[By William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian]
On Aug. 4, 1790, President George Washington signed legislation establishing a maritime force simply called “the cutters” or “the system of cutters.” Thus was born the United States Revenue Cutter Service, known today as the U.S. Coast Guard. Congress empowered these cutters to enforce national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs. Because the federal government established the U.S. Navy in the late 1790s, this small fleet was the only naval force available to protect U.S. maritime interests in the early years of the new republic.
This fleet came into being because a visionary saw the need for U.S. vessels to enforce laws and protect commerce. That visionary was 32-year-old Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who advocated the establishment of a U.S. sea service years before taking office in 1789. In the November 1787 publication of Federalist No. 12, he wrote, “A few armed vessels, judiciously stationed at the entrances of our ports, might at small expense be made useful sentinels of the laws.”
Hamilton submitted a bill to Congress that established a revenue marine fleet of 10 vessels serving ports in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and southeastern states.
Ten cutter masters appointed by Washington oversaw construction of these first ships built by the U.S. The cutters received a schooner rig carrying topsails on each mast and an armament of four swivel guns, muskets and small arms. The cutters lacked the uniformity in design and construction of later federal vessels, varying between 38 and 70 tons displacement. The service even re-rigged some of the smaller schooners as sloops. With an eye to U.S. manufacturing, Hamilton required all cutter material be produced domestically. He issued orders requiring a specific number of weapons, tools and instruments issued each cutter, even down to the kind and amount of sailcloth.
Hamilton also took a special interest in manning his fleet. The officers were responsible for enlisting each cutter’s crew, which consisted of the master; first, second and third mates; four enlisted men; and two boys. Hamilton thought it best to provide a large number of junior officers in case one or more had to ride an inbound merchant vessel to ensure the integrity of its cargo. To supplement their base salary and increase their zeal for the work, officers and crew received part of the proceeds derived from fines, penalties, and forfeitures collected from seizures of illegal cargo and smuggled goods.
[Captain William Cooke seizes contraband gold from the French Privateer Francois Henri Hervieux near Brunswick, N.C., in 1793. Early in our nation’s history, privateering by French and Spanish crews presented a serious problem along the Atlantic coast. The revenue cutter Diligence, one of the first 10 cutters built for the service, was sent to Wilmington, N.C., to enforce revenue laws and to deter illegal acts. The Revenue Cutter Service at this time had no ensign and the men had no special uniform; Captain William Cooke, commander of the Diligence, enforced the laws without any visible symbol of authority. This early austerity forced the officers to wear their Revolutionary War uniforms and to carry unused or unissued weapons from other services. Coast Guard Collection.]
It was during these early years, that the cutter fleet adopted many missions performed by the Coast Guard today. The cutters defended American shipping against piracy and enforced quarantine restrictions. A long-standing tradition of the sea compelled cutter captains to rescue mariners in distress even before Congress assigned this mission to the service. The cutters carried supplies to remotely located lighthouses and marked hazards to navigation, as described in a 1793 Baltimore newspaper:
“We, the Officers of the United States Cutter Active . . . have fixed a long spar on the most dangerous spot, with a red flag at the top, on which is the word ‘Rocks,’ in large white letters.”
The cutters proved effective in sounding and surveying the shores of the new republic, so Hamilton tasked them with charting navigable waterways in their region, writing:
“the cutters may be rendered an instrument of useful information, concerning the coast, inlets, bays and rivers of the United States, and it will be particularly acceptable if the officers improve the opportunities they have in making such observations . . . as may be useful in the interests of navigation . . . .”
And, as the new republic engaged in military conflicts, the revenue cutters adopted defense missions and served under the new U.S. Navy in time of war. During the 1790s, Hamilton’s cutter fleet established a reputation as multi-mission vessels in peacetime and in war.
Today, the Coast Guard will embark on a new class of cutters designed to serve a multi-mission role just like the service’s first fleet of 10. The “Heritage” Class of Offshore Patrol Cutters will fill the service’s medium-endurance demands alongside the Coast Guard’s smaller Fast Response Cutters and the larger National Security Cutters. The OPCs will have the endurance to operate world-wide to carry out all of the service’s maritime security and safety missions.
The OPCs will honor service history with cutter names made famous in the Revenue Cutter Service and Coast Guard. The first flight of 11 OPCs will include the Active, Argus, Diligence and Vigilant, named for four cutters of the first fleet and subsequent cutters with the same names. OPC Pickering will pay homage to the distinguished combat record of the Quasi-War cutter Pickering. OPC Ingham will carry the name of a 327-foot “Treasury”-class cutter that served with distinction in World War II. OPC Icarus will honor the cutter that sank one of the first Nazi U-boats after U.S. entry into World War II. OPCs Chase and Rush will bear two cutter names long associated with the Coast Guard, most recently with two high-endurance cutters of the 378-foot Hamilton-class. And, OPCs Alert and Reliance will bear the names of two famed workhorses of the medium-endurance cutter fleet. The Offshore Patrol Cutters will become the mainstay of the Coast Guard’s ocean-going fleet, providing multi-mission capabilities and interagency interoperability.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.