A revenue cutter
was a small armed ship. Specifically, the term refers to an armed vessel belonging to the United States' Revenue-Marine
, later named the Revenue Cutter Service
- and eventually merged with the coastal Lifesaving Service to form what is now the United States Coast Guard
. The Revenue-Marine was formed in 1790
to enforce tariff
s for the newly founded United States Federal Government
, providing a source of badly-needed income (hence, 'revenue
') as well as beginning to lay down the precedent of local control of the nation's coasts.
The cutters themselves were small sailing craft, some dozens of feet long, usually armed with carronades and swivel guns rather than full cannon. Their job was to intercept and board merchant vessels for inspection, carrying customs crews, as well as chase down smaller craft suspected of smuggling. Their armaments were for enforcing policy against unarmed or lightly-armed merchants or vessels their size or smaller, not for engaging warships. A cutter is a naval term for a ship's boat or auxiliary vessel.
During wartime, the revenue cutters were pressed into service to fight alongside the U.S. Navy. Revenue cutters engaged French warships while the U.S. Navy was being formed from 1798-1801, and British Royal Navy vessels during the War of 1812, as well as fought during the Spanish-American War and the American Civil War. They captured enemy ships, were taken, sunk, boarded, the lot. The famed slaver Amistad was intercepted near the U.S. coast by a revenue cutter and brought back to shore for the disposition of its cargo - the original crew had abandoned ship, escaping from the risen slaves who had held them.
To this day, the U.S. Coast Guard operates 'cutters', armed with light arms (for naval vessels) whose job is intercepting smugglers of drugs, people and other goods; saving lives and property, and sailing alongside the ships of the line during wartime.