The Privateers—Part Taken by Merchant Sailors in Building Up the Privateering System—Lawless State of the High Seas—Method of Distributing Privateering Profits—Picturesque Features of the Calling—The Gentlemen Sailors—Effect on the Revolutionary Army—Perils of Privateering—The Old Jersey Prison Ship—Extent of Privateering—Effect on American Marine Architecture—Some Famous Privateers—The "Chasseur," the "Prince de Neufchátel," the "Mammoth"—The System of Convoys and the "Running Ships"—A Typical Privateers' Battle—The "General Armstrong" at Fayal-Summary of the Work of the Privateers.

In the early days of a new community the citizen, be he never so peaceful, is compelled, perforce, to take on the ways and the trappings of the fighting man. The pioneer is half hunter, half scout. The farmer on the outposts of civilization must be more than half a soldier; the cowboy or ranchman on our southwest frontier goes about a walking arsenal, ready at all times to take the laws into his own hands, and scorning to call on sheriffs or other peace officers for protection against personal injury. And while the original purpose of this militant, even defiant, attitude is self-protection, those who are long compelled to maintain it conceive a contempt for the law, which they find inadequate to guard them, and not infrequently degenerate into bandits.

It is hardly too much to say that the nineteenth century was already well into its second quarter before there was a semblance of recognized law upon the high seas. Pirates

Out of such conditions, and out of the wars which the Napoleonic plague forced upon the world, sprung the practise of privateering; and while it is the purpose of this book to tell the story of the American merchant sailor only, it could not be complete without some account, however brief, of the American privateersman. For, indeed, the two were one throughout a considerable period of our maritime history, the sailor turning privateersman or the privateersman sailor as political or trade conditions demanded. In our colonial times, and in the earlier days of the nation, to be a famous privateersman, or to have had a hand in fitting out a successful privateer, was no mean passport to fame and fortune. Some of the names most eminent in the history of our country appear in connection with the outfitting or command of privateers; and not a few of the oldest fortunes of New England had their origin in this form of legalized piracy. And, after all, it is the need of the times that fixes the morality of an act. To-day privateering is dead; not by any formal agreement, for the United States, at the Congress of Paris, refused to agree to its outlawry; but in our war with Spain no recourse was had to letters of marque by either combatant, and it seems unlikely that in any future war between civilized nations either party will court the contempt of the world by going back to the old custom of chartering banditti to steal the property of private citizens of the hostile nation if found at sea. Private property on shore has long been respected by the armies of Christendom, and why its presence in a ship rather than in a cart makes it a fit object of plunder baffles the understanding. Perhaps in time the kindred custom of awarding prize money to naval officers, which makes of them a species of privateers, and pays them for capturing a helpless merchant ship, while an army officer gets nothing for taking the most powerful fort, may likewise be set aside as a relic of medieval warfare.

In its earliest days, of course, privateering was the weapon of a nation weak at sea against one with a large navy. So when the colonies threw down the gage of battle to Great Britain, almost the first act of the Revolutionary government was to authorize private owners to fit out armed ships to prey on British commerce. Some of the shipowners of New England had enjoyed some experience of the profits of this peculiar industry in the Seven Years' War, when quite a number of colonial privateers harried the French on the seas, and accordingly the response was prompt. In enterprises of this character the system of profit-sharing, already noted in connection with whaling, obtained. The owners took a certain share of each prize, and the remainder was divided among the officers and crew in certain fixed proportions. How great were the profits accruing to a privateersman in a "run of luck" might be illustrated by two facts set forth by Maclay, whose "History of American Privateers" is the chief authority on the subject. He asserts that "it frequently happened that even the common sailors received as their share in one cruise, over and above their wages, one thousand dollars—a small fortune in those days for a mariner," and further that "one of the boys in the 'Ranger,' who less than a month before had left a farm, received as his share one ton of sugar, from thirty to forty gallons of fourth-proof Jamaica rum, some twenty pounds of cotton, and about the same quantity of ginger, logwood, and allspice, besides seven hundred dollars in money." To be sure, in order to enjoy gains like these, the men had to risk the perils of battle in addition to the common ones of the sea; but it is a curious fact, recognized in all branches of industry, that the mere peril of a calling does not deter men from following it, and when it promises high profit it is sure to be overcrowded. In civil life to-day the most dangerous callings are those which are, as a rule, the most ill paid.

Very speedily the privateersmen became the most prosperous and the most picturesque figures along the waterside of the Atlantic cities. While the dignified merchant or shipowner, with a third interest in the "Daredevil" or the "Flybynight," might still maintain the sober demeanor of a good citizen and a pillar of the church, despite his profits of fifty or an hundred per cent. on each cruise, the gallant sailors who came back to town with pockets full of easily-won money, and the recollection of long and dismal weeks at sea behind them, were spectacular in their rejoicings. Their money was poured out freely while it lasted; and their example stirred all the townsboys, from the best families down to the scourings of the docks, to enter the same gentlemanlike profession.

Queerly enough, in a time of universal democracy, a provision was made on many of the privateers for the young men of family who desired to follow the calling. They were called "gentlemen sailors," and, in consideration of their social standing and the fact that they were trained to arms, were granted special and unusual privileges, such as freedom from the drudgery of working the ship, better fare than the common sailors, and more comfortable quarters. Indeed, they were free of duty except when fighting was to be done, and at other times fulfilled the function of the marine guards on our modern men-of-war. This came to be a very popular calling for adventurous young men of some family influence.

