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United States Division of Revenue Cutter Service
Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service.png
Seal of the United States Revenue Cutter Service
Active 1790-1915
Country  United States of America
Role Maritime law enforcement
Part of Department of the Treasury
Ensign Ensign of the United States Revenue-Marine (1867).png

The United States Revenue Cutter Service, officially the Division of Revenue Cutter Service, was established in 1790 as the Revenue-Marine by then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, to serve as an armed maritime law enforcement service. It operated as the Revenue-Marine until July 1894, when it was renamed as the Revenue Cutter Service.

The Revenue Cutter Service operated under the authority of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In 1915, the service merged with the U.S. Life-Saving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Lighthouse Service, another federal agency, would also be merged with the U.S. Coast Guard, in 1939.


Officers of the revenue cutter Perry in the Aleutian Islands, 1906.

Immediately after the American Revolutionary War the new United States was struggling to stay afloat financially. National income was desperately needed, and the government determined that a great deal of this income would come from import tariffs. Because of rampant smuggling, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws, and on August 4, 1790, the United States Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine, later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service by act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171).[1] It would be the responsibility of the new Revenue-Marine to enforce the tariff and all other maritime laws. In 1832, Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane issued written orders for revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need, and Congress made the practice an official part of regulations in 1837. This was the beginning of the lifesaving mission for which the later U.S. Coast Guard would be best known worldwide.

Early service

Ten cutters were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1798, the Revenue-Marine was the only armed maritime service of the United States, as the Navy had been disbanded. Each cutter captain was answerable to and received his sailing orders directly from the Collector of Customs of the port to which his ship was assigned. This was the case from 1791 to 1871, except for the period 1843-49, when oversight was vested in the Revenue Marine Division of the Treasury Department.

USRC Massachusetts

All crew pay, requests for supplies, arrangements for repairs to the cutter, and mission-specific tasking came directly from the port's Customs House. Standing orders for individual cutters were stated in general terms, allowing captains to exercise their discretion and judgement to the fullest. Captains also had far-reaching authority "to seize vessels and goods in the cases in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue laws" and to send inspection parties aboard vessels already in port to ensure that cargo intended for export also did not violate revenue laws. Yet despite this considerable authority, Alexander Hamilton, in his first letter of instruction to the captains, had specifically directed that they "will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit....They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty – by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence."

USRC Pickering

During the Quasi-War with France from 1798 to 1801, the U.S. Navy was formed and the Revenue-Marine fought alongside the Navy, capturing or assisting in the capture of 20 French ships. Ten of these were captured by the USRC Pickering.

After 1794, the Revenue-Marine began intercepting slave ships illegally importing slaves into the United States. Many slave ships were seized and hundreds of would-be slaves were freed. The best-known incident of slaver interdiction is the case of the schooner La Amistad, encountered off the coast of Long Island by the USRC Washington. Although none of the original crew was aboard when the schooner was boarded, the vessel was escorted into New Haven, where the trial made famous by the film Amistad was held.

Revenue cutters were assigned to enforce the very unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which outlawed nearly all European trade, import and export, through American ports. The Act was enforced until it was repealed in 1808.

The War of 1812

In wartime, the Revenue Marine was placed under the command of the United States Navy, and the cutters themselves were often placed into military service. USRC Jefferson made the first American capture of an enemy ship in the War of 1812, the brig Patriot, in June 1812.[2] On 3 August 1812, the boats of the British frigates Maidstone and Spartan captured the 6-gun revenue cutter Commodore Barry in the Little River, Bay of Fundy, together with three privateer schooners, Madison, Olive, and Spence (or Spruce).[3]

Then on 22 August 1812, HMS Barbadoes, under the command of Captain Thomas Huskisson, captured the USRC James Madison after a chase of seven hours. The cutter was pierced for fourteen guns but had only ten mounted, two of which she threw overboard to lighten her during the chase. She had a crew of 65 men and was seven days out of Savannah, but had made no captures. Huskisson described her: "[She is] coppered and copper-fastened, is two years old, and sails remarkably fast."[4]

On the night of 12 June 1813, the small cutter Surveyor, with a crew of 16 and an armament of only six 12-pounder (5 kg) carronades, was anchored in the York River (Virginia), when a 90-man boarding party from the frigate HMS Narcissus attacked her. The attack came from an angle at which Surveyor could not use her carronades. However, the Revenue Marine seamen, under Captain William S. Travis, each was armed with two muskets and held their fire until the British boats were upon them. After a fierce hand-to-hand fight that left five Americans wounded and three British dead and five wounded, the British succeeded in taking Surveyor.[5] Lieutenant Cririe, first lieutenant of Narcissus and commander of the boats, returned Captain Travis's sword to him—an unusual gesture of respect—for his "gallant defense" of Surveyor.[6]

