Almost from the day the Coast Guard’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Revenue Marine, was created by law in 1790, its first ships – the 10 topsail schooners known as “revenue cutters” – were given assignments that went beyond their duties as seagoing tax collectors. Though their primary purpose was to stem rampant maritime smuggling, the first cutters enforced quarantines, charted coastlines, supplied light stations, and transported government officials.
The term “cutter,” originally referring to a “cutter-rigged” sailing vessel resembling early 18th century English revenue patrol vessels, came to refer to any Revenue Marine (later Coast Guard) vessel more than 65 feet in length with a permanently assigned crew.
Not much is known about the service of the Revenue Marine’s first 10 cutters; most of their records were burned when the British stormed Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812. The 225-year history written by the crews of their descendants, however, is a chronicle of doggedness, inventiveness, and gallantry covering every corner of the world.
In creating the Revenue Marine, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton issued a letter of instruction to its captains, allowing maximum discretion and judgment but also warning against a “domineering spirit” and advising that they “endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty – by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence.” Among the first cutter crews to distinguish themselves, however, were those called into battle.
In 1799, during what historians refer to as the “Quasi-War” with France, the U.S. Congress established the wartime precedent that has continued to this day, placing the revenue fleet under the command of the U.S. Navy. One of the most successful cutters was the Pickering, one of six larger cutters built in 1798. Transferred permanently to the Navy in May 1799, the Pickering was commanded for the last year of its career by Capt. Benjamin Hiller, and became legendary in the Caribbean Sea, capturing or liberating 18 ships. Its most notable victory was over the much larger schooner l’Egypte Conquise, which had been ordered specifically to hunt and capture the Pickering.
When the two ships squared off on Oct. 8, 1799, Hiller and his men found themselves vastly outnumbered and outgunned. U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., estimates that l’Egypte Conquise, which had been double-manned for the mission, carried between 175 and 250 men, with at least 14 9- and 6-pounder guns; the much smaller Pickering carried 14 4-pounder guns and no more than 100 men. After a 9-hour battle, however, the larger ship surrendered.
Pickering was on its way back to the West Indies in the summer of 1800 when it disappeared, likely lost with Hiller and all 90 of his men in a late-September hurricane. Its crew was never heard from again.
Many of the revenue cutters serving under Navy command during the War of 1812 also achieved historic victories while expanding the fleet’s operational capabilities. The Norfolk, Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson, commanded by Capt. William Ham, made the first maritime capture of the war, taking the British schooner Patriot on June 25, 1812, and ran down and captured three Royal Navy barges in the shallows of Hampton Roads in April 1813.