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The History of the United States Coast Guard

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on August 11, 2021. In nauticalknowhow

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The long history of the US Coast Guard dates back further than many people realize. While the Army and Marines were unofficially created the year before America became a country back in 1775, the Coast Guard followed soon after as the first form of defense at sea. As one of the oldest organizations in America, it was officially founded in the year 1790. As one of the six armed forces branches, they have been guarding our coasts ever since. They do so much more than just tell you the safety requirements for your boat.

The Coast Guard operates under three guiding roles. Those are;

  • Marine safety
  • Marine security
  • Marine stewardship

The Coast Guard serves the country inland and at sea. They work with homeland security and protect our nation’s vast coastline. Their national defense responsibilities remain on par with their search and rescue efforts.

The United States Coast Guard and the Navy

Although Congress understood the need for a Navy back in 1775, establishing one was not that easy. Funds were allocated for two vessels to defend against British ships. This began the establishment of the first continental Navy, but it did not last. Most of the ships were destroyed. By 1785, they sold off the last remaining ship.

For ten years, the US had no Navy at all. In 1790, there was only one line of defense against pirates and other dangers at sea. This was the United States Revenue Cutter Service. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry. This group would be merged with the United States Life Saving Service in 1915. From then on it would act under its current name – The United States Coast Guard.

The Origins of the U.S. Coast Guard

In 1790, America was just getting over the Revolutionary War. The country was not in the best shape and finances were critically needed. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had an idea. There was money to be made on tariffs from imports. In 2019, the US government collected $72 billion in tariffs. So Hamilton’s idea has proven to still be a massive income generator.

Smuggling was a major problem after the war. Hamilton suggested a fleet of ten marine cutters. Cutters are vessels built for speed that would be able to chase down ships at sea. Not quite a modern jet boat, but still swift. These patrol boats would enforce federal tariff laws and collect taxes. Violators would face consequences.

On August 4, 1790, President George Washington allocated the funds and the fleet went into production. The first of the ten vessels was named the Massachusetts. Known as the Revenue-Marine, these vessels became America’s first official armed force at sea.

The Massachusetts naturally patrolled the area along the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Additional cutters took Long Island Sound, Georgia, North Carolina, Chesapeake Bay, the Bay of Delaware, and New York.

The vessels were to be built in the place where they would patrol, offering a bit of pride and loyalty to those in the region. Masters were paid $30 per month. Mariners on board made $8.

For eight years, the Revenue-Mariners were the only naval service in the United States. More ships were added to grow the service as needed. In 1794, the ships were also responsible for intercepting slave traders.

Captains reported to the customs office at their port of origin. They were the most powerful men at sea and had extremely broad discretion to act. They could seize vessels and their contents as they saw fit. This was, of course, to be in accordance with revenue laws. Although this sounds like it might have been prime for abuse, that wasn’t the case. Hamilton wanted to ensure only men of good character became those captains. He issued edicts that all captains act with cool and temperate perseverance. He reminded them that their countrymen were free, and violence was not always the answer.

In 1798, America entered the Quasi-War with France. They call it a quasi-war because no one technically declared war. For two years, the US and France butted heads at sea and the Navy was established during this time to fight. The Revenue-Mariners fought alongside the Navy. During the two years, a full half of the 20 captured French vessels were brought in the Revenue-Mariner cutter USRC Pickering.

The War of 1812

The Revenue Marine came under the command of the Navy during the war. No longer pursuing smugglers, the vessels were used for combat. The crews had already proven themselves more than capable at sea for years prior. During the war, they kept up this proud tradition. This was despite the fact they poorly provisioned the Revenue Mariners. Because they were operated by the Treasury Department but under command of the Navy, both thought the other should pay to provision them. The very first enemy ship of the war was captured by USRC Jefferson. All told, the US only had 30 ships at their disposal for the war.

The Incredible Tale of the USRC Eagle

During the War of 1812 there were many remarkable tales of bravery at sea. Few crews reached the levels of the remarkable cutter known as the Eagle, however.

In 1814, the US packet ship Susan was taken by the British. The Eagle set out to rescue her. After several hours, the Eagle encountered the British brig-sloop Dispatch. The larger vessel outgunned the Eagle severely. Eagle was unable to outrun the Royal Navy vessel, and so the captain hatched a scheme. He beached her.

