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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
Towards evening on the 16th of November, I got under weigh, with the wind at E.N.E. At this time no vessel was permitted to go to sea without first presenting a clearance to the commanding officer at the outer fort, at the entrance to the harbor. Consequently, I ran down near the fort just before dark and, for fear of any mistake or detention, took my papers and went myself to the commanding officer and got permission to pass the fort by exhibiting a lantern in the main shrouds for a few minutes. It soon commenced snowing, with a fresh gale at N.E. We ran rapidly out of the harbor and soon got outside of the blockading squadron, and now my greatest fear was running on to Block Island. Fortunately, however, at daylight we saw no land; neither was there a single sail in sight.
On the 17th of November was chased by a man-of-war brig. He being to windward, I hove off, and soon had the pleasure to run him out of sight. On the 24th off Georgetown, was chased all day by a man-of-war brig, with a schooner in company. They being to leeward, consequently I tacked and plied to windward and made good my retreat before night. I could have got into Georgetown the next day, but fearing my cargo would not sell as well as at Charleston, I stood on for that port.
November the 26th, at six o’clock, daylight, in 10 fathoms of water off Cape Romain, saw a man-of-war brig on our weather quarter [that is, to windward], distant about three miles. He soon made sail in chase; I kept wide off to leeward in hopes of drawing him down, so that I could weather him on the opposite tack. This manoeuvre did not succeed, as the enemy only kept off about four points. We both therefore maintained our relative positions, and the chase continued for four hours. I had determined not to run to leeward for fear of coming in contact with another foe, but to hug the wind and run in shore. At 10 A.M. I saw Charleston Lighthouse, bearing north, about ten miles distant. I set my ensign and hauled close upon the wind. This brought the enemy on my starboard beam at long gun-shot distance. I then fired my center gun but could not quite reach him, the wind being light from the northward. At half past ten, I gave him another shot, and though it did not take effect, with a spyglass I saw the shot dash water on his quarter.
I suppose the reason he did not fire was that he could not reach me with his carronades. At eleven, within five miles from Charleston Bar, I saw two schooners coming over the bar and bearing directly down upon the brig, when he squared his yards and ran away to leeward. The two schooners were the famous privateer Decatur of Charleston, with 7 guns, and a complement of over a hundred men; and the other schooner was the letter-of-marque Adaline, Capt. Craycroft of Philadelphia, bound to France. The schooners took no notice of the brig, hauled to the eastward and were soon out of sight. I crossed the bar and got up to Charleston without any further difficulty; and then I was told that the man-of-war brig was the Dotterall, carrying 18 guns.
[Coggeshall remained in Charleston for three weeks. There he disposed of the salt and foodstuffs at a good profit and took on a fresh cargo consisting of 331 bales of compressed cotton, 16 kegs of potash, and 25 tons of pig iron for ballast.]
The Congress of the United States had lately assembled at Washington, and great fears were entertained by many that an embargo would soon be laid. I was of course extremely anxious to get out of port, as such a measure would have been ruinous to myself and the other owners of my vessel and as it was impossible to get out over the bar while the wind was blowing strong directly into the harbor. I therefore, to avoid being stopped by an embargo and to keep my men on board, judged it best to drop as low down the harbor as possible and watch the first favorable moment to proceed to sea. Fortunately the weather cleared up the next day, and with a favorable breeze and fine weather I left the port of Charleston on the 20th of December, 1813, bound to Bordeaux.
I had a good run off the coast and met with nothing worth remarking until the 27th, namely about a week after leaving port, when I fell in with a small English brig from Jamaica, bound for Nova Scotia.
As it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and at this time blowing a strong gale from the N.W. with a high sea running, I did not think it safe to board him until the gale should moderate and the sea became smoother, and therefore ordered him to carry as much sail as possible and follow me on our course to the eastward until better weather. He reluctantly followed, and once before dark I was obliged to hail and give him to understand that if he shewed too great a disposition to lag behind or did not carry all the sail his brig could bear, he would probably feel the effect of one of my stern guns. This had the desired effect and he followed kindly at a convenient distance until midnight, when it became very dark and squally and we soon after lost sight of our first prize, which I did not much regret, as I could not conveniently spare men enough to send him into port.
From this period until we got near the European coast, we scarcely saw a sail and did not meet with a single man-of-war. Thus while the whole coast of the United States was literally lined with English cruisers, on the broad ocean there were very few to be seen; a clear proof that the risk of capture between Newport and Charleston was infinitely greater than going to France.
At this period we were not obliged to deliver the goods on freight at any particular place or port, but to some port in France, even from one extreme of the empire to the other: as for example, anywhere on the western coast from St. Jean de Luz to Ostend.