It has been claimed by some writers that "the Revolution was won by the New England privateers"; and, indeed, there can be no doubt that their activity did contribute in no small degree to the outcome of that struggle. Britain was then, as now, essentially a commercial nation, and the outcry of her merchants when the ravages of American privateers drove marine insurance rates up to thirty-three per cent., and even for a time made companies refuse it altogether, was clamorous. But there was another side to the story. Privateering, like all irregular service, was demoralizing, not alone to the men engaged in it, but to the youth of the country as well. The stories of the easy life and the great profits of the privateersmen were circulated in every little town, while the revels of these sea soldiers in the water-front villages were described with picturesque embellishments throughout the land. As a result, it became hard to get young men of spirit into the patriot armies. Washington complained that when the fortunes of his army were at their lowest, when he could not get clothing for his soldiers, and the snow at Valley Forge was stained with the blood of their unshod feet, any American shipping on a privateer was sure of a competence, while great fortunes were being made by the speculators who fitted them out. Nor was this all. Such was the attraction of the privateer's life that it drew to it seamen from every branch of the maritime calling. The fisheries and the West India trade, which had long been the chief mainstay of New England commerce, were ruined, and it seemed for a time as if the hardy race of American seamen were to degenerate into a mere body of buccaneers, operating under the protection of international law, but plunderers and spoilers nevertheless. Fortunately, the long peace which succeeded the War of 1812 gave opportunity for the naturally lawful and civilized instincts of the Americans to assert themselves, and this peril was averted.

It is, then, with no admiration for the calling, and yet with no underestimate of its value to the nation, that I recount some of the achievements of those who followed it. The periods when American privateering was important were those of the Revolution and the War of 1812. During the Civil War the loss incurred by privateers fell upon our own people, and it is curious to note how different a tone the writers on this subject adopt when discussing the ravages of the Confederate privateers and those which we let loose upon British commerce in the brave days of 1812.

A true type of the Revolutionary privateersmen was Captain Silas Talbot, of Massachusetts. He was one of the New England lads apprenticed to the sea at an early age, having been made a cabin-boy at twelve. He rose to command and acquired means in his profession, as we have seen was common among our early merchant sailors, and when the Revolution broke out was living comfortably in his own mansion in Providence. He enlisted in Washington's army, but left it to become a privateer; and from that service he stepped to the quarter-deck of a man-of-war. This was not an uncommon line of development for the early privateersmen; and, indeed, it was not unusual to find navy officers, temporarily without commands, taking a cruise or two as privateers, until Congress should provide more ships for the regular service—a system which did not tend to make a Congress, which was niggardly at best, hasten to provide public vessels for work which was being reasonably well done at private expense. As a result of this system, we find such famous naval names as Decatur, Porter, Hopkins, Preble, Barry, and Barney also figuring in the lists of privateersmen. Talbot's first notable exploit was clearing New York harbor of several British men-of-war by the use of fire-ships. Washington, with his army, was then encamped at Harlem Heights, and the British ships were in the Hudson River menacing his flank. Talbot, in a fire-ship, well loaded with combustibles, dropped down the river and made for the biggest of the enemy's fleet, the "Asia." Though quickly discovered and made the target of the enemy's battery, he held his vessel on her course until fairly alongside of and entangled with the "Asia," when the fuses were lighted and the volcanic craft burst into roaring flames from stem to stern. So rapid was the progress of the flames that Talbot and his companions could scarcely escape with their lives from the conflagration they had themselves started, and he lay for days, badly burned and unable to see, in a little log hut on the Jersey shore. The British ships were not destroyed; but, convinced that the neighborhood was unsafe for them, they dropped down the bay; so the end sought for was attained. In 1779 Talbot was given command of the sloop "Argo," of 100 tons; "a mere shallop, like a clumsy Albany sloop," says his biographer. Sixty men from the army, most of whom had served afloat, were given him for crew, and he set out to clear Long Island Sound of Tory privateers; for the loyalists in New York were quite as avid for spoils as the New England Revolutionists. On his second cruise he took seven prizes, including two of these privateers. One of these was a 300-ton ship, vastly superior to the "Argo" in armament and numbers, and the battle was a fierce one. Nearly every man on the quarter-deck of the "Argo" was killed or wounded; the speaking trumpet in Talbot's hand was pierced by two bullets, and a cannon-ball carried away the tail of his coat. The damages sustained in this battle were scarce repaired when another British privateer appeared, and Talbot again went into action and took her, though of scarce half her size. In all this little "Argo"—which, by the way, belonged to Nicholas Low, of New York, an ancestor of the eminent Seth Low—took twelve prizes. Her commander was finally captured and sent first to the infamous "Jersey" prison-ship, and afterward to the Old Mill Prison in England.


The "Jersey" prison-ship was not an uncommon lot for the bold privateersman, who, when once consigned to it, found that the reward of a sea-rover was not always wealth and pleasure. A Massachusetts privateersman left on record a contemporary account of the sufferings of himself and his comrades in this pestilential hulk, which may well be condensed here to show some of the perils that the adventurers dared when they took to the sea.


After about one-third of the captives made with this writer had been seized and carried away to serve against their country on British war-ships, the rest were conveyed to the "Jersey," which had been originally a 74-gun ship, then cut down to a hulk and moored at the Wallabout, at that time a lonely and deserted place on the Long Island shore, now about the center of the Brooklyn river front. "I found myself," writes the captive, "in a loathsome prison among a collection of the most wretched and disgusting objects I ever beheld in human form. Here was a motley crew covered with rags and filth, visages pallid with disease, emaciated with hunger and anxiety, and retaining hardly a trace of their original appearance.... The first day we could obtain no food, and seldom on the second could prisoners secure it in season for cooking it. Each prisoner received one-third as much as was allotted to a tar in the British navy. Our bill of fare was as follows: On Sunday, one pound of biscuit, one pound of pork, and half a pint of peas; Monday, one pound of biscuit, one pint of oatmeal, and two ounces of butter; Tuesday, one pound of biscuit and two pounds of salt beef, etc., etc. If this food had been of good quality and properly cooked, as we had no labor to perform, it would have kept us comfortable; but all our food appeared to be damaged. As for the pork, we were cheated out of more than half of it, and when it was obtained one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistency and appearance of variegated fancy soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea-hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean rather than the sty. The peas were about as digestible as grape-shot; and the butter—had it not been for its adhesive properties to retain together the particles of biscuit that had been so riddled by the worms as to lose all their attraction of cohesion, we should not have considered it a desirable addition to our viands. The flour and oatmeal were sour, and the suet might have been nosed the whole length of our ship. Many times since, when I have seen in the country a large kettle of potatoes and pumpkins steaming over the fire to satisfy the appetite of some farmer's swine, I have thought of our destitute and starved condition, and what a luxury we should have considered the contents of that kettle aboard the 'Jersey.'... About two hours before sunset orders were given the prisoners to carry all their things below; but we were permitted to remain above until we retired for the night into our unhealthy and crowded dungeons. At sunset our ears were saluted with the insulting and hateful sound from our keepers of 'Down, rebels, down,' and we were hurried below, the hatchways fastened over us, and we were left to pass the night amid the accumulated horrors of sighs and groans, of foul vapor, a nauseous and putrid atmosphere, in a stifled and almost suffocating heat.... When any of the prisoners had died during the night, their bodies were brought to the upper deck in the morning and placed upon the gratings. If the deceased had owned a blanket, any prisoner might sew it around the corpse; and then it was lowered, with a rope tied round the middle, down the side of the ship into a boat. Some of the prisoners were allowed to go on shore under a guard to perform the labor of interment. In a bank near the Wallabout, a hole was excavated in the sand, in which the body was put, then slightly covered. Many bodies would, in a few days after this mockery of a burial, be exposed nearly bare by the action of the elements."

