Piracy in the West Indies has long been the stuff of tall and romantic tales. In the first few decades of the 19th century seafarers operating under the dubious authority of short-lived revolutionary South American governments fighting for survival against a vengeful Spain claimed to be legitimate privateers, but more often acted as cutthroat pirates, stealing from all nations and murdering merchant crews with cold-blooded indifference.
On 3 March 1819, Congress authorized the United States President to employ the Navy to protect commerce and seize the vessels committing depredations, authorizing the death penalty for those found guilty of piracy. For three years Commodore David Patterson at New Orleans struggled to control a small U.S. squadron attempting to protect American commercial interests in the region.
Early in 1822, the United States became determined to suppress piracy in the West Indies and sent a large naval force under the command of Captain James Biddle in the 36-gun frigate Macedonian. Cuba turned out to be a particularly thorny problem, because despite the Spanish governor’s willingness, out of embarrassment, to cooperate, there was little he could do to prevent pirates from using the numerous islands and inlets under his authority to carry out their operations. The American squadron focused on this problem area throughout the remainder of the year.
Stephen Cassin took the 18-gun sloop Peacock sixty miles west of Havana, off Bahia Honda, on 28 September 1822 and captured a pirate vessel of eighteen men. Learning from a British schooner that more pirates had gone up a shallow river, Cassin assembled a force of boats, a revenue cutter (Louisiana) and a prize schooner carrying fifty armed men in pursuit.
The first expedition proved unsuccessful, but with the assistance of the British captain, Cassin ordered the force to set off again the next morning. Spotting a sail inshore, the shallow draft boats set off after the pirates and soon returned with four schooners. Cmdr. Stephen Cassin exercised his authority to act on intelligence and pursued pirates inshore, and developed an ad hoc force than ensured his men would overwhelm the enemy.