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A period political cartoon reflects British indignation at the "devlish" means American privateers employed to break blockades during the War of 1812. (Thomas Tegg/Library of Congress)

In four straggling columns the annual Jamaican convoy of 126 ships followed the Gulf Stream in early May 1813, plodding northward at the speed of its slowest, most overloaded and under-sparred vessel. Their ships laden with sugar, coffee and rum, merchant captains depended on the Royal Navy for aid and protection. Led by a worn two-decker, two sloops of war and a small frigate chivvied the flanks and rear of the columns spread across 5 square miles of the Atlantic, providing assistance and urging the merchantmen to “make more sail.” Meanwhile, sharp eyes in the crosstrees of those escorts scanned the horizon for strange topmasts. Only 160-odd miles off the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, the Royal Navy captains had to be alert.

‘Most privateers felt they had defeated the vaunted Royal Navy, driving Britain to its knees by hamstringing its merchant marine’

Though the British Admiralty officially ordered a blockade of key ports along the American coast within months of the June 1812 outbreak of hostilities with the United States, the ongoing war with the French Republic and Napoléon Bonaparte’s French Empire devoured ships, men and gold at a prodigious rate. Few reinforcements found their way to Britain’s North American Station (based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with safe harbors eventually stretching from Newfoundland to Bermuda to Jamaica and Antigua in the West Indies).

At the start of the war the United States had only 16 warships more or less ready for sea, and half of those were, at best, rated sloops of war. Not a single ship larger than a fifth-rate frigate graced the American list. On the surface President James Madison’s declaration of war against the nation with the largest navy in the world (the Royal Navy boasted more than 100 ships of the line and a similar number of frigates among its 555 active warships in June 1812) seemed ludicrous, thus deserving little material response from the Admiralty.

Yet in February 1813 British Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, commander of the North American Station, had only 28 ships on hand to blockade major ports, protect the British trade and patrol the lengthy Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Of those no more than six warships actively blockaded key ports holding American naval vessels. Three early and unexpected victories by American frigates and a plague of merchant losses forced the Admiralty to scrape the bottom of the barrel for additional forces for Warren, more than doubling his strength on station. Rather than commit these warships to a blockade, Warren concentrated them for a raid into the Chesapeake Bay during the late spring and summer of 1813. As that Jamaican convoy slowly cruised up the Carolina coast, no more than 11 ships invested American ports outside the Chesapeake region. Even then the blockaders primarily guarded against the escape of American merchantmen and the warships of the U.S. Navy.

But other, more numerous enemies lurked within American ports.

As the sun dipped to leeward, the easterly wind continued to blow across a rapidly darkening sea. In another day or so it would veer to blow from the west and allow the convoy to wear for England. For now, wind, the dying sun and the falling moonless night boded ill for the convoy. Eighteen miles to windward, topmast crosstrees barely visible above the horizon, a predator bided its time in the gloom, marking potential prizes silhouetted by the setting sun. That Baltimore clipper’s two sharp-raked masts and large crew marked it as a privateer even more than the starred and striped ensign flying above it. As lanterns flickered on distant taffrails and ships shortened sail across the length of that herd of merchantmen (none dared sail in convoy at night without such lights to alert the ships around them), an American officer briefly flashed a hooded lantern astern where the crews of another schooner and a brig impatiently waited to risk life, limb and spars for a share in plundered riches.

In the 1600s European nations issued “letters of marque and reprisal” to private citizens (and, by the late 1700s, to captains sailing ships provided by syndicates of private citizens). This document allowed a vessel to function as a de facto warship, preying on enemy commerce and selling the captures in prize courts, with the proceeds divided into shares split among owners, investors, officers and crews as specified by contract. These letters of marque also limited the actions of privateers, lest the line between privateer and pirate wear thin.

Privateering was a risky business, and privateers were loved by few who did not benefit directly from their success. In the 17th and early 18th centuries many raiders turned to piracy once their certificates had expired upon a war’s end. Though letters of marque made things legal, by 1812 plundering defenseless merchantmen for private gain still seemed little better than theft to the many civilians caught up in the waves of reform and religious revivalism then sweeping the Protestant world.

Oddly enough, both the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy despised their own privateers. Usually, complaints had a patriotic ring—we serve for duty; they serve for profit! Other times the public navies vented their spleen at the competition to employee seamen. After all, who would exchange the easy discipline, lack of risk and better pay offered by a privateer for the harsh life aboard a warship? In truth, the real thorn of competition was prize money. Both public and private navies shared this bonus plan, but duty (escorting merchantmen, blockading and such) meant the public navies could not pursue enemy merchantmen with the directness of the privateer. And every ship taken by a privateer meant one less prize for the deserving officers and crews of the public navy. Little wonder that Lieutenant Henry E. Napier of the British frigate HMS Nymphe wrote in his journal in 1814, as his ship cruised off Boston, “Shannon, [English] privateer, again out. Must drive her off, as she spoils our cruising ground.…Boarded and impressed five seamen from the Rolla, English privateer.…Impressed two men from the Lively, English privateer.” It did not help that engaging an enemy privateer offered little in the way of prize money or glory—the public expected a naval vessel to win such an encounter with ease, so few medals or promotions resulted from even hard-fought battles.

