Happy 224th Birthday, U.S. Coast Guard!

August 04, 2014 marks the 224th birthday of the U.S. Coast Guard. As a former “Coastie” and spouse of a current Chief Petty Officer, I usually find myself in the minority when celebrating Coast Guard Day. Most Americans, including veterans of her sister services, have little knowledge of this smallest branch of the military. So, as a birthday gift to my former shipmates, I would like to take this opportunity to enlighten everyone on some of the more interesting episodes during their two and a quarter centuries of guarding our nation’s shores.

The official ensign of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, dating back from 1867.
The official ensign of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, dating back from 1867.

August 4, 1790 President George Washington signed the Tariff Act. At the time, our nation was barely a year removed from the Revolutionary War, drowning in debt after years of fighting, and facing an almost daily loss of potential revenue due to smugglers avoiding new taxes and tariffs at ports up and down the coast. An important aspect of the Tariff Act was the establishment of a fleet of 10 cutters to enforce these tax and tariff laws. This small fleet would form the basis of the Revenue Cutter Service, the original Coast Guard.

For 125 years, the Revenue Cutter Service would patrol the waters of our young nation chasing smugglers, pirates and slave traders while at the same time acting as a second Navy of sorts, including frontline engagements in every major conflict we faced.

  • The Revenue Cutter Service was our nation’s only naval service until Congress established the Navy Department in 1798.
  • The Coast Guard Ensign, flown from underway cutters as a badge of authority, was originally designed in 1799 and continues to be used today with slight modifications. Regulations authorize Coast Guard vessels to “fire at, or into” vessels which fail to heed any vessel flying the Ensign.
  • In the first week of the War of 1812, the cutter Jefferson captured the Patriot – America’s first war prize.
  • In 1836, after Seminole tribes surrounded Ft. Brook in Florida, the cutter Washington conducted the first amphibious landing by combined US forces.
  • The cutter Harriet Lane was not only the first steam cutter, but she is also credited with firing the first shot at Ft. Sumter – the start of the Civil War.
  • In 1862, the cutter Naugatuck escorted the Union iron-clad Monitor to her famous battle with the Confederate iron-clad Merrimac.

In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service were merged to form the modern Coast Guard and added the search and rescue of stranded mariners to her duties. Congress also officially designated the Coast Guard as a military service. The service would continue to grow in both importance and responsibility when it merged with the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939 and by assuming merchant marine licensing and inspection duties in 1946. All the while, she would continue protecting America from both near and far, escorting convoys during WW1, deterring rumrunners during Prohibition, and conducting anti U-Boat patrols during WW2.

The Harriet Lane
The Harriet Lane

Although no cutters would see duty in the Korean Conflict, U.S. Coast Guard advisors were vital to establishing and training the South Korean Coast Guard. Three Divisions were active during the Vietnam War and were involved in a variety of duties, including riverine patrols and naval bombardment operations. From the end of operations in Vietnam until 2001, the Coast Guard returned to its original roots, focusing primarily on maritime law enforcement. For three decades, Coasties would be our first line of defense against the flood of illegal aliens from Cuba and Haiti, the War on Drugs, and added recreational boating enforcement to its daily duties.

Following the attacks of 9/11, the United States decided a consolidated force was necessary to prevent or combat future attacks. In 2002, 22 agencies, including the Coast Guard, were merged to form the United States Department of Homeland Security. Today’s Coast Guard is both the largest and most visible component of the DHS, responsible for patrolling and defending every port and coastal waterway along more than 95,000 miles of coastline.

So, now you know why the Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus – Always Ready” and also why everyone should take a moment this August 4th to wish every Coasties past and present a “Happy Birthday.”

As I am sure readers who have served will understand tradition and history is a corner stone of each and every service. The Coast Guard, maybe because it is so small, more a family than a job, prides itself on insuring all recruits are indoctrinated in these matters. Of course, sometimes finer points are lost from memory or clouded by seas stories so I would like to acknowledge that I utilized the following websites and documents to “refresh” my own memory:

  • www.uscg.mil
  • Coast Guard History, Publication CG-213, circa 1950
  • Coast Guard Publication 1
  • Coast Guard Organizational History

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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