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The United States had been edgy for years, but when war actually was declared against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, it took almost everybody, here and abroad, by surprise.
The French, themselves at war with Britain, were overjoyed. The British were dismayed and hurt. They pointed out that they alone stood between the unspeakable Bonaparte and the rest of the world. They were fighting the tyrant single-handed; and now their cousins in the New World had stabbed them in the back. That's what they called it — a stab in the back.
The U. S. Army and the U. S. Navy, starved for so many years by Congress, were woefully unprepared for this fight. Not so the privateers.
In every seaport they had been making boatyard contracts, buying artillery and timber, and storing supplies. They had been talking to possible enlistees, preparing announcements for printing. So much, in privateering, p88 depends upon speed! The skipper who got a head start was the one most likely to make a fortune.
So the race was on. With the declaration of war a rush for licenses started, and boatyards all up and down the coast in hundreds of big cities and small towns resounded night and day to the rasp of saws, the thud of mallets. Mates feverishly examined small arms and master gunners were seeing to the rudimentary fire precautions in their magazines. Everybody quivered to get out there, and right away, in order to grab vessels before they could arm themselves, before they could be huddled into convoys.
Indeed, the first two prizes taken by American privateers in this war were taken too soon, both of them in Chesapeake Bay, within a few hours of one another. Dash of Baltimore took the British dispatch schooner Whiting, and the 8‑gunned Cora, also of Baltimore, took a similar vessel, Bloodhound. These prizes carried no cargo, but they were small, light, fast, and would themselves have made excellent privateers. However, an admiralty judge at Annapolis decreed that they were not fair game, because at the time they were captured the skippers had not heard that a state of war existed. The judge released them.
Yet the work was of some benefit to the American cause, for the crews of Bloodhound and Whiting, taken ashore to testify, almost to a man refused to go back aboard their vessels, which were thereafter useless to the British. One of the hands from Bloodhound told the Americans that he had not been ashore in nine years. This was not unusual. "Keep the pay, keep the man," was a slogan among British Navy captains. On one pretext or another they often contrived p89 to withhold all cash from the jolly tars, who even then would desert as soon as they got a chance, life in the British Navy being no bed of roses. Those who did desert effectively could do but one thing — sign aboard of some other vessel. The deserter had no money, usually his clothes were rags, he had no friends, and he knew only one way of living. He might curse the sea, and probably did, but he was panicky whenever he got out of sight and sound of it. He could sign aboard a merchantman or a privateer, but he preferred to sign up in the United States Navy. There was a good chance of getting killed in the outnumbered American Navy, but almost no risk of being taken prisoner and shoved back into the British Navy. Then too the British could, by law, hang deserters. The best a retaken man might hope for was to be flogged into insensibility, beaten with a cat‑o'‑nine-tails until he was a cripple for life or a gibbering idiot, or both. Yes, the U. S. Navy was best. Also, the food was fine. And so was the pay. And — you got the pay!
At the beginning of this war the United States Navy consisted of 17 vessels carrying 442 guns and crewed by about 5000 seamen. Only eight of these vessels, however, were in condition to put to sea. There was still a great deal of refitting to be done, and restocking, and they were habitually short-handed, especially after the privateers began to enlist. The American ships-of‑war were wonderful ships, as they soon proved, the best in the world; but they couldn't be expected to defeat or even hold off a whole national fleet. The British Navy numbered its vessels in four figures, and at the outbreak of the War of p90 1812, or very soon thereafter, at least 100 of them were cruising off American shores.
Privateers would not engage warships — certainly not frigates or ships of the line, though they might and occasionally did tangle with a sloop or a dispatch boat. Yet they could cause a lot of trouble, and their very existence did help to make up for the disparity of numbers between the two sides.
Within two months after the declaration of war there were 150 American privateers on the high seas, and more tumbling out all the time.
Some of the first ones were little better than pilot boats; yet even the midgets, given luck, could bring back prizes early in the war. The Wily Reynard, a Boston schooner, mounted only one gun, but she sent in three ships, two brigs, and four schooners, a good bag. The schooner Fair Trader, out of Salem, Massachusetts, also had but one gun, and a crew of 25, yet she nailed one ship, one brig, and five schooners before she was finally trapped by a frigate in the Bay of Fundy. Fame of Boston too had one gun, and she had a crew of only 20. Moreover, she was old; she had privateered in the Revolution. Still in the course of a fifteen‑day cruise Fame took five schooners. Teazer was yet another cockleshell, mounting two guns, manned by 50 mariners, but before a ship of the line overtook and burned her she had sent in six brigs and six schooners, all but one of which reached port. Teazer paid for herself many times over.
