I can't for the life of me find the thread I was originally going to post this in, but I figured I'd wind up posting this here anyway, so why not just go for it and post here first! It's been a while since my last essay, so this is a long time coming, and I thought there would be no better way than to tie in our work, our ships, and historical events that tie all of us together.
I would like to say that this story starts back in 1927, but in order to connect everything together, we must go back a bit further. A bit over one hundred years further, to be precise. So, let us turn back the hands of time to July, 1790.
Shortly after the end of the American Revolutionary War, the fledgling nation found itself in desperate need of funds. Being less than a decade old, the newly formed United States had very little in the way of income, and feared nothing more than becoming indebted to the British that they had only just finished fighting a bloody war for freedom from. Acting on the recommendation of then Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Congress debated, rather hotly, that the best way to generate this much needed income was with the institution of import tariffs. The sticking point was in enforcement, and Congress was stuck trying to figure out how to enforce the tariffs, given how rampant smuggling had been over the previous decade of war and nation building.
Again, acting on the recommendation of Hamilton, Congress enacted a bill creating an armed marine force tasked with enforcing the tariffs, as well as with destroying smuggling operations as they were found out. This force was initially known as the Revenue-Marine; a fleet of ten ships, with the provision that none of them cost more than $1000 to construct (although that was a bit unrealistic of Hamilton, and at least three of the ships assigned to the Revenue-Marine cost quite a bit more than that).
Incidentally, the Revenue-Marine spent 8 years between its creation and the reinstatement of the United States Navy, making it the only armed naval force native to the North American continent for nearly a decade. Given that the masters of each of the ten ships were given broad authority and only very general instruction ("to seize vessels and goods in which they are liable to seizure for breaches of the Revenue Laws"), this could easily have led to the Revenue-Marine being little more than glorified pirates, but Hamilton removed that possibility with his first letter to the ship masters:
"...always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit. ... They will 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."
I'll not go down the path of gushing about Hamilton, although it's rather difficult to restrain myself when any of the Founding Fathers enters discussion. This is about a flood in 1927, Jack, keep that in mind.
Anyroad, the Revenue-Marine kept fairly honorable means, and were generally without scandal until the Slave Trade Act of 1794 passed. An unfortunate side effect of the passing of the first bit of anti-slavery legislation in the United States was that there was a loophole in the law that allowed incoming human cargo to be seized by the Revenue-Marine to be sold at port, despite the fact that the law was intended to prevent the shipping of slaves into the country in the first place. This practice became a normal part of the Revenue-Marine's service until the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery outright.
The Revenue-Marine, in wartime, always fell under the command of the United States Navy, and as such, many cutters served in nearly every theatre of war that the United States has ever operated in. Most notably during the Mexican-American war, where the cutters' maneuverability in shallow water allowed for amphibious assaults to take place, which were crucial to the war effort.
After the Civil War, the Revenue-Marine was caught in its first real scandal (pre-Civil War era America wasn't too put off by the whole slave trading issue), when it was found that politicking by customs officials in port were cherry picking the crews serving aboard the cutters, and that in several instances the captaincy had been granted to personnel who had never set foot on the deck of a ship prior to their appointment. This led to several restructuring attempts, the last being in 1894, when the Revenue-Marine became the Revenue Cutter Service (a name that most of us are intimately familiar with).
Now that we've established that much, let's take a step back into the time machine, although this time we're not going quite so far back.
In 1848, Congress appropriated $10,000 to create several unmanned stations of life-saving equipment along the Atlantic coast. These stations were stocked with surf boats, rockets, carronades, and other equipment deemed necessary to pull sailors out of the water in the event of shipwreck in the area. These life-saving stations fell under the administration of the Revenue-Marine (and later the Revenue Cutter Service), but were staffed with civilian volunteers. This was the birth of the United States Life-Saving Service.
