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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 20

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 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p129  21[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]Treason and Triumph

The invasion of Canada had proved a costly disaster to the Yankees. On land, one defeat followed another. Recruiting was almost at a standstill, and the government could not raise emergency money. Especially in New England, the richest part of the land, the war was unpopular. There was a great deal of talk, there, of secession, of a separate peace. Several governors refused to allow their  p130 militia forces to leave the states, though Congress stormed. And the British army in Canada, as its own leaders admitted, never could have held the field, much less prepare for invasion, except for the wheat shipped and cattle driven across the border from New England and northern New York State.

Then there was the matter of the British grain licenses, of the "semi-American" vessels. It was a privateer that first exposed this scandal, and privateers were a big help in putting it down.

The British maintained a huge army in the Iberian Peninsula — that is, Spain and Portugal — where they fought Napoleon. To keep this army fed they were dependent, in large part, upon shipments of food, chiefly grains, from the United States. When war came this trade ordinarily would have been cut off, but the British had thought of a way to keep it going. At a price, they issued special licenses, protecting the shipment of food to the Peninsula from seizure by British privateers and British war vessels. Of course the acceptance of such a license was in itself an act of treason on the part of any American. But some men will do a great deal for money, and here the price was high. Greed indeed did even more to ruin this unsavory business than the privateers. Payment, in Portugal, was made in catches, and certain British frigate captains, eager to pile up a fortune for themselves before peace came, began to nab the returning "semi-Americans" and lift this money as spoils of war. Those "expensive "protection" papers, it developed, protected only on the way there, not on the way back. It was a regular racket, though legitimate, for a little  p131 while; but it soon discouraged the "semi-Americans," and the trade fell off.

Atlas, a 13‑gunner out of Philadelphia, David Moffat, master, was one of the first fair-sized American privateers to get out on the high seas after the declaration of war, and the very first vessel that she encountered was one of these same British licenses, an early one, Tulip, of New York, with a cargo of 1400 barrels of flour and also much salt beef, earmarked for the British troops in Spain. Moffat, visiting the other skipper, pretended to be a British privateer. The other, with a leer, produced his "protection" paper. Moffat at once put a prize crew aboard and sent Tulip to Philadelphia. He also reported the incident, and touched off an investigation.

Atlas had a good record. Soon after this she took in mid‑Atlantic two British armed merchantmen with rich loads, but not without a fight that shook her badly. Moffat started homeward, for a refitting, with his two prizes in company. At dawn on September 2 there hove into sight on a southerly course a large frigate. As usual, no colors were showing. Moffat took it for granted that this vessel was British. The Americans had so few frigates and the British so many that the sensible thing for the Americans to do, everybody agreed, was to take cover in harbors or up rivers, under the protection of forts. If they ventured forth they would be gobbled up one by one, no matter how valiantly they resisted. So Moffat ran.

He did remark that the pursuing vessel was amazingly fast for a Britisher, but he did not learn until much later that she was in fact the U. S. frigate Essex on the first lap of her famous run around Cape Horn. And Captain David  p132 Porter of Essex supposed that he had here a British privateer with two prizes, so he pressed pursuit.

The prizes were slow. The frigate was gaining. In the middle of the afternoon Moffat signalled to his prize crews to separate: each should seek whatever harbor could be found. By this time the frigate had hoisted the Union Jack, and Captain Moffat's fears were confirmed; but this was only a ruse, Porter thinking to lure the "British" privateer under his guns by a display of the British colors. As it happened, all three escaped and each made a separate protect in safety. Essex continued her glorious way in the general direction of the South Pole, but a great deal of time had been wasted.

After sundry other adventures, Atlas holed up in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, where she met Anaconda, another busy American privateer that had just suffered from an embarrassing error. Off Cape Cod Anaconda had fired a broadside into the U. S. war schooner Commodore Hull, seriously wounding her first officer, in the belief that this flagless vessel was British.

Atlas and Anaconda were trapped in Ocracoke by a large British fleet, from which boarding parties were sent in for them, taking both, though the men themselves escaped.a

One of the largest and most successful of all American privateers in the War of 1812 was the 310‑ton Prince de Neuchâtel, an hermaphrodite of seventeen guns, not a converted merchantman like most but a vessel specifically designed and built as a privateer. The men of Prince de Neuchâtel liked to boast that she had been chased seventeen times and had got away easily each time. The fast  p133 frigate Endymion caught up with her at last, thanks to a freak of wind. This was off Nantucket Shoals the month of October 11, 1814, and both vessels were obliged to anchor because of the lack of breeze and because of dangerous currents. It was a very dark night. Unwilling to wait until morning, when her forty guns would have put Prince de Neuchâtel at her mercy, Endymion sent forth five boats, containing 120 men. They attacked the privateer at five different points.

Now Prince de Neuchâtel had started that cruise with eighty men, but because she had crewed so many prizes she had only thirty-seven left. Even so, she beat off all five attacks, killed many Britishers, wounded others, and took prisoner thirty unwounded survivors. What's more, she slipped away from the frigate during the night when a breeze sprang up.

There were three Decatur privateers in the War of 1812, each named after the war hero later to lose his life in a duel. One, a small schooner, came from Maine; she was captured early in the war. Another, a brig from Newburyport, Massachusetts, was the same vessel that had run away from Constitution, dumping her guns as she fled. Later, she was fairly successful, though she was taken at last in the West Indies by the frigate Surprise.

The third Decatur was a schooner out of Charleston, South Carolina. She was armed with six 12‑pounders and one long 18‑pounder, and manned by 103 men and boys. She did well for herself, taking several prizes, and on August 15, 1813, early in the morning, she sighted the British war schooner Dominica escorting a rich merchantman. Diron, Decatur's skipper, a Frenchman, could have  p134 escaped; but he thought that the merchantman was worth a fight — and what a fight it turned out to be!

This was a little south of Bermuda. It was afternoon before the two finally met, and they battled for more than three hours. The Britisher was the more heavily gunned. She held twelve short 12‑pounders, two long 6‑pounders, one brass 4‑pounder, and a short 32‑pounder mounted on a swivel. Yet Diron had more men and he thought that he could win if he closed and boarded.

He tried that twice, but was held off. At last he got there, running his bowsprit right across Dominica's stern, so that his jib boom pierced the British mainsail. Then the Americans scrambled over that bowsprit.

The hand-to‑hand fighting all took place on Dominica's rather small deck. Everybody on both vessels was involved, almost 200 men and boys in all, and all sorts of weapons were used. It lasted about twenty minutes, and when it was over the captain of Dominica, twenty-five-year‑old Lieutenant Barrette, lay dead. And every British officer save one midshipman and the overworked surgeon, either was dead or wounded.

Even then, the British did not really strike. It was American hands that hauled down the Union Jack, the British being too exhausted to stop them. Out of a crew of 88 the British had lost 16 killed and 42 wounded — casualties of almost 70 per cent!

Thayer's Note:

a For the subsequent history of the Atlas see pp122‑125.

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