U. S. Coast Guard – Coastal Patrolling


Coastal patrolling is vital to a maritime nation such as the United States. Nearly 95 percent of all American foreign trade, valued at over $1.7 trillion, travels by sea. Coastal patrolling not only protects this trade but also forms an integral part of U. S. national security. Originally begun to enforce custom laws, coastal patrolling has grown increasingly- preventing drug smuggling, migrant smuggling, illegal fishing, and terrorism in the 21st century.

One of the first challenges facing the newly independent United States of America was to pull itself out of the bankruptcy that resulted from the American Revolution. That debt, at home and abroad, totaled $80 million. A new protective tariff would not only protect American manufacturing but also provide a means of raising desperately needed revenue. Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, realized that the tariff would not command universal support. The American colonists had distrusted authority and, through a century of practice, had become expert at dodging the king’s taxes. To an extent, it had become a patriotic duty to avoid paying British import taxes.

Hamilton knew that smuggling could not be suppressed by paper statutes alone; America needed a coastal patrolling fleet to prevent it. He therefore sought and, on August 4, 1790, obtained from Congress authority to launch a seagoing military coastal patrolling force in support of the national economic policy. The 10 armed revenue cutters-small, swift, and manned by American sailors-became the nucleus of what initially was called the “Revenue Service” and later “Revenue Marine Service”; it was given the official name of “Revenue Cutter Service” in 1863. The service merged with the Life-Saving Service in 1915 to become the U. S. Coast Guard.

While the initial purpose of coastal patrolling was to enforce U. S. tariff laws, it would soon include other functions. During the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800), the Revenue Marine cutters were ordered to defend the coast and repel any hostility offered to vessels and commerce by the French Navy. However, this responsibility was not to be allowed to interfere with the regular protection of revenue.

In 1808 the legal importation of slaves came to an end in the United States. Coastal patrolling duties began to include prevention of slave smuggling into the nation. Blocking and seizing slave smugglers remained a major function of coastal patrolling up to the Civil War.

During the War of 1812, coastal patrolling returned to its defensive role, this time against the British Navy rather than the French Navy. The first shots of the naval war were fired by one of the Revenue Marine cutters. After only one week of fighting, the cutter Jefferson encountered the British brig Patriot, splintered her topsides with roundshot, and brought her in as the first captive ship of the war.

The U. S. defeat of England during the War of 1812 did not end the threat to American ships. Pirates sailed in and out of the West Indies and plundered U. S. ships from their bases in Florida and Louisiana. Congress ordered coastal patrols of the area to “protect the merchant vessels of the United States and their crews from piratical aggressions and depredations” (Bloomfield, 27). The Revenue Marine cutters, searching the American waters and coastline hideaways, were followed by a punitive U. S. Navy squadron commanded by Comm. David Porter. The suppression of piracy remained a coastal patrolling concern until about 1840.

Coastal patrolling would also play a role in the long-festering Seminole troubles in the southeastern United States. Both Revenue Marine cutters and Navy warships engaged in battles with the Seminoles during the 1830s. At times, the mere presence of a cutter averted an attack on white settlers. When Seminoles threatened Tampa, Florida, in 1836, all the residents took refuge on ships in the harbor.

In 1837 coastal patrolling gained another function when Congress authorized the cutters to cruise the coasts in the “severe portion of the Season” and render aid to vessels in distress. Winter coastal patrolling was a tough mission for these small sailing ships, yet the need was great. On average, 90 American ships were wrecked each year. Thus, the vast new responsibility of search and rescue was added to the earlier coastal patrol functions of protecting the revenue against smugglers, enforcing laws and embargoes, hunting pirates and slavers, and defending the coasts from foreign attack with the Navy.

During the Civil War, one of the chief Union goals was to cut off the South from all outside assistance by imposing a naval blockade and policing some 3,500 miles of Confederate coastline. This blockade would serve two major functions. First, by sharply reducing the Confederacy’s access to foreign markets, it would make it more difficult for the South to wage war. Second, the blockade would demonstrate to foreign powers the Union’s resolve to crush the rebellion.

The Union secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, had to convert a relatively small collection of ships into an effective coastal patrolling force. While waiting for new ships to be built, the Union scoured northern ports, purchasing ships of all types for use in patrolling the Confederate coastline. In effect, the bulk of the U. S. Navy joined the Revenue cutters in becoming a part of the coastal patrolling forces.

During World War I and World War II, coastal patrolling would once again be employed for defense, with ships guarding the coasts of the United States against attack and infiltration of spies and saboteurs. During the years of Prohibition between those wars, coastal patrolling also became very visible. The U. S. Coast Guard, now the nation’s coastal patrolling force, was instructed to prevent the smuggling of any liquor into the country through the seacoasts or across the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard, with few cutters and long stretches of coast to patrol, was faced with a nearly impossible task. So much illegal liquor entered the country that in 1923 supporters of Prohibition demanded that the Navy join in the war against liquor smugglers. The Navy wanted no part of it. Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilber declared: “The Navy Department has no intention of mixing in the efforts of the government to stop rumrunning. The business of stopping it is police duty and not Navy duty” (Bloomfield, 146). Despite this resistance, in 1924 Congress ordered 20 Navy destroyers to be turned over to the Coast Guard for coastal patrolling. On December 5, 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed and the “rum war” came to an end.

Since 1967 Coast Guard patrols have protected the U. S. 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which holds a significant source of renewable wealth, from foreign fishing vessel incursions. The Coast Guard now patrols the 3.36 million square miles of the EEZ with long-range surveillance aircraft, large cutters, and patrol boats. These patrols also protect endangered marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions from illegal poaching.

In 1999 the Coast Guard was provided with $260 million in supplemental funds to expand its coastal drug interdiction activities. These patrols are designed to deny smugglers the use of maritime routes and disrupt the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.

In the 21st century, the patrolling of the coastline is conducted mostly by Coast Guard cutters, as well as by its shipbased deployable pursuit boats and specially equipped helicopters. As in the past, these patrols continue to prevent the smuggling of contraband, including drugs, illegal immigrants, technologies, illegal arms, and untaxed cargoes. Coastal patrolling enforces fishery laws, which prevent the depletion of fish stocks and other resources in the EEZ. Coastal patrolling also monitors environmental requirements, fights piracy, and seeks to prevent terrorists from entering the country. As such, coastal patrolling plays a major role in protecting the U. S. environment and economy, as well at its maritime safety and security.

Bibliography Bloomfield, Howard V. L. The Compact History of the United States Coast Guard. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1968. Evans, Stephen H. The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute, 1949. Johnson, Robert Erwin, Guardians of the Sea: History of the United States Coast Guard, 1915 to the Present. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute, 1987.

Further Reading Anderson, Bern, By Sea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War. New York: Da Capo Press, 1962. King, Irving H. The Coast Guard Expands, 1865-1915: New Roles, New Frontiers. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute, 1996. King, Irving H. The Coast Guard Under Sail: The U. S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1789-1865. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute, 1989. Tucker, Spencer C. A Short History of the Civil War at Sea. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002.


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