The United States Coast Guard celebrates its 231st birthday today. The Coast Guard was created on August 4, 1790, when the first Congress authorized Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton to construct ten vessels, known as “revenue cutters,” to combat smuggling and enforce tariff laws. Hamilton carried out his charge with enthusiasm, which is why he is considered to be “the father of the Coast Guard.” For the next eight years, the Coast Guard was the United States’ only armed maritime force. Congress didn’t establish the Navy until 1798. (The Navy prefers to say “re-establish” as it dates its founding to an October 1775 act passed by the Continental Congress.)
The Coast Guard’s initial role in combating smuggling and enforcing tariff laws was critical to the success of the early American Republic. Back then, tariffs—or customs duties—provided as much as 90 percent of federal revenue. That fact is why the Coast Guard was called the Revenue Marine or the Revenue Cutter Service until 1915. In that year, Congress combined it with the U.S. Life Saving Service and rechristened it the Coast Guard. The service gained additional responsibilities in 1939 when President Roosevelt gave it responsibility for the Lighthouse Service. And in 1946, Congress transferred the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard has a unique status among the country’s military services. During peacetime it is part of the Department of Homeland Security. During wartime, or when the president or Congress so direct, it becomes part of the Department of Defense and is included in the Department of the Navy. Because the Coast Guard is charged with enforcing a range of domestic laws as well as discharging a range of military duties, it is exempt from the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the other services from law enforcement duties.
The Coast Guard has roughly 41,000 active duty personnel, more than 8,000 reserve personnel, and some 30,000 civilian auxiliary volunteers. The Coast Guard maintains a fleet of 259 cutters, 200 aircraft, and 1,602 boats. In addition to their constant presence along the U.S. coast and in major waterways, Coast Guard personnel have served in all of America’s major conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq. On any given day, Coast Guard law enforcement teams board 144 vessels, Coast Guard small boats launch nearly 400 missions, and Coast Guard aircraft fly 164 operations. In a typical year, the Coast Guard will respond to 20,000 search-and-rescue cases and save more than 3,500 lives.
Like all the other services, with the newly created Space Force being the lone exception, the Coast Guard operates its own university. Known today as the Coast Guard Academy, it was founded in 1876 as the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction. Students initially got their training onboard the USRC Dobbin. The Coast Guard Academy’s first land-based campus was established in 1890 in Curtis Bay, Maryland. In 1910, the Coast Guard relocated to Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut. The Academy moved to its current location in New London in 1932.
I asked Captain Sean P. Regan, a Coast Guard captain who will be spending the coming year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend some reading for people looking to learn more about the Coast Guard. Here are his recommendations:
Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies (2017). This award winning bestseller by journalist Jason Fagone recounts the life of famed intelligence expert Elizebeth Friedman. She is considered one of the founders of the National Security Agency and, perhaps, the finest codebreaker in American history. In recognition of her achievements, a National Security Cutter will be named after her. If you are unable to read the book, consider watching the American Experience documentary, The Codebreaker: Wife. Mother. Secret American Hero.
Robert Frump, Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death and Survival in the Merchant Marine (2002). Acclaimed author Robert Frump, who writes on shipping disasters, delves into the ramifications of the 1983 sinking of the SS Marine Electric off the mouth of the Delaware Bay. This sinking resulted in the establishment of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program and the retirement of the dangerous fleet of World War II-era T2 bulk carriers. Both trends were closely associated with the Coast Guard.
P.A. Capelotti, Rogue Wave: The U.S. Coast Guard on and After 9/11 (2003). This is a must read for Coast Guard personnel, especially in this twentieth anniversary year of 9/11. Dr. Pete Capelotti (USCGR PACM ret) does a masterful job of recounting the Coast Guard response to 9/11 and how the event altered the service’s mission set to a Homeland Security posture that the Coast Guard continues to observe today, twenty years later.
Captain Regan also recommended three films to watch:
The Perfect Storm (2000). This is a dramatic retelling of the of the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter and its ramifications for those mariners in its path and Coast Guard efforts to save them. The film recounts operations of Coast Guard aviation assets to save the sailing vessel Satori and CGC Tamaroa to rescue the crew of a downed Air National Guard helicopter. Please avert your eyes during the Tamaroa rescue scene—the movie’s CGI wizards depict the cutter as a 210 MEC rather than the old 205 MEC that it was.
Rescue Men: The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers (2010). Rescue Men is a documentary film about Richard Etheridge, the African American crew of Pea Island Life-Saving Station, and the Gold Lifesaving Medal (GLSM) rescue of the E.S. Newman. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the rescue that made Etheridge, the head of the Pea Island Station, and the Pea Island lifesavers famous! A Fast Response Cutter is named in Etheridge’s honor. Well worth watching and reading are the award-winning book that it’s based on: Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers.
Deepwater Horizon (2016). Like The Perfect Storm, this is another Coast Guard-related movie starring Mark Wahlberg! This movie relates the story of the failure of and explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon, including initial Coast Guard response operations (using some actual Coast Guard personnel). The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered to be the largest oil spill in history and the Coast Guard responded not only to the explosion, but also the subsequent oil spill, which continued through the late spring and summer of 2010. Deepwater Horizon also gives viewers a sense of life on an oil rig and the dangers inherent in that work.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.