United States Revenue Cutter Service
The United States Revenue Cutter Service was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...

 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
United States Department of the Treasury
The Department of the Treasury is an executive department and the treasury of the United States federal government. It was established by an Act of Congress in 1789 to manage government revenue...

. In 1915 the Service merged with the United States Life-Saving Service
United States Life-Saving Service
The United States Life-Saving Service was a United States government agency that grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers...

 to form the United States Coast Guard
United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...


The need for the Revenue Cutter Service

Immediately after the American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

 the new United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 was struggling to stay afloat financially. National income was desperately needed, and the government determined that a great deal of this income would come from import tariff
A tariff may be either tax on imports or exports , or a list or schedule of prices for such things as rail service, bus routes, and electrical usage ....

s. Because of rampant smuggling
Smuggling is the clandestine transportation of goods or persons, such as out of a building, into a prison, or across an international border, in violation of applicable laws or other regulations.There are various motivations to smuggle...

, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws, and on August 4, 1790, the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury
United States Secretary of the Treasury
The Secretary of the Treasury of the United States is the head of the United States Department of the Treasury, which is concerned with financial and monetary matters, and, until 2003, also with some issues of national security and defense. This position in the Federal Government of the United...

 Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...

, created the Revenue-Marine, later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service by act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171).
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
Louis McLane
Louis McLane was an American lawyer and politician from Wilmington, in New Castle County, Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and a member of the Federalist Party and later the Democratic Party. He served as the U.S. Representative from Delaware, U.S. Senator...

 issued written orders 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 for which the later U.S. Coast Guard would be best known worldwide.

Early service

Ten cutters
First ten Revenue Service cutters
The first ten Revenue Service cutters were ten oceangoing vessels built at the behest of the first U.S. Congress in the early 1790s to crack down on smuggling. Since the U.S...

 were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1798, the Revenue-Marine was the only armed maritime service of the United States. Each cutter captain was answerable to and received his sailing orders directly from the Collector of Customs of the port to which his ship was assigned. This was the case from 1791 to 1871, except for the period 1843-49, when oversight was vested in the Revenue Marine Division of the Treasury Department.
A new Revenue Marine Division was established in 1871, then became the Revenue Cutter Service by act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171). 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. Yet despite this considerable authority, Alexander Hamilton, in his first letter of instruction to the captains, had specifically directed that they "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
The Quasi-War was an undeclared war fought mostly at sea between the United States and French Republic from 1798 to 1800. In the United States, the conflict was sometimes also referred to as the Franco-American War, the Pirate Wars, or the Half-War.-Background:The Kingdom of France had been a...

 with France from 1798 to 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 La Amistad
La Amistad
La Amistad was a ship notable as the scene of a revolt by African captives being transported from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. It was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in Spain and owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba...

, encountered off the coast of Long Island by the USRC Washington
USS Washington (1837)
The sixth USS Washington was a revenue cutter in the United States Navy. She discovered Amistad after the slaves onboard had seized control of that schooner in an 1839 mutiny. The sixth USS Washington was a revenue cutter in the United States Navy. She discovered Amistad after the slaves onboard...

. 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 1808.

The War of 1812

In wartime, the Revenue-Marine was placed under the command of the United States Navy, and the cutters themselves were often placed into military service. In the War of 1812
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

 against Britain
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the formal name of the United Kingdom during the period when what is now the Republic of Ireland formed a part of it....

, a Revenue Cutter (USRC Jefferson
USRC Jefferson (1802)
USRC Jefferson was a schooner purchased in 1802 by the United States Revenue Marine and stationed at Norfolk, Virginia where it enforced customs laws. She was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States....

) made the first American capture of an enemy ship, the brig Patriot, in June 1812.

On 3 August 1812, the boats of the British frigates  and captured the 6-gun revenue cutter Commodore Barry
USRC Commodore Barry (1812)
USRC Commodore Barry was a vessel that the US Revenue Cutter Service bought in 1812, before the outbreak of the War of 1812. The British captured her in August of the same year. She served briefly in November as a privateer for Saint John, New Brunswick under the name Brunswicker before being laid...

 in the Little River, Bay of Fundy
Bay of Fundy
The Bay of Fundy is a bay on the Atlantic coast of North America, on the northeast end of the Gulf of Maine between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with a small portion touching the U.S. state of Maine...

, together with three privateer schooners, Madison, Olive, and Spence (or Spruce).

