Born into a Huguenot family in Motier-en-Vuly, Switzerland, on 28 May 1807, Jean Louis Rodplphe Agassiz—one of the most widely recognized naturalists of his era—visited the United States in 1846 and soon decided to make America his home. He was quickly accepted by the leading scientists of the New World and began a lifelong association with the United States Coast Survey and made many voyages in its steamers, conducting studies of plant and animal life in waters along the Atlantic and gulf shores of his adopted nation. In 1848, he accepted Harvard University's chair of natural history. After devoting more than a quarter of a century to advancing the cause of science in the United States, Agassiz died at Cambridge, Mass., on 12 December 1873.
Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Coast Survey ship Agassiz was transferred to the Revenue Cutter Service and took the place of Arago as a receiving ship in
New York harbor. On 30 December 1861, she was ordered to Sag Harbor at the end of Long Island, N.Y., and served as a revenue cutter at that port into the spring of 1862. On 4 June 1862, the vessel was ordered to New London and arrived at her new base six days later.
On 23 December 1862, Agassiz departed New London and headed south for service in the sounds of North Carolina. She arrived at New Bern, N.C., on 11 January 1863 and supported both Army troops and warships of the Union Navy in those dangerous waters into the summer. It is logical to assume that, during this assignment, she was subject to Navy orders, but no documents supporting this hypothesis have been found. The highlight of her service in the war zone came on the night of 13 and 14 March 1863 when she helped Union gunboats Hunchback, Hertzel, Ceres, and Shawsheen in their efforts to repel a heavy attack by Confederate soldiers against Fort Anderson, N.C., on the Neuse River.
After that action, Comdr. Alexander Murray, the senior naval officer in the sounds of North Carolina, praised ". . . the efficient service rendered by Lieutenant Commanding Robert H. Travers, of the U. S. revenue cutter Agassiz . . . .The gallant part taken by that vessel was alike creditable to its commanding officer and serviceable in the repulse of the ememy."
After the damage the cutter had suffered during the action had been repaired by the Norfolk Navy Yard, Agassiz returned north and arrived at New Bedford, Mass., on 27 July 1863, and she seems to have served there through the end of the Civil War. She moved to Newport, R.I., on 10 October 1865; and, on 29 December of that year, was ordered to New York where she was transferred back to the Coast Survey.