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Revenue Cutter Service

The United States Revenue Cutter Service was established by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790 as an armed maritime law enforcement service. Throughout its entire existence the Revenue Cutter Service operated under the authority of the United States Department of the Treasury. In 1915 the Service merged with the Lifesaving Service to form the United States Coast Guard.

The need for the Revenue Service

Immediately after the
Revolutionary War the brand-new United States of America was struggling to stay financially afloat. National income was desperately needed and a great deal of this income came from import tariffs. Because of rampant smuggling the need was immense for the enforcement of tariff laws, and on August 4, 1790 the U.S. Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue Cutter Service. It would be the responsibility of this new Revenue Cutter Service to enforce the tariff and all other maritime laws, as well as attending to emergency lifesaving duties.

Early service

Ten cutters were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1798 the Revenue Cutter Service was the only armed maritime service for the United States. During the Quasi-War with France in 1798-1801 the U.S. Navy was formed and the Revenue Cutter Service 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 Cutter Service began intercepting slave ships illegally importing slaves into the United States. Many slave ships were seized and hundreds of would-be slaves were freed.

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 nullified in 1810.

The War of 1812

In wartime the Revenue Cutter Service was placed under the command of the United States Navy, and the cutters themselves often placed into military service. In the War of 1812 against Britain a Revenue Cutter made the first American capture of an enemy ship.

The small Revenue Cutter Surveyor with a crew of 16 and an armament of merely six 12-pound carronades, was anchored in Chesapeake Bay on the night of June 12, 1813, when the British frigate Narcissus attacked her. The Revenue Service seamen under the command of Captain William S. Travis were taken by surprise and the carronades could not be used. After a fierce fight which left five Americans wounded and three British dead, the Surveyor was captured.

On October 11, 1814, the Revenue Cutter Eagle encountered the much larger British brigantine Dispatch which was guarding the Suzan, a captured American merchant ship. The Eagle was badly outgunned by the Dispatch and Captain Frederick Lee beached the Eagle on Long Island to avoid being sunk. Not yet defeated, the Revenue Cutter seamen dragged the cannon from the Eagle and set them up on a 160-foot bluff and continued firing at the Dispatch. When the Americans ran out of cannonballs they did not surrender, and instead retrieved the cannonballs fired at them by the Dispatch and shot them back at the British. Even after being forced to use the ships logbook for wadding, the crew of the Eagle fought on until finally overwhelmed and captured by the British.

The Mexican War and the Civil War

Revenue Service cutters again served under command of the U.S. Navy in the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The cutters were critical for shallow-water amphibious assaults.

On April 11, 1861, the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865. The cutter fired a shot across the bow of the Confederate steamship Nashville as it tried to escape from Charleston Harbor during the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

The Service was divided during the war, with many RCS seamen joining the side of the Confederate States of America. Despite this the US Revenue Service bitterly fought on for the Union until the end of the war. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in on April 15, 1865, Revenue Cutters were ordered to search all ships for any assassins that might be trying to escape.

The Spanish-American War

When the United States entered the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Revenue Cutter Service saw plenty of action. Many Revenue Cutters were assigned to the blockade of Havana Harbor in Cuba. During the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, the Revenue Cutter Hugh McCulloch fought with the American fleet under Admiral George Dewey.

Small and unarmed, the Revenue Cutter Hudson was equipped with two 6-pounder guns and a machinegun and took part in the Battle of Cardenas off the coast of Cardenas, Cuba. Together with the torpedo boat U.S.S. Winslow the Hudson fought against Spanish gunboats and coastal batteries until forced to withdraw. Under extremely heavy fire the Hudson towed the disabled Winslow away from the battle, and Congress awarded the captain of the Hudson, Frank Newcomb, with 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 effectively combined the Revenue Cutter Service with the Lifesaving Service and formed the new U.S. Coast Guard. Gradually the Coast Guard would grow to incorporate the Lighthouse Service in 1939 and the Navigation and Steamboat Inspection Service in 1942.

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