The reports of all these doings — and there were many, many more — thrilled those at home who heard them, so that not only mariners but wide-eyed lads from the countryside, p91 from the farms, were striving to get aboard of privateers. Mariners, of course, were preferred; for even though a privateer would sail with many more men than were needed to handle her, prize crews could thin their ranks very rapidly. Still there was usually room for a willing, able-bodied youth.
The privateers had all the men they needed all the time. The reason is obvious — glittering successes were much talked about, failures conveniently forgotten.
From earliest days sailors have been a superstitious lot. Privateering pointed this up. How else but by luck can you account for a well-skippered vessel finding herself one morning a few feet from an enemy frigate while a comparable vessel from the same port romps home with a fortune? On the other hand, that second vessel might find her foot slipping a few miles from her base port on the way back, and be unexpectedly captured, driven by one frigate under the guns of another, say, so that her whole half year's work was wasted. Then all the men would spend the rest of the war in a smelly English jail. That's the way it was.
The famous brig Yankee out of Bristol, Rhode Island sailed for the first time early in the War of 1812. She carried 115 men under Captain Oliver Wilson, who was twenty‑six years old. (There were many Rhode Island privateers called Yankee, Yankee Lass, Yankee Hero, Yankee Trader, etc.) Only a few days out, not far from Halifax, she came rather suddenly — for the weather was thick — upon a huge British ship. Captain Wilson didn't hesitate to attack, despite the difference in size. He sent musketeers up into the tops — muskets in those days would only carry p92 about a hundred yards — and he ran out his guns, fourteen 4‑ and 6‑pounders. The better sailor, he got in close.
The big ship was clumsily handled — Yankee could have sailed circles around her — but her guns spoke up soon enough, and kept speaking, despite the fact that the gunners had to work in a hail of musket balls.
From the beginning it was the American's fight, and when Yankee sped ahead of her opponent and luffed sharply, so that she could blast a terrific broadside into the other vessel, it was all over. The Britisher's captain already was down, and now her flag came down as well. Wilson sent over his surgeon.
The wounded captain was Henry Gambles, and the ship was Royal Bounty, bound from Hull for Prince Edward Island. Wilson sent her back to Bristol with a prize crew. She was a 658‑tonner, more than four times the size of the Yankee. The reason she had not made a better show was that she was scandalously short-handed, having only 25 men.
Royal Bounty, though a splendid prize in herself, gave up no cargo, since she had been in ballast. But on Yankee's second cruise, off the coast of Africa, the American privateer took the sloop Mary Ann, which was carrying ivory, gold dust, and camwood valued at $28,000. Soon after that, in a brilliant smallboat action on the west coast of Africa, right under the guns (fifty of them!) of Fort Apollonia, she cut out the brig Fly, which was found to be loaded with gold dust, ivory, iron, gunpowder, and dry‑goods to the value of $36,000.
Thereafter Yankee's luck was fantastic. She couldn't seem to fail, and she never came close to being caught. She made a total of six long cruises under three different p93 skippers. For the second, after the stunning success of the first, she could have had her pick of just about any man in Rhode Island — or New England, for that matter. For the third she was all but mobbed by eager applicants. But thereafter the mariners began to eye her askance — her luck couldn't last, they were telling one another — so that when she was shipping a crew for her sixth cruise she almost had to hit men on the head. Nevertheless the sixth cruise was a profitable as most of the others had been; and after all that peril Yankee died, as you might say, in bed.
Her greatest single prize was taken in the course of the fifth cruise, the ship San Josê Indiano, English despite her name, bound from Liverpool for Rio de Janeiro. The Britisher, together with her cargo, fetched close to $600,000. Of this the owners got about a quarter of a million. Captain Elisha Snow's share was $15,789, while the two Negro cabin boys, got, respectively, $1,121.89 and $738.19.
Her prizes totaled forty-nine ships, twenty-five brigs, five schooners, and a sloop.
In all, it was estimated, Yankee destroyed $5,000,000 worth of enemy shipping and supplies, and brought home or sent home booty worth more than $1,000,000.
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Page updated: 20 May 13