- Historic Sites
A Yankee Skipper Who Preyed On British Shipping Relates His Wartime Experiences
American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
George Coggeshall of Milford, Connecticut, was a sea captain in the great Yankee tradition. His father had been a successful shipmaster but was ruined by repeated confiscations of his cargoes by British and French vessels in the years after the Revolution. Young George, too poor to attend school, had been sent to sea as soon as he was old enough to carry a message from the quarter-deck to the forecastle. In 1809, when he was only 25, he received his first command and altogether spent some sixty years of his life at sea.
Like so many American shipmasters, Coggeshall turned to privateering after the War of 1812 began. It was a risky business, but a profitable one if managed right. With regular channels of trade closed by hostilities, it was a financial necessity for most shipowners. During the war years American privateers ranged the oceans of the world from the Bay of Biscay to the China Sea and captured some 1,350 prizes. By 1814 privateers were bagging an average of three merchantmen a day. In fact, they did more actual damage to British shipping than the much-publicized American Navy.
The two vessels which Coggeshall commanded in these troubled times, the David Porter and the Leo, were known as letter-of-marque schooners. While armed and commissioned to capture and destroy enemy commerce, they differed from conventional privateers in the respect that they carried cargoes and sailed for more or less set destinations.
Thirty years after the war, Captain Coggeshall, who had a lively pen and an eye for interesting detail, put his memories and old logbooks together in book form. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to be able to print here certain of the more exciting portions of his wartime adventures, taken directly, with very slight modernizations in the text, from the original Coggeshall manuscript, now in the possession of Colonel A.C.M. Azoy of Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York.
At this period of the war [the fall of 1813] there were but three ways for captains of merchant ships to find employment in their ordinary vocations: namely, enter the United States Navy as sailing masters, go privateering, or command a letter-of-marque—carry a cargo and, as it were, force trade and fight their way or run, as the case might be; and thus, as the last alternative I chose the latter.
I gave myself some weeks of leisure, and then consulted a few friends on the subject of purchasing a pilot-boat schooner and going into the French trade. After looking about for a suitable vessel, I at length met with a fine schooner of about 200 tons burthen, called the David Porter. She was built in Milford, my native town, and had made but one voyage, namely, from New York to St. Jean de Luz, France, from thence to St. Bartholomew, and from that place to Providence, R.I., where she then lay. She was a fine, fast-sailing vessel, and tolerably well armed, namely, a long 18-pounder on a pivot amidships, four 6-pounders, with muskets, pistols, etc. I purchased one half of this schooner for $6,000 from the former owners in Milford, Connecticut. They retained the other half for their own account. My New York friends, Messrs. Lawrence and Whitney, and James Lovett, Esq., bought one quarter, and I retained the other quarter for my own account.
We finally decided on a voyage from Providence to Charleston, S.C., and from thence to France under my command. I forthwith proceeded to Providence and arrived at that place on the 21st of October, 1813. Here I purchased 1,500 bushels of salt, and after getting the salt on board we filled up the vessel with potatoes, butter, cheese, etc., the whole cargo amounting to $3,500. I took with me as first lieutenant my former mate in the Canton, Mr. Samuel Nichols, Joseph Anthony 2nd lieutenant and Charles Coggeshall 3rd lieutenant, with a complement of about 30 petty officers and men. My boatswain, carpenter and gunner, with several of the men, had just been discharged from the frigate President and were very efficient and good men.
I left Providence on the 10th of November with a fine fresh gale from the N.N.W., and in a few hours got down to Newport, there to lie a few days to get ready for sea and wait a favorable time to go out the harbor, that is to say, a dark night and a N.E. snow storm; for in these days to avoid the vigilance of the enemy we were obliged to wait for dark stormy nights to leave or enter our ports. On the morning of the 14th I met with a New York friend, and to this gentleman I committed what little treasure I had left after getting ready for sea. The whole consisted of 30 gold guineas, sundry bank notes and my gold watch, with a request that he would stop at Stamford, Connecticut, on his way to New York, and leave the above-mentioned articles with my sister.
At this time there was a British 74 and a frigate cruising off the harbor of Newport to blockade the port and watch the movements of the United States frigate President, which ship was then lying at Providence.