Such was, indeed, the end of many of the most gallant of the Revolutionary privateersmen; but squalid and cruel as was the fate of these unfortunates, it had no effect in deterring others from seeking fortune in the same calling. In 1775-76 there were commissioned 136 vessels, with 1360 guns; in 1777, 73 vessels, with 730 guns; in 1778, 115 privateers, with a total of 1150 guns; in 1779, 167 vessels, with 2505 guns; in 1780, 228 vessels, with 3420 guns; in 1781, 449 vessels, with 6735 (the high-water mark): and in 1782, 323 vessels, with 4845 guns. Moreover, the vessels grew in size and efficiency, until toward the latter end of the war they were in fact well-equipped war-vessels, ready to give a good account of themselves in a fight with a British frigate, or even to engage a shore battery and cut out prizes from a hostile harbor. It is, in fact, a striking evidence of the gallantry and the patriotism of the privateersmen that they did not seek to evade battle with the enemy's armed forces. Their business was, of course, to earn profits for the merchants who had fitted them out, and profits were most easily earned by preying upon inferior or defenseless vessels. But the spirit of the war was strong upon many of them, and it is not too much to say that the privateers were handled as gallantly and accepted unfavorable odds in battle as readily as could any men-of-war. Their ravages upon British commerce plunged all commercial England into woe. The war had hardly proceeded two years when it was formally declared in the House of Commons that the losses to American privateers amounted to seven hundred and thirty-three ships, of a value of over $11,000,000. Mr. Maclay estimates from this that "our amateur man-of-war's men averaged more than four prizes each," while some took twenty and one ship twenty-eight in a single cruise. Nearly eleven hundred prisoners were taken with the captured ships. While there are no complete figures for the whole period of the war obtainable, it is not to be believed that quite so high a record was maintained, for dread of privateers soon drove British shipping into their harbors, whence they put forth, if at all, under the protection of naval convoys. Nevertheless, the number of captures must have continued great for some years; for, as is shown by the foregoing figures, the spoils were sufficiently attractive to cause a steady increase in the number of privateers until the last year of the war.

There followed dull times for the privateersmen. Most of them returned to their ordinary avocations of sea or shore—became peaceful sailors, or fishermen, or ship-builders, or farmers once again. But in so great a body of men who had lived sword in hand for years, and had fattened on the spoils of the commerce of a great nation, it was inevitable that there should be many utterly unable to return to the humdrum life of honest industry. Many drifted down to that region of romance and outlawry, dear to the heart of the romantic boy, the Spanish Main, and there, as pirates in a small way and as buccaneers, pursued the predatory life. For a time the war which sprung up between England and France seemed to promise these turbulent spirits congenial and lawful occupation. France, it will be remembered, sent the Citizen Genet over to the United States to take advantage of the supposed gratitude of the American people for aid during the Revolution to fit out privateers and to make our ports bases of operation against the British. It must be admitted that Genet would have had an easy task, had he had but the people to reckon with. He found privateering veterans by the thousand eager to take up that manner of life once more. In all the seacoast towns were merchants quite as ready for profitable ventures in privateering under the French flag as under their own, provided they could be assured of immunity from governmental prosecution. And, finally, he found the masses of the people fired with enthusiasm for the principles of the French Revolution, and eager to show sympathy for a people who, like themselves, had thrown off the yoke of kings. The few privateers that Minister Genet fitted out before President Washington became aroused to his infraction of the principles of neutrality were quickly manned, and began sending in prizes almost before they were out of sight of the American shore. The crisis came, however, when one of these ships actually captured a British merchantman in Delaware Bay. Then the administration made a vigorous protest, demanded the release of the vessels taken, arrested two American sailors who had shipped on the privateer, and broke up at once the whole project of the Frenchman. It was a critical moment in our national history, for, between France and England abroad, the Federalist and Republican at home, the President had to steer a course beset with reefs. The maritime community was not greatly in sympathy with his suppression of the French minister's plans, and with some reason, for British privateers had been molesting our vessels all along our coasts and distant waters. It was a time when no merchant could tell whether the stout ship he had sent out was even then discharging her cargo at her destination, or tied up as a prize in some British port. We Americans are apt to regard with some pride Washington's stout adherence to the most rigid letter of the law of neutrality in those troublous times, and our historians have been at some pains to impress us with the impropriety of Jefferson's scarcely concealed liking for France; but the fact is that no violation of the neutrality law which Genet sought was more glaring than those continually committed by Great Britain, and which our Government failed to resent. In time France, moved partly by pique because of our refusal to aid her, and partly by contempt for a nation that failed to protect its ships against British aggression, began itself to prey upon our commerce. Then the state of our maritime trade was a dismal one. Our ships were the prey of both France and England; but since we were neutral, the right of fitting out privateers of our own was denied our shipping interests. We were ground between the upper and nether millstones.

