Coast Guard

United States Coast Guard; A Brief History


“It [the Coast Guard] was born on the edge of a storm…the organization was destined to become something far greater, far wider ranging than those who christened it ever could have expected” (The Foundation for Coast Guard History 2004). From its humble beginnings, the Coast Guard has faced and overcome many obstacles. 222 years later, they are still overcoming obstacles on a daily basis.

In 1790 the United States was recovering from the Revolutionary War and trying to define what their new found independence meant. Alexander Hamilton knew that the fate of the struggling economy relied on the taxes put on ports and exports. With that, he also knew that a maritime force needed to be established to enforce these new laws. Thus, on August 4, 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service was formed.

This service was under Hamilton’s Department of Treasury and consisted of ten small schooner and cutter-rigged vessels not much larger than some of today’s pleasure craft. These original cutters served multiple purposes. They had to be fast enough to chase down larger ships in open seas, but agile enough to maneuver through the harbors and up the rivers of the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1911 the Revenue Cutter Service faced disbandment for the first time. Professor Frederick A. Cleveland of the newly appointed Commission of Economy and Efficiency advised President Taft that the service could be done away with; that other branches of the government could take on the service’s missions. However, the Secretary of the Navy felt that his service taking over these duties would interfere with their training for war and would be detrimental to fleet efficiency. The Secretary of Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh, also argued against the disbandment. He suggested instead, that the Revenue Cutter Service be joined with the civilian Life-Saving Service.

On 20 January 1915 the House voted to pass the bill to join the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service into one organization, The United States Coast Guard. This meant that the 2,000 men of the Revenue Cutter Service and the 2,300 civilian men of the Life-Saving Service came together under one banner. Commandant Bertholf, the first Commandant of the Coast Guard, said, “It is by means of military drills, training and discipline that the service is enabled to maintain that state of preparedness for the prompt performance of its most important civil duties… the organization of the service must be and is by law military.”

Search and rescue had long since been a primary function of the Revenue Cutter Service. Shore based life saving was the main function of the Life-Saving Service. When the two services became the Coast Guard, life saving remained a prime mission which continues today. They respond to approximately 50,000 search and rescue cases every year and save nearly 4,000 lives.

The Coast Guard began ice breaking at the end of the 19th century to help coastal communities which had been isolated during the winter. Then after the Titanic sank in 1912, the Coast Guard began the International Ice Patrol, which is now done by air, in the North Atlantic. “Not one ship has been lost to the ice within the patrolled area since the International Ice Patrol began” (The Foundation for Coast Guard History 2004).

The aviation department was installed at Coast Guard Headquarters in 1928. It has become one of the most recognizable parts of the Coast Guard. The aviation department gained notoriety after Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in August 2005. Coast Guardsmen saved more than 33,500 lives during that time.

In 1936 the Coast Guard was legally empowered to board vessels on the high seas in order to enforce US laws. This played a major role in the Coast Guard becoming a key organization in the drug war which began in the 1960s.

Environmental protection has also been a part of their responsibilities since the early 19th century. They are also and imperative part of immigration enforcement. In 1980 the CG organized the largest peacetime mission in its history to that point; when Castro gave permission to those who wanted to leave. The Coast Guard saved around 125,000 Cuban immigrants. Then in 1989 the Exxon-Valdes oil spill did for the marine environmental protection what the sinking of the Titanic did for the marine safety mission 77 years before.

The Coast Guard has been through many changes since its inception. Two of the most notable were; In April 1967 it was transferred to the new created Department of Transportation where it remained until 1 March 2003 when President Bush transferred them under the command of the Department of Homeland Security as a direct result of the attacks of 11 September 2001. This is where the Coast Guard remains today.

The United States Coast Guard has faced many hardships throughout their history, but they have persevered and proven their importance to the American people. The Coast Guard has stood strong through the toughest of times, and will continue on through the good times and the bad. So, on August 4th as the Coast Guard celebrates 222 years in service, think of them and be grateful to have those men and women patrolling your coasts.

Foundation for Coast Guard History (2004). The Coast Guard. Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc.


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