This article is also available in the RESERVIST Magazine, Issue 2, 2018.
Written by Lt. Brendan Rogers
Coast Guard 8th District Reserve Management
In March, I was researching a figure in Coast Guard history for a presentation on organizational change. I came across a website that sold old documents of historical significance, including a letter signed by this very person in 1872. For more money than I wanted to spend, I purchased the letter.
The letter is co-signed by the Honorable Sumner Kimball, who, from 1871-1878, was superintendent of the Revenue Marine, a predecessor to the Coast Guard. The content of the letter is mundane, a routine order directing another member to inspect some “surf-boats.” However, the letter is special, because it captures a small piece of the massive organizational change that ultimately created the systems that the Coast Guard uses to train and evaluate small boat stations to this day.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the Revenue Marine was shattered. Vessels of the service had been lost to the Confederacy, sunk or damaged. Reports indicated that after the war, vessels were used to serve as the private yachts of local political figures.
The U.S. Life-Saving Service, a loose network of community-based search and rescue stations administered by the Revenue Marine, was also in shambles. Crews did not have the equipment or vessels to help those in need. Internal organizational structure of the stations was ineffective, and external central control over the stations was non-existent.
For the United States, this lack of readiness could not have occurred at a worse time.
The 1800s was a period of American expansion. Mass immigration from Europe meant that overcrowded migrant vessels sailed for U.S. ports in great numbers but, without the aid of modern tools like GPS and weather satellites, many of these ships ended their voyages in disaster on the shoreline. In 1870, a vicious storm hammered the East Coast resulting in many deaths.
Public outrage over the deaths signaled that it was time for change and reinvestment in the Revenue Marine and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
Kimball, a young lawyer and treasury clerk from Maine, was asked to take over the beleaguered agencies by Treasury Secretary George S. Boutwell. Recognizing that political corruption and diversion of government resources to powerful individuals were factors in the deterioration of the agency, Kimball sent the following reply:
“I shall accept your offer upon one condition. If you will stand by me, after I have convinced you that I am right, I shall attempt to bring about the reforms you desire. But I want to warn you that the pressure will be tremendous. Congressmen will come to you in long processions and will attempt to convince you that I am wrong and that the service is being ruined. It will require an uncommon display of backbone on your part, but if you will stand firm and refer all complaints to me I promise you that I shall put the service where you want it and where it ought to be.”
It is an interesting response from a junior executive to an offer of a major promotion to the C-suite. Boutwell replied simply, “I shall support you. No matter what the pressure may be, I shall not interfere.” This interaction represents an exchange of trust between two leaders to do the right thing by the American public.
Immediately after Kimball took the job, he directed one of his most trusted officers to inspect the coastal lifesaving stations, Capt. John Faunce. What Faunce found was shocking: boats in poor shape, untrained crews, and stations too far apart from each other, leaving gaps in service that prevented coordinated responses by multiple units. The service was fragmented.
Kimball set to work immediately. He enacted new hiring practices banning the practice of nepotism. He standardized staffing requirements, hired additional managers where needed, and fired those who were ineffective. He created standardized procedures so that people across the service could be trained to perform the same tasks in the same way. This standardization of training allowed him to relocate stations to distances where they could mutually support large-scale disasters. Under his watch, telephones were installed in stations, creating true coordination. He standardized equipment at each station and created flexibility in staffing and planning that had not existed before.
In 1872, Kimball and the Department of the Treasury commissioned standard wooden surfboats to be deployed across the stations, which is where the letter fits in to the story. The letter is from the assistant secretary of the treasury, co-signed by Kimball and addressed to Faunce and Capt. James H. Merryman.
Faunce, a significant part of Coast Guard history, had been the commanding officer of the Harriet Lane when it fired the first maritime shot of the Civil War. Merryman went on to oversee the construction of life-saving stations. The letter directs the two captains to Squam, New Hampshire, to inspect and accept one of these newly-constructed, standardized surfboats.
As a result of his work, Kimball was chosen as the general superintendent of the Life-Saving Service in 1878, and he served in that capacity for the entire existence of the LSS, until it merged with the Revenue Marine to become the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.
What Kimball did was amazing, even by modern standards. He created the Coast Guard that we know today though modernization, merger and change. He combined distinct services with very different cultures into a single organization. The missions of the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Marine are still distinct in the modern Coast Guard – surf stations conduct very different missions than the sea-going cutters.
However, Kimball’s greatest success was the merging of the culture of the people within the service – whether a surfman or a cutterman, every person in the Coast Guard carries the cultural legacies of both these services. From the Revenue Marine is the military professional, representing a seagoing, warfighting and law enforcement tradition founded in 1790. From the Life-Saving Service is our humanitarian spirit, a voluntarism tradition of others before self, developed by coastal communities that relied on each other to survive storms. It was the merger of these dissimilar traditions that created the unique service identity of a United States Coast Guardsman.
Kimball retired in 1915. His work was done. He died, quietly, eight years later.
His legacy lives on through standardization of equipment and training. Coast Guard cutters and small boat stations continually practice to respond to those in need. Readiness inspections of field units today are conducted similarly to those made by Faunce and Merryman in 1871. We continue to check for the same fundamentals, the training of the crews and the condition of the equipment. The Coast Guard motto “Always Ready” is ensured by the organizational focus of standardization instituted by Kimball so many years ago.
As I reflect on this letter, and this small souvenir of the Coast Guard past, I continue to be in awe of the work of these people. Their work stewarded the service through the end of a devastating civil war to the beginning of a world war. They could not have known how valuable their work was at the time.
Kimball was not operational. He was an administrator, and his work was pivotal. The letter proves that working behind the scenes is honorable and important, and it challenges us to reimagine what our contribution will be in this time of rapid technological and societal change.
This letter makes me optimistic of the future of our service and our ability to collectively respond to a changing world. For that, buying this letter was some of the best money I ever spent.