But, as so often happens, persecution bred the spirit and created the weapons for its correction. When it was found that every American vessel was the possible spoil of any French or English cruiser or privateer that she might encounter; that our Government was impotent to protect its seamen; that neither our neutrality rights nor the neutrality of ports in which our vessels lay commanded the respect of the two great belligerents, the Yankee shipping merchants set about meeting the situation as best they might. They did not give up their effort to secure the world's trade—that was never an American method of procedure. But they built their ships so as to be able to run away from anything they might meet; and they manned and armed them so as to fight if fighting became necessary. So the American merchantman became a long, sharp, clipper-built craft that could show her heels to almost anything afloat; moderate of draft, so that she could run into lagoons and bays where no warship could follow. They mounted from four to twelve guns, and carried an armory of rifles and cutlasses which their men were well trained to handle. Accordingly, when the depredations of foreign nations became such as could not longer be borne, and after President Jefferson's plan of punishing Europe for interfering with our commerce by laying an embargo which kept our ships at home had failed, war was declared with England; and from every port on the Atlantic seaboard privateers—ships as fit for their purpose as though specially built for it—swarmed forth seeking revenge and spoils. Their very names told of the reasons of the American merchantmen for complaint—the reasons why they rejoiced that they were now to have their turn. There were the "Orders-in-Council," the "Right-of-Search," the "Fair-trader," the "Revenge." Some were mere pilot-boats, with a Long Tom amidships and a crew of sixty men; others were vessels of 300 tons, with an armament and crew like a man-of-war. Before the middle of July, 1812, sixty-five such privateers had sailed, and the British merchantmen were scudding for cover like a covey of frightened quail.

The War of 1812 was won, so far as it was won at all, on the ocean. In the land operations from the very beginning the Americans came off second best; and the one battle of importance in which they were the victors—the battle of New Orleans—was without influence upon the result, having been fought after the treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent. But on the ocean the honors were all taken by the Americans, and no small share of these honors fell to the private armed navy of privateers. As the war progressed these vessels became in type more like the regular sloop-of-war, for the earlier craft, while useful before the British began sending out their merchantmen under convoy, proved to be too small to fight and too light to escape destruction from one well-aimed broadside. The privateer of 1813 was usually about 115 to 120 feet long on the spar-deck, 31 feet beam, and rigged as a brig or ship. They were always fast sailers, and notable for sailing close to the wind. While armed to fight, if need be, that was not their purpose, and a privateersman who gained the reputation among owners of being a fighting captain was likely to go long without a command. Accordingly, these vessels were lightly built and over-rigged (according to the ideas of British naval construction), for speed was the great desideratum. They were at once the admiration and the envy of the British, who imitated their models without success and tried to utilize them for cruisers when captured, but destroyed their sailing qualities by altering their rig and strengthening their hulls at the expense of lightness and symmetry.

I have already referred to Michael Scott's famous story of sea life, "Tom Cringle's Log," which, though in form a work of fiction, contains so many accounts of actual happenings, and expresses so fully the ideas of the British naval officer of that time, that it may well be quoted in a work of historical character. Tom Cringle, after detailing with a lively description the capture of a Yankee privateer, says that she was assigned to him for his next command. He had seen her under weigh, had admired her trim model, her tapering spars, her taut cordage, and the swiftness with which she came about and reached to windward. He thus describes the change the British outfitters made in her:

"When I had last seen her she was the most beautiful little craft, both in hull and rigging, that ever delighted the eyes of a sailor; but the dock yard riggers and carpenters had fairly bedeviled her at least so far as appearances went. First, they had replaced the light rail on her gunwale by heavy, solid bulwarks four feet high, surmounted by hammock nettings at least another foot; so that the symmetrical little vessel, that formerly floated on the foam light as a seagull, now looked like a clumsy, dish-shaped Dutch dogger. Her long, slender wands of masts, which used to swing about as if there were neither shrouds nor stays to support them, were now as taut and stiff as church-steeples, with four heavy shrouds of a side, and stays, and back-stays, and the devil knows what all."

It is a curious fact that no nation ever succeeded in imitating these craft. The French went into privateering without in the least disturbing the equanimity of the British shipowner; but the day the Yankee privateers took the sea a cry went up from the docks and warehouses of Liverpool and London that reverberated among the arches of Westminster Hall. The newspapers were loud in their attacks upon the admiralty authorities. Said the Morning Chronicle  in 1814:

"That the whole coast of Ireland, from Wexford round by Cape Clear to Carrickfergus, should have been for above a month under the unresisted domination of a few petty fly-by-nights from the blockaded ports of the United States is a grievance equally intolerable and disgraceful."

This wail may have resulted from the pleasantry of one Captain Boyle, of the privateer "Chasseur," a famous Baltimore clipper, mounting sixteen guns, with a complement of one hundred officers, seamen, and marines. Captain Boyle, after exhausting, as it seemed to him, the possibilities of the West Indies for excitement and profit, took up the English channel for his favorite cruising-ground. One of the British devices of that day for the embarrassment of an enemy was what is called a "paper blockade." That is to say, when it appeared that the blockading fleet had too few vessels to make the blockade really effective by watching each port, the admiral commanding would issue a proclamation that such and such ports were in a state of blockade, and then withdraw his vessels from those ports; but still claim the right to capture any neutral vessels which he might encounter bound thither. This practise is now universally interdicted by international law, which declares that a blockade, to be binding upon neutrals, must be effective. But in those days England made her owninternational law—for the sea, at any rate—and the paper blockade was one of her pet weapons. Captain Boyle satirized this practise by drawing up a formal proclamation of blockade of all the ports of Great Britain and Ireland, and sending it to Lloyds, where it was actually posted. His action was not wholly a jest, either, for he did blockade the port of St. Vincent so effectively for five days that the inhabitants sent off a pitiful appeal to Admiral Durham to send a frigate to their relief.