Then on 22 August 1812, , under the command of Captain Thomas Huskisson
Thomas Huskisson
Thomas Huskisson was an officer in the Royal Navy. Thomas Huskisson was half-brother of William Huskisson, the British politician. Thomas joined the Royal Navy in 1800. He saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar on HMS Defence in 1805....

, captured the USRC James Madison after a chase of seven hours. James Madison was pierced for fourteen guns but had only ten mounted, two of which she threw overboard during the chase. She had a crew of 65 men. She was seven days out of Savannah and had made no captures. Huskisson described her thusly: "[She is] coppered and copper-fastened, is two years old, and sails remarkably fast."

The small Revenue Cutter Surveyor, with a crew of 16 and an armament of only six 12-pounder (5 kg) carronade
The carronade was a short smoothbore, cast iron cannon, developed for the Royal Navy by the Carron Company, an ironworks in Falkirk, Scotland, UK. It was used from the 1770s to the 1850s. Its main function was to serve as a powerful, short-range anti-ship and anti-crew weapon...

s, was anchored in the York River, Virginia, on the night of 12 June 1813, when a 90-man boarding party from the British frigate 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 hand-to-hand fight that left five Americans wounded and three British dead, the British succeeded in taking Surveyor. Later, Captain Crerie of the Narcissus returned Captain Travis's sword to him—an unusual gesture of respect—for his "gallant defense" of Surveyor.

On 11 October 1814, the Revenue Cutter Eagle encountered the much larger British Cruizer-class
Cruizer class brig-sloop
The Cruizer class was an 18-gun class of brig-sloops of the Royal Navy. Brig-sloops were the same as ship-sloops except for their rigging...

 brig-sloop , 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
Long Island
Long Island is an island located in the southeast part of the U.S. state of New York, just east of Manhattan. Stretching northeast into the Atlantic Ocean, Long Island contains four counties, two of which are boroughs of New York City , and two of which are mainly suburban...

 to avoid being sunk. Not yet defeated, the Revenue Cutter seamen removed the gun
A gun is a muzzle or breech-loaded projectile-firing weapon. There are various definitions depending on the nation and branch of service. A "gun" may be distinguished from other firearms in being a crew-served weapon such as a howitzer or mortar, as opposed to a small arm like a rifle or pistol,...

s from the Eagle, hoisted them up a 160-foot bluff, dragged them into position, and continued firing at the Dispatch. When the Americans ran out of cannonballs, they still did not surrender, instead retrieving the cannonballs fired at them by the Dispatch and shooting them back at the British. Even after being forced to use the ship's logbook
A logbook was originally a book for recording readings from the chip log, and is used to determine the distance a ship traveled within a certain amount of time...

 for wadding
Wadding is a disc of material used in guns to seal gas behind a projectile or to separate powder from shot.Wadding can be crucial to a gun's efficiency, since any gas that leaks past a projectile as it is being fired is wasted. A harder or more carefully designed item which serves this purpose is...

, the crew of the Eagle fought on—until finally they were overwhelmed and captured by the British.

Counter-piracy Operations

After the War of 1812
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

, British and Spanish sea power in the Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

 and Gulf Of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico
The Gulf of Mexico is a partially landlocked ocean basin largely surrounded by the North American continent and the island of Cuba. It is bounded on the northeast, north and northwest by the Gulf Coast of the United States, on the southwest and south by Mexico, and on the southeast by Cuba. In...

 weakened, allowing a resurgence of piracy
Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea. The term can include acts committed on land, in the air, or in other major bodies of water or on a shore. It does not normally include crimes committed against persons traveling on the same vessel as the perpetrator...

 along the Gulf Coast. Revenue cutters were dispatched to fight the pirates. In 1819, the one-gun schooners USRC Alabama
USRC Alabama (1819)
USRC Alabama, was a wood hull topsail schooner designed by William Doughty that served in the United States Revenue Cutter Service from 1819 to 1833. Although her homeport was Mobile, Alabama, she was stationed temporarily with her sister ship, the USRC Louisiana. The two cutters were successful in...

 and USRC Louisiana
USRC Louisiana (1819)
USRC Louisiana, was a wood hull topsail schooner designed by William Doughty that served in the United States Revenue Cutter Service from 1819 to 1824. Assigned the homeport of New Orleans, Louisiana, she sailed the Caribbean extensively and was used mainly in antipiracy activity...

