The Long Blue Line: Cutterman John Faunce—distinguished officer of the Revenue Cutter Service

By Paul H. Johnson, Librarian, Coast Guard Academy (retired)


This Department in closing its official connection with Captain Faunce is happy to express to you its satisfaction at the prompt, energetic and able manner in which he has conducted his command whilst in its service.

               Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, April 26, 1859  

The quote above by Navy Secretary Toucey references distinguished Captain John Faunce, long-time senior officer of the United States Revenue Cutter Service. Faunce is considered by many one of the most distinguished officers to serve in the Revenue Cutter Service.

In 1891, Capt. John Faunce died suddenly, full of years, at his home in Jersey City. Faunce had passed his 84th year hale and hearty in good spirits and highly respected by a wide circle of friends. Born only a few years after the death of George Washington, his life spanned almost a century during which occurred momentous historical events and profound technological change. He learned the seafaring art under sail starting as a 12-year-old boy. In nine years he had risen to command a small merchant ship, the Isabel.

Captain John Faunce, commanding officer of Cutter Harriet Lane at the onset of the Civil War. He ordered the cutter’s gun crews to fire the first naval shot of the Civil War outside Charleston Harbor. (Library of Congress photo)

In 1837, at the age of 30 and for reasons that remain obscure, Faunce applied for a commission in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. His first assignment was aboard the decaying cutter Campbell as acting third lieutenant. Campbell was ordered to duty with the Navy in what was called the “Indian War” or the “Florida War.” Later historians refer to it as the Second Seminole War, a campaign in the 1830’s against the Seminole Indians skilled in hit and run tactics. Not only were settlements burned and settlers killed, but the Cape Florida Lighthouse itself was destroyed by fire with loss of life. Fighting the Seminoles on their own ground was made doubly difficult by the climate and the incessant attack by mosquitoes. Third Lieutenant Faunce carried out what he descried as “arduous and severe” duties with distinction, earning the commendation of Campbell’s commanding officer, Capt. Napoleon Coste.

Having survived peril and pestilence in a tropical guerilla war, Faunce’s career nearly ended because of a political faux pas. His own words in a letter of explanation to Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury tell the story.

I have learned that information has reached the department during my absence that I played a conspicuous part in the procession of Gen. William H. Harrison in the city of Baltimore. I think it due to myself to explain the manner on which I became identified with the exhibition. I had but recently arrived from sea full of that buoyancy of spirit, which has ever characterized the Sailor when I was apprised that a procession was contemplated. Induced by the solicitations of some of my young associates and unmindful of any political effect I thoughtfully consented to carry the Flag.

Harrison’s political foes were inclined to punish Faunce for seeming to engage in a partisan political campaign. He languished for more than a year without an assignment. Fortunately for him, Harrison and the Whig Party won the election and in due course, Faunce was ordered to the Cutter Woodbury as Second Lieutenant. From 1843 to 1849, Faunce served in the Cutter Forward in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Cutters Bibb and Gallatin in New York. In 1849, he assumed command of the Cutter Forward and was once again among his friends in Wilmington.

A vintage 1860 photograph of Miss Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan and the White House’s first “First Lady. (Wikipedia)

Apparently, he continued to involve himself in political matters in spite of his previous troubles. When, in 1854, it became known that Faunce was to be transferred, one of his supporters urged his retention in Delaware on the grounds that Faunce was a local Whig and could deliver the votes of his crewmembers at the next election. It must be considered, in defense of the lieutenant, that revenue cutters were at that time under the direction of politically appointed customs collectors. It was prudent to please such politicians to preserve one’s career.

Politics notwithstanding, Faunce became captain of the Cutter Washington in New York in 1855. By this time, Faunce was widely recognized as an outstanding officer. It is a safe bet that the move to New York was calculated to place Faunce in an ideal position to become the first commanding officer of the side-wheeled steam cutter Harriet Lane about to be built in the Webb Shipyard. Many letters to the treasury secretary from influential citizens successfully urged Faunce’s appointment. He played an important role in the design and construction of the new cutter and was present at the launching ceremonies on November 19, 1857. It is probable on this occasion that he met the beautiful niece of President James Buchanan and cutter namesake, Miss Harriet Lane.

Painting of Captain Alexander Fraser, showing the cutter Harriet Lane in the background. (U.S. Coast Guard Collection)

Harriet Lane was the finest U.S. vessel of its size at that time. Sea trials revealed the cutter capable of high speed and demonstrated its fine sailing qualities. Harriet Lane, now commanded by Captain Faunce, was originally advocated before Congress by senior Revenue Cutter Service captain, Alexander Fraser, in the face of opposition by Under Secretary Peter Washington. Fraser paid by losing his job and was not reinstated until an 1863 hearing board, headed by Faunce, restored his rank.

