The Long Blue Line: The Ensign—Coast Guard’s brand identity since 1799!

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Special Agent Keith J. Bassolino, United States Coast Guard Reserve

Depiction of the War of 1812 Battle of Gloucester Point showing the ensign flying from the mizzen of Revenue Cutter Surveyor on June 12, 1813. (Coast Guard Collection)

When Alexander Hamilton established the “system of cutters” in 1790, the fleet was charged with enforcing U.S. customs laws, requiring revenue cutters to stop ships and board them. However, Hamilton’s cutters needed a way to identify themselves as federal vessels. Congress failed to appropriate funds for uniforms, so the cutters had to adopt a unique flag to signify their authority and dispel the fear that they were pirates.

This issue was finally addressed nine years later. In 1798, America’s Quasi War with France had begun and some revenue cutters served under U.S. naval control. With several revenue cutters at war in the Caribbean and others performing law enforcement missions at home, Congress passed the Customs Administration Act on March 2, 1799. Section 102 of the act states that “. . . the Cutter and boats, employed in the service of the revenue, shall be distinguished from other vessels by an ensign and pendant, which such marks thereon as shall be prescribed and directed by the President.” The 1799 act also authorized revenue cutters flying the ensign to fire on any vessel failing to stop when ordered to do so.

Later that spring, an unknown artist drew-up an ensign design for the Treasury Department. On June 1st, Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott submitted the design to President John Adams who approved it. On August 1st, in a letter to his customs collectors, Secretary Wolcott ordered that the ensign design be “. . . sixteen perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the union of the ensign to be the arms of the United States in a dark blue on a white field.” The 16 stripes represented the number of states at that time and the ensign has retained 16 stripes despite more states joining the union. Although Wolcott sent a written description of the ensign to his customs officers, they fabricated the flags locally for their cutters. Wolcott’s vague instruction and local handcraft methods led to variations with the United States coat of arms differing with each flag maker.

During the early 1800s, the practice of flying the Revenue Cutter Service ensign varied greatly. On the early cutters, the new ensign flew in place of the U.S. flag, or national ensign. However, revenue cutters were allowed to fly the national ensign when they operated outside U.S. waters or under U.S. Navy command. Not long after revenue cutters began flying this distinctive ensign at sea, customs houses began to fly the service ensign on land.

A painting showing Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane flying the ensign while firing the first naval shot of the Civil War across the bow of Charleston steamer Nashville. (Coast Guard Collection)

Documents from the Civil War show that rules for flying the Revenue Cutter Service ensign remained unclear in the mid-1800s. For example, Cutter William Aiken was flying an “American ensign” when the captain surrendered it to the Confederacy. When the cutter James C. Dobbin was seized by Rebel forces it too was flying the U.S. ensign. Captain Henry Nones of Cutter Forward assumed he should fly the U.S. ensign while assisting the Navy supporting U.S. Army operations in Annapolis, Maryland. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy reprimanded Nones, indicating that he was to “. . . bear the revenue flag unless formally transferred to the Navy Department.” In the late 1800s, ensign use was still confused. In 1874, Treasury Secretary William Richardson directed customs houses to fly the Revenue Cutter Service ensign alongside the U.S. flag during business hours.

Over time, the ensign’s design has evolved through congressional legislation, presidential executive orders and service regulations. For example, President William Taft put an end to flying the ensign on land with an executive order on June 7, 1910. Taft’s order effectively created two flags–the ensign, flown by cutters at sea, and a second flag flown by the then U.S. Customs Service and used today by Customs & Border Protection.

Illustration of Spanish-American War Cutter Hudson flying the ensign while coming to the rescue of crippled Navy torpedo boat, USS Winslow. (Coast Guard Collection)

Taft’s 1910 executive order distinguished the flag flown by revenue cutters as one “. . . marked by the distinctive emblem of that service, in blue and white, placed on a line with the lower edge of the union, and over the center of the seventh vertical red stripe from the mast of said flag, the emblem to cover a horizontal space of three stripes.” Exactly what the phrase “distinctive emblem of that service” meant remains unknown. However, after the 1910 order, an emblem was added to the ensign that consisted of crossed anchors under a shield and a circle with the words “Semper Paratus” and “1790.” This emblem differed from the one used on documents which had crossed anchors under a U.S. Treasury shield surrounded by the words “Semper Paratus” and “U.S. Revenue Cutter Service 1790.”

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation combining the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard. New regulations authorized an update to the service seal with the words “U.S. Revenue Cutter Service” replacing “United Stats Coast Guard.” Although the emblem used on documents changed, the emblem on the ensign remained the same as that used since Taft in 1910.