Action of 31 August 1819
The Capture of the Bravo was a naval battle between United States Revenue Cutter Service cutters and one of Jean Lafitte's pirate ships.In early 1819 the two ships USRC Alabama and USRC Louisiana were finished being built in New York and fitted with one pivot gun each. The sister ships cost $4,500...

 two engagements with pirates, one on the open sea and another at Breton Island
Breton Island
Breton Island is a small rocky island lying southwest of Empereur Island. It was charted in 1950 by the French Antarctic Expedition and named by them for their largely Breton crew....

, Louisiana
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

. On July 19, 1820, Alabama captured four pirate ships off Belize
Belize is a constitutional monarchy and the northernmost country in Central America. Belize has a diverse society, comprising many cultures and languages. Even though Kriol and Spanish are spoken among the population, Belize is the only country in Central America where English is the official...

. In 1822, with USS Peacock
USS Peacock (1813)
The first USS Peacock was a sloop-of-war in the United States Navy during the War of 1812.Peacock was authorized by Act of Congress 3 March 1813, laid down 9 July 1813 by Adam & Noah Brown at the New York Navy Yard, and launched 19 September 1813. She served in the War of 1812, capturing twenty ships...

 and HMS Speedwell, Alabama engaged pirates again, which resulted in the taking of five more pirate ships.

The Mexican-American War

Revenue-Marine cutters again served under 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 USRC Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 of 1861-1865. The cutter fired a shot across the bow of the civilian steamship Nashville
CSS Nashville (1861)
Originally a United States Mail Service ship, the USMS Nashville, was a brig-rigged, side-paddle-wheel passenger steamer built at Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 1853. Between 1853 and 1861 she was engaged in running between New York City and Charleston, South Carolina...

as it tried to enter Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is the second largest city in the U.S. state of South Carolina. It was made the county seat of Charleston County in 1901 when Charleston County was founded. The city's original name was Charles Towne in 1670, and it moved to its present location from a location on the west bank of the...

 Harbor during the bombard
Bombard may refer to:*The act of carrying out a bombardment*Bombard , a type of late medieval siege weapon.*Bombard , a contemporary double reed instrument used to play traditional Breton music....

ment of Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.- Construction :...

 because the Nashville was flying no identifying flag. The civilian ship then promptly raised the U.S. standard, and the USRC Harriet Lane broke off.

President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 issued the following order to 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."

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
USS Naugatuck (1844)
USRC Naugatuck was a twin-screw ironclad experimental steamer owned by the US Revenue Cutter Service during the American Civil War. She served the U.S. Treasury Department as the USRC E.A. Stevens , a name she retained until sold in 1890...

, a prototype 110-foot semi-submersible ironclad gunboat, in company with the USS Monitor
USS Monitor
USS Monitor was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the United States Navy during the American Civil War. She is most famous for her participation in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, the first-ever battle fought between two ironclads...

, USS Galena
USS Galena (1862)
USS Galena — an ironclad screw steamer — was one of the first three ironclads, each of a different design, built by the Union Navy during the American Civil War....

, and two other gunboats, participated in the unsuccessful sortie up the James River
James River (Virginia)
The James River is a river in the U.S. state of Virginia. It is long, extending to if one includes the Jackson River, the longer of its two source tributaries. The James River drains a catchment comprising . The watershed includes about 4% open water and an area with a population of 2.5 million...

 to Drewry's Bluff to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond. After carrying President Lincoln from Washington on May 9, 1862, the USRC Miami
USRC Miami (1862)
The USRC Miami was purchased by the Revenue Cutter Service from Arthur Leary for $25,000 and was formerly the Lady Le Marchand, a 115 foot schooner-rigged steamer with a hull of teak planks over oak frames. After outfitting she was stationed briefly in Washington, D.C...

 assisted navy transports in landing Federal troops at Ocean View, Virginia.

When Lincoln was assassinated
To carry out an assassination is "to murder by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons." Alternatively, assassination may be defined as "the act of deliberately killing someone, especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons."An assassination may be...

 on April 15, 1865, revenue cutters were ordered to search all ships for any assassins who might be trying to escape.

Post-Civil War Operations

During the harsh winter of 1897-1898, Lieutenant David H. Jarvis of the US Revenue Cutter Bear led a relief party to 265 whalers whose ships had been stranded in the ice off the northern coast of Alaska.

