PRIVATEERING DURING THE WAS of 1812
Frank Pierce Young
(Posted on the MARHST List - Printed here with the permission of Frank Young)
The statement prompting this discussion concerned the effect of American privateers upon the outcome of the War of 1812, it being averred that their oft-storied turning it in American favor was a "myth".
But first, for the benefit of any MARHSTers or pass-along readers unfamiliar with that term -- and some apparently have been -- privateers are NOT pirates. (Anyone knowing the difference may delete all this.) Thus a short explanation of terms. A privateer is a privately financed, owned, outfitted, crewed, and operated armed vessel -- a private warship -- allowed forth under government license to attack the vessels of a declared national enemy, for profit. Thus, unlike pirates, who are simply criminal, privateers are quite legitimate. Also, their activity must cease with peace; anything further indeed is piracy, and so recognized internationally.
The profits, if any, derive not from sinking or other destruction, but from capture of vessels and goods which may then be sold off. Customarily, all concerned share in any monies. Likewise, all risks are entirely their own. They were active out of most maritime nations at one time or other, and for centuries. Typically, and certainly at the time of the War of 1812, privateers were relatively small vessels vice many actual naval warships, and compared to regular naval warships including any about their size, usually relatively lightly armed -- but this was more than enough to overpower even more lightly armed or unarmed merchantmen, which were their primary targets; enemy warships as such were to be avoided. Known as Letters of Marque & Reprisal, the right of the U.S. Congress to issue such private warship licenses is written into the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, para. 11) -- though subsequent mid-19th Century international treaty agreements made that moot long ago.
Privateers always aimed at enemy merchant trade, because that's where risk was least and any profits would lie. In short, they were ad hoc quasi-naval raiders; and their licensing government's benefit, aside from no risk but a usual share in any proceeds, was that they tended to draw off enemy warships needed to protect enemy merchantmen while simultaneously slowly reducing available enemy trading vessels and supplies (and hence enemy strength) while raising their costs of same, even as captures enriched their captors, thus encouraging still more privateering. The question of just Who-Is-A-Legitimate-Privateer lies behind much of the modern labeling confusion, as does the matter of who is doing the talking.
Back in the early 1200s, a cunning and conscienceless character known as Eustace the Monk became a virtual Capo di Capi of mafia-like sea raidersworking the English Channel/Bay of Biscay areas -- taking, of course, primarily English merchantmen as well as anything else that looked good. He got away with this for a long while because he and his men resided, hid out, and spent liberally in French coastal ports and paid off all the right people, whose vessels he (again, of course) never bothered, all at a period when warfare between England and some French ruler or another was an intermittent risk of everyday life. In that sense, Eustace might be considered a sort of medieval privateer; but King John of England saw his direct and very nasty threat to English sea trade as just plain old piracy, and en fin cornered and captured him. A large tapestry at Cambridge University shows him having his head lopped off on the rail of his own vessel. The famous (or notorious; again, according to who tells the stories) Francis Drake, better known to his usual Spanish victims and their impoverished backers as El Draque (the dragon; a cute bilingual pun nobody laughed at), never had a truly formal "license", but assuredly went about raiding Spanish trade with full if backdoor approval of Good Queen Bess, to the considerable enlargement of her Tudor treasury. Which is how come he got
a "Sir" before his name at a great ceremony, which infuriated the Spanish ambassador.
Privateering may be gone, but the net concept remains. The raiding of merchant traffic has characteristically come to be perceived as the style of a weaker maritime Power vice a much stronger one, and the anticipated effect of successful continued merchant traffic raiding on Britain, which depended almost totally upon it, lay directly behind the sly raiding efforts of Imperial Germany in WWI (especially the famous SEEADLER, an armed sailing barque skippered by the humorous Kapitan u. Graf Felix Von Luckner) -- and especially the long-planned one of Nazi Germany in WWII, in arming and sending out numerous disguised merchantmen as naval raiders worldwide to attack Allied merchantmen. Some were quite successful indeed, especially early on, in wreaking havoc, especially on British trade, and tying up numerous RN warships in often ghoosechase hunting expeditions.
