Paul's Episcopal C hurch in C harleston, and, as he grew wealrhier ove r time he acquired slaves , as was common among rhe properried of Sourh Carolina ar rhat rime. C ampbell did nor indulge in autobiography, so lirde is known of him in the years followin g rhe A m erican Revolurion. He did work, however, as a merchant m ariner, gaining a great dea l of seafaring experience in rhe 178 0s. H e also became a friend of mercha nt caprain W illiam Jones, a man of Campbell 's age who made Charleston a base for his shipping business . A narive of Philadelphia, Jones later becam e a US represenrarive fro m Pennsylvania and rhen secrerary of rhe navy, and likely had some influence on Campbell 's career.

A modern p rofile view of the cutter Eagle, based on data from historical records and documents.

US. Revenue: Cuner

EAGLE 1799 -1801



Hugh Ca mpb ell never m a rried , devoring his life to the sea and rhe men who served wi rh him. In 1791 , he compered for command of rhe revenue cuner under consuucrion fo r rhe C harles ton srarion, named South Carolina, which was one of rhe firsr vessels builr fo r rhe US Revenue C urrer Service. Bur P residenr George W ashington passed Campbell over for Revolurionary War hero Robert Cochran . lnsread , Campbell received a m ate's commission and served under Cochran for rhe nex r six yea rs. Firsr M ate Hugh Campbell was am ong rhe first officers commissioned into rhe Revenue C uner Service. Few reco rds exisr abour rhe South Carolina's ope rari ons in the 17 90 s. Weighing in ar a diminurive rhirry-eighr tons and lighdy armed , rhe currer likely held lirde sway in rhe port of C harleston. Local merchants and citizens turned a blind eye as French priva reersmen armed and ourfined rheir ships in port and broughr in Brirish pri zes fo r adjudication in local cour rs . During these yea rs, Campbell conrinued ro serve on board rhe cuner, where he suffe red a serious leg wound. The cause of his injury is unknown, bur ir became increasingly debiliraring over rhe course of his life and likely contribured to his dearh in 1820. By lare 1797, rhe southeas tern coast had become a hunting ground for French privareers preying on Brirish merchantmen. On Tuesday, 10 October, an event occurred rhar promp red changes in C harleston and a new direcrion for Campbell 's career. D am aged by a srorm , rhe Brirish merchanrm an Aracabessa limped inside rhe Charleston Bar fo r shelrer. A nearby French privareer soon eyed rhe crippled ship. N orified of A racabessa's perilous situarion, rhe South Carolina ser sail for rhe Charleston Bar, bur arrived too !are to save the ship. The Frenchmen had boarded rhe vessel, captured rhe crew, loored rhe merchantman and ser her on fire. This incident enraged Brirish offici als and demonsrrared rhe weakness of maritime law enforcement in Sourhern warers. Ir also highlighred the need ro replace South

SEA HISTORY 153, WINTER 2015- 16