Painting depicting an encounter between two ships.

Rogue cutter Madison—remembering our first POWs 210 years ago 

From the Long Blue Line, by William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area and William J. Nelson, Coast Guard research volunteer 

An artist’s rendering of the cutter James Madison.
An artist’s rendering of the cutter James Madison.

A Revenue Cutter cannot be expressly fitted and employed for the purpose of cruising against an enemy except under the 98th Section of the collection law in which case the Cutter must be placed under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy.

Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, December 28th, 1812

In the above quote, Secretary Albert Gallatin wrote to Boston’s customs collector regarding the proper use of revenue cutters. This letter was likely in response to the case of rogue cutter James Madison. Early in the War of 1812, the Madison had set sail on an unsanctioned cruise to capture British merchantmen. It would be the cutter’s last patrol.

In August 1812, Revenue Cutter James Madison’s captain, George Brooks, got word of a large British convoy sailing off the Georgia coast bound from Jamaica to England. With no official orders nor letter of marque, he set sail on Thursday, Aug. 13, together with privateers Paul Jones and Spencer. They located the British vessels by Aug. 20 and, according to newspaper reports, the Madison single-handedly “cut out” two cargo-carrying merchantmen, placed prize crews on the captured ships and sent them into port. It remains unclear whether Brooks flew the official Revenue Cutter Service ensign during this privateering venture.

Flag: United States Revenue Marine – Wartime Variant Ensign 1815

Credit: Coast Guard Collection

A facsimile of the Revenue Cutter Service ensign flown during the War of 1812.

On Friday, Aug. 21, Brooks’ luck ran out. He ordered his cutter to attack the convoy a second time under cover of darkness and mistook the 32-gun frigate HMS Barbadoes for a large merchantman. According to reports, Brooks ordered his gunners to fire into the frigate and tried to board the warship. After realizing his error, Brooks altered course and sailed off with the frigate in pursuit. The cutter jettisoned two cannon and, after several hours, appeared to make good its escape. However, the wind died, and the British frigate deployed three long boats to tow the warship after the cutter.   

Mechanical drawing: Draught of American Revenue Cutter ‘James Madison’ from an Admiralty plan.

Credit: Howard I. Chappell, The History of the American Sailing Navy (New York: Norton & Co., 1949), p. 247

Lines of the cutter James Madison drawn by noted naval architect and maritime historian Howard Chappell.

Painted portrait: President James Madison
President James Madison, namesake of Savannah’s revenue cutter.

Becalmed and facing an overwhelming enemy force of weapons and men, Brooks had no choice but to surrender. Offering no armed resistance, he struck his colors on Saturday morning between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. about 250 miles southeast of Savannah. The two privateers that had initially joined him were never mentioned in contemporary accounts or Royal Navy reports and likely did not join in Madison’s cutting out activities. Later, the irony was probably not lost on President Madison when he learned the enemy had captured his namesake vessel.

A second British warship, 64-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Polyphemus joined the Barbadoes and sent a prize crew of 20 officers and men on board the captured Madison. Meanwhile, the cuttermen were transferred to the two Royal Navy warships with four officers, surgeon and 13 enlisted men taken on board Barbadoes and 46 of Madison’s enlisted men taken on board Polyphemus. A hurricane overtook the convoy after Madison’s capture sending Barbadoes to Bermuda for repairs, but the frigate later sailed to Boston with the four officers and surgeon on board. Polyphemus had continued on to England with its 46 enlisted men, the James Madison, and the rest of the convoy. Meanwhile, the 13 enlisted cuttermen from the Barbadoes were shipped from Bermuda to Nova Scotia.

Painting depicting an encounter between two ships.

Credit: Coast Guard Collection

A painting by Peter Rindlisbacher of the Cutter James Madison capturing the British merchantman Shamrock.

On Oct. 7, 1812, the Royal Navy formally designated Madison’s captured crew as prisoners of war (POWs). In November, the British paroled Brooks, his junior officers, and surgeon, placing them on board the cartel ship Diamond, which sailed under the white flag to New York. According to the New York Evening Post,

“Among the prisoners arrived at New York, Tuesday, November 24, 1812, by Cartel Brig Diamond, are Captain Brooks and his officers of the Revenue Cutter Madison of Savannah.”

As part of their parole, the officers were sworn never to engage in military action against British forces. No record exists of Brooks ever serving again.

