CG History from Bill Wells

Friend and frequent contributor, retired Master Chief Bill Wells has a historical piece about living conditions aboard 19th century revenue cutters in “Prologue,” a magazine published quarterly by the National Archives and Records Administration.

It is the cover article of the Fall 2014 issue and is entitled “Wet, Cold, and Thoroughly Miserable.” You can access it as a pdf at the magazine’s web site here.

4 thoughts on “CG History from Bill Wells

  1. Chuck,Thanks for the notice. This small piece came from a file drawer of disconnected notes and comments. Life was tough. They did not sail far but they sailed often. One of the things that struck me was the different ways the logs were kept. Some captains, thankfully, included great detail. The logs were a way to check requisitions and rules. Whenever a directive, circular, came from the Treasury Department a note of its arrival was placed in the log and when it was answered if necessary. This let the Treasury Secretary know when his orders were completed. A transcript of the log was sent at the end of each month. Mostly routine matters but sometimes the comments were humorous. I recall one Seaman who was placed in irons for drunkenness. Later he was flogged for drunkenness and desertion but a couple months later was promoted to Quartermaster. This did not last long. He got drunk again and reduced to Seaman. I think we have all seen those cases. Evidently, when sober he was an excellent Seaman. I suppose this is why the Captain did not put him ashore.

    Another captain allowed his men to go ashore to a Temperance meeting where they all signed the oath. Half came back drunk.

    History is fun stuff.

  2. Good piece Bill. I’ve read a few of your articles now, and have enjoyed each one. My favorite paragraph was the reasons for flogging. Insolence, disobedience, threats to officers and warrant officers, and drunkeness. The first three most often caused by the last one. I’m paraphrasing but it was a good turn of words and made me laugh.

    Can you imagine being out there in rough seas in those ships with those limited amenities? Amazing.

    I was a history major and appreciate the effort it takes to write something like this. The writing is the fun part, the research and the citations is the work that no one sees going into the finished product.


  3. I echo the sentiments above- I enjoyed reading the piece and trying to imagine life aboard a 19th century revenue cutter. This would be great to circulate throughout the fleet to put gripes about spotty satellite tv reception into context.

  4. Thank you for the kind remarks. The research is the fun. The writing no so much.
    The RCS has some interesting lessons. Flogging was not authorized until the 1841 Regulations and then only the captain could authorize it. Many captains did not. The greatest use came from those officers with USN experience. Those from the merchant service took other means to discipline the crew including restricting liberty (such as it was) for the entire crew for the actions of a few. Peer pressure seemed to have been an effective means.

    My next bit project is to straighten out the uniforms of the RCS from 1790 – 1870. There were no uniforms regulations from 1790 to 1829. My take will be the RCS just followed was fashionable. After all, uniforms do follow popular style and fashion (well, except for the Air Force – who knows what that is). RCS officers were as prone to dandyism as anyone else. Some liked the glint of the shiny buttons.

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