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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p83  13[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]How to Wage a Non‑War

The soldier, the sailor, the marine, each regards times of peace as times of routine preparation; but the privateer, when peace comes, ceases to exist as a privateer. That is why this book is studded with wars.

Ships, however, always must be built and must be manned, so even in peace the privateer was not likely to find himself out of a job. But his life then was by no means  p84 as thrilling as it had been in wartime. In truth the privateer left the gambling table for the workbench.

In the first years of its existence the United States of America was granted very little peace to grow on. To be sure the Revolution ended in 1783 and a second major contest with Great Britain broke out in 1812, a span of almost thirty years. But the peace in that period was only nominal, and in fact included two undeclared navy wars.

The Dey of Algiers was a greedy fat potentate, who, like his fellows to the east and the west, made a practice of charging commercial nations a yearly sum for protection against the fast-moving Mediterranean vessels under his command. These, as we have seen, were really privateers, though the rest of the world cursed them as pirates. Officers and crew were efficient rascals. They did not kill their prisoners but sold them into slavery, which was still widely practiced in the Moslem world. Amazingly, the European nations paid. Presumably they thought that paying tribute was less expensive than fighting.

Then shortly after our Revolutionary War, the Dey awoke to the fact that there was a new commercial nation in the world. He asked the United States for a trifling yearly contribution — a mere matter of a few million dollars. This was plain blackmail, and the United States indignantly refused. The Dey's rovers thereupon seized sundry American vessels, clapped the crews into chains, and named a stunning ransom. We paid. We had to. And then as if at a signal every other little bey and dey and sultan in that part of the world held out his hand, palm up.

We paid, yes; but we soon started to build a navy.

Standing military forces were repugnant to the American  p85 people, and at the end of the Revolution the army had been drastically cut, the navy and marine corps disbanded.

But the French and British, locked in mortal combat, showed little respect for a nation that had no navy, and it soon became apparent that if we wanted any attention at all, if we wanted to uphold even our basic rights, we must appear willing and ready to shoot.

The British Navy was being built up, and as usual needed men desperately. It resorted again and again to the press gang, even stopping our ships at sea and taking off mariners on the excuse that they were deserters from the British Navy.

The French, their commerce swept off the sea, their heads turned by their own high-sounding platitudes about the rights of men, were even more offensive. They depended almost entirely upon privateers, their warships being blockaded in harbors. But their privateers were fierce and unethical; on any pretext at all, or on none, they seized American vessels by the score.

Something had to be done about it.

On March 27, 1794, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates. These were to be first‑class vessels, war vessels, the best in the world, though not the largest. No expense was spared. Veteran naval officers, men who would command them later, supervised each step of the construction.

This work was done, still, under the Secretary of War. But on April 30, 1798, Congress created the cabinet office of Secretary of the Navy and on July 11 of that year the marine corps was re‑created.

Things moved fast.

 p86  On July 7 all treaties with France were declared null and void. On July 9 privateering was authorized. The next day President John Adams was instructed and authorized by Congress to tell commanders of U. S. armed vessels "to subdue, seize and take any armed French vessel or vessels sailing under authority or pretense of authority from the French republic, which shall be found within the jurisdictional limits of the United States or elsewhere upon the high seas."

If that wasn't war, what was it?

In the next two and a half years there were many scrapes between small vessels and at least one frigate duel, but no fleet actions. The French privateers were everywhere, but a privateer is not, ordinarily, much of a prize, and since as we have seen legitimate French commerce had been driven off the sea, American privateers, who were specifically forbidden to attack any nonarmed vessel, found the pickings poor.

There were 365 of these privateers, 129 from New England; over 60 each from New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland; the rest from the south. Most were in fact letters of marque rather than privateers, and sought to arm themselves for their own protection, not for raiding. There were many single combats on the high seas, most of them between privateers, but none, no matter how fierce, were decisive. The two vessels would hammer away at one another for half an hour, or an hour, or two, and then decide that it wasn't worth the trouble. Neither was looking for a vessel that would be hard to take.

This "war" was, however, excellent practice for our  p87 regular naval officers, most or all of them potential privateers. And when, after it was over, they turned their attention to the Dey of Algiers, there was no question of the outcome. But there was no privateering in that tussle, which took place entirely in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Thayer's Note:

a The text as printed: "saluting the friendly Marseilles". Not a ship by that name, however, but the French Mediterranean port of Marseilles and its fort are meant.

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Page updated: 20 May 13