Lost at Sea

Story by William Thiesen, Atlantic Area historian

The storm swept in from the equator, along the Bahamas and up the Florida coast in September 1800. Devastating winds and towering waves threatened the American frigate Insurgent. Aboard the cutter Scammel, the crew jettisoned cannon and anchors in an effort to ride out the hurricane, and aboard the Revenue Cutter Pickering, a similar scene of bravery likely played out as Master Commandant Benjamin Hillar and his crew fought to save their ship in those deadly seas.

The storm was broad enough to engulf the warships even though each was carrying out a separate mission to help wage a war. Between 1798 and 1800, the United States and France were embroiled in the Quasi-War. Angered that the United States had remained neutral in its struggle with Great Britain, France issued letters of marque, papers permitting armed privateers to prey on American merchant vessels. The Revenue Cutter Service was called on to help battle the privateers.

The Treasury Department commissioned the Merrill Shipyard of Newburyport, Mass., to build the Pickering. Named in honor of then Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, the sleek two-masted cutter carried double headsails and double topsails fitted to each of its raked masts. This spread of canvas provided greater speed and would enable the cutter to catch the highly mobile privateers. Pickering also carried 14 cannons and had a crew of 70.

Hillar grew to be highly esteemed by the press, his superiors and his crew. In March 1800, the New England newspapers printed the following: “We learn, that complaints are made in the West Indies of our naval commanders lounging at St. Kitts; except Hillar, in the Pickering, who bears the reputation of an enterprizing zealous officer.”

Secretary of Navy Benjamin Stoddert was aware of Hillar’s qualities, writing to others, “The Commander is an active and enterprising man, and well qualified to do good Service.” Stoddert wrote to Hellar, “The President is sensible of your merit, & will not be unmindful of it.”

Hillar had established quite a reputation. Between early 1799 and the summer of 1800, the Pickering captured between 15 and 20 privateers and merchant vessels. They captured a French merchant vessel valued at $100,000 (in 1799 dollars) and re-captured at least 10 merchant vessels the French had taken. The crew of the Pickering also captured at least five armed privateers, a few of which rivaled the fighting strength of Pickering.

The Pickering’s battle with the privateer l’Egypte Conquise serves as a testament to the bravery of Hillar and his crew in the face of tremendous odds. In early October 1799, the French sent the most powerful privateer in the West Indies on a mission to capture Pickering. With between 14 and 18 nine-and six-pound cannons and with a crew of between 175 and 250 men, the privateer out-gunned and out-manned the Pickering’s defenses. Termed by witnesses as “severe,” the nine-hour battle occurred around Oct. 8, 1799. The battle finally concluded when the privateer struck its colors and surrendered.

After the deadly hurricane of September 1800 had moved on, only Scammel, however, and not Pickering survived to fight another day. The sudden disappearance of the Pickering caused rumors to spread in the papers that Hillar and his crew had been captured and massacred in a French takeover of Curacao, an island off the Venezuelan coast. This massacre never happened.

A newspaper article printed in December provided a more likely account. It noted that a merchant vessel sailing through the hurricane’s track after the storm had reported passing, “a large copper-bottomed brig, with quarter-boards and a range of ports, was seen bottom upwards.”

The case of the Pickering underscores the obstacles of documenting the early history of the Revenue Cutter Service. When the Pickering went down in that September storm, it took with it many historical documents, including its bookkeeping records, letters, logbooks and memoirs. In addition, the sacking of Washington by the British in the War of 1812 and fires at the Department of Treasury in the early 1800s destroyed much of the archival material that remained to document this majestic cutter and crew. Only contemporary accounts from newspapers, a few Treasury Department letters that survived destruction and some Navy records can trace the Pickering’s distinguished history.

The story of the Pickering is one of many lost chapters in the history of the Coast Guard. During his day, Benjamin Hillar was considered a hero. Over 200 years have passed since the Quasi War, Hillar is a forgotten warrior from a forgotten war. No portrait or rendering commemorates his existence and no obituary or grave stone memorializes his death. Hillar is one of the many unrecognized heroes from the Coast Guard and its predecessor services who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.


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