History: General Order No. 1

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Written by Scott Price, Coast Guard historian.

For more than 220 years, the U.S. Coast Guard, and its legacy services, has been part of the fabric of our nation. The service has gone by many names before being called the “U.S. Coast Guard,” and January marks nearly a century since two services joined to take that name.

Officers of the Overland Expedition, 2nd Lt. E.P. Bertholf, Surgeon S. J. Call and 1st Lt. D.H. Jarvis. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Officers of the Overland Expedition, 2nd Lt. E.P. Bertholf, Surgeon S. J. Call and 1st Lt. D.H. Jarvis. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

It was 97 years ago this month when Ellsworth P. Bertholf, the hero of the Overland Rescue and the then-current Captain Commandant of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, issued General Order No. 1. Sent by telegram from his fourth floor office in the headquarters building in downtown Washington, D.C., Bertholf’s order announced the creation of the country’s newest federal agency—the United States Coast Guard.

This new agency was a union of two existing agencies: the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

On Jan. 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the bill recently passed by Congress that combined the two agencies into one Coast Guard. The law stated specifically that the Coast Guard would be one of the nation’s armed services —thus ending one area of controversy regarding the military status of the old Revenue Cutter Service.

The most important figures in this chain of events were the two individuals at the helm of each agency, one with an eye to preserve the very existence of his service and the other to give his surfmen some kind of professional safety net. These were Bertholf of the Revenue Cutter Service and the 80-year-old Sumner I. Kimball of the Life-Saving Service. Both were instrumental in fostering and guiding this successful transition.

The U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, circa 1912. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
The U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, circa 1912. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

According to the Jan. 31, issue of The New York Times the old Revenue Cutter Service went out of existence upon the receipt of telegrams to each cutter and station on Jan. 30, 1915 — a bit of an over-simplification since the cutters at sea didn’t learn of the change until they returned to port.

In the end, the momentous change in the course of the service occurred with little to no fanfare. Most Revenue Cutter officers and personnel thought of it as simply a change in the name of their service. The log of one cutter, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Miami, tied up that day at Key West simply noted: “Received official radiogram from Captain Commandant stating the official name of this Service has been changed to United States Coast Guard and that the official name of this vessel is United States Coast Guard Cutter.” Other cutters, such as Alert, Seneca and Itasca, passed over the big day without so much as a note in their logs. Itasca’s third lieutenant, equivalent to an ensign today, Elmer Stone – who would become the service’s first aviator – didn’t bother crossing out the words “Revenue Cutter Service” on the top of the log’s pages until May.

But no such dramatic change happens without cultural shifts, and this one was no exception. There was some grumbling and a few officers were envious of the changes wrought in the old Life-Saving Service. Many officers regretted the demise of the “old service” or did not approve of former civilians being made into military officers, warrants and petty officers. Bertholf was having none of it. He wrote:

Click here to see General Order No. 1.
Click the above image to see General Order No. 1.

“Coast Guard is the logical name for the old Revenue Cutter Service as well as the new combination, and it is a logical and direct successor of the old ‘revenue cutter service;’ so that we may fairly claim not to have lost our history even if the particular name which we temporarily bore has been changed. The vessels will always be known as cutters and the name ‘cutter’ still remains to indicate the floating activities of the Coast Guard and since it is simply a continuation of the old service in that respect, we may still fairly claim to have been born in 1790.”

Other changes were welcomed amongst the crews of the hundreds of life-saving stations dotting the nation’s coastline. Now they could retire after 30 years of service at 75 percent of their annual salary or in case of service-related injury. In case they died in the line-of-duty their survivors received relief. The surfmen also received longevity pay increases and clothing and food allowances. They could also receive medical attention from Public Health Service doctors, just like their sea-going brethren.

Throughout its history, the U.S. Coast Guard, and its legacy services, has protected Americans, enforced national sovereignty, responded to national emergencies and promoted economic prosperity. Today we remain a maritime nation, grateful that regardless of changes, and although the two services may not have shared a common history, General Order No. 1 bound them together by one inescapable fact —they were all Coast Guardsmen.

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