Post Written By Jeffrey Bowdoin, Collections Manager, & Scott Price, Deputy Historian.
One of our charters is to collect, preserve and promote Coast Guard history and we do that through collecting all kinds of material, including official records, manuals, newspaper articles, historical artifacts and official photographs. But I think one of our most important activities is to gather material for what we refer to as our “Special Collections” consisting of the private papers, diaries, artifacts, uniforms, photos, etc., from Coast Guard veterans (or donated by their families). These are things that aren’t considered to be permanent historical material that the National Archives would accept but are nonetheless incredibly important.
Such collections let us look more closely into what daily life was really like in the Coast Guard during the time the veteran served more so than any official documentation. It is a rich source of information and those kinds of materials serve to remind us that life in the past was not always that different from what it is today. With that in mind I thought we would discuss a few of our more interesting recent accessions to our “Special Collections” and I hope that this blog will encourage you to consider donating your private papers, diaries, personal logs, letters, and photographs (and now electronic records too!) to us when you retire.
We recently received a packet of material from Ms. Deborah Stirling regarding her grandfather, First Lieutenant William A. Whittier, and his career in the Revenue Cutter Service (seated in the picture, far left). The material she donated included photographs, his record book (primarily filled with routine official correspondence, orders, travel claims, etc.—routine stuff but still important!), and newspaper articles. It’s a small collection (in part because he was murdered while on liberty in Boston in 1911) but still important as it gives us a glimpse into what it was like to serve in the Revenue Cutter Service at the turn of the last century.
Although much of what was in his record book was routine, there was a gem: a letter he wrote to his father describing a 1909 Presidential cruise he made aboard the cutter Seminole in which he transported President Howard Taft and a Congressional “entourage” to Wilmington, NC. Believe it or not one of the frequent duties of the RCS was transporting VIPs, including presidents, on official duties. The RCS took some flack for this because many times the trips were little more than pleasure cruises for local Congressmen, Collectors or Treasury officials but in this instance it was for real—but it still caused some scandal as the booze was flowing and one newspaper claimed Taft got drunk! 1LT Whittier assures his father though that Taft did not partake of any adult beverage but plenty of other guests aboard the cutter did.
Now I’ll turn it over to our Collections Manager, Jeff Bowdoin, who will discuss a few more of our recent additions.
One of our more robust donations of both archives and artifacts came from VADM Howard Thorsen, former Coast Guard aviator, LANTAREA commander as well as a founding member of the Foundation for Coast Guard History. VADM Thorsen has been incredibly generous to our office, offering us material from his long career including documentation on policy review in the Coast Guard, MOA between the Coast Guard, DoD and U.S. Customs on drug interdiction efforts, daily planners, flight manuals, and a report on inclusion of female cadets at the Coast Guard Academy. One of the more interesting selections from the donation include the After Action Report and miscellaneous documents from Desert Storm as well as his full desert-issue uniform, all the way down to the boxer briefs and socks.
Every now and then our office receives a truly unique and personal donation of immense historical significance. One of the jewels of our archives is the George W. Bailey Collection. Donated by Ms. Frances E. Huntsinger, a relative of G.W. Bailey, the collection consists of 3rd, 2nd, 1st Lieutenant and Captain commissions, the oldest of which is signed by President Abraham Lincoln, as well as official correspondence and orders. In 1873 then 1st LT Bailey while in command of the RC Lincoln assisted with the search for the George S. Wright, a 116’ steamer lost in treacherous waters. With a barely functioning boiler 1st LT Bailey, though unsuccessful in finding the vessel, did proceed with all haste in hazardous waters with subpar equipment, a testament to his skill and leadership on the RC Lincoln.
On a more personal side there are 13 letters from Captain Bailey to his wife, dating from 17 May 1879 to 17 September 1879, all written during his last deployment onboard the RC Rush to Alaskan waters. On 16 October 1879 at approx 4:15 am Captain Bailey had a short conversation on deck with 1st LT George Williams, left the desk and went, presumably, back to his cabin; but he was never seen again! His last letter to his wife, dated 13 October 1879 (left) served as his will and the Chief of the Revenue Marine Division sent a letter of condolence to Captain Bailey’s wife; both are included in this collection (right).
Personal donations such as these allow us a very private and profound view of what life was like for a Revenue Cutter officer in Alaska, onboard a Presidential cruise, or the commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area during the Persian Gulf War. They offer glimpses of history that official records seldom provide, imparting insight and an emotional connection to those whose service will never be forgotten.