“The Pirate bore down on us…”

Maritime historian John Sledge recounts the eventful maiden voyage of the revenue cutter Alabama.

Jean Lafitte, as depicted in an early 19th-century portrait. Artist Unknown

She came off the New York ways with her sister ship on July 9, 1819, to great public acclaim. The revenue cutter Alabama, along with the Louisiana, was the federal government’s latest weapon in its efforts to establish order in the unruly Gulf of Mexico, the former assigned to the Mobile station and the latter to “the Teche,” or New Orleans. The Revenue Service was something of an all-purpose maritime arm (precursor to the Coast Guard) founded during the 18th century to enforce tariffs, monitor trade, supply lighthouses, survey coastlines, save lives at sea and support the Navy in combat efforts. Even as these vessels settled into Gotham’s busy waters, their presence was urgently needed down south. Reports indicated that a pirate captain named Henry S. Neil was cruising between Dauphin Island and the Big Bend, and that the notorious Jean Laffite had reestablished himself at Galveston Island, where he claimed Mexican protection. Helpless civilians were being robbed on the high seas, and insurance rates were skyrocketing. Clutching their orders, Du Gomier Taylor of the Alabama and Jarius Loomis of the Louisiana knew what they had to do, namely make sail as fast as possible and start hunting scoundrels. The sweet prospect of prize money motivated them even further.

Their ships were beautifully designed for the task. Loomis, who was in overall command of both vessels, declared that they were “as fine Sea boats as I was ever in, and sail well.” Nearly identical in measurement and build, each was a raked two-masted topsail schooner of 56 tons burthen, roughly 57 feet long and 18 feet in the beam. They drew less than six feet, making them ideal for brown water work, and had flush decks with a 12-pounder pivot gun apiece amidships. Additionally, the Alabama had a quartet of three-pound brass guns on her port side. This battery would have been laughable in a knock-down fight with a well-armed opponent but was more than adequate for intimidating “banditti,” who usually fled at the slightest show of force. Besides their officers, each ship carried about a dozen men, handsomely clad in loose white-duck trousers, white shirts, red vests, short blue jackets, black kerchiefs and floppy round black hats.  

Sailing in tandem, the cutters passed through the Florida Straits and entered the Gulf proper by late August. On the 29th, 70 miles northwest of the Dry Tortugas and bearing north, they spotted three schooners close together. This was an unusual circumstance, and Loomis decided to investigate. According to a young officer on the Alabama, “The wind being very light we immediately set all sails and wet them.” That entailed sailors hauling buckets of salt water aloft and dousing the canvas to enable it to better hold the wind. Still not satisfied with their progress, Loomis and Taylor ordered their men to put out the sweeps and pull hard. These were long, heavy ash oars that even with all hands straining only marginally improved headway.

By early afternoon the distance was closing, and the three target vessels separated. The Louisiana’s pivot gun sent a round shot whistling across the bow of the lead one, and Loomis ordered the Alabama to send a boat over to board her. According to the Alabama’s officer, “We did so, and found her full of people who had been robbed of everything by the Pirates.” It turned out that the vessel was an American merchantman that had happened on the scene earlier. The other two schooners were Le Brave, commanded by Jean Desfarges, one of Laffite’s captains based out of Galveston, and the Filomena, a Spanish merchantman bound from Pensacola to Havana carrying beef, flour, lard, peas, raisins, and $3,000 worth of gold and silver coins. The pirates had overhauled the Filomena, boarded her and, according to the Alabama’s officer, treated the male and female passengers “in the most shameful manner.” The ruffians harassed these defenseless “ladies and gentlemen,” stole their clothes, and “when the ladies begged for something to cover them, the Pirates drew their swords upon them, using the most brutal language.” The buccaneers then placed the naked and terrified passengers on board the American merchantman. Otherwise, that passing vessel remained untouched, in keeping with Laffite’s dictate not to molest American shipping (never more than imperfectly obeyed).  

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The Alabama took on the Spanish passengers and then pulled hard for Le Brave. “The Pirate bore down on us,” the young officer later recalled, “at half-past two he hoisted the Patriot flag.” This was most likely the banner of one of the newly independent Latin American republics, which Le Brave was claiming as a sponsor; she was, in other words, a privateer and not a pirate. Loomis was unimpressed and ordered Desfarges to “haul down his flag.” This was met by a volley of musketry from Le Brave’s deck. Louisiana returned fire “with interest,” and then the Alabama brought her pipsqueak battery to bear and loosed a broadside that sent the pirates scurrying below deck. Alabama and Louisiana both sent over boats and the boarding crews quickly subdued the freebooters. The cost of the whole affair was light — four Americans wounded, two pirates killed and several wounded. Eighteen pirates were captured, and their 12 prisoners, all Black, were released. This was clear evidence that Desfarges was a slave runner as well as a pirate.

A rendering of U.S. revenue cutter Louisiana (1819 – 1824) produced by the United States Coast Guard

Loomis and Taylor took the Filomena and Le Brave, with the pirates, the freed Black people, and the Spaniards, up to New Orleans for the courts to sort everything out. They let the American merchantman go on her way. To say that the revenue cutters had had an eventful maiden voyage would be an understatement.

The Alabama remained in New Orleans while the legal case proceeded against the malefactors. Thanks to stringent new laws, piracy was now a capital offence. The court forgave a few of Le Brave’s crewmen because of their tender years but condemned Desfarges and the others to death. When the judge pronounced the sentence, one of the pirates shouted, “Murder by God!” It did him no good, and despite Laffite’s efforts to obtain presidential pardons, Desfarges and most of his confederates soon swung.

The Louisiana enjoyed an active but short revenue service career. She was sold to private interests in early 1824. The Alabama too had a distinguished record, clearing out pirate nests in the Mississippi Delta, nabbing slave ships and generally enforcing the laws from Dauphin Island down to the Yucatán. She remained in service until sold at Key West in 1833. Subsequent United States vessels would bear her name, and each would proudly proclaim her sterling example and legacy.

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”

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