United States Coast Guard - 200th Anniversary
A serious international problem developed during George Washington's first term as President. The French Revolution precipitated war in Europe and during the first years of this conflict the French and Spanish attempted to use American ports as bases for privateering. The revenue cutter Diligence, one of the first ten cutters built for the service, was sent to Wilmington, North Carolina to enforce revenue laws and to deter illegal acts. Captain William Cooke commanded the cutter and attempted to enforce the laws without any visible symbol of authority The cutter service at this time had no ensign and the men had no special uniform. This early austerity forced the officers to wear their Revolutionary War uniforms and to carry unused or unissued weapons from other services.
Southern ports became desirable bases for the privateers and in May 1793 the French privateersman Francois Henri Hervieux appeared off Cape Fear with the British prize Providetice. Hervicux, with the help of some Wilmingtonians, converted the sloop into the privateer L'aitite Margiterite. Sailing under the French flag, Hervicux captured the Spanish brig Sari Jose off the coast of Cuba in September The brig, sailing from Cartegena, South America to Cadiz, Spain, proved to be a valuable prize, having on board over $35,000 worth of gold. To minimize his chances of being caught, Hervieux immediately set sail for Wilmington with his prize and anchored at Smithville at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
George Washington beard of the seizure and instructed Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight to take the proper action. With no local or state law enforcement agency immediately available, the Governor turned to the captain of the revenue cutter. Captain Cooke could not utilize the cutter Diligence, because he had discharged his entire crew due to illness. He requested twenty-five local militiamen be placed on board but received only four men of the New Hanover County Militia.
While Cooke gathered his force, the prize San Jose escaped in a gale. Cooke, however, did learn that a pilot boat had taken a trunk off the L'aitne Marguente. Hervieux and two seamen landed the trunk near Brunswick where Captain Cooke and the four militiamen confronted the Frenchman and confiscated the trunk full of gold. Cooke did this on the premise that it was a "breach of the laws of the United States to land goods at night." Cooke forced the men to carry the trunk to a local house and the next day turned the gold over to the deputy marshal, John Blakely.
A federal investigation concluded that Hervieux legally entered the Cape Fear River to make necessary repairs to his ship. They ruled that the L'aitne Marguerite had been illegally seized and returned it to its owners. The gold was returned to the Spanish government much to the dismay of Hervieux.
The Revenue Cutter Service worked as an adjunct to law enforcement agencies during the early days of the United States. Law enforcement has been a major Coast Guard mission for its entire 200 year history.
Artist: John Thompson
N.J He is in the permanent collection of the American Museum of Illustrators, the Zimmerli-Vorhees Museum, the US Air Force and the Adolph Coors Collection.