If I told you the Coast Guard was America’s original maritime defense force, would you believe me? And what if I said it was the brainchild of a man born in poverty in the West Indies and memorialized after his death with his face on the $10 bill? As improbable as this all sounds, it’s a true albeit mostly forgotten story.
In 1789, the first Congress of the newly independent United States of America appointed Alexander Hamilton to manage the government’s finances. Hamilton, you likely know, had fought in the Revolutionary War with George Washington and helped draft the Constitution. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, he is credited with creating the American financial system.
Hamilton didn’t have an easy job, for the young nation had hit rough seas, financially speaking. The American Revolution had created millions in debt, mostly to France. With no income tax to raise money back then, the government was forced to rely on tariffs on luxury goods brought into the country via boat. And we all know that American colonists had gotten pretty good at avoiding paying tariff fees. Smuggling was considered patriotic.
As part of his plan to reduce the nation’s debt, Hamilton in 1790 convinced Congress to provide 10 ships known as “revenue cutters” to stop and check out the cargo on ships heading to major U.S. East Coast ports and make sure the goods they declared matched up with the items on board. Hamilton wisely hired ex-smugglers to man the cutters. He set up customs agents at the ports to collect tariff revenue for the federal government.
Back then, tariffs, also known as customs duties, provided as much as 90% of federal revenue. That’s why Hamilton originally called this service branch the Revenue Marine. In addition to their tariff enforcement role, the fleet of cutters rendered aid and assistance as needed for the protection of lives and property at sea.
The Revenue Marine’s first major test came during the undeclared war with France at the end of the 18th century. The French were angry that America wasn’t paying its debts back fast enough and was trading with the British, with which it was at war. So, French privateers began to capture American merchant ships to recoup their losses. In response, Congress passed the Naval Armament Act of 1794 to officially create a navy.
Most of the ships, however, were still in various stages of construction and outfitting. To meet the interim need, merchant ships, privateers and revenue cutters joined forces to take on the French. America did not end up going to war with France, but the expanded non-revenue role of the Revenue Marine service stuck.
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812, its Navy was still small. The British Royal Navy, on the other hand was the most powerful in the world. Once again, the nation called upon the Revenue Marine Service and American privateers.
Despite being out manned and out gunned, the Revenue Service had some success winning battles in the Great Lakes in the early months of the war. Eventually, though, British naval power succeeded in blockading American port cities. On land, the Americans prevailed, leading to a stalemate in the war and the Treaty of Ghent, which ended U.S.-British antagonism for good.
When the Civil War broke out, revenue cutter captains had to choose between supporting the Union or the Confederacy. Some sided with the South so cutters from the Great Lakes were repositioned on the East Coast. The Revenue Service battled smugglers, guarded northern ports and helped enforce the wartime blockade of the South. The revenue cutter Harriet Lane, for example, fired the war’s first naval shot in 1861 while attempting to relieve federal force at Fort Sumter, SC.
The Civil War had a transformative effect on this country’s military services. It changed the Revenue Service fleet from a collection of obsolete sailing vessels to a new steam-driven fleet of cutters. The vital operations supported by cutters also cemented the role of the service in such missions as convoy duty, blockade operations, port security and coastal patrol. The Revenue Marine was renamed the Revenue Cutter Service in 1862. It participated in the Spanish American War in 1898.
As national defense became a prominent issue in the early 20th century, a movement on Capitol Hill emerged to combine the U.S Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service, because both shared a lifesaving mission. The merger occurred in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Coast Guard Act creating the United States Coast Guard Service. Although placed under the U.S. Treasury Department, the Coast Guard was temporarily transferred to the Navy Department during World War I and again during World War II.
This modernization paid off. During Prohibition, the Coast Guard became the lead agency fighting booze smugglers, all while increasing its size and technological sophistication. During World War II, the Coast Guard played a critical role manning Navy ships and Army amphibious-type assault craft to get men to the beaches. Only experienced men could successfully maneuver landing craft through strong currents, reefs, sand bars and heavy surf, making Coast Guard contributions to amphibious operations immeasurable. Coast Guard intelligence also helped to break the enemy’s codes.
The Coast Guard’s national defense responsibilities remain one of its most important functions today. In 2003, it was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, where today it serves as the nation’s front-line agency for enforcing the nation’s laws at sea, protecting the marine environment and the nation’s vast coastline and ports, and saving lives.