Vintage 1924 black and white photo taken at Coast Guard Station Rockaway Point during Prohibition showing the ensign prior to its 1927 re-design. (Coast Guard photograph)

In the mid-1920s, the Coast Guard ensign still had design inconsistencies, which a Prohibition court case made clear. A cutter had seized a rum runner and the defense attorney argued that the seizure was illegal because the cutter had not flown the official Coast Guard ensign. The lawyer requested ensign design specifications and then displayed a number of Coast Guard ensigns that deviated from that design. He argued that there existed no “distinctive emblem” of the Coast Guard as prescribed by Taft’s 1910 executive order. Although this defense proved unsuccessful, the case showed the need to standardize the ensign design.

Soon after this case, Coast Guard Headquarters tasked Lt. Frank Meals of the Communications Branch with sorting out the ensign’s design. Meals assigned civilian draftsman Oscar Kee to draw up an official ensign. Kee’s design had a canton with an eagle holding 13 arrows, an olive branch with 13 leaves and an arch of 13 stars representing the original 13 states. Kee replaced “Semper Paratus 1790” with “United States Coast Guard 1790” and kept “Semper Paratus” above and below the shield. Thus, he matched the emblem on documents with the one used on the ensign. Commandant Frederick Billard approved the design as did Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon on February 26, 1927, followed by President Calvin Coolidge. The Coast Guard mass-produced this standard ensign and distributed new flags to the fleet.

A photograph of World War II veteran Alex Obrizok holding the ensign flown by the wartime cutter TAMPA the day that it was decommissioned. (Coast Guard photograph)

The 1927 ensign remained unchanged for nearly 25 years. In 1951, President Harry Truman initiated a flag identification program and the U.S. Army Heraldic Branch found that the U.S. coat of arms on the Coast Guard ensign and the Customs ensign did not adhere to the U.S. coat of arms adopted in 1782 by the Continental Congress. The Heraldic Branch made further changes to ensure the ensign adhered to the original 1799 act, and the eagle emblem of the 1884 U.S. coat of arms. Coast Guard General Order No. 7 of April 3, 1957, codified these modifications. A year later, minor changes followed, including reworking the Coast Guard emblem and changing the blue color of the ensign to match the color on the U.S. flag.

The year 1967 saw the last changes applied to the Coast Guard ensign. Coast Guard General Order No. 7 of January 16, 1967, implemented the Coast Guard “Visual Identification System,” which introduced the famous Coast Guard Racing Stripe. The system also created a separate seal for official plaques, letter head, and documents, and a simplified emblem design applied to the Racing Stripe and Coast Guard ensign, while the eagle design remained the same as the 1957 version. Dated August 9, 1966, by the Army Heraldry Branch, drawing number “5-7-1” of the new ensign design was approved by Commandant Willard Smith in February 1967. Adopted on April 17, 1967, in 33 Code of Federal Regulations, Section 23.15, this design remains in force today.

Dated August 9, 1966, by the Army Heraldry Branch, this drawing numbered “5-7-1” shows the new ensign design adopted on adopted in 1967 and used by the service today. (Coast Guard)

Although display of the Coast Guard ensign is required only when a cutter takes measures to enforce the law, it is customarily displayed on afloat assets at all times whether underway or not. According to 14 United States Code, Section 526, if a private vessel is used by the Coast Guard for law enforcement, it too shall display the ensign. Naval vessels with an embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) are also required to fly the ensign when engaged in non-defense law enforcement operations. Coast Guard smallboats must also fly the ensign depending on their mast configuration. Coast Guard regulations state that the distinctive markings of Coast Guard aircraft serve the same symbolic purpose as the ensign.

Current regulations dictate that the Coast Guard ensign fly from the highest part of a cutter’s mast or the top of the foremast if the cutter has more than one mast. When dressing the cutter for holidays or ceremonies, the ensign is moved to the starboard yardarm to make way for the U.S. ensign. Above the Coast Guard ensign is flown the commissioning pennant or senior officer flag if the cutter has one mast. Coast Guard shore units are not required to fly the ensign, however, if they do, the ensign is hoisted below the U.S. ensign, or if the pole has a cross tree, from the halyard to the right. The ensign is only flown along with the U.S. ensign from 8:00 a.m. to sunset and it is never half-masted.

As the original 1799 regulations state, any use of the Coast Guard ensign other than by authorized vessels is prohibited. The congressional act establishing the ensign in 1799 stated that “. . . if any ship, vessel, or boat, not employed in the service of the revenue, shall within the jurisdiction of the United States, carry or hoist any pennant or ensign prescribed for vessels in the Service, the Master or Commander of the ship or vessel, so offending, shall forfeit and pay $100.” Modern regulations have increased that fine to $5,000 and/or imprisonment of up to two years.

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