The Long Blue Line: Revenue cutter operations in the Mexican-American War

Sunday, February 4, 2018

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

) Illustration of the Tabasco River Fleet in 1846. (Source unknown)

) Illustration of the Tabasco River Fleet in 1846. (Source unknown)

Before the Mexican-American War, the United States Revenue Cutter Service had participated in every major American conflict since its establishment in 1790. As early as 1838, Mexican forces had fired on American merchant vessels passing along the Mexican coast, prompting the Revenue Cutter Service to send the cutter Woodbury to cruise between Chandeleur Island and the Sabine River to protect American shipping.

Rare faded photograph of Cutter McLane, repurposed as an iron-hulled lightship. (Coast Guard Collection)

Rare faded photograph of Cutter McLane, repurposed as an iron-hulled lightship. (Coast Guard Collection)

From the middle of 1845 until the official declaration of war with Mexico in May 1846, the service increased its presence in the area. The Woodbury made numerous cruises from New Orleans as far as Corpus Christi to reconnoiter the Gulf Coast and deliver dispatches to U.S. Army Gen. Zachary Taylor. In March of 1846, Taylor relied heavily on Woodbury and its captain, Winslow Foster, to get U.S. Army troop transports to sea and convoy vessels from Aranzas Bay to Brazos de Santiago. This movement of U.S. troops into disputed territory sparked the conflict with Mexico.

Earliest know photograph of a cutter, showing Gallatin, sister cutter to the Mexican-American War’s Cutter Morris, which was lost in an 1846 hurricane. (Coast Guard Collection)

Earliest know photograph of a cutter, showing Gallatin, sister cutter to the Mexican-American War’s Cutter Morris, which was lost in an 1846 hurricane. (Coast Guard Collection)

On May 13, President James Polk signed the declaration of war with Mexico. By May 19, Treasury Secretary Robert Walker ordered revenue cutter captain John Webster to form a cutter squadron and, within two weeks of receiving the orders, 11 cutters rendezvoused at New Orleans. This squadron included the steamers McLane, Bibb, and Legare, and sailing schooners Woodbury, Ewing, Van Buren, Wolcott, Forward and Morris. When Webster hoisted his pennant onboard the Ewing, he became the first flag officer in the long history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Cutter McLane and Forward participating in naval operations off the coast of Mexico. (Source unknown)

Cutter McLane and Forward participating in naval operations off the coast of Mexico. (Source unknown)

In this war as in previous wars, revenue cutters performed a variety of missions. They convoyed merchant vessels, transported troops and supplies, blockaded enemy ports, delivered important dispatches to naval commanders and played a vital role in shallow water combat and amphibious operations. For example, early in July 1846, cutters Ewing and Legare landed war material for Taylor’s troops just before the famous Battle of Monterey. These supplies included 1,000 rifles that proved crucial to Taylor’s triumph over Mexican forces. Later in July, the crew of the cutter Woodbury put down a mutiny aboard the troop transport Middlesex. Foster, Woodbury’s captain, sent over an armed boarding party, which restored order and allowed for the successful landing of the ship’s soldiers.

Matthew C. Perry, Vice-Commodore in charge of naval operations in the Mexican-American War. (Wikipedia)

Matthew C. Perry, Vice-Commodore in charge of naval operations in the Mexican-American War. (Wikipedia)

The year 1846 was a stormy one and two revenue cutters suffered damage while carrying out their wartime duties. In January, while delivering personnel and dispatches to Navy Commodore David Conner, sailing cutter Wolcott was driven ashore and dismasted by a storm in Pensacola Bay. On October 11, a hurricane drove sailing cutter Morris ashore near Key West, Florida, leaving the cutter high and dry and a total loss.

The service’s greatest participation in amphibious operations took place late in October 1846. In the summer, the U.S. Navy had attempted to capture Mexican warships anchored in the Alvarado River. This operation failed due to the Navy’s lack of shallow-draft vessels and the grounding of flagship USS Cumberland. Conner postponed a second attempt until the arrival of revenue cutters to aid in shallow-water operations. Steam cutter McLane arrived in early October, so the Navy made a second attempt on October 15 with McLane towing one of two columns of small sailing warships into the mouth of the river. The small naval force had to turn back when the McLane grounded on the river’s bar, because it cut by half the number of vessels and men available for the amphibious assault.

The Navy quickly followed up the Alvarado River operation with an expedition up the Tabasco River under the command of Vice Commodore Matthew Perry. Reaching the mouth of the river on October 23, the amphibious fleet included the McLane and the sailing cutter Forward. McLane stuck fast on the river bar again, however, the expedition forged ahead without McLane and the vessels it was towing. Under tow from a small Navy steamer, Forward provided the main artillery support for the fleet. The expedition captured the port city of Frontera along with two Mexican steamers and three schooners. As the fleet steamed upriver, it encountered no resistance at Fort Acachapan and, after spiking the fort’s guns, continued upstream to capture the important city of Tabasco. With Forward and a naval vessel training their artillery on the city, marines and a detachment of revenue cuttermen came ashore to secure capitulation of Tabasco. The flotilla began to withdraw the day after Tabasco’s surrender when one of the prize vessels grounded near the city and came under musket fire from shore. Forward closed to cover the vessel with grape and round shot saving the vessel and its crew.

Emblem of the United States Revenue Cutter Service. (Coast Guard Collection)

Emblem of the United States Revenue Cutter Service. (Coast Guard Collection)

The expedition cleared the Tabasco River of enemy commerce and captured 10 prize ships. It also succeeded in cutting off supplies to the Mexican military from the Yucatan Peninsula. In his after action report, Perry singled-out Forward and its commander for high praise. Perry next set sail for Vera Cruz with his small squadron; however, he detailed cutters McLane and Forward to remain behind at Frontera to maintain the blockade of the port city and the Tabasco River.

From late 1846 through early 1848, the Revenue Cutter Service continued to speed dispatches to the fleet, enforce the blockade and patrol the Gulf Coast. The Mexican-American War officially ended on Feb. 2, 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But the war effort had taken its toll on the cutter fleet with only a few serviceable vessels left by 1850. However, when the Civil War began in 1861, the Revenue Cutter Service would be ready once again with one of its cutters firing the first naval shot of the conflict. The cutters and cuttermen of the Mexican-American War had proudly served their nation as part of the long blue line.

 


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