It was at this time, too, that the Annual Register  recorded as "a most mortifying reflection" that, with a navy of more than one thousand ships in commission, "it was not safe for a British vessel to sail without convoy from one part of the English or Irish Channel to another." Merchants held meetings, insurance corporations and boards of trade memorialized the government on the subject; the shipowners and merchants of Glasgow, in formal resolutions, called the attention of the admiralty to the fact that "in the short space of twenty-four months above eight hundred vessels have been captured by the power whose maritime strength we have hitherto impolitically held in contempt." It was, indeed, a real blockade of the British Isles that was effected by these irregular and pigmy vessels manned by the sailors of a nation that the British had long held in high scorn. The historian Henry Adams, without attempting to give any complete list of captures made on the British coasts in 1814, cites these facts:

"The 'Siren,' a schooner of less than 200 tons, with seven guns and seventy-five men, had an engagement with His Majesty's cutter 'Landrail,' of four guns, as the cutter was crossing the Irish sea with dispatches. The 'Landrail' was captured, after a somewhat smart action, and was sent to America, but was recaptured on the way. The victory was not remarkable, but the place of capture was very significant, and it happened July 12 only a fortnight after Blakely captured the 'Reindeer' farther westward. The 'Siren' was but one of many privateers in those waters. The 'Governor Tompkins' burned fourteen vessels successively in the British Channel. The 'Young Wasp,' of Philadelphia, cruised nearly six months about the coasts of England and Spain, and in the course of West India commerce. The 'Harpy,' of Baltimore, another large vessel of some 350 tons and fourteen guns, cruised nearly three months off the coast of Ireland, in the British Channel, and in the Bay of Biscay, and returned safely to Boston filled with plunder, including, as was said, upward of £100,000 in British treasury notes and bills of exchange. The 'Leo,' a Boston schooner of about 200 tons, was famous for its exploits in these waters, but was captured at last by the frigate 'Tiber,' after a chase of about eleven hours. The 'Mammoth,' a Baltimore schooner of nearly 400 tons, was seventeen days off Cape Clear, the southernmost point of Ireland. The most mischievous of all was the 'Prince of Neufchâtel,' New York, which chose the Irish Channel as its favorite haunt, where during the summer it made ordinary coasting traffic impossible."

The vessels enumerated by Mr. Adams were by no means among the more famous of the privateers of the War of 1812; yet when we come to examine their records we find something notable or something romantic in the career of each—a fact full of suggestion of the excitement of the privateersman's life. The "Leo," for example, at this time was under command of Captain George Coggeshall, the foremost of all the privateers, and a man who so loved his calling that he wrote an excellent book about it. Under an earlier commander she made several most profitable cruises, and when purchased by Coggeshall's associates was lying in a French port. France and England were then at peace, and it may be that the French remembered the way in which we had suppressed the Citizen Genet. At any rate, they refused to let Coggeshall take his ship out of the harbor with more than one gun—a Long Tom—aboard. Nothing daunted, he started out with this armament, to which some twenty muskets were added, on a privateering cruise in the channel, which was full of British cruisers. Even the Long Tom proved untrustworthy, so recourse was finally had to carrying the enemy by boarding; and in this way four valuable prizes were taken, of which three were sent home with prize crews. But a gale carried away the "Leo's" foremast, and she fell a prey to an English frigate which happened along untimely.

The "Mammoth" was emphatically a lucky ship. In seven weeks she took seventeen merchantmen, paying for herself several times over. Once she fought a lively battle with a British transport carrying four hundred men, but prudently drew off. True, the Government was paying a bonus of twenty-five dollars a head for prisoners; but cargoes were more valuable. Few of the privateers troubled to send in their prisoners, if they could parole and release them. In all, the "Mammoth" captured twenty-one vessels, and released on parole three hundred prisoners.

Of all the foregoing vessels, the "Prince de Neufchátel" was the most famous. She was an hermaphrodite brig of 310 tons, mounting 17 guns. She was a "lucky" vessel, several times escaping a vastly superior force and bringing into port, for the profit of her owners, goods valued at $3,000,000, besides large quantities of specie. Her historic achievement, however, was beating off the British frigate "Endymion," off Nantucket, one dark night, after a battle concerning which a British naval historian, none too friendly to Americans, wrote: "So determined and effective a resistance did great credit to the American captain and his crew." The privateer had a prize in tow, by which, of course, her movements were much hampered, for her captain was not inclined to save himself at the expense of his booty. But, more than this, she had thirty-seven prisoners aboard, while her own crew was sorely reduced by manning prizes. The night being calm, the British attempted to take the ship by boarding from small boats, for what reason does not readily appear, since the vessels were within range of each other, and the frigate's superior metal could probably have reduced the Americans to subjection. Instead, however, of opening fire with his broadside, the enemy sent out boarding parties in five boats. Their approach was detected on the American vessel, and a rapid fire with small arms and cannon opened upon them, to which they paid no attention, but pressed doggedly on. In a moment the boats surrounded the privateer—one on each bow, one on each side, and one under the stern—and the boarders began to swarm up the sides like cats. It was a bloody hand-to-hand contest that followed, in which every weapon, from cutlass and clubbed musket down to bare hands, was employed. Heavy shot, which had been piled up in readiness on deck, were thrown into the boats in an effort to sink them. Hundreds of loaded muskets were ranged along the rail, so that the firing was not interrupted to reload. Time and again the British renewed their efforts to board, but were hurled back by the American defenders. A few who succeeded in reaching the decks were cut down before they had time to profit by their brief advantage. Once only did it seem that the ship was in danger. Then the assailants, who outnumbered the Americans four to one, had reached the deck over the bows in such numbers that they were gradually driving the defenders aft. Every moment more men came swarming over the side; and as the Americans ran from all parts of the ship to meet and overpower those who had already reached the deck, new ways were opened for others to clamber aboard. The situation was critical; but was saved by Captain Ordronaux by a desperate expedient, and one which it is clear would have availed nothing had not his men known him for a man of fierce determination, ready to fulfil any desperate threat. Seizing a lighted match from one of the gunners, he ran to the hatch immediately over the magazine, and called out to his men that if they retreated farther he would blow up the ship, its defenders, and its assailants. The men rallied. They swung a cannon in board so that it commanded the deck, and swept away the invaders with a storm of grape. In a few minutes the remaining British were driven back to their boats. The battle had lasted less than half an hour when the British called for quarter, the smoke cleared away, the cries of combat ceased, and both parties were able to count their losses. The crew of the privateer had numbered thirty-seven, of whom seven were killed and twenty-four wounded. The British had advanced to the attack with a force of one hundred and twenty-eight, in five boats. Three of the boats drifted away empty, one was sunk, and one was captured. Of the attacking force not one escaped; thirty were made prisoners, many of them sorely wounded, and the rest were either killed or swept away by the tide and drowned. The privateers actually had more prisoners than they had men of their own. Some of the prisoners were kept towing in a launch at the stern, and, by way of strategy, Captain Ordronaux set two boys to playing a fife and drum and stamping about in a sequestered part of his decks as though he had a heavy force aboard. Only by sending the prisoners ashore under parole was the danger of an uprising among the captives averted.


