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Uncovering the mysteries of our nation’s past can shed light on historical events, along with providing insight on how our past shaped our future. As our nation continues to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, one Coast Guard auxiliarist took on a laborious adventure into seeking uncovered facts about our service’s wartime history.
Bill Nelson has been in the Coast Guard Auxiliary for about four years and is attached to the 1st Coast Guard District’s Division 13, Flotilla 06. In working his auxiliary duties he divides his time between supporting the Atlantic Area historian’s office, Marine Safety Detachment Coram, N.Y., and Aids to Navigation Team Moriches, N.Y.
Nelson’s love for both maritime history and the Coast Guard led him to his research project. When he heard the Coast Guard needed more information on the War of 1812 prisoners of war specifically, he gladly jumped in working with Atlantic Area historian Dr. William H. Thiesen and project officer Capt. Steven H. Pope.
The lesser-known War of 1812 is centered on the maritime battles between a young nation struggling for survival and another nation losing its grip as a world power. For Nelson, an avid lover of maritime history, finding valuable clues in history would depend on finding the men who fought these bloody skirmishes on the high seas as well as understanding the mission that called them to duty.
During the war, several revenue cutters and their crews were captured by the British. The history of their fate was lost and these brave men gallantly defended our fledgling nation from the tyranny of a foreign invader were forgotten.
In researching and compiling a database for POWs from the War of 1812, Nelson painstakingly examined 10,000 British prison records to track down 86 Revenue Cutter POWs. He also made some interesting discoveries.
“Much of my work was considered groundbreaking as I uncovered very, very detailed info on our POWs,” said Nelson. “This included our POWs being from up and down the East Coast, some were as young as 15 years of age, several being ‘men of color or mixed race’ and several black men who were slaves fighting the British.”
In addition to the research, Nelson spent countless hours to honor these men by creating a memorial board of their names. The memorial traveled to numerous commemoration events aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle and will become a permanent fixture aboard the barque.
“It was an amazing experience to be a part of helping to remember these men who gave so much for their country,” said Nelson. They were somewhat forgotten for 200 years, but we finally told their story.”
For his efforts, Nelson recently received the Coast Guard Auxiliary Meritorious Service Medal.
“Words could never convey the tremendous honor bestowed on me,” he said. “It was not warranted, but nonetheless very special.”
Uncovering this mystery didn’t just satisfy curious minds; it evoked the bravery of veterans past and linked the unbroken legacy of the Revenue Cutter Service’s maritime defense then to the Coast Guard’s mission in homeland security today.