The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

April 12, 2013

Guarding our coasts

I’m not much different than the average American who takes things for granted.

We all take the postal service for granted, assuming when we post a letter or ship a package it’s going to get to its intended destination. We don’t care how, we just expect it to be done.

Same with water. You walk over to the sink and turn it on, sidle up to the shower and open the valve and voila! Water. We just expect it.

No different when walking into a dark room and turning on the light switch.

Guilty as charged, your honors!

You see headlines just about every day, or hear some minute-long report on the evening news, of the rescue of some poor unfortunates somewhere along our vast coastline — be it the Atlantic, Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico or maybe even the Bering Sea.

The United States Coast Guard has been around for a very, very long time in American history, virtually from our founding.

Today’s Coast Guard is under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, but the founding of this maritime agency is complicated, since it is an amalgamation of five federal agencies from our history past — the Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, Steamboat Inspection Service, Bureau of Navigation and the Lifesaving Service.

Originally all independent agencies, they had many overlapping authorities, and after some name changes and many years, all were united under the umbrella of U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1789, one of the initial acts of the fledgling U.S. Congress after the Revolutionary War was to federalize all existing lighthouses built by the former colonies, appropriating funds for lighthouses, beacons and buoys, in order to provide aid and safety to navigation.

But it was the Revenue Cutter Service, founded in August 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury, that had the most impact on Coast Guard history.

The Continental Navy was disbanded after the war, and until the U.S. Navy was created in 1798, the Revenue Cutter Service provided the only armed presence on the high seas for this nation, after the Tariff Act had established construction of 10 cutters for the service and recruitment of 10 revenue officers.

Since perceived unfair taxes and tariffs by England had been much of the catalyst behind the Revolutionary War, the first Congress — operating under the Constitution — needed money to operate and pay its debts.

Imposing both taxes and tariffs, a service was needed to protect shipping and badly needed trade revenue.

Since smuggling had become a patriotic duty during the Revolution, it naturally carried over after the war.

It fell upon the Revenue Cutter Service to help Congress enforce new laws and new, sometimes controversial taxes and customs duties.

And, national tariffs did not go unchallenged. In 1832, South Carolina tried to nullify national tariffs.

They were met by President Andrew Jackson and revenue cutters, ordered to Charleston Harbor to take possession of any vessels arriving from foreign ports, and defending against attempts to dispossess customs officers.

“If a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hands on, upon the first tree I can reach,” President Jackson famously said.

In 1794, the Revenue Cutter Service’s mission was preventing the slave trade from Africa to the U.S. Between 1794 and 1865, about 500 slave ships were captured.

And in 1808, the service enforced President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo closing U.S. ports to European trade.

During the Civil War, the revenue cutter USS Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the war at sea against the newly formed Confederacy, during the siege of Fort Sumter off the South Carolina coast. Cutters also served in the coastal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the war.

Officially becoming the Coast Guard in 1915, it served with distinction in both world wars along our coasts, and soon became a mainstay of rescuing Americans along just about all waterways within the nation, including the disastrous 1927 Mississippi River flood, when nearly 44,000 people were saved by the service.

The Coast Guard was involved with rum-runners during 1920s Prohibition, and was heavily involved in rescue operations after German submarines attacked and sank American shipping in the Atlantic during World War II.

The Coast Guard-manned Liberty ship USS Serpens exploded off Guadalcanal in 1945 while loading depth charges, killing 193 Coast Guardsmen — the largest single disaster to befall the service during World War II.

And on and on and on.

So, unless you’ve recently been rescued from heavy surf that swamped your sailboat on the high seas off the American coast, you probably take the Coast Guard for granted.

History, however, only sees a long and proud service to the American people.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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