The Spanish-American War

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War
Spanish-American War
The Spanish–American War was a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States, effectively the result of American intervention in the ongoing Cuban War of Independence...

 in 1898, the Revenue Cutter Service saw plenty of action in both the Cuban and Philippine theaters. Many revenue cutters were assigned to the blockade
A blockade is an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. A blockade should not be confused with an embargo or sanctions, which are legal barriers to trade, and is distinct from a siege in that a blockade is usually...

 of Havana Harbor
Havana is the capital city, province, major port, and leading commercial centre of Cuba. The city proper has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of — making it the largest city in the Caribbean region, and the most populous...

. During the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, Revenue Cutter Hugh McCulloch fought with the American fleet under Admiral George Dewey
George Dewey
George Dewey was an admiral of the United States Navy. He is best known for his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War...

On May 11, 1898, the Revenue Cutter Hudson, equipped with two 6-pounder (3 kg) guns and a machine gun
Machine gun
A machine gun is a fully automatic mounted or portable firearm, usually designed to fire rounds in quick succession from an ammunition belt or large-capacity magazine, typically at a rate of several hundred rounds per minute....

, took part in the Battle of Cárdenas
Battle of Cárdenas
The Second Battle of Cárdenas was a secondary naval engagement of the Spanish–American War fought on 11 May of 1898 in the port of Cárdenas, Cuba, between an American squadron of 5 ships under Captain Chapman C. Todd and 3 small Spanish vessels under Mariano Mateu. The battle resulted in an...

 off the coast of Cárdenas
Cárdenas, Matanzas, Cuba
Cárdenas is a municipality and city in the Matanzas Province of Cuba, about east of Havana.-Geography:Cárdenas is a maritime port town on the level and somewhat marshy shore of a spacious bay of the northern coast of the island , sheltered by a long promontory...

, Cuba
The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

. Together with the torpedo boat
Torpedo boat
A torpedo boat is a relatively small and fast naval vessel designed to carry torpedoes into battle. The first designs rammed enemy ships with explosive spar torpedoes, and later designs launched self-propelled Whitehead torpedoes. They were created to counter battleships and other large, slow and...

USS Winslow (TB-5)
-External links:*...

, Hudson fought against a Spanish gunboat
A gunboat is a naval watercraft designed for the express purpose of carrying one or more guns to bombard coastal targets, as opposed to those military craft designed for naval warfare, or for ferrying troops or supplies.-History:...

 and coastal batteries until forced to withdraw. Under extremely heavy fire, Hudson towed the disabled Winslow away from the battle. Congress awarded Frank Newcomb
Frank Newcomb
Frank Hamilton Newcomb was a Commodore in the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Commodore Newcomb was most famous for his heroic actions at the Battle of Cárdenas during the Spanish-American War....

, the captain of the Hudson, 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 combined the Revenue Cutter Service with the Lifesaving Service to form the new United States Coast Guard
United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...

. The Coast Guard would further incorporate the United States Lighthouse Service
United States Lighthouse Service
The United States Lighthouse Service, also known as the Bureau of Lighthouses, was the agency of the US Federal Government that was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of all lighthouses in the United States from the time of its creation in 1910 until 1939...

 in 1939 and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service
Steamboat Inspection Service
The Steamboat Inspection Service was a United States agency created in 1852 to safeguard lives and property at sea. It merged with the Bureau of Navigation in 1932 to form the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection which, in 1936, was reorganized into the Bureau of Marine Inspection and...

 in 1942.

In 1990, the United States Coast Guard created a military award known as the Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation
Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation
The Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation is a commemorative decoration of the United States Coast Guard which was awarded to all active, reserve, auxiliary, and civilian personnel of the Coast Guard for service between the dates of June 4, 1989 and August 4, 1990.The decoration was issued as...

 which commemorated the original founding of the Revenue Cutter Service.

See also

  • First ten Revenue Service cutters
    First ten Revenue Service cutters
    The first ten Revenue Service cutters were ten oceangoing vessels built at the behest of the first U.S. Congress in the early 1790s to crack down on smuggling. Since the U.S...

  • USRC Jackson
    USRC Jackson (1832)
    The United States Revenue Cutter Jackson was one of 13 cutters of the Morris-Taney Class to be launched. Named after Secretaries of the Treasury and Presidents of the United States, these cutters were the backbone of the Service for more than a decade...

  • Tallship "Californian"
    Californian (schooner)
    Californian was built in 1984 as a replica of the revenue service cutter C.W. Lawrence, which operated off the Californian coast in the 1850s. On July 23, 2003, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Bill No...

External links

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