This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
to cause any suitable number of public vessels, adapted to the purpose, to cruise upon the coast, in the severe portion of the season, and to afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstance and necessities may require; and such public vessels shall go to sea prepared fully to render such assistance.
The Act of Dec. 22, 1837, U.S. House of Representatives
In the 227-year history of the United States Coast Guard, Congress has left many legislative gifts under the service’s Christmas tree. In the quote above, Congress for the first time authorized the Coast Guard’s ancestor service, the Revenue Cutter Service, to “afford such aid to distressed navigators as their circumstance and necessities may require.” This Act legally established the service’s search and rescue, SAR, mission.
Beginning in 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service assisted ships in distress as was the custom for all mariners at sea. This unofficial mission had been a seafaring tradition for thousands of years, and since the revenue cutters regularly patrolled U.S. waters, it frequently fell on them to perform this humanitarian effort. However, these early rescues remained small-scale, usually involved mariners and ship crews, and had no legal authorization from the federal government.
For example, during the War of 1812, revenue cutters aided numerous vessels and crews. In August 1812, the crew of Portsmouth-based cutter New Hampshire saved five out of seven American privateersmen whose small boat capsized in severe weather at Winter Harbor, Maine. In November, crew members of the Philadelphia-based cutter Gen. Greene used axes to cut open the bow of the brig Rattlesnake, which had capsized during a severe storm. The cuttermen saved 18 men and a boy, who all nearly died of hypothermia and asphyxiation after spending four hours in chin-deep water inside the upturned hull. That same month, Diligence rescued survivors of the American brig Defiance, bound from New York to Savannah. The vessel had capsized in a violent storm, drowning three passengers and washing the vessel ashore near Wilmington, North Carolina. The cuttermen rescued the survivors, helped save some of the brig’s cargo and assisted in burying the dead. Sailing in the freezing winter of 1813, thick pack ice had trapped the ship Lady Johnson in the Delaware Bay and pushed it dangerously close to shore. Gen. Greene’s master and crew made their way out to the stricken vessel, rescued the nearly frozen crew and moved the vessel to a safe anchorage at Wilmington, Delaware.
Following the war, immigration to the U.S. accelerated at a record pace. In the 1820s and early 1830s, most immigrants came to America from the British Isles and Western Europe aboard ships destined for eastern seaports, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. These immigrants took passage at their own risk throughout the year, including the stormy winter months, aboard sailing vessels in various states of seaworthiness. Many of these wooden ships foundered at sea or went ashore as they neared the East Coast. As the number of wrecks and ship disasters climbed, Americans were horrified to see the body counts mount every year. And, many of these deaths were women and children accompanying men searching for a better life in the U.S.
By 1831, the federal government began to take notice and respond to the growing crisis. That winter, Treasury Secretary Louis McLane tasked revenue cutters with aiding ships in danger. In a letter dated December 16, McLane wrote the customs collector in Wilmington to prepare for sea the cutter Gallatin, stating, “In the present inclement season it is thought proper to combine with the ordinary duties of the cutters that of assisting vessels found on the coast in distress, and of ministering to the wants of their crews.”
Gallatin cruised offshore between Hog Island, Virginia, and Cape May, New Jersey, while six other East Coast cutters received the same orders for their districts. During these winter patrols, the cutters would fall-in with vessels nearing the coast to ensure the ships were safe and seaworthy before they approached American shores. This was the first year that the Department of Treasury tasked cutters with aiding vessels at sea.
As with many missions the Coast Guard has adopted, the Coast Guard’s rescue mission was written in blood. Awareness of the growing loss of life at sea and on American shores peaked in 1837. In January of that year, the barque Mexico came ashore during an icy storm near New York with the loss of 104 passengers. On January 9, the Adams Sentinel newspaper reported:
When they perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard, at a considerable distance, and continued through the night, until they one by one perished. The next morning, the bodies of many of the unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice. None, it is believed, were drowned, but all frozen to death. Of the 104 passengers, two-thirds were women and children.
In response to the Mexico tragedy, Congress finally recognized the need for government assistance to ships in danger. And, on December 22, it passed the act tasking revenue cutters with responsibility for aiding vessels in distress.
Those familiar with Coast Guard history know that the service’s development has been shaped in response to natural and man-made disasters. Nowhere is that clearer than the Coast Guard’s SAR mission. This month 180 years ago, Congress presented the service an early Christmas gift of legislation authorizing the service to perform search and rescue. The 1837 act cemented the Revenue Cutter Service’s responsibility to provide aid to vessels in danger and rescue their crew and passengers if necessary. After law enforcement and naval defense, it was the third core mission officially sanctioned by Congress.