Celebrating Coast Guard history: 100th anniversary of the “Act to create the U.S. Coast Guard”

Written by Scott Price, Historian’s Office

Editor’s Note: We mark Jan. 28, 1915 as one of many milestones that shaped the modern Coast Guard. As a multi-mission, maritime service, the modern Coast Guard is a service borne of several pivotal events, and of various agencies and organizations operating in different federal departments.

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One hundred years ago today, from his office in the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., Captain-Commandant Ellsworth P. Bertholf, head of the now-former U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, or USRCS, ordered his Chief Clerk to send telegrams or radio messages to all offices, stations and cutters around the country announcing the official news of the creation of the U.S. Coast Guard. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Bertholf and his counterpart at the U.S. Life-Saving Service, Sumner Kimball, and with the support of leadership at the Treasury Department and friends in Congress, from all sides of the political spectrum, newspaper editors, and elsewhere, Bertholf had just managed to fend off efforts to abolish both services or dismember each and parcel out their duties to other agencies by proposing the novel idea of combining both into one agency, thereby gaining efficiencies sought by the Executive Branch, members of Congress, and the public.

Portrait of Captain-Commandant Ellsworth Betholf. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Portrait of Captain-Commandant Ellsworth Betholf. U.S. Coast Guard image.

As previously noted, the change was announced through General Order No. 1.

The personnel of the USRCS, though, viewed this merger as little more than a change in the name of the service. Bertholf wrote:

“Coast Guard is the logical name for the old Revenue Cutter Service as well as the new combination, and it is a logical and direct successor of the old ‘revenue cutter service;’ so that we may fairly claim not to have lost our history even if the particular name which we temporarily bore has been changed. The vessels will always be known as cutters and the name ‘cutter’ still remains to indicate the floating activities of the Coast Guard and since it is simply a continuation of the old service in that respect, we may still fairly claim to have been born in 1790.”

The change was more momentous for those on duty along the nation’s coasts in the various small boat stations of the USLSS, or so I thought, since the civilian employees of this humanitarian agency were now uniformed members of the nation’s armed services, as were their compatriots sent to sea aboard cutters, and they also now had a viable retirement system, as had their brethren in the USRCS since 1902.

But as in the case of the USRCS, there was little or no fanfare about the change at the many Life-Saving stations dotting the nation’s coastlines. The logbooks kept at many of the more famous stations made no note of the change. Indeed, even at Pea Island, arguably the most famous Life-Saving station, the keeper simply noted the daily routine of the station in his logbook. It was not until later in February that things began to change, although very incrementally. The keeper of the Louisville station noted his receipt of General Order No. 1 on Feb. 8, 1915, but that was it.

The keeper of Pea Island was absent on Feb. 20, 1915, because he had to take the oath of office as keeper in “the Coast Guard Service” as did all keepers around the country. This was to be the first substantive change for the members of the old Life-Saving Service as they were now members of the nation’s military. But the change seemed to be treated as something like a routine bureaucratic necessity.

Portrait of Sumner Kimball. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Portrait of Sumner Kimball. U.S. Coast Guard image.

The real work and substantive changes began when Bertholf appointed a board on Feb. 1, 1915, to combine and revise the Regulations of each service. Their efforts were published service-wide by general order as each chapter was completed and then again published as a new, complete document on Dec. 4, 1915. Approved by Secretary of the Treasury Department, W. G. McAdoo, this manual laid out the future course the “new” service would take. But courses change with new priorities – but who ever said change was easy.

In two years the Coast Guard was called to action when the nation went to war. The U.S. entrance into World War I brought home the fact that the Coast Guard was now an active military force of the U.S., and was, as the law of its creation specified, subject to transfer to the Navy in times of war. And after serving admirably during the conflict, there was little time to adjust to its pre-war peace-time duties when the nation declared a war on alcohol and called for the Coast Guard to prevent the smuggling of it by sea. These two events on the world stage significantly impacted the development of the nascent Coast Guard.

Despite growing pains, however, the nation now had a Coast Guard. The reason it did demonstrated the importance of strong leadership, a point that cannot be understated. Captain-Commandant Bertholf, a prescient and intelligent leader, recognized the political realities of the time, understood the realm of the possible, and guided events that led to the survival of his service.

Though many in power wanted to see the USRCS and the USLSS eliminated or broken up, Bertholf and his staff worked diligently, developed a plan with the help of allies within the Treasury Department and Congress, to merge two services to the betterment of both, and then worked to make that merger successful. The Coast Guard still exists today as a vibrant, effective and noble service dedicated to protecting the nation’s interests at sea thanks to its leaders. The efforts of Bertholf and his compatriot Sumner Kimball along with the Treasury Department officials who appreciated the importance of the work the USRCS and USLSS did, along with allies in Congress and other private and public supports, led to the creation of what has become, and continues to be, the nation’s premiere maritime service with roots dating well before 1915.

I would like to extend my thanks to Archivist Cathy Miller of the National Archives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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