Unfortunately, only 6 short years after its inception, the Atlantic coast was ravaged by the Great Carolina Hurricane of 1854, a Category 4 (or 3 depending on the report) that killed dozens of sailors. In the wake of the storm, the lack of training and insufficient equipment of the Life-Saving Service was obvious to members of Congress. In a surprising turn, however, rather than cut their losses, funding was increased, new equipment purchased, and full-time, professionally trained staff took the place of the volunteers.
The Life-Saving Service was still not recognized as an official service, however, until 1871, and many stations fell back to volunteers with slipshod equipment trying to save lives but being in water rather too deep for their training. This all changed when Sumner Increase Kimball was appointed chief of the Revenue-Marine. Kimball managed to convince Congress that the Life-Saving Service was vital, and was able to appropriate $200,000 to restock the stations with new equipment, and allow for six-man crews to staff the stations full time. In 1878, the Life-Saving Service became recognized as an official service under the aegis of the US Treasury, and new stations began to crop up all over both coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the "Act to Create the Coast Guard", merging the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service (which had grown greatly over the previous 40 years, to include more than 240 stations all over the country) into the United States Coast Guard. In memory of the Revenue-Marine and Revenue Cutter Service, the Coast Guard kept the original motto of the Revenue-Marine, "Semper Paratus" meaning "Always Ready". That motto would come to its ultimate test just 12 years after the official formation of the Coast Guard.
This brings us to the summer of 1926 (I know, it's called the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, we're getting there). That summer was particularly wet, with record-setting heavy rains falling in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Illinois. By September, the Mississippi River's tributaries in Kansas and Iowa were nearing flood stage, with no relief from the rain in sight. On Christmas Day, the Cumberland River at Nashville Tennessee, flooded, reaching a height of over 56 feet.
Flooding then overtopped the levees, and Mounds Landing broke, releasing more than double the volume of water of Niagara Falls. The Mississippi broke out of its levee system in 145 places, drowning 27,000 square miles in 30 feet of water. By May of 1927, the flooding extended 60 miles wide, and over 100 miles long, killing 246 people, displacing more than a half million people, and caused upwards of $400 million in damages (over $5 billion adjusted for inflation). Sadly, this was only the first phase.
On 15 April, 1927, 15 inches of rain fell on New Orleans. Water began pooling at depths up to four feet in lower-lying areas. Fearing that the "Queen of the Mississippi" would suffer incalculable damage to the flooding, a group of influential bankers met to formulate a plan to save the city. Their plan was to blow the levee at Caernarvon, using thirty tons of dynamite to divert the flood water from the Mississippi into the flood plains to the north of the city. They released a volume of 250,000 cubic feet per second of water into the less populated St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes completely devestating the two areas. In the end, the destruction of the Caernarvon levee was unnecessary, as several other major levees failed, including one the day after the blast, which prevented the bulk of the flood waters from ever reaching as far south as New Orleans. The bankers did not compensate the residents of St. Bernard or Plaquemines Parishes for their losses.
Now is where I'm usually asked what the Coast Guard has to do with an inland river flood. Because of the sheer size of the Mississippi River (it really is one of those things you have to see first hand to appreciate fully) and the extent of the flooding, the Coast Guard was able to utilize its fleet to mount rescue attempts. For the first time, the entire country watched in awe as cutters sprang into action, pulling thousands out of the flood waters. They also coordinated with the Red Cross to set up relief camps for flood victims, and provided much needed relief supplies to all of the areas decimated by the flood.
The Coast Guard's role in the relief effort and in rescue operations was such a wild success that it actually determined the outcome of the next presidential election. The man in charge of the Coast Guard, at the time, was none other than one Herbert Hoover, who rode the Coast Guard fame train all the way to the oval office (where he promptly proved himself to be one of the least-liked, but very underrated presidents in US History).
It was during the worst flood in American history that the Coast Guard solidified its role as a bunch of heroes riding in boats. It's important to note that, despite that perception, they had *always* been in that role. The crew of the Bear may be the most famous in our circle, but every man aboard a US Revenue Cutter Service vessel was every bit the hero, and worth the respect of each of us, even when they're only mentioned in passing in one of our logs.