Relief is given to hundreds of imperiled vessels each season . . . either by towing helpless and disabled craft to harbors of safety, hauling others off reefs and shoals, keeping channels clear of ice and removing obstructions, or by giving succor and aid to shipwrecked mariners. — Lieutenant Worth Ross, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, “Our Coast Guard,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1886
As Lieutenant Ross noted, less than 100 years after its founding, the Revenue Cutter Service had become a full-fledged humanitarian organization. When Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton established the service in 1790, the stated purpose of the revenue cutters was law enforcement, but the ships assisted vessels in distress according to the Good Samaritan tradition of seafaring. And because they patrolled U.S. waters, it frequently fell to them to perform humanitarian service.
For example, in 1812, the cutter New Hampshire saved five American privateersmen from drowning in severe weather at Winter Harbor, Maine. Crewmembers of the cutter General Greene used axes to cut open the bow of the capsized brig Rattlesnake, saving 18 men and a boy, who had nearly died after four hours in chin-deep water inside the upturned hull. The cutter Diligence rescued survivors of the American brig Defiance, which had capsized in a violent storm and washed ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina.
In 1813, pack ice trapped the Lady Johnson in the Delaware Bay and pushed her dangerously close to shore. The crew of the General Greene made their way to the stricken vessel, rescued the nearly frozen crew, and moved the vessel to a safe anchorage at Wilmington, Delaware.
In the 1820s and 1830s, immigration to the United States accelerated at a record pace. Immigrants from the British Isles and Western Europe took passage throughout the year, including the stormy winter months, on vessels in various states of seaworthiness. A number of these wooden ships foundered at sea or went ashore as they neared the coast. As the number of wrecks and ship disasters climbed, Americans became horrified by the mounting body counts. Many of those who perished were women
By 1831, the federal government began to take notice of the growing crisis. That winter, Treasury Secretary Louis McLane tasked revenue cutters with aiding ships in danger. In a letter dated 16 December, he wrote the customs collector in Wilmington, Delaware, to prepare the cutter Gallatin for sea, stating, “In the present inclement season it is thought proper to combine with the ordinary duties of the cutters that of assisting vessels found on the coast in distress, and of ministering to the wants of their crews.”
The Gallatin cruised offshore between Hog Island, Virginia, and Cape May, New Jersey, while six other cutters received the same orders for their districts. During these winter patrols, the cutters fell in with ships in distress to save the vessels and their crews. This was the first year the Treasury Department officially tasked cutters with aiding vessels at sea.
Awareness of the growing loss of life at sea and on shore peaked in 1837. In January, the barque Mexico came ashore during an icy storm near New York with the loss of more than 100 passengers. On 9 January, The Adams Sentinel reported:
When they perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard, at a considerable distance, and continued through the night, until they one by one perished. The next morning, the bodies of many of the unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice. None, it is believed, were drowned, but all frozen to death. Of the 104 passengers, two-thirds were women and children.
After the Mexico tragedy, Congress finally recognized the need for government assistance to imperiled vessels. On 22 December, it passed an act tasking revenue cutters with aiding vessels in distress, stating “to cause any suitable number of public vessels, adapted to the purpose, to cruise upon the coast, in the severe portion of the season, and to afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstance and necessities may require; and such public vessels shall go to sea prepared fully to render such assistance.” Preserving life and property on the high seas has been one of the service’s mandated missions ever since.
The late summer and early winter of 1870 proved to be another deadly shipwreck season. Countless ships coming ashore on the East Coast highlighted the nation’s inadequate lifesaving capability. Treasury Secretary George Boutwell established a superintendent’s position to direct the department’s Revenue Marine Division, which oversaw steamboat inspection, marine hospitals, and lifesaving stations. In 1871, Boutwell appointed famed Superintendent Sumner Kimball, who rapidly expanded lifesaving operations. That same year, Kimball began paying lifesaving crews, ending the volunteer service, and, seven years later, he oversaw official establishment of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw hundreds of Life-Saving Service surfmen go in harm’s way to save shipwreck victims.
In 1915, Congress passed important lifesaving legislation yet again. “An Act to Create the Coast Guard” merged the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and U.S. Life-Saving Service, the federal government’s two agencies responsible for maritime safety on shore and at sea.
Not long after formation of the modern Coast Guard, rapid advances took place in seaborne aviation technology. In the 1920s, the service added a fixed-wing aircraft capability to the fleet of lifesaving boats and cutters. The aviation branch provided rapid response assets for over-the-horizon rescues, and amphibious aircraft served in numerous high-profile cases, including Gold Lifesaving Medal rescues in 1929, 1933, and 1937.
World War II advanced every aspect of seafaring, including search-and-rescue operations. The Coast Guard developed the seagoing helicopter equipped with floats and a rescue hoist. It later replaced amphibious aircraft as the preferred rescue aircraft. The war also saw development of sonar and radar, as well as the first cold-water survival suits, advanced weather forecasting, and sophisticated radio communications.
After the war, search-and-rescue methods and technology developed rapidly. This included satellite-based storm forecasting technology, new search methodology, and risk management models. The service also saw the development of LORAN navigation systems, which later were replaced by the more accurate satellite-based global positioning system. And, in 1983, the tragic loss of the SS Marine Electric and most of her crew spurred Congress to pass legislation establishing the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.
The 21st century has brought with it the threat of global warming and warmer seawater in the Coast Guard’s areas of responsibility. This warmer water feeds superstorm development, threatening the United States and its territories. But equipped with new maritime technology, modern weather forecasting, and crisis management systems, the service is prepared to serve as the tip of the spear for storm response to devastated areas.
Today, the Coast Guard responds not only to disasters at sea, but also to floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, flu pandemics, volcanic eruptions, and industrial accidents.
Alexander Hamilton founded the service as a law enforcement agency, but from its beginning, the Coast Guard has been protecting lives and property at sea and on shore. It now stands as the world’s premier search-and-rescue agency. The humanitarian response mission has evolved over time, but it still defines the service to this day.