lifesaving service

United States Revenue Cutter Service

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.

The need for the Revenue Service

Immediately after the American Revolutionary War the brand-new United States of America was struggling to stay financially afloat. National income was desperately needed and a great deal of this income came from import tariffs. Because of rampant smuggling, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws, and on August 4, 1790 the United States Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine, later renamed Revenue Cutter Service in 1862. It would be the responsibility of the new Revenue-Marine to enforce the tariff and all other maritime laws. In 1832, Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane ordered in writing for revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need, and Congress made the practice an official part of regulations in 1837. This was the beginning of the lifesaving mission that the later U.S. Coast Guard would be best known for worldwide.

Early service

Ten cutters were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1798, the Revenue-Marine was the only armed maritime service for the United States. Cutter captains were answerable to and received their sailing orders directly from the Customs Collector of the port to which they were assigned. All crew pay, requests for supplies, arrangements for repairs to the cutter, and mission-specific tasking came directly from the port's Customs House. Standing orders for individual cutters were stated in general terms, allowing captains to exercise their discretion and judgement to the fullest. Captains also had far reaching authority " — to seize vessels and goods in the cases in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue laws..." and to send inspection parties aboard vessels already in port, to ensure that cargo intended for export also did not violate Revenue laws. It was specifically directed in Alexander Hamilton's first letter of instruction that captains "...will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit... They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty – by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence."

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 War of 1812

In wartime, the Revenue-Marine was placed under the command of the United States Navy, and the cutters themselves often placed into military service. In the War of 1812 against Britain, a Revenue Cutter made the first American capture of an enemy ship. Revenue Cutter Jefferson was the first to capture a British merchantman, the brig Patriot, in June 1812.

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.

The Mexican-American War

Revenue-Marine cutters again served under command of the U.S. Navy in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. The cutters were crucial for shallow-water amphibious assaults.

The Civil War

On April 11, 1861, the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The cutter fired a shot across the bow of the Confederate steamship Nashville as it tried to enter Charleston Harbor during the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

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."

When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Revenue Cutters were ordered to search all ships for any assassins that might be trying to escape.

The Spanish-American War

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Revenue Cutter Service saw plenty of action. Many Revenue cutters were assigned to the blockade of Havana Harbor. During the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the Revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch fought with the American fleet under Admiral George Dewey.

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.

Formation of the Coast Guard

President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Act to Create the Coast Guard on January 28, 1915. This Act effectively combined the Revenue Cutter Service with the Lifesaving Service and formed the new United States Coast Guard. Gradually the Coast Guard would grow to incorporate the United States Lighthouse Service in 1939 and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service in 1942.

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.

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