The United States Coast Guard 1790 to the Present - A History
For the first years of the U.S. Republic, the Revenue Service “was the only Navy we had...this little collection
of cutters, with their swivel guns, muskets, pistols and cutlasses” (Halberstadt, p. 4).
President John Adams was determined to strengthen the military forces of the United States. The U.S. Navy had
been disbanded at the end of the Revolutionary War, so when North African Algerians waged war on U.S.
merchant vessels (1794), only Treasury Department revenue cutters were available for defense. Congress
authorized the arming of larger ships, a plan not fully completed when the conflict ended (1796). Congress
authorized a new Department of the Navy (1798), and the U.S. built more than 30 ships by 1799, in time to do
battle with France on the high seas in the Undeclared Naval War of 1798-1800 (Tindall , pp. 330-31).
During the war (1799) Congress set the precedent followed ever since and authorized the placement of the
Revenue Cutter Service ( Revenue Marine) under the U.S. Navy in time of war. The cutters captured several
French vessels in the conflict.
The Revenue Marine and the future Coast Guard fought gallantly in several conflicts and wars on the high seas,
covered in subsequent chapters. In 1832, South Carolina nullified federal tariff laws, and refused to collect
duties on imported goods. President Andrew Jackson ordered five cutters to Charleston Harbor “to take
possession of any vessels arriving from a foreign port, and defend against any attempts to dispossess the
Customs Office of her custody.” The former general defiantly added, “if a single drop of blood shall be shed
there in opposition to the laws of the United States I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on, upon the
first tree I can reach.”
Piracy plagued merchant ships well into the 1800‟s. Revenue Service cutters Louisiana and Alabama captured a
pirate ship operating out of the New Orleans (1819) and demolished the headquarters of the sea faring bandits.
Not confined to the tropical waters of maritime North America, the cutter Louisiana joined vessels of the U.S.
Navy and Royal Navy of Britain and “swept the Caribbean, capturing five pirate vessels (and) intercepting
contraband... the Coast Guard‟s most controversial commerce protection responsibility.”
In the pre-Civil War period (1794-1860), revenue cutters were ordered to prevent the importation of African
slaves into U.S. ports. Cutters captured slave ships and released hundreds of slaves (U.S. Coast Guard: A
Historical Overview; Law Enforcement, CGHO, January 1999).
Cutters were responsible for the enforcement of President Jefferson‟s unpopular Embargo Act (1807) which
was intended to stop the British seizure of U.S. commercial vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. The law
prevented American overseas trade and cost Jefferson the support of manufacturing and shipping interests,
unemployed workers, and export-sensitive farmers in the South and West. Jefferson suffered a damaged
reputation “caused by the miseries of the embargo and the often cruel and disreputable attempts to enforce it.”
A defeated Jefferson signed a repeal of the Embargo Act in 1809 (Paul Johnson, pp. 255-57).
The diverse duties assigned to the Revenue Service are illustrated by an 1833 law which required the mariner
police to enforce what are now called environmental regulations, and protect forests on public lands from illegal
logging operations. This duty stemmed from an 1822 act of Congress which created a timber reserve for the
U.S. Navy to be protected by cutters designed for shallow water service.
With the acquisition of Alaska from Russia (1867), the Service assumed the duty of protecting fur seals from
being hunted to extinction. Revenue Service personnel camped on the Pribilof Islands. In 1885, the Revenue
Service began to assist the Bureau of Fisheries in enforcement duties. In 1908, the Revenue Marine was given
the power to enforce Alaskan game laws.Pollution control and clean water have long been an interest of the
Coast Guard. The Revenue Cutter Service joined the Army Corps of Engineers in enforcing the Refuse Act of
1899 (USCG Historical Overview, OCGH, 1999).
In 1832, Treasury Secretary Louis McLane directed Revenue Service cutters to cruise the oceans and seas
during the rigorous winter months and assist vessels in distress. The duty was legislated by Congress in 1837.
The Great Lakes region was added in 1870.
Rescues of ships wrecked close to shore and the saving of life and property were important and dangerous tasks
relegated to private organizations, underwriters, and state appointed “wrecking personnel.” Among these