This Month in New Bern History – February 2024

Giving Diligence its Due
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

Did you know that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton features in one of Gertrude Carraway's list of impressive New Bern Firsts?* This connection dates back to Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s 1790 establishment of a revenue cutter service, the precursor to the United States Coast Guard. One of the original ten revenue cutters, the USRC Diligence, was stationed in New Bern. This is the story of the USRC Diligence.

At the end of the American Revolution, the Continental Navy was disbanded. The United States began paying back debts they owed to France. This was not happening as quickly as the French wanted, and they were angry that Americans resumed regular trade relations with Great Britain while the French were fighting with England. To recoup their losses, the French sent privateers to capture American merchant ships. There was no one to prevent smuggling by privateers, pirates, and even ordinary citizens.

On July 31, 1789, President George Washington approved an act that provided for duties on the tonnage of vessels and on the importation of “goods, wares and merchandise” into the United States. At the time of its passage, there was no way this act could be enforced as there was no federal Navy. Shortly thereafter, on September 2, 1789, an Act of Congress established the Treasury Department.

As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton proposed that a maritime force be established. This was approved by Congress and signed into law by the President in August 1790. This Act provided for the construction of ten vessels known as cutters to operate under the Collector of Customs to enforce the laws for collection of duties on imported goods. Because the U.S. Navy was not established until 1798, this small cutter fleet was the only naval force available to protect U.S. maritime interests during this period by enforcing national laws, particularly those dealing with tariffs. This service had no official name until the mid-19th century but was referred to as the Revenue-Marine, The United States Revenue Service, and the United States Revenue Marine Service.

US Revenue Cutter Service emblem

Hamilton’s plan was to establish this revenue marine fleet of ten vessels serving ports in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and southeastern states. Their mission was to patrol and police the U.S. coastline from Eastport, Maine to St Mary’s, Georgia. At each of the ten leading ports on the coast, a small ship was built under local supervision. Ten cutter masters appointed by Washington oversaw construction of these first ships built by the U.S. The cutters received a schooner rig carrying topsails on each mast and an armament of four swivel guns, muskets, and small arms. Hamilton required that all cutter material be produced in the U.S. and issued orders requiring a specific number of weapons, tools and instruments issued on each cutter.

The collection of duties was the country’s main source of income during this period, so protecting revenue by preventing smuggling was very important. This meant the cutters had to sail out of an assigned port, survive in heavy weather, and sail swiftly so they might overtake most merchant vessels before they came too close to shore.

One of the ten cutters, the Diligence, was built in Washington, North Carolina. It sailed to New Bern in February 1792 where it was fitted out and entered service during that summer. In command was William Cooke, whose appointment by George Washington was issued in April 1791 during the president’s southern tour. The Diligence later moved to Wilmington. Cooke served as Master until 1796, and John Brown served as Master from 1796-1798. The Diligence was replaced by another ship bearing the same name in 1798. In November of that year this first revenue cutter stationed in North Carolina waters was auctioned off for $310.

US Revenue Cutter Massachusetts, the first revenue cutter in service. Courtesy USCG website.

During the War of 1812, the British Army burned Washington DC, including the Treasury Department building in which the records of correspondence and logbooks of the cutters were stored. Thus, little is known about the history of the Diligence during this time. We do, however, know about two different missions that occurred in 1793. One was known as the San Jose affair. The San Jose was a Spanish vessel with some gold on board that was captured illegally by the French privateer Amiable Margaretta. William Cooke and his crew seized the San Jose from the Amiable Margaretta. In the same year, Cooke and his crew also seized contraband gold in the amount of $40,000 from the French Privateer Francois Henri Hervieux near Brunswick, North Carolina.

While we may not have a detailed history of the Diligence and the other cutters, their duties were legislated by Congress and issued by Alexander Hamilton to the Custom officials who were directly in charge of the cutters and crew. Some of these duties included: boarding incoming and outgoing vessels and checking their papers (ownership, registration, admeasurement, and manifests.), ensuring that all cargoes were properly documented, sealing the cargo holds of incoming vessels and seizing those vessels in violation of the law.

During the 1790s, Hamilton’s cutter fleet established a reputation as multi-mission vessels in peacetime and in war by enforcing quarantine restrictions established by the federal, state, or local governments, charting the local coastline, enforcing the neutrality and embargo acts, carrying supplies to lighthouse stations, carrying official (and unofficial) passengers, and other duties as assigned by the collector.

The US Navy was established in 1798, and in March 1799, Congress ordered the cutters to operate with the Navy at the President’s discretion during times of war or trouble. The US Revenue-Marine increased its role over the years, fighting and protecting our waters during numerous wars. This service did not have an official name until 1863, at which time President Lincoln called it the Revenue Cutter Service. Congress agreed and it was officially referred to as the “United States Revenue Cutter Service” by Congress on February 4, 1863.

In January 1915, the United States Revenue Cutter Service merged with the Life-Saving Service and its name was changed to “United States Coast Guard.” On August 4, 2023, it celebrated its 232nd birthday as our oldest continuous seagoing service. Today the Coast Guard is organized under the Department of Homeland Security.

We salute the builders and crew of the US Revenue Cutter Diligence and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton for his vision of a revenue cutter service which enabled New Bern to be a part of Coast Guard history.

For a complete list of New Bern Firsts compiled by Gertrude Carraway, click here

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