History: “Dressing the Ship” on Independence Day

No comments
Coast Guard Cutters Flyingfish, Reliance, Escanaba and Seneca all flying full dress ship pennants
Coast Guard Cutters Flyingfish, Reliance, Escanaba and Seneca all flying full dress ship pennants at the Coast Guard Integrated Support Command Boston during a change of command ceremony July 30, 2008. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Goulet.

Written by Scott Price, Coast Guard Historian.

Revenue Cutter Rush in full dress
Revenue Cutter Rush, in full dress, fires a salute on Independence Day in 1901 near Sitka, Alaska. Coast Guard photo.

Throughout history, from the Revenue Cutter Service to the U.S. Coast Guard, July 4 is celebrated and honored through a proud maritime custom common to national holidays and special events – “dressing ship.” Following regulations of 1843:

“Upon the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the colors shall be hoisted at sunrise, and all the vessels of the Revenue Marine shall, when in port, be dressed, and so continue until the colors are hauled down at sunset, if the state of the weather and other circumstances will allow it. At sunrise, at meridian, and at sunset, a salute of twenty-one guns shall be fired at meridian from every vessel of the Revenue Marine in commission.”

CGC Eagle full dress ship
Coast Guard Cutter Eagle displays full dress colors while moored in Cartagena, Spain, May 21, 2010. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco.

Over the years, the regulations were refined but their spirit of commemorating and celebrating the day when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain always remained paramount. While some occasions simply call for dressing the ship with a national ensign at each masthead, other more celebrated occasions like Independence Day call for a ship to be fully dressed. According to the regulations published in 1916 for the newly created U.S. Coast Guard, full dress included:

“A line of signal flags, rainbow fashion, extending from the water line to the jib-boom end (or from the jackstaff at the height of the ridge rope, if without a jib boom), thence to the highest masthead on the fore, thence to the highest masthead on the main, thence to the highest masthead on the mizzen, thence to the peak, to the boom end or flagstaff at the height of the ridge rope aft, and to the water line aft. In vessels of other rigs the disposition of the decorations shall conform as nearly as possible to the foregoing.”

CGC Edisto full dress ship
Coast Guard Cutter Edisto displays full dress colors during a change of command ceremony in San Diego June 27, 2011. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry G. Dunphy.

So, when you come across an old photograph of a cutter or see one docked with all of its flags flying from each masthead with signal flags fluttering in the breeze from stem-to-stern, remember what the ship represents and honor its patriotic spirit as well as the memory of those cutter crews who through the past 220 years have spent their Independence Day far from home.

If you come across a ship in full dress while you are out enjoying this holiday, snap a photo and email it to us at socialmedia@uscg.mil. We’ll put together an album and share it on our Facebook page next week .

Leave a Reply