The Revenue Cutter Service and the Civil War

Treasury Secretary Cobb's official portrait (Bureau of Engraving and Printing)

By Denise Krepp 05-07-2018 01:56:00

The Maritime Executive recently published an essay about the Revenue Cutter Service operations during the Civil War. The service is an ancestor agency of today’s Coast Guard, and like other American institutions, it was split apart by the conflict. Some RCS vessels served the Union, while others stationed in the South were handed over to the seceding states. This split didn’t happen overnight: it was precipitated by actions taken by a former Secretary of the Treasury.

The story starts in 1857 with then-Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb. Cobb served in this post from 1857-1860, and he oversaw the construction of many Revenue Cutter Service vessels, including one that he named after himself.

Cobb was also a slave owner. He owned many, and they worked on his plantation in Georgia. A historical marker now stands on the spot of his long-gone home, which was destroyed by General Sherman on his March to the Sea. 

Cobb’s nephew, Charles Lamar, smuggled slaves. The importation of foreign slaves had been banned since 1807, but that didn’t stop Lamar. On November 28, 1858, he received a shipment of four hundred African slaves on Jekyll Island, Georgia. And as you can imagine, more than one person wanted to know why the Secretary of the Treasury’s nephew was breaking the law. Federal prosecutors brought Lamar to court, but the local jury found him not guilty. President Buchanan’s response? He told folks that the federal government should do more to stop the smuggling of slaves from Africa. The incident further inflamed tension between northern and southern states.

Meanwhile, Cobb began receiving inquiries from Georgians and other Southerners about President-elect Lincoln and the question of secession. In a December 6, 1860 letter to the people of Georgia, Cobb told them to secede. Calling President-elect Lincoln and the Republican party a “shrewd, heartless and unscrupulous enemy,” U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Cobb wrote:

"On the 4th day of March, 1861, the Federal Government will pass into the hands of the Abolitionists. It will then cease to have the slightest claim upon either your confidence or your loyalty; and, in my honest judgment, each hour that Georgia remains thereafter a member of the Union will be an hour of degradation, to be followed by certain and speedy ruin. I entertain no doubt either of your right or duty to secede from the Union. Arouse, then, all your manhood for the great work before you, and be prepared on that day to announce and maintain your independence out of the Union, for you will never again have equality and justice in it. Identified with you in heart, feeling and interest, I return to share in whatever destiny the future has in store for our State and ourselves."

What did Georgians do? Based on recommendations from Cobb and other senior leaders, they seceded from the Union. In South Carolina, secessionists seized the federal arsenal in Charleston. In Louisiana, Revenue Cutter Service personnel who were Southern sympathizers refused to sail the cutter McClelland to Northern waters. Not surprising, since Cobb had told them to secede.

As for Cobb, he became President of the newly-formed Confederate Congress, and he swore in Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. He later joined the Confederate Army and fought against those who had been under his command.

The Harriet Lane, the cutter that Cobb built, fired the first naval shot of the Civil War in Charleston Harbor in April 1861. Charles Lamar, like his uncle, joined the Confederate military and was one of the last Confederates to die in battle. He was killed at the Battle of Columbus, eight days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

These aren’t easy facts to accept, but they’re ones I’ve longed grappled with as a former Coast Guard officer and as Howell Cobb’s great-great-great grand-daughter. I’ve had to acknowledge that my family owned slaves. Extended family members illegally smuggled slaves, and many more fought for the Confederacy. These same facts are the part of the reason why African-Americans didn’t join the Revenue Cutter Service in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the Revenue Cutter Service remained a predominantly white organization.

With the passage of time, Cobb’s legacy has weakened. The Coast Guard of today is a diverse organization that promotes racial and gender equality. People are judged on their ability, not the color of their skin. But there are many people like Cobb left in this world who do not believe in racial equality, and that’s why it’s more important than ever for the Coast Guard to acknowledge all of its history. Owning the flaws and failures of its former leaders would send a strong signal that the agency acknowledges past mistakes and will never repeat them.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp is a former Coast Guard officer and Treasury Secretary Cobb’s great-great-great grand-daughter.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.