American Civil War and Coast Guard

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American Civil War and the U.S. Coast Guard

The Shallow Water Navy


In 1790 a predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard was established by the First Congress of the United States. This newly formed maritime force did not have an official name. Rather, it was referred to simply as "the cutters" or "the system of cutters." This small force was to enforce national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs. At the time, these cutters were the only maritime force available to the new government under the Constitution. After all, the Continental Navy had been disbanded in 1785. Thus, between 1790 and 1798, there was no United States Navy and the cutters were the only warships protecting the coast, trade, and maritime interests of the new republic.

American Civil War and the Revenue Cutter Service

The sympathies of the cutter force were divided between the North and the South during the American Civil War (1861-65). In a famous dispatch to General John A. Dix, the Treasury Secretary declared that, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." Transmitted on the evening of 15 January 1861, this order was to ensure Federal control of the cutter Robert McLelland, then in the port of New Orleans. Despite this message, many cutter men, including those on Robert McLelland, chose to join the Confederacy. It was at this time that the Service received its first official name, the Revenue Cutter Service.

The principal wartime duties of Union cutters were patrolling for commerce raiders and providing fire support for troops ashore. Meanwhile, Confederate cutters were principally used as commerce raiders. Cutters were also involved in notable individual actions. The first naval shot of the Civil War was fired by the cutter Harriet Lane when it challenged the steamer Nashville with a shot across its bow. The steamer was attempting to enter Charleston harbor without displaying the U.S. flag. The Harriet Lane also took part in the capture of Hatteras Inlet.  Following this action, the cutter was transferred to the Navy. The cutter Miami carried President Abraham Lincoln and his party to Fort Monroe in May 1862, preparatory to the Peninsula Campaign (aka Peninsular Campaign). In December 1862, the cutter Hercules battled Confederate forces on the Rappahannock River. Reliance’s commanding officer was killed as the cutter engaged Confederate forces on the Great Wicomico River in 1864. On 21 April 1865 cutters were ordered to search all outbound ships for the assassins of President Lincoln.

Recommended Reading: The United States Coast Guard: 1790 to the Present (Revised). Description: The United States Coast Guard traces its origins to 1790, but was not officially named until 1915. At last there is one definitive volume describing its history from inception to the present. The author, Thomas P. Ostrom, served in the USCGR from 1961-69, and had basic and advanced training at the USCG Base, Alameda, California. Continued below…

He served subsequently in the Port Security Reserve Unit in Duluth, Minnesota, and participated in monthly and active duty assignments each summer, earning petty officer rank.

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Recommended Reading: U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935 (Hardcover). Description: From 250-foot Lake-class cruising cutters to 36-foot picket boats, more than 1,000 vessels are included in this the first complete and systematic listing of U.S. Revenue Service and Coast Guard vessels through 1935. Each entry gives dimensions, rig, propulsion, complement, service dates, and a brief service history. Based on a decade of research by an author who has been collecting historic data for the USCG since 1984, the book offers a substantial amount of new information along with many previously unpublished illustrations.


Recommended Reading: Coast Guard (Hardcover). Description: Written by an outstanding team of historians and officers, the definitive story of the U.S. Coast Guard is recorded for the first time in this magnificently illustrated, large-format book published with the Foundation for Coast Guard History. Stories of the "Coastie" experience as well as essays on history, lighthouses, search and rescue, aviation, the drug war, and the war on terrorism all share one common focus: the highly trained and motivated people who make it all work.


Recommended Viewing: The Great Ships - The Coast Guard Ships (History Channel) (2005). Description: The United States Coast Guard has policed the nation's waters since the 1790s. From the first official vessels of the U.S. Government to today's specialized lifesaving craft, the ships of the Guard have played a vital role in maritime history. This in-depth program goes aboard some of the many craft employed by the Coast Guard, from the small boats used for shoreline rescue operations to the deep-sea patrol ships that form the vanguard in America's war against drugs. Continued below…

See dramatic footage of real-life search and rescue operations, and hear incredible stories of life-and-death missions from Coast Guard sailors and officers. And trace the evolution of the Guards' ships from the earliest Revenue Cutters to the myriad vessels of the modern force.


Recommended Viewing: Coast Guard at War, Starring: Susan O'Connor Fraser Director: Tam O'Connor. Description: The U.S. Coast Guard took on a little-known, but highly significant combat role in the Vietnam War. Trained for domestic life-saving and port protection, they were repurposed into a fighting force and sent 10,000 miles from American shores. In Vietnam, the Coast Guard proved an effective tool for every branch of the U.S. military, on water, land and in the air. This program features the most dangerous untold stories of the USCG with rare footage and personal accounts from Coast Guard veterans who were there.


Recommended Reading: The Coast Guardsman's Manual. Description: This manual sums up the Coast Guard better than any other book published, and it gives a glimpse into the oldest military force in this nation’s history. Only the Coast Guard has been around since the days of Washington and Jefferson. The Coast Guardsman's manual is a book about survival and the sailor life. It covers the Coast Guard’s history, terminology, careers, objectives, duties, responsibilities, and jobs. Along with these subjects, this manual is a sailor’s survival guide to being a “Coastie.” It also includes detailed and informative facts on how to survive in the sea, and how to rescue, recover, and keep alive an injured civilian. The Coast Guard has changed in many ways in the past 200 plus years and this manual describes these changes. Continued below...

For anyone who has either been curious about, or has had family in, the Coast Guard, you shall not find a more complete guide to this component of our armed forces. Whether at war or in times of peace, our Coast Guard shall forever be "SEMPER PARATUS" ----“Always Ready.”

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