Today is "Coast Guard Day." Happy 226th birthday to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)!
On this day in 1790, Congress established the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Today, we know this as the U.S. Coast Guard, the smallest of the five military services in America, and the only one which reports through the Department of Homeland Security.
The USCG is unique in the world. It is simultaneously a military force and a federal law enforcement agency and, according to its website, has multiple goals: "Maritime safety, security and stewardship missions. We save lives. We protect the environment. We defend the homeland ... on the high seas, the nation’s coastal water and its inland waterways."
Wow, this is pretty important to a nation such as ours, which has more than 12,000 miles of general coastline and almost 4.4 million square miles of territorial waters with sovereign rights.
The history of the Coast Guard is fascinating. The early years of the United States were financially very lean, and the federal government was constantly struggling to stay afloat (pun intended). There was no income tax, and duties and tariffs were the key source of revenue for our young country, which still faced ongoing threats from Britain, Spain and France. However, smuggling and piracy were all too common. So President George Washington and his then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton commissioned the building of 10 ships, known as "revenue cutters." They were to protect civilian ships, lives at sea and, of course, tax proceeds.
These ships were deployed across the eastern seaboard. Seven were stationed along the heavily trafficked Northeastern shoreline. And North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia each had one assigned.
During its first 125 years, the Revenue Cutter Service was seconded into military service a number of times, including during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In 1915, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson changed the name to the U.S. Coast Guard and formalized its role as a permanent part of the military, reporting to the Navy in times of war. Wilson also merged the USCG with the U.S. Life Saving Service, which had dozens of stations across the nation’s coastlines manned by dedicated crews willing to risk their own lives to save others in peril at sea.
The USCG was expanded again in 1939 to include the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The transition to the Coast Guard we know today became complete in 1946 when the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation were also added.
Today, the USCG’s responsibilities are summed up in its three core missions: maritime safety, maritime security and maritime stewardship. According to USCG statistics, over the past decade the service has confiscated more than 2.5 million pounds of cocaine, made 2,600 drug-related arrests, and helped tens of thousands of mariners in trouble.
To me, the Coast Guard conjures up an image of stability, duty, sacrifice and protection of the homeland. It is that part of the military that many us who enjoy boating here in Coastal Georgia interact with regularly, and I am always glad to see a "Coastie" on duty.
There is an unattributed quote within the USCG that Coasties often cite: "We do this job because every once in a while there is someone out there without hope, desperately praying for their life, and we get to be the answer."
So happy birthday, U.S. Coast Guard, and God bless America.