The Battle of Goshen Point


A Victory for “Jefferson’s Gunboats”

The US Navy was launched with a few large warships to represent the nation and its interests on the high seas. But when the navy engaged in its first distant-water war, against Tripoli, small gunboats became necessary to operate effectively alongshore. The success of nine small gunboats, which made the voyage to North Africa and back, gave President Thomas Jefferson the impression that the navy could defend the nation’s isolationist aims more economically with gunboats than with frigates. During the Jefferson and Madison administrations, the navy commissioned 174 gunboats between 1805 and 1812.

The gunboats were built to a number of designs, but generally they measured about 50 feet in length and 18 in beam, with a shallow draft. They were rigged as either two-masted schooners or single-masted sloops, but were also equipped with sweeps (long oars) for maneuvering in light winds or constricted waters. Most were armed with one to three guns: perhaps a 24- or 32-pounder on a swiveling carriage amidships and a smaller gun, or several 18-pounders. They generally had crews of about 40, including 24 seamen and 7 Marines.1

During the War of 1812, the 126 gunboats still in service were dispersed among the ports along the Atlantic coast and at New Orleans. Initially laid up, they were put back into service early in 1813 as British forces moved into coastal waters. New London merited two, Gunboats 91 and 92.2

At New York, US Navy Commander Jacob Lewis, a former privateer captain, was commodore of the fleet of 53 gunboats. They guarded the Narrows and lower bay, and occasionally patrolled to the eastward through the East River and Hell Gate into Long Island Sound. Shortly after he was bottled up at New London, Commodore Decatur even suggested that Lewis bring 25 gunboats east to surround Sir Thomas Hardy’s 74-gun HMS Ramillies at low tide and capture her, a proposal rejected by the secretary of the navy.3

New London’s two gunboats appear to have been kept in reserve for defensive purposes within the harbor. In March 1814, Commodore Decatur had them anchored in the narrows of the Thames River off Winthrop Point to deter any British attempt to reach the squadron at Gales Ferry. However, the New York gunboat flotilla became a regular presence on the Sound as the British warships and their barges began to roam at will. In August 1813, Niles’ Register reported: “A division of the New-York flotilla of gun-boats, under com. Lewis, is now in Long Island Sound.—They check the operations of the enemy’s barges, and prevent an abominable trade and intercourse with him.”4 Eleven of the gunboats ventured within four miles of New London, accompanying a merchant brig and schooner. As Sylvanus Griswold noted in his journal on August 4: “the New York Squadron appears of[f]–4 mile . . . 1 brig 1 schooner & 11 gunboats [British] ships send 5 barges half [way] across the Sound to v[i]ew our fleet 1 gunboat stood for them fired a gun distance 3 miles & home they fled.”5

Commodore Lewis’s flotilla made its greatest contribution in May 1814. With the Nova Scotia privateer Liverpool Packet cruising in the Sound, Lewis led 13 gunboats through Hell Gate to drive her away. Along the way they called at Black Rock, New Haven, and Saybrook. There, 40 coasters, including Captain Howard’s New London packet Juno, huddled for protection from British barges. When they prevailed on Lewis to convoy them safely to New London, he pointed out that gunboats were no match for a frigate, but agreed to try.6


In his painting of the Battle of Lake Borgne, ca. 1840, Thomas Lyle Hornbrook shows four sloop-rigged gunboats with boarding nets raised as they fight off the attacking British barges. US Navy gunboats were built in a variety of sizes, shapes, and rigs. Most carried only one or two guns, but those commanded by Commodore Lewis at New York and Lieutenant Jones at New Orleans fought with great bravery at Goshen Point, Connecticut, and Lake Borgne, Louisiana. Courtesy US Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, MD


Off Goshen Point (now Harkness Park in Waterford), the frigate Maidstone, sloop of war Sylph, and a sloop attempted to block their passage. According to the Connecticut Gazette:


The wind being extremely light, the frigate was compelled to come to, and the Sylph fled under her protection. After passing to the leeward of the enemy under a constant and rapid fire, Com. Lewis endeavoured to work his boats to the windward of the ships, in which six only succeeded. The firing continued from about 6 o’clock till past 8 in the evening, when the squadron of gun boats came to anchor in the mouth of our harbor. One of the boats [Number 6] received a shot between wind and water, and was run ashore to stop the leak, which was speedily effected. And a seaman had a leg badly fractured by the recoiling of a gun. No other damage was sustained on our part. What damage the enemy received, if any, in our opinion remains to be divulged, although reports tell of 15 men having been killed on board the Maidstone, and that she was essentially injured in her spars and rigging. It is calculated that 1500 cannon balls were fired in the contest.7


Their work done and repairs made, the gunboats returned to the westward, and Lewis reported that the British “appeared unwilling to renew the action the following morning,” leading him to conclude the Maidstone had indeed suffered significant casualties.8

Gunboats would also perform valuable service during the British effort to take New Orleans. The small naval squadron there included six gunboats, which initially patrolled the approaches to the port. In the summer of 1814 they raided the pirate lair of Jean Lafitte in Barataria Bay. Late in 1814, five of the gunboats under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones were sent to Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans, to prevent the British advance up the shallow lake. On December 14 the gunboats were arrayed across the lake when 42 British barges, with more than 1,000 men, attacked them. Twice the gunboats drove the barges back, and inflicted greater casualties than they received, before they were overwhelmed and captured by the British. Nevertheless, the gunboats helped delay the British approach on New Orleans and helped galvanize the defenders, including some of Lafitte’s men, who stood with Andrew Jackson at Chalmette on January 8.9

“Jefferson’s gunboats” have usually been considered a failure reflective of President Jefferson’s ineffective naval policy. But during the War of 1812, these gunboats performed valuable service on a number of occasions—particularly at Goshen Point and Lake Borgne.

By Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT.



1. Spencer C. Tucker, The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 16-17, 65, 70.

2. Niles’ Register, April 2, 1814, 7; the assignments in 1814 were: Portsmouth 6, Newburyport 2, Boston 2, New Bedford 2, Newport 7, New London 2, New York 38, Delaware Bay 19, Baltimore 1, Potomac River 3, Norfolk 23, North Carolina 6, Charleston 2, Georgia 5, New Orleans 6; Connecticut Gazette, January 19, 1814; Gunboats 89-92 were built at Norwich and Westerly in 1808 and were armed with single 24-pounders, Tucker, Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy, 59, 114, 193.

3. Rocellus S. Guernsey, New York and Vicinity During the War of 1812-‘15 (New York: Charles L. Woodward, 1889, 1895), 1:122, 2:41-42; Tucker, Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy, 116-17.

4. Niles’ Register, August 14, 1813.

5. Sylvanus Griswold, Journal, June 21–December 2, 1813, transcript copy in possession of the author.

6. Niles’ Register, June 4, 1814, 225; June 11, 1814, 248.

7. Connecticut Gazette, June 1, 1814.

8. Niles’ Register, June 4, 1814, 225.

9. Tucker, Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy, 162-70.