The Eagle went ashore. He said the hope was that the larger vessel could not follow into shallow water, but it did. Then, in another bold move, the Eagle’s captain had his men remove the Eagle’s guns. They dragged the cannons from the vessel and took them atop the nearby bluff. From there, the crew fired back at the British soldiers. They exhausted every single cannonball they had. But still they did not give up. They began harvesting cannonballs that the Brits had fired at them. They fire back with the used cannonballs in an attempt to defend their vessel.

Incredibly, the British gave up on the fight. The crew of the Eagle returned to their vessel to make repairs. Unfortunately, when they returned to sea, they encountered the Dispatch again, and its reinforcements. The Eagle returned to shore, but the odds had tipped too far. The British were able to capture the vessel, but not the crew.

Though the Eagle was not victorious in battle, they persevered.

The United States Life-Saving Service

In 1848, the US created the United States Life-Saving Service. The purpose of the agency was to save the lives of mariners and passengers after shipwrecks. Volunteers on the local level would respond to shipwrecks and do their best to rescue those afflicted. Experience showed that, during a disaster, small, swift vessels were the best hope anyone had.

The Massachusetts Humane Society were the originators of these rescue efforts. They outfitted sheds near the shore with life-saving gear life that could be used to save shipwreck victims. The Newell Act became law in 1848, which provided funds to create these life saving stations and outfit them with necessary gear. Once life vests were invented in 1850, they became a staple of this gear.

In 1854, a hurricane along the east coast proved deadly. The number of dead showed just how ineffective the unmanned life-saving stations really were. More funds were allocated to improve gear and also employ a full-time watchman at the stations.

By the 1870s, more funds were allocated. More stations were built and provided for boats and crew. Each station had trained men on staff and vessels to perform rescue operations. They ranged from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Officially, this became known as the Life-Saving Service.

The US Civil War

During the Civil War, the Revenue Mariners were again called upon. They joined their brothers in the Navy once more. The USRC Harriet Lane was the first vessel to fire a shot during the conflict. They sent a warning shot across the bow of a civilian steamer during the defense of Fort Sumter, forcing them to raise a flag and identify themselves.

Cutters assisted the Navy in capturing targets such as Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark. The USRC Miami even transported President Lincoln to Hampton Roads, Virginia. After the President’s assassination, cutters were scrambled to hunt for co-conspirators.

The Coast Guard Academy

On July 31, 1876, the School of Instruction was opened for the Revenue Cutter Service. A cutter was on site to provide for training. The school moved from New Bedford to Curtis Bay. From there it was transferred to New London, Connecticut, where it remains today. Later, a dedicated training ship was added.

Originally, the school offered two years of instruction before expanding to a third year. Instruction was specifically tailored to line officers until 1906. That year, engineering courses were added.

By 1915, the school was renamed the United States Coast Guard Academy after the Cutters and the Life-Saving Service were merged. The facility got a massive makeover in 1932 and added a fourth year of instruction at that time.

While in the early day’s classes would have around 10 students, things are different today. Each year, there are about 250 students enrolled. Of those, around 200 graduate into the Coast Guard.

The Spanish-American War

The last major conflict that the Revenue Mariners were involved in was the Spanish-American war. Again, the Revenue Cutters distinguished themselves bravely. One of the most well known tales was of the USRC Hudson, which towed the US Navy gunship Winslow to safety after the Battle of Cardenas.

The Birth of the Coast Guard

President Woodrow Wilson signed the US Coast Guard Act into law on January 28, 1915. The United States Revenue Cutter Service was combined with the United States Life Saving Service to create the Coast Guard. There were only 255 officers when the Coast Guard began. There were also 3900 warrant officers and enlisted personnel.

The First World War

The Coast Guard did not have a long time to prepare for the First World War. War was declared on April 6, 1917. The Coast Guard was barely two years old at this point. As with previous conflicts, the Coast Guard again joined with the US Navy. Cutters were put under naval command. All Coast Guard activities were suspended with the exception of rescue operations.

Coast Guard forces sustained some serious losses during the war. After discovering U-140, the Diamond Shoals Lightship was sunk by the German vessel but no loss of life was reported. The crew of the USCGC Tampa was not so fortunate. The Tampa was torpedoed on September 26th, 1918. A total of 131 crew died in the attack including 111 Coast Guard members. This was the single worst Naval loss of life for America during the war.

