On 12 April 1861, the Revenue Cutter Service—a forebear of the U.S. Coast Guard—made its mark in U.S. naval service when its finest cutter, captained by the service’s most distinguished mariner, fired the first naval shot of the Civil War. But this significant event was just a waypoint in this remarkable ship’s life.
The cutter Harriet Lane, named for President James Buchanan’s popular niece and official White House hostess, was built for the Treasury Department by William H. Webb in New York City and launched on 19 November 1857. At that time, Webb was the United States’ foremost shipbuilder and arguably its first true naval architect. His shipyard built 133 vessels between 1840 and 1865, among them some the fastest and most successful clippers and packets. The new cutter was on the cusp of steam technology and thus, despite her inclined, direct-acting steam engine—a first for the service—which turned side-wheel paddles, she also carried a brigantine rig.