north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      Commissioned by the North Carolina customs collector on April 6, 1807, the United States Revenue Cutter Mercury played a pivotal role in the security of New Bern and Ocracoke Inlet during the War of 1812. Harbors with custom houses required protection from armed marauders. From their home port in New Bern, Mercury’s crew policed the “sounds, rivers, and incoming ocean approaches” in the vicinity of Ocracoke Inlet, enforcing state customs laws under the leadership of Captain David Wallace. Little is known about the design or dimensions of the ship, but scholars believe it was most likely a topsail schooner.

     On July 12, 1813, early in the second year of the War of 1812, fifteen British barges with a thousand men under Admiral George Cockburn landed at Ocracoke and Portsmouth as part of a surprise attack aimed at invading North Carolina’s interior. Two brigs and the Mercury were the only American vessels docked at Ocracoke at that time. Of the three, only the Mercury managed to attempt escape, taking with them all the custom house papers and funds.

     Several of the British barges immediately gave chase but failed to overtake the Mercury, and the cutter “very narrowly escaped” by running up all its sails and cutting free the long boat to begin the race to New Bern. Upon their arrival, the Mercury’s crew alerted state officials of the invasion. The timely warning allowed the state to prepare a defense, thus preventing the invasion of North Carolina’s interior by British naval forces. British commanders had planned on sailing into Pamlico Sound to capture New Bern but abandoned their mission once the advantage of surprise had been compromised.

     The Mercury continued policing the waterways around Ocracoke Inlet for the rest of the war, capturing one, possibly two, British vessels. After the war, the U.S. Revenue Service (forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard) and its cutters commenced reparations on war-damaged seaside infrastructure (light houses, buoys, piers, beacons, etc.) and worked diligently to prevent smuggling of foreign goods through ports.


References:
Daily National Intelligencer, July 14, 1813
U. S. Coast Guard History Program. “Mercury”: http://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/Mercury1807.pdf
Donald Canney, United States Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935 (1995)
William R. Wells II, "U.S. Revenue Cutters Captured in the War of 1812," American Neptune (1998): 225-241
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