4 August 1790 – 28 January 1915
In the years after its founding, the fledgling American Republic was facing serious financial trouble. Smuggling, encouraged during the war to avoid British taxes, now kept badly needed revenue out of the U.S. Treasury. The government needed to stop smuggling, but the Army and the Navy had been disbanded immediately after the war.
In 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton convinced Congress to authorize the construction of 10 topsail schooners to be used as revenue cutters. They were to cruise the waters off the East Coast and ensure that cargoes were offloaded at approved Ports of Entry, ensuring that import tariffs were collected. On 4 August 1790, Congress passed the Act that established the United States Revenue Marine, the first armed service created by the new republic, the first force to hold the title “United States”, and the only naval force of the Republic from 1790-1794.
The officers were appointed largely from among those who had served in the disbanded Continental Navy. The first commission was issued by President George Washington to Captain Hopley Yeaton of New Hampshire.
The original 10 cutters, Vigilant, Active, General Green, Massachusetts, Scammel, Argus, Virginia, Diligence, South Carolina, and Eagle, entered service between 1791 and 1793. Cutter captains were answerable to, and received orders from, the Customs Collector of the port to which they were assigned. The Collector was given wide latitude in how he could task “his” cutter. Situations requiring the Secretary to intervene were rare.
The duties specifically assigned to the cutters and their crews as legislated by Congress and expounded by Hamilton included:
*Boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers
*Insuring that all cargoes were properly documented
*Sealing the cargo holds of incoming vessels
*Seizing those vessels in violation of the law
They were also tasked with a number of other duties that were not related to protecting the revenue. These included:
*Enforcing quarantine restrictions established by the federal, state or local governments
*Charting the local coastline
*Enforcing the neutrality and embargo acts
*Carrying official (and unofficial) passengers
*Carrying supplies to lighthouse stations
*Other duties as assigned by the collector
Since it’s inception, the Revenue Marine accepted the responsibility to render aid and assistance as needed. In 1832, Secretary McLane ordered revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need, and Congress made the practice an official part of regulations in 1837. They also enforced laws prohibiting the importation of slaves.
Cutters soon became involved in military affairs. In 1793 Diligence drove a pirate ashore in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1794 Virginia seized Unicorn, which was being fitted-out as a privateer by supporters of the French republic. The Act of 1 July 1797 authorized the President to employ the cutters to defend the seacoasts and to repel any hostility to the vessels and commerce of the United States and made provisions for assigning Marines to cutters. The Act of 2 February 1799 put the Revenue Marine personnel on a par with the newly re-established Navy. The Act of 2 March 1799, provided that the cutters “shall, whenever the President of the United States shall so direct, cooperate with the Navy of the United States, during which time they shall be under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy…”
During the Quasi-War with France (1797-1801), 18 of the 22 ships captured by the United States were taken by cutters. Pickering accounted for 10 of them.
A cutter captured the first British vessel in the War of 1812. Two of the most hotly contested confrontations of the war were the battle between the cutter Surveyor and the British frigate Narcissus and the defense of the cutter Eagle against the attack of the British brig Dispatch and an accompanying sloop.
The cutters waged a relentless war upon pirates. Alabama and Louisiana destroyed a major pirate base on Bretons Island, the last base in U.S. territory. Pirates operating from bases in Mexico, Central and South America, and Cuba made frequent visits to American waters resulting in a number of engagements with revenue cutters.
During the Seminole Wars (1836-1842) eight revenue cutters supported operations along the coast of Florida.
Cutters performed blockade and landing operations during the War with Mexico from 1846 to 1848.
In 1855, Second Lieutenant James Harrison of Jefferson Davis accompanied Company C, 4th Infantry during an expedition against hostile Indians in the Washington territory. On 3 December, while in camp, Indians assaulted the company, killing its commanding officer. Harrison took command, rallied the men, and beat off the attackers.
In 1858, a naval force was sent to Paraguay to settle a dispute with that nation. Harriet Lane, the first steam cutter, joined the squadron. Since she was the only shallow-draft steamer among the 18-ship force, she was the most active warship in the squadron. Commodore Shubrick, in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, made special mention of Harriet Lane’s value to the squadron and the skill and zeal shown by her commander, Captain John Faunce.