In the end the "Prince de Neufchátel" was captured by a British squadron, but only after a sudden squall had carried away several of her spars and made her helpless.

As the war progressed it became the custom of British merchants to send out their ships only in fleets, convoyed by one or two men-of-war, a system that, of course, could be adopted only by nations very rich in war-ships. The privateers' method of meeting this was to cruise in couples, a pair of swift, light schooners, hunting the prize together. When the convoy was encountered, both would attack, picking out each its prey. The convoys were usually made up with a man-of-war at the head of the column, and as this vessel would make sail after one of the privateers, the other would rush in at some point out of range, and cut out its prize. When the British began sending out two ships of war with each convoy, the privateers cruised in threes, and the same tactics were observed.

But the richest prizes won by the privateer were the single going ships, called "running ships," that were prepared to defend themselves, and scorned to wait for convoy. These were generally great packets trading to the Indies, whose cargoes were too valuable to be delayed until some man-of-war could be found for their protection. They were heavily armed, often, indeed, equaling a frigate in their batteries and the size of their crews. But, although to attack one of these meant a desperate fight, the Yankee privateer always welcomed the chance, for besides a valuable cargo, they were apt to carry a considerable sum in specie. The capture of one of these vessels, too, was the cause of annoyance to the enemy disproportionate to even their great value to their captors, for they not only carried the Royal Mail, but were usually the agencies by which the dispatches of the British general were forwarded. Mail and dispatches, alike, were promptly thrown overboard by their captors.

In the diary of a privateersman of Revolutionary days is to be found the story of the capture of an Indiaman which may well be reprinted as typical.


"As the fog cleared up, we perceived her to be a large ship under English colors, to the windward, standing athwart our starboard bow. As she came down upon us, she appeared as large as a seventy-four; and we were not deceived respecting her size, for it afterwards proved that she was an old East Indiaman, of 1100 tons burden, fitted out as a letter of marque for the West India trade, mounted with thirty-two guns, and furnished with a complement of one hundred and fifty men. She was called the 'Admiral Duff,' commanded by Richard Strange, from St. Christopher and St. Eustachia, laden with sugar and tobacco, and bound to London. I was standing near our first lieutenant, Mr. Little, who was calmly examining the enemy as she approached, with his spy-glass, when Captain Williams stepped up and asked his opinion of her. The lieutenant applied the glass to his eye again and took a deliberate look in silence, and replied: 'I think she is a heavy ship, and that we shall have some hard fighting, but of one thing I am certain, she is not a frigate; if she were, she would not keep yawing and showing her broadsides as she does; she would show nothing but her head and stern; we shall have the advantage of her, and the quicker we get alongside the better.' Our captain ordered English colors to be hoisted, and the ship to be cleared for action.

"The enemy approached 'till within musket-shot of us. The two ships were so near to each other that we could distinguish the officers from the men; and I particularly noticed the captain on the gangway, a noble-looking man, having a large gold-laced cocked hat on his head, and a speaking-trumpet in his hand. Lieutenant Little possessed a powerful voice, and he was directed to hail the enemy; at the same time the quartermaster was ordered to stand ready to haul down the English flag and to hoist up the American. Our lieutenant took his station on the after part of the starboard gangway, and elevating his trumpet, exclaimed: 'Hullo. Whence come you?'

"'From Jamaica, bound to London,' was the answer.

"'What is the ship's name?' inquired the lieutenant.

"'The "Admiral Duff",' was the reply.

"The English captain then thought it his turn to interrogate, and asked the name of our ship. Lieutenant Little, in order to gain time, put the trumpet to his ear, pretending not to hear the question. During the short interval thus gained, Captain Williams called upon the gunner to ascertain how many guns could be brought to bear upon the enemy. 'Five,' was the answer. 'Then fire, and shift the colors,' were the orders. The cannons poured forth their deadly contents, and, with the first flash, the American flag took the place of the British ensign at our masthead.

"The compliment was returned in the form of a full broadside, and the action commenced. I was stationed on the edge of the quarter-deck, to sponge and load a six-pounder; this position gave me a fine opportunity to see the whole action. Broadsides were exchanged with great rapidity for nearly an hour; our fire, as we afterward ascertained, produced a terrible slaughter among the enemy, while our loss was as yet trifling. I happened to be looking for a moment toward the main deck, when a large shot came through our ship's side and killed a midshipman. At this moment a shot from one of our marines killed the man at the wheel of the enemy's ship, and, his place not being immediately supplied, she was brought alongside of us in such a manner as to bring her bowsprit directly across our forecastle. Not knowing the cause of this movement, we supposed it to be the intention of the enemy to board us. Our boarders were ordered to be ready with their pikes to resist any such attempt, while our guns on the main deck were sending death and destruction among the crew of the enemy. Their principal object now seemed to be to get liberated from us, and by cutting away some of their rigging, they were soon clear, and at the distance of a pistol shot.

"The action was then renewed, with additional fury; broadside for broadside continued with unabated vigor; at times, so near to each other that the muzzles of our guns came almost in contact, then again at such a distance as to allow of taking deliberate aim. The contest was obstinately continued by the enemy, although we could perceive that great havoc was made among them, and that it was with much difficulty that their men were compelled to remain at their quarters. A charge of grape-shot came in at one of our portholes, which dangerously wounded four or five of our men, among whom was our third lieutenant, Mr. Little, brother to the first.