Of the nearly 9,000 Coast Guard members who participated in the war, two were awarded Distinguished Service Medals. There were also eight Gold Life-Saving Medals and nearly fifty Navy Cross Medals earned as well. Despite having very little time to come together as a cohesive unit, the Coast Guard served with honor and tenacity.

The Coast Guard Post-War

After the war ended, the Coast Guard was set to resume regular duties. For a time, there was some turmoil about the branch’s future. Congress was considering merging the Coast Guard and Navy into one. This did not come to pass. The Coast Guard has always had a different function and mission at sea than the Navy. The two branches work well together, but they often have different goals.

In the 1920s, the Coast Guard found themselves tasked with a new mission. Prohibition was in full swing and smuggling was rampant. The Coast Guard was provided with new vessels, including four Navy destroyers. In general, this effort was considered a failure. Though a destroyer is a formidable vessel, it’s not ideal to prevent smuggling. Most smugglers are smaller and more maneuverable. That said, Coast Guard officers were now able to get real experience on ships of war. This would become invaluable in the 1940s during WWII.

In 1939, President Roosevelt merged the Lighthouse Services with the Coast Guard. The Lighthouse Service had been responsible for maritime navigation. That meant the new mandate of the Coastguard was, in part, maritime inspection and navigation. The nation’s lighthouses were now under the Coast Guard’s authority.

A Major Rescue Success

The value of the Coast Guard was not always clear to everyone. As you can see from the plan to merge them with the Navy, not everyone understood the mission. Their role has changed significantly since they were first formed, after all. However, the Coast Guard again proved their worth in 1927.

Unprecedented rainfall had caused the Mississippi River to reach record levels that have not been matched to this day. 27,000 square miles of land was flooded. Over 500 people died and 700,000 lost their homes to the devastation. The situation would have been exponentially worse if not for the Coast Guard.

Nearly 700 Coast Guard members and 128 vessels were deployed for rescue operations. In total, the Coast Guard managed to rescue a staggering 43,853 people. They even saved over 11,000 head of livestock.

World War II

Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Coast Guard’s mission during the war was not just combat. The Coast Guard did become directly involved in the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, however.

Initially, under the direction of the President, the International Ice Patrol was set to monitor Greenland. The Ice Patrol was part of the Coast Guard, and at the start of the war, they were able to monitor and observe Axis forces. It was a vital position that gave Allied Forces useful tactical information.

Throughout the course of the war, the US had numerous facilities in operation in Greenland. The Coast Guard maintained the Greenland Patrol throughout.

Few people are aware that Germans actually came ashore on American soil during the war. Operation Pastorius was a German plot to sabotage a wide array of American targets. This included hydroelectric plants, factories and bridges. Their goal was to destabilize economic targets. However, things did not go as planned.

US Coast Guardsman John Cullen caught the Germans coming ashore in Amagansett, New York. The Germans tried to bribe Cullen. There were four of them and they were armed, but Cullen was not. Cullen accepted the bribe as a ruse and reported the Germans as soon as he was able.

Remarkably, the man who bribed Cullen defected and turned himself into the FBI while outing his conspirators. The sabotage did not take place and the German mission failed.

Elsewhere in the war, the Coast Guard devoted much of their time to patrolling beaches. As we saw with Pastorius, the threat of Germans landing on US soil was very real. In addition, Coast Guard Cutters were deployed as rescue vessels. German forces had taken to attacking Americans along shipping lanes. Coast Guard cutters responded to many of these attacks.

Much of the Coast Guard was working as convoy escorts in the Atlantic during the war. They employed 30 Edsell-class destroyer escorts at the time. They also had numerous patrol frigates, troopships, landing ships for both tanks and infantry, cargo ships and submarine chasers.

In 1942, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve was formed. Nearly 11,000 women signed up and served positions stateside. This allowed the men previously in those positions to move overseas for the war effort. These numbers were a definite boost to the war effort.

In 1944, when troops landed in Normandy, the Coast Guard was there. The fleet that was known as the Matchbox Fleet patrolled the waters on rescue missions. Over 400 soldiers were saved from the waters by the Coast Guard. They also dropped the Army’s 1st infantry division on Omaha Beach.

Douglas Munro


Douglas Munro was the only member of the Coast Guard to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor. Munro was serving during the Guadalcanal Campaign. A group of Marines had been overtaken by Japanese forces. Munro, a signalman first class, led the extraction effort to bring the men to safety. His bravery was the kind of thing that is hard to even believe.