Harriet Lane did not remain long in the New York area even though it was constructed as a vessel for that port. In 1858, a U.S. naval expedition to Paraguay included Harriet Lane. A belligerent dictator was duly chastened and in 1859, Faunce and the Lane were celebrated in New York. The expedition commander, Navy Captain William Shubrick, declared that the campaign would have failed were it not for the splendid efforts of Faunce and his cutter. A silver tea set was presented to Faunce in appreciation.

The fall of 1859 saw Harriet Lane on patrol against slave smugglers. Then, in 1860, came a number of diplomatic cruises. Miss Lane had become fond of the cutter, which she referred to as “my boat.” Aside from being a great beauty, Harriet Lane was an astute politician, thanks to long years of tutelage by her uncle, the president. Faunce became host to foreign dignitaries, such as the Prince of Wales and the first mission from newly opened Japan. On such occasions, Miss Lane and her party would visit Mount Vernon aboard Harriet Lane.

Painting of Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane forcing merchant steamer Nashville to show its colors during the attack on Fort Sumter, on April 12th, 1861, by Coast Guard artist Howard Koslow. (Coast Guard Collection)

By early 1861, the Civil War was in the offing. Faunce and his cutter were dispatched with other vessels to Fort Sumter, at Charleston, where Harriet Lane fired the first shot of the Civil War at sea to stop the Confederate steamer Nashville. Later, Faunce escorted “Old Ironsides,” USS Constitution, to Newport, Rhode Island, away from danger at Annapolis. While Faunce was in command, Harriet Lane took part in an assault on Forts Clark and Hatteras in North Carolina. Faunce’s big guns were so effective that for years after, the expression “to be harriet laned,” was applied in the Hatteras area to any severe of damaging experience. Late in 1861, Harriet Lane was transferred to the U.S. Navy and was used in forcing the mouth of the Mississippi River under the command of Captain (later admiral) David Porter.

Sketch of the capture of the forts at Cape Hatteras by artist Alfred Waud showing Cutter Harriet Lane in the foreground of the amphibious landings. (Library of Congress)

Having lost his prize cutter, Faunce served during the Civil War in the cutters Miami, Cuyahoga, Northerner and Wayanda. Meanwhile, Texas volunteers at Galveston seized Harriet Lane in a raid in January 1865. Under Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox described the loss at the time as a scandal and a disgrace. Shortly after the war, Faunce was sent to Havana to retrieve the Lane, which had been used as a gun runner by the Confederates.

The pressing need for personnel during the war opened the Revenue Cutter Service to officers of dubious character or competence. Faunce was appointed in 1869 by civilian head of the service, N.B. Deveraux, to clear out the deadwood from the service. Examinations were administered and, in time, one-third of Revenue Cutter Service officers were expelled from service. Discipline and morale were restored.

The elder senior captain, John Faunce, in a posed Carte de visite by J. Gurney & Son of New York City. (Military Images Magazine, Martin Schoenfeld collection)

Having contributed magnificently to the welfare of the service, Faunce was called upon to perform an entirely new and challenging task. Sumner Kimball, the brilliant bureaucrat of the Treasury Department, undertook the task of reviving the decaying U.S. Life-Saving Service. Faunce was his choice to inspect the stations. His inspections were carried out with characteristic thoroughness and the bad news soon reached Kimball’s desk. Information supplied by Faunce was the basis of a series of reforms that, several years later, transformed the Life-Saving Service into an efficient and effective organization, instrumental in saving many thousands of lives.

After a lifetime of important service, Faunce could look back with satisfaction and pride. In his sixties, Faunce was placed on special duty in New York in semi-retirement. His last command was Cutter Grant and, in 1881, he was placed on “waiting orders” status at his home. John Faunce had served in the Revenue Cutter Service for 45 years, nearly 30 of those years on board cutters. In the 1800s, the service did not have flag officers in the modern sense of the term, but if it did, Faunce would have retired an admiral.

John Faunce’s contributions to the development of the Coast Guard and its evolution as one of the armed forces equals or surpasses that of any other single officer. In 1927, Faunce was recognized in the naming of a 125-foot cutter for him. His name certainly deserves to be honored again at some time in the future when a new cutter is to be named.

[Editor’s note: Written by long-time Coast Guard Academy Librarian Paul Johnson, this article was originally published in 1986, in the Bulletin of the Coast Guard Alumni Association. It has been edited and adapted for current online publication with permission from the Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association.]

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