The United States Revenue Cutter Service was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790 as an armed maritime law enforcement service. Throughout its entire existence the Revenue Cutter Service operated under the authority of the United States Department of the Treasury. In 1915 the Service merged with the United States Life-Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard.
During the Quasi-War with France in 1798–1801, the U.S. Navy was formed and the Revenue-Marine fought alongside the Navy, capturing or assisting in the capture of 20 French ships. Ten of these were captured by the USRC Pickering.
After 1794, the Revenue-Marine began intercepting slave ships illegally importing slaves into the United States. Many slave ships were seized and hundreds of would-be slaves were freed. The best-known incident of slaver interdiction is the case of the schooner Amistad, encountered off the coast of Long Island by the USRC Washington. Although none of the original crew was aboard when the schooner was boarded, the vessel was escorted into New Haven, where the trial made famous by the film Amistad was held.
Revenue Cutters were assigned to enforce the very unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which outlawed nearly all European trade, import and export, through American ports. The Act was enforced until it was repealed in 1810.
The small Revenue Cutter Surveyor with a crew of 16 and an armament of merely six 12 pound (5 kg) carronades was anchored in the York River on the night of June 12, 1813, when a 90-man boarding party from the British frigate HMS Narcissus attacked her. The Revenue Service seamen under the command of Captain William S. Travis were taken by surprise and the carronades could not be used. After a fierce fight which left five Americans wounded and three British dead, the Surveyor was captured. Later, Captain Crerie of the Narcissus returned Captain Travis' sword to him, an unusual gesture of respect for his "gallant defense" of the Surveyor.
On October 11, 1814, the Revenue Cutter Eagle encountered the much larger British brigantine Dispatch which was guarding the Suzan, a captured American merchant ship. The Eagle was badly outgunned by the Dispatch and Captain Frederick Lee beached the Eagle on Long Island to avoid being sunk. Not yet defeated, the Revenue Cutter seamen dragged the guns from the Eagle and set them up on a 160-foot bluff and continued firing at the Dispatch. When the Americans ran out of cannonballs, they did not surrender, and instead retrieved the cannonballs fired at them by the Dispatch and shot them back at the British. Even after being forced to use the ship's logbook for wadding, the crew of the Eagle fought on until finally overwhelmed and captured by the British.
Revenue Cutters assisted Navy operations throughout the war. The USRC Harriet Lane joined a Federal naval squadron to capture Forts Clark and Hatteras, which served as bases for Confederate blockade runners. USRC E.A. Stevens, a prototype 110-foot semi-submersible ironclad gunboat, participated in the unsuccessful sortie up the James River to Drewry's Bluff in company with the USS Monitor, USS Galena and two other gunboats, to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond. After carrying President Lincoln from Washington on May 9, 1862, the USRC Miami assisted navy transports in landing Federal troops at Ocean View, VA.
President Lincoln ordered the Secretary of the Treasury on June 14, 1863, "You will co-operate by the revenue cutters under your direction with the navy in arresting rebel depredations on American commerce and transportation and in capturing rebels engaged therein."
On May 11, 1898, the Revenue cutter Hudson, equipped with two 6 pounder (3 kg) guns and a machine gun, took part in the Battle of Cárdenas off the coast of Cárdenas, Cuba. Together with the torpedo boat Winslow, Hudson fought against a Spanish gunboat and coastal batteries until forced to withdraw. Under extremely heavy fire Hudson towed the disabled Winslow away from the battle, and Congress awarded the captain of the Hudson, Frank Newcomb, with a gold medal for his bravery.
In 1990, the United States Coast Guard created a military award known as the Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation which commemorated the original founding of the Revenue Cutter Service.