On 11 October 1814, the cutter Eagle encountered Narcissus, and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop Dispatch, which was guarding the Suzan, a captured American merchant ship. The British ship badly outgunned Eagle, which was pierced for 10 guns but only had two mounted.[7] Captain Frederick Lee beached Eagle on Long Island to avoid being sunk. Not yet defeated, the Revenue Marine seamen removed the guns from Eagle, hoisted them up a 160-foot bluff, dragged them into position, and continued firing at Dispatch. The British sent in boats to capture Eagle.[7] When the Americans ran out of cannonballs, they still did not surrender, instead retrieving the cannonballs fired at them by Dispatch and shooting them back. Even after being forced to use the ship's logbook for wadding, the crew, together with local militia, continued to fight. Eventually, the British retrieved Eagle and took her away.[7]

Counter-piracy operations

After the War of 1812, British and Spanish sea power in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico weakened, allowing a resurgence of piracy along the Gulf Coast. Revenue cutters were dispatched to fight the pirates. In 1819, the one-gun schooners USRC Alabama and USRC Louisiana fought two engagements with pirates, one on the open sea and another at Breton Island, Louisiana. On July 19, 1820, Alabama captured four pirate ships off La Balize. In 1822, with USS Peacock and HMS Speedwell, Alabama engaged pirates again, which resulted in the taking of five more pirate ships.

Mexican-American War

Revenue-Marine cutters again served under the U.S. Navy in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848. The cutters were crucial for shallow-water amphibious assaults.

Civil War

On April 11, 1861, the USRC Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the American Civil War of 1861-1865. The cutter fired a shot across the bow of the civilian steamship Nashville as it tried to enter Charleston Harbor during the bombardment of Fort Sumter because Nashville was flying no identifying flag. The civilian ship then promptly raised the U.S. standard, and Harriet Lane broke off.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the following order to the Secretary of the Treasury on June 14, 1863: "You will co-operate by the revenue cutters under your direction with the navy in arresting rebel depredations on American commerce and transportation and in capturing rebels engaged therein."

USRC E.A. Stevens

Revenue cutters assisted Navy operations throughout the war. Harriet Lane joined a Federal naval squadron to capture Forts Clark and Hatteras, which served as bases for Confederate blockade runners. USRC E.A. Stevens, a prototype 110-foot semi-submersible ironclad gunboat, in company with USS Monitor, USS Galena, and two other gunboats, participated in the unsuccessful sortie up the James River to Drewry's Bluff to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond. After carrying President Lincoln from Washington on May 9, 1862, USRC Miami assisted navy transports in landing Federal troops at Ocean View, Virginia. After President Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, revenue cutters were ordered to search all ships for any conspirators who might be trying to escape.

Post-Civil War operations

Although the Treasury Department remained in charge of the service throughout the 19th century, its conventional organization was resumed after the war, with cutters reporting to local customs officials. A new Revenue Marine Division was established in 1871, which became the United States Revenue Cutter Service by act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 171).

During the harsh winter of 1897-1898, Lieutenant David H. Jarvis of USRC Bear led a relief party to 265 whalers whose ships had been stranded in the ice off the northern coast of Alaska.[8]

Spanish-American War

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Revenue Cutter Service saw plenty of action in both the Cuban and Philippine theaters. Many revenue cutters were assigned to the blockade of Havana Harbor. During the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, USRC Hugh McCulloch fought with the American fleet under Admiral George Dewey.

USRC McCulloch

On May 11, 1898, USRC Hudson, equipped with two 6-pounder (3 kg) guns and a machine gun, took part in the Battle of Cárdenas off the coast of Cárdenas, Cuba. Together with the torpedo boat Winslow, Hudson fought against a Spanish gunboat and coastal batteries until forced to withdraw. Under extremely heavy fire, Hudson towed the disabled Winslow away from the battle. Congress awarded Frank Newcomb, the captain of the Hudson, a gold medal for his bravery.

Formation of the Coast Guard

President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Act to Create the Coast Guard on January 28, 1915. This act combined the Revenue Cutter Service with the Lifesaving Service to form the new United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard assumed the responsibilities of the United States Lighthouse Service in 1939 and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service in 1942.

In 1990, the United States Coast Guard created a military award known as the Coast Guard Bicentennial Unit Commendation, which commemorated the original founding of the Revenue Cutter Service.

See also


  1. National Archives
  2. Rachlis, Eugene. The Story of the U.S. Coast Guard. Random House Inc., 1961, p.26
  3. "No. 16647". 19 September 1812. 
  4. "No. 16660". 20 October 1812. 
  5. "No. 16762". 10 August 1813. 
  6. USCG
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "No. 16966". 17 December 1814. 
  8. King, Irving H. (1996). The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915: New Roles, New Frontiers. Naval Institute Press. pp. 94–107. ISBN 1-55750-458-X. 

Further reading

External links

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