Other MARHSTers will likely have far more detail to offer on the nature of privateering. It and those involved in it, and how they came to do so and why and with what, is a fascinating maritime topic of itself and as said involved most maritime nations, especially Atlantic ones from the mid-1600s on.
In my next posting I'll get into that business of American privateers in the War of 1812, and what they wrought.
When on 18 June 1812 the U.S. Congress declared war upon the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland, etc., a weak new nation grabbed the Lion by its tail. The U.S. War Department was an incompetent political mess and its little army of 6,700 little better, when Great Britain could move thousands of crack troops as it pleased. (And it did; though logistically limited essentially to raid-and-run, the bumblefooted U.S. Army did not exactly cover itself with laurels during the war.) The Navy Department was a very different matter -- but its forces very small. At war's outbreak, the USN had nine frigates and eight smaller vessels on hand; the Royal Navy had 1,048 vessels of all types. Very poor odds.
Worse: though years-long RN stopping of American merchantmen for real or alleged attempts to get cargoes into Napoleonic France and French-controlled areas, and RN impressment (even from a warship) of real or alleged British seamen from them infuriated Americans and became political mantras -- "Free Trade & Sailors Rights" came to appear even on flags -- the nation was nonetheless divided. The small but busy New England states, whose very considerable shipping earlier got shut down by a Presidential embargo, and then later bear by far the bulk of the risks, confiscation's, manpower takings and trade losses from RN searches and seizures, not to mention the dark value of insults, were not in favor of war with Britain. The push for that came
from the mid-Atlantic states and those of the south. All logic made war foolish. In fact, had a telephone existed at the time, war might not have occurred at all. On 16 June, Mr. Brougham, MP moved in Parliament for an address to the Prince Regent, beseeching him to recall or suspend all related Orders and adopt such measures as might conciliate neutral Powers without sacrificing the dignities of the Crown, withdrawn when Lord Castlereagh announced that the government was about to make just such a
conciliatory move directly to America. It was too late. In the U.S., the declaration of war two days later doused New England's reluctance, and sparked a remarkable patriotic upsurge everywhere.
A contemporary historian of English history notes that "Compared to the war in the peninsula [Spain and Portugal], the war with the United States was regarded by the people of England as an affair of inferior importance [though Americans] obtained some successes at sea ..." Indeed. What the tiny U.S. Navy managed to do against the vaunted RN in the first few months of the war, before it was mostly blockaded, is well known; suffice that it stunned the Royal Navy and utterly shocked Parliament. The nose-bloodied RN got sailing orders in heaps: shut down all American ports; blockade their merchantmen, kill their trade, lock up those infernal Yankee warships. But more was already going on in American ports, ad hoc, driven by that most sparkly of
inducements -- the gleaming prospect of Big Money, there for the easy taking.
When news of war came, the merchants of Salem, Massachusetts, promptly began financing their own little private warships. On 27 July their letter to the Secretary of the Navy advised that eight were armed and crewed within ten days of the war news, three more in a "state of forwardness, one of which will sail this day, and a number of others preparing. The number of prizes already sent in amount to sixteen sail, and a number more are known to be captured." Then they asked for two gunboats for harbor protection. More of the same was going on in Baltimore and Norfolk, where fitting out privateers became an overnight fury of activity, the latter sending out its first on 20 July, with crowds cheering from shore.
From war's outbreak through the rest of 1812, British merchantmen were taken by the score, nay the hundred, by Americans; the London TIMES asking, "Good God! Can such things be?", and the weekly PILOT stating that Lloyd's List had posted notices of "...upward of five hundred British vessels captured in seven months ... Five hundred merchantmen and three frigates! Can these statements be true? Anyone who had predicted such a result of an American war this time last year would have been treated as a madman or a traitor ..."
