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High School Essay Contest

Boston’s winning essay: The story of the Revenue Cutter Service

As part of Operation Sail 2012, high school essay contests were held in all the participating cities. This is the winning essay from Boston, written by Newton South High School junior Josh Sander. It was chosen by the chief judge of the OpSail Essay contest, William H. White, author, historian, and board member of both the USS Constitution Museum and Operation Sail, Inc.

During the Revolutionary War, many captains smuggled their goods past the British to avoid paying taxes on it, and many saw no reason to stop at the end of the war. As a federal debt crisis loomed, the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton saw an opportunity to seize revenue and submitted a proposal for the creation of a “Revenue Cutter Service” to “seize vessels and goods in the cases in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue laws.” In 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service was created. Later, its mission was expanded to include enforcing the unpopular embargoes passed by Congress to protest European violation of American neutrality.

Despite the unpopular laws, the RCS earned respect for their quality, responsibility, and fairness in administering them. The Revenue Cutters were also responsible for rescuing distressed sailors, bringing supplies to lighthouses, carrying messages, and charting the coast. To do this, the RCS was equipped with ten fast and agile shallow-draft cutters, each based at a major trading port. The cutters could be equipped with ten carronades (though the ships rarely carried a full complement of guns), and a crew of fifteen to thirty men. The RCS, most notably the USRC Pickering, first fired in anger during the “Quasi War” with France, which took place almost entirely at sea. By the time the War of 1812 had begun, the Service had expanded to fourteen ships.

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When war broke out on June 18, 1812, command of the cutters was transferred from the local customs collector to the US Navy. The US Navy was ill-equipped for war, having only sixteen men-of-war. The RCS and the few warships not at sea were responsible for the security of America’s coasts, freeing the Navy to have a free hand on the open sea. In anticipation of this new role, the mission of the RCS grew to include the protection of coastal trade, the defense of their respective home ports, intelligence missions and patrols. The RCS was well suited for these duties, and the light and agile shallow-draft vessels were perfect for coastal maneuvers. However, revenue cutters were built to patrol the shore and were not meant to be fighting vessels. Before the war, their power was their authority and the law, but this meant little to the British. They had a lot to prove if they were to function as naval vessels. Regardless, the RCS immediately embraced its new role, and just a week after the outbreak of hostilities, the USRC Thomas Jefferson captured the Patriot, a British merchant schooner. A month later, the USRC James Madison captured the 300 ton armed British brig Shamrock as well as its cargo of $20,000, enough to pay for the cutter two and a half times over.

Despite these early successes, the cutters were not always on the offensive. One of the RCS’s main tasks was the protection of US shipping. This ranged from the escorting of convoys to the capture of British privateers that threatened trade, such as that of the sloop Dart by USRC Vigilant on October 4th, 1813. The Dart had captured between twenty and twenty-five American vessels and terrorized the waters of Long Island Sound. The Vigilant located the privateer late in the day, fired a broadside and boarded the more heavily armed Dart, overwhelming her crew. This was one of the most surprising and impressive captures of the war by a revenue cutter. The cutter Eagle’s defense of merchantmen caused her capture by the HMS Narcissus and HMS Dispatch after perhaps the most famous fight of the RCS in the war. After attempting to intervene when a British sloop captured a merchantmen, the Eagle soon found herself dangerously close to the Dispatch, and were forced to run aground on Long Island. The crew then carried the cutter’s guns up the 160 foot bluff to continue to fight. The beached cutter’s flag was shot away three times, and each time a crewman volunteered to replace it. Nowhere is there a better example of the devotion of the RCS to its duty of protecting American merchantmen and to protecting their country.

However, the major role of the RCS was on the coast, where Navy ships were restricted in movement. There, the RCS held the advantage in terms of both speed and maneuverability. Early in the war, the British blockaded the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays with both armed barges and ships. On April 11th, 1813, the Thomas Jefferson, together with a pilot boat, ambushed three Royal Navy barges in the Chesapeake Bay. The “barges attempted to escape up the James River, but were overhauled so fast, that they hove to and surrendered”. The Thomas Jefferson captured the three barges and almost sixty men. Even though the Revenue Cutters were never meant to be an offensive weapon, they often participated in attacks on British shipping in conjunction with American privateers. However, once out of the safety of the shore line, the small, lightly armed craft were not as well prepared and often paid the price. On August 22, 1812, the James Madison located a British convoy, and attacked that night. It accidently mistook the 32-gun frigate HMS Barbados for a merchantman and attempted to board her. A seven hour chase ensued, and the Barbados only caught up to the cutter when the wind died and the British were forced to use barges to pull themselves along.

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In spite of the war, the cutters still had to carry on their peacetime duties of enforcing maritime law and carrying out rescue operations. For example, between June 27 and 29, 1812, the cutter Commodore Barry captured five vessels carrying illegal goods in Maine waters. The revenue cutters also conducted rescue operations, such as the rescue of the crew of the capsized brig Rattlesnake after a severe storm in November 1812. Eighteen men and one boy were rescued through a hole sawed through the bow of the vessel.

The Revenue Cutter Service played an often overlooked, but important role in the young nation’s defense during the War of 1812. In addition to their peacetime law enforcement and rescue duties, the RCS took on the additional duties of escorting merchantmen, protecting commerce and occasionally attacking the enemy. In doing so, they foreshadowed the role their descendants would play 200 years later, and their legacy lives on in the men and women of the US Coast Guard today.

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