By the beginning of the Civil War, revenue cutters were stationed at every major U.S. port. The name was changed to Revenue Cutter Service in 1862. Cutters fought on both sides of the war. Some were seized by the Confederacy and others had crew sympathetic to the Confederate cause. The cutters proved ideal for blockade duty. Harriet Lane fired the first shot from a vessel on 11 April 1861 when she put a round across the bow of the steamer Nashville entering Charleston harbor during the siege of Ft. Sumter. She also took part later in operations in Hampton Roads, Virginia and in the capture of Hatteras Inlet, NC. She would be lost to a Confederate boarding party in Galveston harbor on 1 January 1863 and would serve the Confederacy for the rest of the war. In December 1862, Hercules engaged Confederate forces on the Rappahannock River. Caleb Cushing, at Portland, Maine was destroyed by the commerce raider CSS Tallahassee. Cutters also contributed to logistics operations of the Navy. After carrying President Lincoln down from Washington on 9 May 1862, Miami assisted Navy transports in landing Federal troops at Ocean View. Cutter crews participated in every major amphibious operation on the East Coast. Reliance’s commanding officer was killed as the cutter engaged Confederate forces on the Great Wicomico River in 1864. On 21 April 1865 cutters were ordered to search all outbound ships for the assassins of President Lincoln.
The 1867 Alaskan Purchase added a new operating area for the Service. In 1880 the Bering Sea patrol became an established mission. For an overview of this mission go to this Link.
In 1888, the RCS became responsible for the enforcement of anchorage regulations in U.S. ports. In 1889, patrol and protection for regattas and marine parades was added to the list of duties.
During the Spanish-American War (1898), eight cutters were in Admiral Sampson’s Havana blockade. McCulloch was at the Battle of Manila Bay and was Admiral Dewey’s dispatch boat. In action off Cardenas on 11 May 1898, Hudson, Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb commanding, dueled Spanish gunboats and shore batteries with the torpedo boat USS Winslow. When half of Winslow’s crew had been killed and its commander wounded, Hudson rescued the torpedo boat from certain destruction. In recognition of this act of heroism, Congress authorized a gold medal for Lieutenant Newcomb, a silver medal for each of the officers, and a bronze medal for the enlisted members of the crew. During the war, the Navy assigned the task of coast watching to the U.S. Life Saving Service. As a result, approximately two-thirds of the Navy’s coastal observation stations were Life Saving Stations. Although the Spanish fleet never approached the U.S. coast, the service dutifully maintained its vigilance throughout the war.
Cutters were also active in the Territory of Hawaii. They patrolled from Hawaii to Midway. Thetis, among others, fought the Orient opium trade.
Derelicts were abandoned half submerged vessels and were a threat to navigation. In 1906, Congress directed the RCS to destroy derelicts and other hazards to navigation. RCS Seneca was designed as a derelict destroyer.
By 1911 the RCS had 36 commissioned cutters. In 1912, the 190-foot Miami (later Tampa) and Unalga became the most modern ships in the fleet.
In 1912, President Taft was looking to streamline government. His committee, headed by Frederick Cleveland, recommended the RCS be abolished and its ships and responsibilities transferred to the Navy. This proposal did not sit well with Treasury, the Navy, or Congress. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeigh countered with a proposal to combine the RCS and the Life Saving Service (LSS). He ordered RCS Captain-Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf and LSS Superintendent Sumner Kimball to build the proposal. The loss of RMS Titanic to an iceberg helped doom the Cleveland proposal and gave the RCS another mission, International Ice Patrol. For an overview of this mission go to this Link.
In 1914, the outbreak of WWI in Europe resulted in U.S. Neutrality Laws designed to maintain America’s neutrality by restricting the activities of belligerent vessels in U.S. ports. The RCS was the primary enforcer of these laws.
On 28 January 1915, in accordance with MacVeigh’s suggestion, the RCS was combined with the LSS to form the United States Coast Guard. Although the Revenue Marine was first envisioned as waterborne tax collectors, the ability to conduct many different divergent missions simultaneously became the hallmark of the service.
For a complete list of early revenue cutters go to this Link.