Over that period, U.S. Navy warships ESSEX took 11 merchantmen, CONSTITUTION nine, PRESIDENT seven, and little ARGUS six; some others took fewer. Given the enormous size of the British merchant marine, these naval captures were picayune. The too-real floating fright was American privateers. Within weeks they were a veritable infestation, and would become more so. A coterie of merchants of the West Indies petitioned Parliament that they had already lost "... 200 sail of British merchantmen and three or four packets .. .so daring as to cut vessels out of harbors, though protected by batteries, and to land to carry off cattle. Jamaica is blockaded by privateers ..." In Parliament during debate on this problem, Lord Lansdowne said, "I am almost ashamed to mention .. what had been the services of our own navy..."
The year 1813 saw full British port blockade in force, and American land affairs at best in doldrums. Not so at sea. Back on 5 October of '12 British Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren wrote the Secretary of Admiralty from Halifax about "..the demand of Ships for Convoys and the protection of Commerce, the State of War which seems to assume a new as well as more active and inveterate aspect than heretofore ... the Enemy's Cruizers being very active and persevering which by the accompany Copy of a Commission found on the Prize Master of a ship recaptured by the SAN DOMINGO will be seen already to amount to three hundred and eighteen ... the necessity of re-enforcing the Squadron on this Coast and in the West Indies, to enable me to meet the
exertions of the Enemy, who seem determined to persevere in the annoyance and destruction of the Commerce of Great Britain and these Provinces. I have the honour to be, Sir, &c ..."
Privateer licence no. 318, and this capture was almost an anomaly. Warren sailed south to the Indies to check out the merchants' stories, and saw privateers daily in the distance all the way down. Meanwhile, Warren wrote, "The Swarms of Privateers and the Crews of several having landed at points on the coast of Nova Scotia and in the Leeward Islands, and cut out of the harbors some Vessels, render it too necessary immediately to send out a strong addition of ships or the Trade must inevitably Suffer, if not be, utterly ruined and destroyed." He already had 100 warships on blockade and chase duty, and the first part was solid. Chasing was the problem. It took fairly large vessels to remain on station for lengths of time -- that meant frigates, which as the late Lord Nelson had glumly noted were always in short supply. And while frigates' guns could overawe fat merchantmen and keep in warships trying to get out, doing so required watchfulness around the clock, and people got weary, and darkness came daily, and weather could bring rain or fog -- and in the relative blink of a few eyes, another fast privateer, and often two or three, were out and gone. And if the blockade tried going after them, they would split up and force choices; meantime, the moment any blockading warship moved away, still more privateers leaked out. As time went on, they tended to work in pairs.
At first, the privateers worked up and down the North American coast and around the West Indies. But as the RN brought in more and more warships and fewer and fewer British merchantmen remained to be taken, they moved east -- to Britain's own home waters. In the spring of 1813, YANKEE ran down the Irish coast and took 7 vessels; SCOURGE and RATTLESNAKE ruined Baltic commerce for the entire spring and summer season, the latter taking 18 prizes worth $1 million plus, while the former stayed on for the year and took ten Canadian merchantmen while en route home, for a total of 27 captures. ANACONDA worked the Capa Verde islands and took HM packet EXPRESS and $80,000 in specie; AMERICA took six merchants off Land's End; LION worked the Bay of Biscay and went home with $400,000 in auction money. And so forth, and by now the latest commission number was well over 318. PRINCE DE NEUFCHATEL, which on one cruise alone brought in nearly $1 million in value, was chased 17 times by British warships and never caught, and those few privateers that were, fell to mishap -- grounding, wreck, accident, storm. The GOVERNOR TOMPKINS sailed right into a protected convoy, and took three. KEMP sighted an escorted convoy of seven East Indiamen, snookered the protecting frigate into a fruitless chase into dark squalls, circled back, and took five Indiamen before departing with her prizes. Admiral Warren got still more ships for blockade, now upward of 200 overall.