The enlisted prisoners were not released, and their treatment was harsh. Most of the 13 enlisted prisoners from the Barbadoes were sent to a military prison in Halifax. Located in Halifax Harbor, Melville Island Prison housed close to 10,000 prisoners during the War of 1812. Overcrowding and disease there caused the death of 195 Americans who were buried on nearby Deadman’s Island. Nine of Madison’s enlisted men were held at Melville Island.

The other four Madison men sent to Halifax were John Bulloch, Charles Bulloch, James Lewis Bulloch, and March Hart. Listed as “seamen,” research shows the four men were in fact slaves of Savannah’s mayor, William Bulloch, who stood to profit from their shares of captured vessels. Slaves were generally emancipated when they stepped foot on the deck of a British ship, but these men were never treated as such. The four men were transferred to the prison transport HMS Centurion moored at Halifax and confined in conditions so awful that the American prison agent registered a formal complaint. From HMS Centurion, they were returned to Bermuda to serve forced labor at the Royal Naval Dockyard as “Kings Slaves.” At least one died in captivity.

The enlisted POWs shipped on board HMS Polyphemus arrived in Portsmouth and were then transferred to prison ships, or “hulks.” As notorious as some of the prisons were during the War of 1812, they paled in comparison to the hulks. Hulks were decommissioned warships with prisoners locked below decks, many of which were gun decks about four feet high. Filth, disease, vermin, overcrowding and lack of fresh air and water made life on hulks a battle for survival. Regarding these conditions, a U.S. Navy prisoner recounted:

“Here were two hundred and fifty men, emaciated by a system of starvation, cooped up in a small space, with only an aperture of about two feet square to admit the air, and with ballast stones for our beds!”

Illustration of a British prison ship. “The Warrior,” convict hulk, Woolwich.

Credit: National Archives of the United Kingdom

Illustration of a British prison ship or hulk similar to those that held American POWs during the War of 1812.

Twenty-eight-year-old Madison seaman John Bearbere of North Carolina wound up on one of these prison ships. It is believed Bearbere died of pneumonia while on board the hulk. On May 28, 1813, his lifeless body was transferred to HMS Pegase, a prison hospital ship moored in Portsmouth Harbor. At that time, standard procedure was to row the dead to shore in a small boat and bury them in a shallow grave. The location of Bearbere’s final resting place remains unknown to this day. He was the first Coast Guardsman to die in captivity.

Three other Madison seamen shipped on board Polyphemus were described as “mulatto” and were likely freedmen. Of this group, Beloner Pault of Savannah was sent to a prison ship at Chatham. The British listed Pault as a “man of colour” and a “seaman” as were his Madison shipmates Zepher Quesir (a.k.a. “Gasseyr”) of Savannah and Oliver Gale of New York. Pault was returned home after the war. He was 15 years old when captured making him the youngest POW in Coast Guard history.

The War of 1812 proved a baptism of fire for the Revenue Cutter Service, which experienced heavy losses to ships and men. In addition to the capture of 90 cuttermen, a number of whom died in captivity, approximately two dozen men were lost in the line of duty. The service also lost 6 of 14 salt-water cutters and all revenue watercraft in the Great Lakes were wiped out. These revenue vessels included not only losses due to enemy action, but also one lost to a catastrophic explosion and another capsized by a hurricane. After arriving in Portsmouth, the James Madison was sold to the Earl of Belmore to become the armed yacht Osprey.

Painting of the ex-James Madison, renamed Osprey.

Credit: From the collection of John Armar Lowry-Corry, 8th Earl Belmore

Painting of the ex-James Madison after her sale to the 2nd Earl Belmore and the former cutter’s conversion to the armed yacht Osprey.

Brooks and his men had sailed the revenue cutter James Madison in a high stakes gamble against the Royal Navy. Brooks had sacrificed the freedom of his enlisted crewmembers, at least two of whom paid the ultimate price. They are some of the long-forgotten heroes of the long blue line.

Editor’s note: This essay is reprised with permission from the original published in the summer 2021 issue of Sea History Magazine.

National Coast Guard Museum insider tip:The history of the early Revenue Cutter Service, including their service in the War of 1812, will be told in the First 100 Years exhibit in the Defenders of our Nation wing on Deck 3 of the Museum.