Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein, 7th Coast Guard District Public Affairs.
Standing on the dock at Charlestown Navy Yard in Massachusetts, a seaman discusses shipboard life while effortlessly tying knots. Soon he’s joined by another crewmember regaling the crowd with descriptions of food storage at sea, back in 1812.
Because of the unrelenting heat, the men take swigs of water straight from authentic pewter mugs. Standing in the midday sun in shirts with stand-up collars and long, tapered white pants with a front flap and a cloth neck stock takes some getting used to. But this group is stoic. Tugging on their red wool vests, the pair continues their storytelling while transporting the crowd back to a little known era in American history.
The pair are volunteers with the Coast Guard’s 1812 Historic Ship’s Company. Delivering compelling performances, they paint a picture of the Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor to the modern-day Coast Guard.
The ship’s company was the brainchild of Capt. Steven Pope, a reservist with a passion for history. The historic ship’s company – whose inaugural presentation began in New Orleans, La., back in April – now has six events under their belt.
“I know of no better tool than one-on-one interaction with the public to bring to light the history of the Revenue Cutter Service,” Pope says. “It educates and inspires, especially when you have a group of volunteers who give more than they were asked to.”
Pope says the company’s efforts are breathing life into the War of 1812. That’s critical he says, because the Coast Guard’s predecessor service helped our young nation establish maritime borders and developed legacy missions such as port security and intelligence. Through the Revenue Cutter Service our nation assumed greater coastal defense responsibilities, gaining respect from the international community for commerce on the high seas.
“It’s essential to understand that as it helps explain our role and our maritime history, especially during the War of 1812,” says Matthew Krogh, a Coast Guard Auxiliarist and Historic Ship’s Company member.
Krogh’s wife Juliann also plays the role of a crewmember. Using kits with props and background information developed by the Watermen’s Museum in Yorktown, Va., Juliann interprets navigation circa 1812, displaying an octant, a navigational device resembling a sextant. Back in 1812, she says, crews could measure latitude, but not longitude, a tidbit eliciting appreciative sighs from the crowd. She also shares that in 1812 the calendar day began at noon, rather than midnight, because it could be marked by the sun.
Master Chief Petty Officer Jeffery Ryan, another dedicated member of the Historic Ship’s Company, is an active duty Coast Guardsman who runs the school for boatswain’s mates at Yorktown, Va. Like the Kroghs, he relishes the interaction with the public and savors the esprit de corps amongst the re-enactors as they share an early piece of the Coast Guard story.
“The crews aboard the Revenue Cutters had an amazing sense of community and national patriotism,” Ryan says. “They truly appreciated the concept of being an American.”
That’s a message that has clearly resonated with visitors at OpSail 2012 events who often linger, asking detailed questions. Ryan offers that the terms like “cut and run” can be traced back to that era. When ships at anchor had to deploy quickly in pursuit of British privateers, they could cut their anchor line and get underway quickly.
The members who make up the Historic Ship’s Company are a diverse group of dedicated active duty members, auxiliarists and reservists. It’s their enthusiasm and knowledge that creates a captivating mix at presentations.
“1812 drove home a point establishing the American ingenuity and drive that define us even today,” Ryan says. “Mostly, the War of 1812 really established us as a republic.”
Be sure to visit us soon as we follow the 1812 Historic Ship’s Company for their historic visit to a school established by a captain in the Revenue Cutter Service.