It did no good. In 1814, privateers took mail packets in the Irish Sea on a dismally regular basis. They sailed impudently into the Thames Estuary. They scooted by anchored warships almost as an amusement. Dozens were lost, but scores replaced them. One small Massachusetts inlet put out three privateers, fully armed and manned, in 30 days. One British skipper reported sighting ten in his short trip between Britain and Spain. COMET worked the South Atlantic, took some treasure ships, and went home with $1.5 million in cash. MAMMOTH took 18 prizes in 17 days. HARPY was out three months, and took a prize daily. CHASSEUR, a two-masted topsail schooner -- a fairly typical rig -- under "Wild Tom" Boyle, blockaded St. Vincent so tightly that its merchants
appealed to Admiralty to relieve them lest they be ruined; when a frigate finally appeared, Boyle vanished, only to reappear in the English Channel and take 20 merchantmen. One he sent back into London with a message to Lloyd's, proclaiming "all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands and seacoast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade." Insurance, already skyrocketed in cost, in many cases went altogether unavailable. Insurers of London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow met four times. Liverpool petitioned the Prince Regent to stop the war. Collectively the insurers announced they would accept no more risks. Glasgow declared that ".. the number of American privateers with which our channels are infested, the audacity with which they have approached our coasts, have proved ruinous to our commerce, humbling to our pride and discreditable to the British navy; that 800 vessels have been taken by that Power, whose maritime strength we have inpolitically held in contempt, and that there is reason to anticipate still more serious suffering."
Well... yes. RAMBLER had gone to the Far East and was auctioning prizes in Canton and Portugese Macao; JACOB JONES took an Indiaman with 20,000 pounds worth of gold dust and opium aboard; LEO took a transport and uniforms for the Duke of Wellington's army; a privateer took five merchantmen off the Nore; English markets ran short of fish, a food staple, because so few trawlers were left; and finally the Secretary of Admiralty issued a notice to mariners that nobody should even attempt such a short and simple coastal voyage as from Bristol to Portsmouth without an armed escort. The West Indies merchants, who had aggravated the whole war by insisting on enforcement of the Rule of 1756, a trade-protective mercantile act, decided that competition from Americans was lots cheaper than the protection of no trade at all. Formal communications began to go back and forth between the U.S. and Britain about the war nobody really wanted. Parliament went into session on 8 November of 1814, its main discussion the Prince Regent's address about pending negotiations at Ghent, in which he noted war had led to unavoidably large arrears, and that the war still subsisting with the United States rendered the continuance of great exertions indispensable. Parliament was deep in second thoughts about the American war. This led to December's Treaty of Ghent, in which everything went basically back to the status quo ante albeit with more careful details, and impressment -- the oft-cited causus belli for the U.S. -- was never mentioned at all.
Alfred Thayer Mahan said that American commerce, about $7 million in its last normal year of 1811, was destroyed without replacement. Not so. The commerce was lost, but not its replacement. Few records attesting to their takings and auctions have survived, but those which did show cited privateers bringing in a net balance of $9,507,000 -- one historian estimating this as "perhaps" a third of the whole. Some thumbnail figuring: on peacetime business, we are now looking at a crudely estimated $3.5 million for the rest of 1812, another $7 million each for 1813 and 1814; total, $17.5 million in "lost commerce."
If the estimated third of $9,507,000 is nearly correct for privateering input meanwhile, it becomes $28,521,000. Thanks to privateering, the War of 1812 turned a sizeable American profit. Whether, as has been averred, the purported notion that American privateers won the war is a "myth" may be argueable. Careful reflection suggests nobody really won. But how they forced the issue is not. The war came down to not how much damage Britain could do to the United States, but the other way
'round, and Britain simply could not afford it. And privateers were the money drainpipe.
Readers: Apart from style there is little original with me in any of the above; I have cribbed liberally from those who know lots more than I do.
References have included THE NAVY, A HISTORY, by Fletcher Pratt, 1941 edition; THE NAVAL WAR OF 1812, A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY, edited by Wm. S. Dudley, 1985; CANADA, THE STORY OF THE DOMINION, by J. Castell Hopkins, F.S.S., 1901; and THE HISTORY OF THE REIGN OF GEORGE III (third of three volumes), by Robert Bissett, LL.D., 1828. << N.B. - this latter volume is the last of a History of England in a set of nine; prior trios were written by Hume and Smollett.
-- FRANK PIERCE YOUNG