The Long Blue Line: William Fessenden—the man and his cutters

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

A vintage photograph showing Fessenden after the cutter’s 1883 conversion to an iron hull showing the coal smoke blowing forward from a tailwind. (Historic New England)

A vintage photograph showing Fessenden after the cutter’s 1883 conversion to an iron hull showing the coal smoke blowing forward from a tailwind. (Historic New England)

To identify one of the more interesting men associated with the history of the United States Coast Guard, one need look no further than William Pitt Fessenden.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Maine Senator William Fessenden to be the 26th Secretary of the Treasury. Fessenden and his family were very patriotic and served important roles in public service. Fessenden had served as a U.S. Representative for his district in Maine, and then he joined the U.S. Senate in 1854, serving as chair of the Senate Finance Committee from 1861 until 1864. As chair, Fessenden played a vital role in funding Union military costs during the Civil War. In addition, all three of his sons became officers in the Union Army. His youngest, Samuel, received a commission as lieutenant and gave his life at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Fessenden’s oldest son, James, and second oldest Francis both served as brigadier generals in the Union Army during the war.

In 1864, suffering from serious health problems, Fessenden reluctantly accepted the position of Treasury Secretary after President Lincoln convinced him “the crisis demanded any sacrifice, even life itself.”

Photographic portrait of Secretary of Treasury William Pitt Fessenden, who served for eight months near the end of the Civil War.

Photographic portrait of Secretary of Treasury William Pitt Fessenden, who served for eight months near the end of the Civil War.

As Treasury Secretary, Fessenden was faced with the Federal Government’s insatiable demand for funding for the war effort. With the aid of private Civil War financiers, Fessenden developed successful short-term loans holding generous interest rates that became popular with northerners. Fessenden resigned after eight months, just a few weeks before the assassination of Lincoln, and returned to the Senate where he became chair of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. He served in the Senate for four years before he died in 1869.

Named for this important public servant, Revenue Cutter Fessenden was one of two vessels contracted by the Treasury Department. The contract of $162,000 was signed in 1865 and the Cleveland shipbuilder Peck & Kirby undertook construction of the schooner-rigged steamer. The resulting 175-foot wooden-hull cutter drew 11 feet of water with a complement of 40 officers and men. The cutter’s vertical walking beam steam machinery cost $75,000, powering side paddlewheels 25 feet in diameter. For armament, the cutter carried a 40-pound Parrot rifle, two 84-pound brass Dahlgren guns, and an assortment of muskets, rifles, cutlasses and sidearms. The shipyard launched Fessenden in mid-1865 and the service commissioned it in September of that year.

Fessenden began its career stationed at Cleveland. The cutter stopped vessels to examine their papers, interdicted smuggling across the U.S.-Canada border, assisted vessels in distress and enforced U.S. maritime laws on the Great Lakes. In 1875, the service moved the cutter’s homeport from Cleveland to Detroit, and its patrol grounds expanded to include Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, and associated rivers and waterways up to the Straits of Mackinaw. In the 1800s, ice, storms and severe cold prevented Great Lakes navigation during the winter months. Thus, every year of its Great Lakes career, Fessenden would be laid-up in late November and the cutter’s crew discharged. After the spring thaw in May, the cutter was placed back in commission and a new crew hired to serve for six months.

In 1882, Fessenden was ordered to Buffalo, New York, to undergo a refit at the Union Dry Dock Company. During its refit, Fessenden was completely dismantled with the service retaining its machinery while its wooden hull was sold to become a barge. Fessenden’s original machinery was placed in a newly built iron hull launched from the shipyard in April 1883. This “new” cutter grew in length to 182 feet with its iron hull displacing 330 tons. The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service accepted the cutter in August 1883 with the “rebuild” costing the government $97,380.

The iron cutter Fessenden II was stationed at Detroit and its cruising grounds extended from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. In addition to its usual missions, the cutter participated in various civic events, including Milwaukee’s 1899 “Carnival Week,” Chicago’s 1900 Grand Army of the Republic Naval Parade, and Cleveland’s 1901 celebration of Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1813 victory over the British on Lake Erie. After 1893, the new Fessenden’s cruising ground was expanded to Lake Erie as far as the Niagara River and, by 1898, lakes Michigan and Superior.

In 1903, the cutter steamed out of the Great Lakes forever. Fessenden headed to Baltimore for a lengthy overhaul and entered back into commissioned service in November 1905. From Baltimore, Fessenden steamed south to serve out of Key West, Florida. The cutter’s cruising grounds consisted of the waters off south Florida from Cape Canaveral to the Gulf of Mexico.

A profile line drawing of Revenue Cutter Fessenden after her 1883 conversion to an iron hull. (U.S. Coast Guard)

A profile line drawing of Revenue Cutter Fessenden after her 1883 conversion to an iron hull. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In Florida, Fessenden performed revenue cutter missions of maritime interdiction, search and rescue and living marine resource (LMR) protection. In 1905, Fessenden’s officers conferred with state officials to protect the native sponge and the locally important industry that relied on it. It was one of the first times a cutter had participated in LMR duties in southern waters. In March 1906, the cutter and crew were briefly detained at Mullet Key Quarantine Station when a case of small pox broke-out on board the cutter. In June, Fessenden had returned to service saving a number of schooners that were adrift after a storm. The following month, the cutter continued its LMR duties examining vessels engaged in sponge harvesting. That fall and winter, Fessenden cruised the Gulf of Mexico carrying out search and rescue missions and monitoring fishing vessels.

In May 1907, Fessenden steamed in convoy with Cutter Algonquin to the Revenue Cutter Service base at Curtis Bay, Maryland, arriving in June. There, its officers and crew transferred to Cutter Forward and, within a week, Fessenden was decommissioned. The cutter was sold in March 1908 to the Craig Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio, for $9,100. Secretary Fessenden and his cutters represent another chapter in the long blue line.

 

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