"The action had now lasted about an hour and a half, and the fire from the enemy began to slacken, when we suddenly discovered that all the sails on her mainmast were enveloped in a blaze. Fire spread with amazing rapidity, and, running down the after rigging, it soon communicated with her magazine, when her whole stern was blown off, and her valuable cargo emptied into the sea. Our enemy's ship was now a complete wreck, though she still floated, and the survivors were endeavoring to save themselves in the only boat that had escaped the general destruction. The humanity of our captain urged him to make all possible exertions to save the miserable wounded and burned wretches, who were struggling for their lives in the water. The ship of the enemy was greatly our superior in size, and lay much higher out of the water. Our boats had been exposed to his fire, as they were placed on spars between the fore and mainmasts during the action, and had suffered considerable damage. The carpenters were ordered to repair them with the utmost expedition, and we got them out in season to take up fifty-five men, the greater part of whom had been wounded by our shot, or burned when the powder-magazine exploded. Their limbs were mutilated by all manner of wounds, while some were burned to such a degree that the skin was nearly flayed from their bodies. Our surgeon and his assistants had just completed the task of dressing the wounds of our own crew, and then they directed their attention to the wounded of the enemy. Several of them suffered the amputation of their limbs, five of them died of their wounds, and were committed to their watery graves. From the survivors we learned that the British commander had frequently expressed a desire to come in contact with a 'Yankee frigate' during his voyage, that he might have a prize to carry to London. Poor fellow. He little thought of losing his ship and his life in an engagement with a ship so much inferior to his own—with an enemy upon whom he looked with so much contempt."

But most notable of all the battles fought by privateersmen in the War of 1812, was the defense of the brig "General Armstrong," in the harbor of Fayal, in September, 1814. This famous combat has passed into history, not only because of the gallant fight made by the privateer, but because the three British men-of-war to whom she gave battle, were on their way to cooperate with Packenham at New Orleans, and the delay due to the injuries they received, made them too late to aid in that expedition, and may have thus contributed to General Jackson's success.

The "General Armstrong" had always been a lucky craft, and her exploits in the capture of merchantmen, no less than the daring of her commander in giving battle to ships-of-war which he encountered, had won her the peculiar hate of the British navy. At the very beginning of her career, when in command of Captain Guy R. Champlin, she fought a British frigate for more than an hour, and inflicted such grave damage that the enemy was happy enough to let her slip away when the wind freshened. On another occasion she engaged a British armed ship of vastly superior strength, off the Surinam River, and forced her to run ashore. Probably the most valuable prize taken in the war fell to her guns—the ship "Queen," with a cargo invoiced at £90,000. Indeed, such had been her audacity, and so many her successes, that the British were eager for her capture or destruction, above that of any other privateer.

In September, 1814, the "General Armstrong," now under command of Captain Samuel G. Reid, was at anchor in the harbor at Fayal, a port of Portugal, when her commander saw a British war-brig come nosing her way into the harbor. Soon after another vessel appeared, and then a third, larger than the first two, and all flying the British ensign. Captain Reid immediately began to fear for his safety. It was true that he was in a neutral port, and under the law of nations exempt from attack, but the British had never manifested that extreme respect for neutrality that they exacted of President Washington  when France tried to fit out privateers in our ports. More than once they had attacked and destroyed our vessels in neutral ports, and, indeed, it seemed that the British test of neutrality was whether the nation whose flag was thus affronted, was able or likely to resent it. Portugal was not such a nation.

All this was clear to Captain Reid, and when he saw a rapid signaling begun between the three vessels of the enemy, he felt confident that he was to be attacked. He had already discovered that the strangers were the 74-gun ship of the line "Plantagenet," the 38-gun frigate "Rota," and the 18-gun war-brig "Carnation," comprising a force against which he could not hope to win a victory. The night came on clear, with a bright moon, and as the American captain saw boats from the two smaller vessels rallying about the larger one, he got out his sweeps and began moving his vessel inshore, so as to get under the guns of the decrepit fort, with which Portugal guarded her harbor. At this, four boats crowded with men, put out from the side of the British ship, and made for the privateer, seeing which, Reid dropped anchor and put springs on his cables, so as to keep his broadside to bear on the enemy as they approached. Then he shouted to the British, warning them to keep off, or he would fire. They paid no attention to the warning, but pressed on, when he opened a brisk fire upon them. For a time there was a lively interchange of shots, but the superior marksmanship of the Americans soon drove the enemy out of range with heavy casualties. The British retreated to their ships with a hatred for the Yankee privateer even more bitter than that which had impelled them to the lawless attack, and a fiercer determination for her destruction.

It is proper to note, that after the battle was fought, and the British commander had calmly considered the possible consequences of his violation of the neutrality laws, he attempted to make it appear that the Americans themselves were the aggressors. His plea, as made in a formal report to the admiralty, was that he had sent four boats to discover the character of the American vessel; that they, upon hailing her, had been fired upon and suffered severe loss, and that accordingly he felt that the affront to the British flag could only be expiated by the destruction of the vessel. The explanation was not even plausible, for the British commander, elsewhere in his report, acknowledged that he was perfectly informed as to the identity of the vessel, and even had this not been the case, it is not customary to send four boats heavily laden with armed men, merely to discover  the character of a ship in a friendly port.

The withdrawal of the British boats gave Captain Reid time to complete the removal of his vessel to a point underneath the guns of the Portuguese battery. This gave him a position better fitted for defense, although his hope that the Portuguese would defend the neutrality of their port, was destined to disappointment, for not a shot was fired from the battery.