With the last glimmer of reflected sunlight but a memory, the American privateers began their steady approach to the straggling convoy. Loaded cannon, boarding parties and a prize crew rested by the bulwarks while captains and mates carefully tracked the lights of the convoy, especially those of the single frigate guarding its windward flank. Though it would take several hours to close with their prey, the men of Baltimore, New York and Wilmington did not overly fear the Royal Navy’s escort—not with the cloak of darkness wrapped tight about them.

During the War of 1812 the American government issued more than 500 letters of marque to captains eager to wield a sword (as long as they could edge it with looted gilt) against the British maritime fleet. More than 250 merchant ships of all types sailed from American harbors on one or more voyages through war’s end in early 1815, frequently with a cargo to deliver to foreign ports (usually in France or among French allies) but more than willing to snatch a prize if it appeared. Thus a bewildering array of hulls, rigs and armaments initially bedeviled the Royal Navy. Many raiders carried only one cannon (shots to the hull tended to reduce the value of a capture; damage to the rigging made it difficult for the prize to avoid recapture) and small arms. Combined with an extremely large crew (so that men could be spared as prize crews), few merchantmen, which were minimally crewed to reduce costs, risked resistance once “chaced” into gun range.

By the end of 1812 privateers had stung more than 300 British merchantmen, most sailing off the North American coast or in the West Indies. Americans burned about 10 percent of their captures (when of little value, too easily recaptured or lacking prize crews). Another 10 percent sailed for English ports carrying British seamen being exchanged for American prisoners held in Britain. The remainder turned their bows to American ports, though some ran afoul of British warships—perhaps as much as 20 percent—while others disappeared in bad weather or wrecked on ironbound coasts. Still, the remaining merchantmen and their cargos poured wealth into coastal towns. American district courts condemned ships, fittings and goods, to be sold at auction, the proceeds shared per contract. Sailors, captured specie weighing their pockets, rollicked through ports, happily trickling their hard-earned wealth into other hands and their war stories into other ears. But the big windfall went to investors and ship owners, who held their money close or invested it in new privateering enterprises. In Baltimore and other towns, artisans, journeymen and small merchants (the common man and woman) joined wealthier individuals in investing in the next wave of privateers.

Warren, commander of the North American Station since late September 1812, wrote his superiors on December 29, begging for ships to blockade every American harbor and to chase “the Swarms of Privateers and Letters of Marque.” Without more ships, Warren noted, “trade must inevitably suffer, if not be utterly ruined and destroyed.” With Napoléon on the ropes and an end to more than two decades of war with France perhaps in sight, the Admiralty spared Warren few additional resources against the tiny U.S. Navy (completely ignoring the American private navy). Both British merchantmen and the Royal Navy would pay a heavy price for Admiralty’s shortsightedness.

By the end of 1813, as profits in privateering became obvious, custom-built privateers began sliding down the ways in American shipyards. Most followed the model of the Baltimore clipper, built for speed and ability to sail closer to the wind than square-rigged British warships. Others had the lines of sloops of war or small frigates, balancing reinforced scantlings and broadside armament against speed, and obviously intended to stand against the smaller British patrollers and escorts. Both new and old vessels, manned by veteran captains and crews, sailed for new hunting grounds in waters stretching around the world.

In 1813 American privateers operated off the coast of Ireland and in the English Channel, burning prizes or letting them run for French-controlled ports. When British warships appeared in numbers, the Americans simply moved to other hunting grounds. Two vessels—the brigs Rattlesnake, of Philadelphia, and Scourge, of New York—terrorized British vessels in the Baltic. During the spring and summer of 1813 the two privateers sent more than 30 prizes worth more than $1 million into neutral Norway. Other privateers worked the Azores and Cape Verde islands, disrupting communications by intercepting British government packet vessels as well as merchantmen. Notably, Anaconda seized $80,000 in specie from one packet alone. Lion successfully cruised the Bay of Biscay; in a single month the warship seized some 20 vessels ranging from merchantmen to horse transports. The Duke of Wellington, then campaigning against the French in Spain, found his logistical lines to England frequently cut. He shared his displeasure with the Admiralty: “Surely the British Navy cannot be so hard run as not to be able to keep up the communication with Lisbon for this army!” Wellington’s worries were legitimate. Almost all of his army’s gear, food, pay and reinforcements arrived by sea. He was serious when he wrote, “If they only take the ship with our shoes, we must halt for six weeks!”

One of the most successful privateers of 1813, certainly the one that added the most insult to its successes, was Yankee of Bristol, R.I. Its crew occupied an Irish island for six days, then sailed into a small Scottish harbor to burn seven anchored merchantmen. It added another seven prizes to its accomplishments before returning home. The successes of this and other raiders roused the British press, especially as maritime insurance rates rose. By year’s end the Admiralty covered its own mistakes by sacking Warren and replacing him with Sir Alexander Cochrane and enough vessels to adequately blockade the American coast. Their action was too late for the more than 400 British merchantmen already captured by American privateers.

