Routing the Pirates in the CaribbeanMore information on Captain Porter's "mosquito fleet" here:
The average citizen is quite unaware of certain minor wars and activities in which his navy's part has yielded results beyond price or praise. Rear Admiral Casper F. Goodrich, USN
The first riverine warfare in the middle period was against pirates who had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The rapid growth of American commerce in Caribbean and Gulf waters after the War of 1812 spurred freebooting activity. By the early 1820's, nearly 3,000 corsair attacks had been made on merchant ships. Financial loss was staggering; murder and torture common. Finally spurred to action in 1822, the United States formed the West India Squadron under Commodore James Biddle to meet the pirates head on.
Biddle mounted daring raids with open longboats in which crews operated for days at a time in burning sun or storm. They reached into uncharted bays, strange inlets, lagoons, and small treacherous rivers to ferret out the criminals. Lieutenant James Ramage's assault on a pirate lair near Bahia Hondo, Cuba, illustrates this duty in the steaming tropics. Ramage reported:
I despatched our boats with forty men under command of Lieut. Curtis in pursuit of these enemies of the human race. The boats having crossed the reef, which here extends a considerable distance from the shore, very soon discovered, chased, and captured a piratical schooner, the crew of which made their escape to the woods.
Curtis very judiciously manned the prize from our boats and proceeded about ten miles to leeward, where it was understood the principal depot of these marauders was established. This he fortunately discovered and attacked. A slight skirmish here took place, but, as our force advanced, the opposing party precipitately retreated. We then took possession and burnt and destroyed their fleet consisting of five vessels, one of them a beautiful new schooner of about sixty tons, ready for sea with the exception of her sails. We also took three prisoners; the others fled to the woods.
With heavy ships (like Constellation of early fame) forming the backbone of the force and serving as seagoing bases for the small craft, the squadron steadily reduced piracy. Time after time over the years, operations like Ramage's showed the Navy's determination, boldness, resourcefulness. Among them we might cite one other example, a joint British-American expedition.
In April 1825 an attack under Lieutenant McKeever in USS Sea Gull, a steam galliot, first U.S. naval steamer to see action on the high seas, destroyed another buccaneer base east of Matanzas, Cuba. McKeever led the barge Gallinipper into the mouth of the Sagua La Grande River where masts were sighted amidst the river bank foliage. He attacked immediately. The schooner lying in the river quickly surrendered, but then treacherously opened fire. After a hot action the pirate ship was taken and the base leveled.
The Navy's aggressive and persistent assault on piracy paid off. Buccaneering, increasingly hazardous and less profitable, withered and the naval squadron was gradually reduced in the late twenties.
The struggle against Caribbean pirates embodied many of the demands of riverine warfare in Vietnam today--boat expeditions and cutting-out parties in the intense heat of often uncharted waters; pursuit of a mobile, elusive, and ruthless enemy thoroughly familiar with the waters and terrain. Armed shallow-draft vessels were a must but the supply rarely met the need. Nevertheless, by capturing or destroying over 60 ships, eliminating corsair dens, and driving the "Jolly Roger" from the sea, the Navy rendered an invaluable service to citizens and commercial interests of the United States and other nations.
David Porter personally organized his command and set out for Key West. The ships were referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet” due to the small and shallow drafted vessels used. It allowed them to easily maneuver over the shallow areas and reefs in the Keys. He arrived here in April 1823 with steam ships, schooners, a transport ship, barges and sloops-of-war, and even a decoy merchant ship armed with hidden guns, as well as 1100 men. He scoured the Caribbean, the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico, hitting hard at pirate bases, capturing pirate ships and escorting American ships to safety.A history of the first U.S. Navy steam ship to see combat here
Sea Gull, built as the river steamer Enterprise by the Connecticut Steam Boat Company, Hartford, Conn.,was launched in November 1818 and made her first trial run in July 1819. She was purchased by the Navy in December 1822 for use as a shallow water vessel operating against pirates along the coast of Cuba. Renamed Sea Gull, she was the second steamship of the United States Navy and the first to serve actively as a warship.More on the barge Gallinipper here:
In June, Commodore Porter returned to Washington in Sea Gull, making the trip in nine days. In July 1824, Lt. Isaac McKeever assumed command and returned to the West Indies whence Sea Gull patrolled until March 1825. At this time, with the barge Gallinipper she joined the British frigate Dartmouth and two armed British schooners in a raid on a pirate vessel. The operation resulted in the death of eight pirates and the capture of 19.
The barge Gallinipper was one of five ship's boats equipped with sails and double-banked oars in January 1823 for duty with Capt. David Porter's West India Squadron, known as the "Mosquito Fleet," fitted out under an act of Congress approved 20 December 1822 to cruise in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico for the suppression of piracy.
On 14 February 1823 the squadron, composed of 12 ships, sailed from Hampton Roads for its base at Thompson's Island (later Key West, Fla.) via a circuitous route through the Caribbean, while Gallinipper and the other barges, in charge of Lt. T. M. Newell, loaded on two chartered schooners, proceeded directly to base a few days later. Arriving at Thompson's Island 3 April, Captain Porter landed the stores, built storehouses, and fitted out the barges and manned them from the crew of Peacock.
Gallinipper, one of the more active barges, participated in several successful expeditions against the pirates operating on the coast of Cuba. On 8 April 1823 she and barge Mosquito, under command of Lt. C. K. Stribling, captured pirate schooner Pilot near Havana after running her on shore; two pirates were killed and one captured, the others escaping on shore.
In July, 1823 Gallinipper, Lt. W. H. Watson in command, with the aid of Mosquito, captured the pirate schooner Catilina and a launch near Sigaumpa Bay. Catilina, commanded by the celebrated pirate Diaboleto, lost about one-third of her crew of approximately 75 in the running fight. The barges pursued the schooner to the village of Signapa; as they closed to board, the pirates fled to their launch. A volley of musketry directed at the launch drove them into the sea where the boats cut off the retreat of all but 15. Even of these, 11 were killed or taken prisoner by the barges' men who landed in pursuit, and the remaining 4 were apprehended by the local authorities. Lt. Watson was highly commended by Captain Porter for his brilliant victory over a superior force without the loss of a man, and recommended to the Department for promotion.
In March 1825 a joint American-British expedition under Lt. I. McKeever in Gallinipper, destroyed a pirates' lair east of Matanzas, Cuba, and captured 2 of their schooners, killing at least 8 pirates and taking 19 prisoners. The ultimate fate of Gallinipper is unknown. By December 1825 it was reported that one of the barges had been lost at sea, some had decayed to the point of uselessness, and the rest remained on duty in Florida.