Toward midnight the attack was resumed, and by this time the firing within the harbor had awakened the people of the town, who crowded down to the shore to see the battle. The British, in explanation of the reverse which they suffered, declared that all the Americans in Fayal armed themselves, and from the shore supplemented the fire from the "General Armstrong." Captain Reid, however, makes no reference to this assistance. In all, some four hundred men joined in the second attack. Twelveboats were in line, most of them with a howitzer mounted in the bow. The Americans used their artillery on these craft as they approached, and inflicted great damage before the enemy were in a position to board. The British vessels, though within easy gun-fire, dared not use their heavy cannon, lest they should injure their own men, and furthermore, for fear that the shot would fall into the town. The midnight struggle was a desperate one, the enemy fairly surrounding the "General Armstrong," and striving to reach her decks at every point. But though greatly outnumbered, the defenders were able to maintain their position, and not a boarder succeeded in reaching the decks. The struggle continued for nearly three-quarters of an hour, after which the British again drew off. Two boats filled with dead and dying men, were captured by the Americans, the unhurt survivors leaping overboard and swimming ashore. The British report showed, that in these two attacks there were about one hundred and forty of the enemy killed, and one hundred and thirty wounded. The Americans had lost only two killed and seven wounded, but the ship was left in no condition for future defense. Many of the guns were dismounted, and the Long Tom, which had been the mainstay of the defense, was capsized. Captain Reid and his officers worked with the utmost energy through the night, trying to fit the vessel for a renewal of the combat in the morning, but at three o'clock he was called ashore by a note from the American consul. Here he was informed that the Portuguese Governor had made a personal appeal to the British commander for a cessation of the attack, but that it had been refused, with the statement that the vessel would be destroyed by cannon-fire from the British ships in the morning. Against an attack of this sort it was, of course, futile for the "GeneralArmstrong" to attempt to offer defense, and accordingly Captain Reid landed his men with their personal effects, and soon after the British began fire in the morning, scuttled the ship and abandoned her. He led his men into the interior, seized on an abandoned convent, and fortifying it, prepared to resist capture. No attempt, however, was made to pursue him, the British commander contenting himself with the destruction of the privateer. For nearly a week the British ships were delayed in the harbor, burying their dead and making repairs. When they reached New Orleans, the army which they had been sent to reenforce, had met Jackson on the plains of Chalmette, and had been defeated. The price paid for the "General Armstrong" was, perhaps, the heaviest of the war. The British commander seemed to appreciate this fact, for every effort was made to keep the news of the battle from becoming known in England, and when complete concealment was no longer possible, an official report was given out that minimized the British loss, magnified the number of the Americans, and totally mis-stated the facts bearing on the violation of the neutrality of the Portuguese port. Captain Reid, however, was made a hero by his countrymen. A Portuguese ship took him and his crew to Amelia Island, whence they made their way to New York. Poughkeepsie voted him a sword. Richmond citizens gave him a complimentary dinner, at which were drunk such toasts as: "The private cruisers of the United States—whose intrepidity has pierced the enemy's channels and bearded the lion in his den"; "Neutral Ports—whenever the tyrants of the ocean dare to invade these sanctuaries, may they meet with an 'Essex' and an 'Armstrong'"; and "Captain Reid—his valor has shed a blaze of renown upon the character of our seamen, and won for himself a laurel of eternal bloom." The newspapers of the times rang with eulogies of Reid, and anecdotes of his seafaring experiences. But after all, as McMaster finely says in his history: "The finest compliment of all was the effort made in England to keep the details of the battle from the public, and the false report of the British commander."

In finally estimating the effect upon the American fortunes in the War of 1812, of the privateers and their work, many factors must be taken into consideration. At first sight it would seem that a system which gave the services of five hundred ships and their crews to the task of annoying the British, and inflicting damage upon their commerce without cost to the American Government, must be wholly advantageous. We have already seen the losses inflicted upon British commerce by our privateers reflected in the rapidly increasing cost of marine insurance. While the statistics in the possession of the Government are not complete, they show that twenty-five hundred vessels at least were captured during the War of 1812 by these privately-owned cruisers, and there can be no shadow of a doubt that the loss inflicted upon British merchants, and the constant state of apprehension for the safety of their vessels in which they were kept, very materially aided in extending among them a willingness to see peace made on almost any terms.

But this is the other side of the story: The prime purpose of the privateer was to make money for its owners, its officers, and its crew. The whole design and spirit of the calling was mercenary. It inflicted damage on the enemy, but only incidentally to earning dividends for its participants. If Government cruisers had captured twenty-five hundred British vessels, those vessels would have been lost to the enemy forever. But the privateer, seeking gains, tried to send them into port, however dangerous such a voyage might be, and accordingly, rather more than a third of them were recaptured by the enemy. We may note here in passing, that one reason why the so-called Confederate privateers during our own Civil War, did an amount of damage so disproportionate to their numbers, was that they were not, in fact, privateers at all. They were commissioned by the Confederate Government to inflict the greatest possible amount of injury upon northern commerce, and accordingly, when Semmes or Maffitt captured a United States vessel, he burned it on the spot. There was no question of profit involved in the service of the "Alabama," the "Florida," or the "Shenandoah," and they have been called privateers in our histories, mainly because Northern writers have been loath to concede, to what they called a rebel government, the right to equip and commission regular men-of-war.

But to return to the American privateers of 1812. While, as I have pointed out, there were many instances of enormous gains being made, it is probable that the business as a whole, like all gambling businesses as a whole, was not profitable. Some ships made lucky voyages, but there is on record in the Navy Department a list of three hundred vessels that took not one single prize in the whole year of 1813. The records of Congress show that, as a whole, the business was not remunerative, because there were constant appeals from people interested. In response to this importunity, Congress at one time paid a bounty of twenty-five dollars a head for all prisoners taken. At other times it reduced the import duties on cargoes captured and landed by privateers. Indeed, it is estimated by a careful student, that the losses to the Government in the way of direct expenditures and remission of revenues through the privateering system, amounted to a sum sufficient to have kept twenty sloops of war on the sea throughout the period of hostilities, and there is little doubt that such vessels could have actually accomplished more in the direction of harassing the enemy than the privateers. A very grave objection to the privateering system, however, was the fact that the promise of profit to sailors engaged in it was so great, that all adventurous men flocked into the service, so that it became almost impossible to maintain our army or to man our ships. I have already quoted George Washington's objections to the practise during the Revolution. During the War of 1812, some of our best frigates were compelled to sail half manned, while it is even declared that the loss of the "Chesapeake" to the "Shannon" was largely due to the fact that her crew were discontented and preparing, as their time of service was nearly up, to quit the Government service for privateering. In a history of Marblehead, one of the famous old seafaring towns of Massachusetts, it is declared that of nine hundred men of that town who took part in the war, fifty-seven served in the army, one hundred and twenty entered the navy, while seven hundred and twenty-six shipped on the privateers. These figures afford a fair indication of the way in which the regular branches of the service suffered by the competition of the system of legalized piracy.