Revenue Marine/Revenue Cutter Service, and What Role Did It Play in the Civil War?
By Allen Mordica
In the years after the creation of the United States, the fledgling republic was facing serious financial troubles. Widespread smuggling to avoid payment of import taxes was used to great effect against Great Britain during the war for American independence. The same practice, pursued after the war was over, kept badly needed funds (revenues) out of the U.S. Treasury.
The loss of potential revenue was serious enough that in 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton authorized the acquisition of 10 small schooners, or "revenue cutters". These vessels were to cruise the waters of the East Coast and ensure that inbound cargoes were not offloaded in locations other than approved Ports of Entry, thus ensuring collection of tariffs. The organization's original name was the U.S. Revenue Marine.
Incidentally, after the Revolution the Continental Navy and Army were disbanded, leaving the U.S. without either until the creation of the United States Navy in 1798. Because the Revenue Marine was the only military force of the U.S. from 1790-1798, the U.S. Coast Guard, the direct descendant of the Revenue Marine, holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously serving (and the first to hold the title of "United States") of the 5 armed services.
A revenue cutter was assigned to each of twelve ports on the East Coast. The Massachusetts, first of the original 10, was 60' long, with a crew of 10. The term "revenue cutter" dated back to the early 1700's in England, where their Revenue patrol vessels were all cutter-rigged, that is, with a single mast and with two or more jibs.
Cutter captains were answerable to, and received their sailing orders directly from, the Customs Collector of the respective port to which they were assigned. All crew pay, requests for supplies, arrangements for repairs to the cutter, and mission-specific tasking were received directly from the port's Customs House. The Collector was given wide latitude in how he could task his cutter, and situations requiring the Secretary to intervene directly in the affairs of the Collector were rare.
Standing orders for individual cutters were vague and stated in general terms, allowing captains to exercise their discretion and judgement to the fullest. Captains also had far reaching authority "...to seize vessels and goods in the cases in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue laws..." and to send inspection parties aboard vessels already in port, to ensure that cargo intended for export also did not violate Revenue laws. If contraband was discovered aboard, and if the circumstances indicated that the ship's master was unaware of the illegal cargo (due to it being concealed in an otherwise benign shipment), the cargo alone would be removed and the ship allowed to proceed.
All of the above notwithstanding, it was specifically directed in Alexander Hamilton's first letter of instruction that captains "...will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit... They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty--by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence." Not surprisingly, cutter captains were renowned for their decent quality, sense of responsibility and fairness.
Since it's inception, the Revenue Marine accepted and embraced as one of it's missions the responsibility to render aid and assistance as needed "for the protection of lives and property at sea", the role that would come to define the latter-day Coast Guard. In 1832, Secretary of the Treasury McLane ordered revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need. Congress codified the practice in 1837.
After the passage of laws prohibiting the importation of African slaves into the U.S., revenue cutters added the task of enforcing the ban. The best known incident of slaver interdiction is the case of the schooner Amistad, encountered off the coast of Long Island.
Although none of the original crew was aboard when the Amistad was boarded, the vessel was escorted into New Haven, where the trial made famous by the film, "Amistad" was held.
By the beginning of the Civil War, revenue cutters were stationed at every major port from Portland to Galveston, and from Port Washington to San Francisco. Several were seized by the Confederacy at the beginning of hostilities, and several were moved north at the last moment to avoid confiscation. In a famous dispatch to General John A. Dix, transmitted on 15 January 1861, the Treasury Secretary declared that, "If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot." to ensure Federal control of the cutter Robert McLelland, then in New Orleans. Despite the message, some of those aboard the McLelland joined the Confederacy, taking the cutter with them.
With the critical shortage of vessels to enforce the blockade of southern ports, revenue cutters were temporarily assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron until the Navy could procure or build more ships. The cutters performed the blockading role in addition to their normal inspection duties without difficulty, as the former task was simply an extension of the latter. The name of the service was changed officially to Revenue Cutter Service in 1862, but was in general usage well before the war.
The Harriet Lane, the service's first steam cutter, reputedly fired the first naval shots of the war on 11 April 1861 when she put a shot across the bow of the steamer Nashville entering Charleston harbor during the siege of Ft. Sumter. The Harriet Lane also took part later in the capture of Hatteras Inlet, NC. She would be lost to a Confederate boarding party in Galveston harbor in 1864.
Cutters operated frequently in inland waters they normally patrolled before the war in search of smugglers. In December 1862, the cutter Hercules battled Confederate forces on the Rappahannock River. Even cutters in areas remote from the main action became involved. The cutter Caleb Cushing was cut out and later destroyed by CSN Lt. Reid, of the commerce raider CSS Tallahassee, at Portland, Maine.
The Revenue Marine also helped pioneer the use of steam powered vessels in the 1850's, and was ready to try new technology. An example is the USRC E.A. Stevens.
The gunboat E.A.Stevens (AKA Naugatuck) was built in Hoboken, NJ and was named for her inventor, founder of the Stevens Institute of Technology. The "Hoboken Ironclad" was a prototype concept ship, a 110', twin screw, semi-submersible ironclad gunboat. She could reduce her freeboard by over three feet, submerging the bottom of her angled skirt armor, by flooding ballast tanks within her hull. The Stevens was armed with a 100-lb. Parrott rifle and two 12-lb. Dahlgren boat howitzers mounted on pivots. First offered to the Navy at no cost but refused as untried in the field, the Stevens was gratefully accepted by the Revenue Marine as their first ironclad gunboat..
Rushed into service, the USRC Stevens arrived at Hampton Roads too late to participate in the famous battle on 8-9 March 1862, but did get the chance to fire on the CSS Virginia on the 11th of April. She also participated with the USS Monitor and the USS Galena in the battle of Drury's Bluff. During the action her Parrott rifle burst, but she continued to fight with her 12 lbr.'s until the squadron withdraw from the fight. After the loss of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras, the Stevens was reassigned to New York harbor, where she spent the rest of the war.
Cutters also contributed to logistics operations of the Navy. After carrying President Lincoln down from Washington, on the 9th of May 1862 the USRC Miami assisted navy transports in landing Federal troops at Ocean View. The following day, May 10th, Confederate forces evacuated the Norfolk area. Left without a port to resupply from and the James River bar too shallow to cross, on May 11th the ironclad ram CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) was beached and destroyed by her crew at Craney Island. Cutter crews also participated in every major amphibious operation on the East Coast.
Although the Revenue Marine was first envisioned as a force of waterborne tax collectors, the ability to conduct many different divergent missions, some simultaneously, became the hallmark of the service. In all cases where they were employed, before and during the Civil War, the revenue cutter captains and crews proved their versatility and utility to the nation, and by their example laid the groundwork for the eventual incorporation of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Lifesaving Service and the Steamship Inspection Bureau into the U.S. Coast Guard.
Return to table of contents