By 10 p.m. the three privateers had slipped past the stern of the British frigate to windward of the convoy. They were close enough to hear as each ship of the convoy rang four bells of the evening watch. Each American captain picked his target, quietly ordering the tiny shifts of helm that would allow his ship to come alongside a prize. Then the men at the bulwarks flinched as rockets burst overhead! Sharp eyes on the guardian frigate had at last spotted one of the raiders. Signal guns blasted lines of fire into the night and blue fusees appeared at the mainmast of the British frigate as sleepy men tumbled from their hammocks below to meet the threat. Too late! One by one, grapnels flew from the privateers, and screaming Americans crossed to merchant decks.

Napoléon’s 1814 abdication freed Wellington’s veterans for service in America. Cochrane had the ships and the opportunity to institute a tight blockade of the American coast. Not only would this have stifled trade and naval raiders, it would have closed local ports to returning prizes and demoralized the occupants of those towns. But Cochrane, hating Americans ever since the death of a brother in the late Revolution, concentrated his forces against Chesapeake Bay (a failed strategy tried by his predecessor in 1813) in an effort to crush American resistance. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Sir George Prévost, the governor in chief of British North America, led an invasion force along the same path Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne had tried in 1777 (a failure that had resulted in the loss of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga during the Revolution). Though an American victory in the subsequent September 1814 Battle of Lake Champlain stymied the northern assault, Cochrane’s forces overwhelmed American defenses in the lower Chesapeake. An American army fled from the battlefield at Bladensburg, allowing the British to burn the public buildings in Washington. A British squadron pushed up the Potomac to Alexandria, overwhelming Fort Washington and seizing ships and tobacco before returning to the bay. As Cochrane sailed into the upper Chesapeake, raiders ravaged local settlements along the coast. Then, at Baltimore, resistance gelled: American militia defeated the veteran British troops, Fort McHenry resisted the mighty British fleet, and Francis Scott Key penned the words of a powerful national anthem. Cochrane withdrew his forces from the bay and prepared for operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, American privateers (many having switched their base from the Chesapeake to such Southern ports as Wilmington, Charleston or Savannah the previous year) ranged the waters of the world, frequently working together to attack British convoys. Leo of Baltimore created an international incident when it captured a prize bearing a statue of the late Queen Louise commissioned by the Prussian government. Rambler, of Boston, harassed the British China trade, selling British prizes in Asian markets. American privateers boldly snatched prizes in the Thames Estuary, then sold them to laughing former allies of the British. On Sept. 30, 1814, Lloyd’s of London reported that two American warships and several privateers had captured 108 British prizes that month. Maritime insurance rates stood at triple and quadruple the rates of 1811—if insurance could be found at all. Hard pressed by merchants, ship owners and a people tired of years of war, the British government joined the Americans at the treaty table in Ghent, Belgium, in late 1814, a year in which losses to American privateers neared 400 vessels.

Pistol shots and threats sent the deck watches of the British merchantmen scrambling below or falling, bloody, to their knees. Panic gripped the remainder of the convoy when a nearby ship fired its signal gun. Civilian captains ordered their helms hard over in an attempt to escape the raiders. Fleeing downwind in the impenetrable dark, they became a danger to other ships and themselves. Within half an hour the convoy spread across 10 square miles of ocean, heading for destruction on the harsh Carolina coast if the convoy commander could not get them stopped and reorganized. Meanwhile, the raiders had locked their prisoners below, cut grapnels, shaken out reefs and doused all lights. They fled among the panicked herd, slowly working their way to a course for Wilmington or Charleston.

One by one, prizes and prize-takers dribbled into Wilmington until only the brig remained absent. Prisoners paroled or incarcerated, the crews of the privateers waited for their compatriot. The auctions came; shares of prize money were awarded and spent or invested. In an uncertain time the crews did not yet mourn their missing friends. Instead, they put their ships in order and sailed for the Atlantic and more prize money.

Of course, not every American privateer experienced success. Dozens fell to British ships, and many simply disappeared, victims of an unforgiving sea or an uncharted rock or simply lost records of their capture. For those taken by the British, harsh conditions in prison hulks or at Dartmoor Prison waited. The lucky ones were exchanged or paroled, but few among the crews of privateers experienced that luck. Far more died from malnutrition or disease.

By February 1815 news of the Treaty of Ghent and Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans had spread throughout the Atlantic basin. Only in June did the last of the privateers return home to discover that American raiders had added more than 250 captures to their tally before discovering the War of 1812 had ended. Most privateers felt they had defeated the vaunted Royal Navy, driving Britain to its knees by hamstringing its merchant marine. Most also felt the men of the private navy had served the cause as much as any man who donned a uniform and took the President’s dollar (no King’s shilling in the United States).

Perhaps those men of 1812 were correct in their assumptions. In 1856 European leaders, led by the British, united to outlaw privateering during times of war. Great Britain had no desire to again face those American Patriots of the private navy, no matter that they did gild their cutlasses with prize money.

For further reading Wade Dudley recommends his Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812–1815, as well as George Coggeshall’s A History of the American Privateers: The United States and the War of 1812 at Sea.