As the Japanese took aim at the boat filled with Marines, Munro took action. He piloted his Higgins Boat, a small transport vessel, in between the Marines and the Japanese. He used himself and his boat as a shield. He was just 22-years-old at the time. Try to imagine putting your own life on the line at that age. He died of a gunshot wound, but his heroism saved those Marines. His name is the only one on the Wall of Heroes at the National Museum of the Marine Corps that does not belong to a Marine. Definitely a well-deserved honor.

The USCGC Icarus

The US Coast Guard patrol vessel Icarus earned its place in history during the war. On May 9, 1942, the Icarus encountered the German submarine U-352 off the coast of North Carolina. A torpedo was launched at Icarus and it responded with depth charges. After more charges were dropped, U-352 surfaced, damaged in the attack.

Icarus prepared to ram the German vessel and opened fire with machine guns. The German crew scrambled and abandoned ship, leaving the Icarus victorious. They took 33 of the crew including its commander as prisoner. A single depth charge was dropped over the sinking sub and the Icarus returned its prisoners to Charleston Navy Yard.

The commander of the Icarus received the Navy Cross for his efforts. U-352 was only the second German vessel sunk in American waters during the water at that time. And the Icarus was the first vessel to take German prisoners.

To this day, the wreck of U-352 remains a popular scuba diving spot near Morehead City.

Beyond WWII

In 1946, Congress gave the Coast Guard even more authority. They transferred the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to them. As a result, the Coast Guard was in charge of merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety.

The Federal government shook up the Coast Guard in the 1960s. No longer under the purview of the Department of Treasury, they were now overseen by the Department of Transportation. Congress authorized the new law on October 15, 1966. This would stand all the way until 2003. Congress again changed things up at that time and put the Coast Guard under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security.

In the 1970s, the Coast Guard switched up its uniform design. Previous uniforms had been closely modelled after those worn in the Navy. The new Coast Guard blues were nearly identical for both officers and enlisted personnel. The shake up was done as part of the switch to an all volunteer force. After the Vietnam War, the draft was ended and the Coast Guard would only rely on volunteer service going forward. As part of their commitment to showing they valued all members regardless of rank, uniforms were made to look nearly identical. Only rank insignias and caps distinguished members.

In 2003 the Coast Guard fell under the jurisdiction of the Office of Homeland Security. This was in direct response to the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror.
Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, the Coast Guard mobilized as part of a massive response to Hurricane Katrina. In just two days, they rescued over 2,000 people. Over the course of the entire operation, a total of 33,500 people were rescued by the Coast Guard. The entire Coast Guard was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their rescue efforts at the time.

The Coast Guard Today

The modern Coast Guard is one of the most wide reaching agencies in America. They serve in a law enforcement and military capacity. In addition to maritime safety, they still work to prevent smuggling and monitor over 100,000 miles of coastline.

There are currently over 56,000 active members of the Coast Guard. They operate over 1,400 boats. Cutters are still a massive part of this force and 243 of them are in use. They also employ a number of air assets, including over 200 fixed and rotary wing craft.

Operational control is split between the east and west. That’s the Pacific ocean and the Atlantic ocean. There are nine Coast Guard districts and 37 sectors.
The Coast Guard performs an average of 45 search and rescue missions every single day. As a result of this, ten lives are saved by the Coast Guard every day on average. When it comes to law enforcement, the Coast Guard seizes 874 pounds of cocaine and 214 pounds of marijuana every day as well.

The Coast Guard conducts over 100 maritime inspections each day. They perform 26 safety examinations of foreign vessels. They service upwards of 82 buoys. They also conduct 14 fisheries conservation boardings. If you take a header off your pontoon boat, the Coast Guard will be there to help if you need them.

The Coast Guard Tomorrow

Looking towards the future, the Coast Guard was getting behind the Integrated Deepwater System Program. It was a 25-year program set to replace the vast majority of the Coast Guard’s equipment. That covered everything from computer systems up to aircraft and boats. The program turned out top be a massive failure thanks to a runaway budget.

From the ashes of Deepwater program, the Coast Guard is now employing a new fleet of Legend-class cutters. These new vessels are faster and more advanced than anything the US has seen before. Their capabilities are unprecedented and have proven to be huge assets.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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