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
President George Washington signed legislation establishing a maritime force called “the cutters” or “the system of cutters,” Aug. 4, 1790. Thus was born the United States Revenue Cutter Service, known today as the U.S. Coast Guard. Congress empowered these cutters to enforce national laws, in particular, those dealing with tariffs. Because the federal government established the U.S. Navy in the late 1790s, this small fleet was the only naval force available to protect U.S. maritime interests in the early years of the new republic.
Named for the 100-eyed giant of Greek mythology known as “the all-seeing one,” Argus was one of the first vessels completed of Alexander Hamilton’s fleet of 10 revenue cutters. Argus was built and fitted out under revenue cutter master Jonathan Maltbie, who served with naval hero John Paul Jones in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. Intended to serve in Connecticut and Rhode Island waters, the new cutter was completed on the Thames River, in New London, for a cost of $1,000. The cutter measured 48 feet length-on-deck, with a 16-foot beam and six-foot draft. Like a few of its sister cutters, Argus carried a sloop sail rig and a complement of four officers, four men and two boys. The new cutter was armed with 10 muskets, 20 pistols, two chisels and a broad axe and may have carried four swivel guns. The first documented sighting of Argus on patrol was Oct. 16, 1791, in Providence, Rhode Island; however, the cutter likely cruised local waters before this date.
Argus and its nine sister cutters established a reputation as multi-mission vessels in peacetime and in war. The cutters defended American shipping against piracy and enforced quarantine restrictions. A long-standing tradition of the sea compelled cutter captains to rescue mariners in distress even before Congress assigned this mission to the service. The cutters carried supplies to remotely located lighthouses and marked hazards to navigation in bays and waterways. The cutters proved effective in surveying the shores of the new republic, so Hamilton tasked them with charting navigable waterways in their respective cruising grounds. As the U.S. engaged in military conflicts, the revenue cutters adopted defense missions and served under the U.S. Navy in time of war.
Maltbie died of yellow fever in 1798 and was replaced by Elisha Hinman in March of that year. Another veteran of the Continental Navy, Hinman commanded the famed American frigate Alfred during the Revolution and had been offered the prestigious command of USS Constitution four years earlier but declined due to his advanced age. Hinman is considered one of the Navy’s finest combat captains of his day. From 1799 to 1803, Hinman penned a journal describing Argus’s operations that has survived to provide a rare glimpse of the cutter’s daily routine over that four-year period. In 1803, the new administration dismissed Hinman and appointed First Mate George House to serve as captain for Argus’s last year of service. At the time of his dismissal, Hinman was 70 years old, a ripe age for a life-long mariner in the Age of Sail.
Argus remained in service for a total of 13 years, by far the longest career of any of the original ten cutters. This lifespan was due to the meticulous care given the cutter over its career. Argus received regular attention inside and out, requiring whitewashing of interior spaces, topside painting, sail mending, scraping and cleaning the hull, and replacing rotted planks. Occasionally, the cutter was completely overhauled, a process that required up to six weeks of cleaning, repairing and refurbishing parts of the cutter. In 1804, the cutter was sold to two New London merchants and sold again five months later in a foreign port.
Today, the Coast Guard is embarking on a new class of cutters designed to serve a multi-mission role just like the Argus. The “Heritage” Class of Offshore Patrol Cutters (OPCs) will fill the Coast Guard’s medium-endurance demands serving alongside the smaller Fast Response Cutters and larger National Security Cutters. The 360-foot OPCs will have the endurance to operate worldwide while performing all of the service’s maritime security and safety missions.
The first flight of 11 OPCs will begin with Argus (WMSM-915), the sixth service vessel to bear this distinguished name. Argus and the other Offshore Patrol Cutters will become the mainstay of the Coast Guard’s ocean-going fleet, providing multi-mission capabilities similar to the first 10 revenue cutters.
Check out the Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate’s Offshore Patrol Cutter page for more information.