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Chapter 24

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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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p157  25[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]End of an Era

Jefferson Davis meant what he said. When the news reached him in Richmond he went into action at once.

The first New York trial had been inconclusive, though attended by much fanfare. An exceptionally intelligent jury was out for twenty hours, only to announce at last that it could not possibly agree. Defense counsel, an impressive array of dramatic talent, some hired by the Confederate States of America, others by local well-wishers, but all acutely aware of the stage upon which they strutted, promptly moved for an immediate second trial. This was denied, and the defendants, still handcuffed, were sent back to the Tombs to await their turn, which would probably not come again for a couple of months. They were treated not like prisoners of war but as common felons. Jefferson Davis found this additionally rankling.

The prize crew of Enchantress was tried in Philadelphia. One pleaded not guilty, on the ground that he was out of sympathy with the Southern cause, that he had been forced to serve on the privateer. The case against him was not pressed.

 p158  The prize captain, Smith, was tried first. The trial lasted four days, and though it was well attended it was less of a three-ring circus than the one in New York. Smith was found guilty.

Then the other three were tried, and they too were found guilty.

The day after this piece of news was received at Richmond a drawing for hostages was held in the Confederate Provost Marshal's office. President Davis ordered the hostages to be picked according to rank, the highest first. This was still early in the war, so the Confederates had no captive generals and not even enough colonels to go around — only eleven. Seemingly there were no majors at all among the prisoners, for the list was filled out with three captains. The names were put on uniform slips of paper, which were placed in a can. The drawing was done with suitable ceremony, in the presence of sundry Confederate officials and Northern prisoners.

The first name drawn was that of Colonel Corcoran, 89th New York State Militia Regiment. He was, then, hostage for William Smith, who, it was expected, would be the first to go. Corcoran would hang when Smith hanged. Each of the others was then made hostage for a particular privateer prisoner. They were all taken out of military prison and lodged in the public jail, "like common felons," as President Davis had ordered.

That was in October. Not until February did the government at Washington at last give in. Quietly and rather shamefacedly, it sent out orders that the privateers should be given prisoner-of‑war status. Eventually they were all exchanged.

 p159  This was the last time that anybody took privateering seriously. The South, though more desperate than ever, had already discarded it. The vessels available to the Confederacy were not big enough or strong enough to venture far from home, and the blockade of the Southern states themselves was getting tighter every day. There weren't enough cannons to go around, nor could the privateers restock their supply of artillery from every prize, as privateers had done in previous wars. Such prizes as were sent in were welcome for their cargos, but hardly for themselves. They were slow vessels — they wouldn't have been caught otherwise — and in the grip of that blockade the South needed speed above everything else. Speed indeed was always the privateer's best friend.

The destruction of enemy commerce was important, and the United States was peculiarly susceptible to this, as the Confederacy well realized, but privateers were not the best means. What war vessels the Confederate States Navy did manage to get into the water were devoted to the destruction of commerce. They didn't need to think of the value of a prize or weaken themselves with the appointment of prize crews. They simply sank everything they could. The celebrated killer Alabama, for example, was a commissioned C. S. N. vessel, not a privateer.

When what was left of the crew of Jefferson Davis got back to Charleston after that momentous seven-week cruise, the city was wild with its welcome, hailing them as heroes. But in truth there had never been much glitter in privateering; and when the ragged crew of the Savannah at last returned, about a year later, it was pity, not adulation, that they inspired. By that time, anyway, privateering  p160 had ceased to be, giving way for a short while, until the U. S. Navy pulled its garrot tight, to the blockade runners.

The blockade runners did have glamor, while they lasted. They did not cruise hopefully, like the privateers. The blockade runners rather darted, preferably at night. It was a life full of excitement, and rich in profits. Blockade-running skippers were pointed out in the streets as privateer skippers never had been. Rhett Butler of Gone With the Wind was a blockade runner, not a privateer.

And so it was that privateering died, ingloriously, even a little ludicrously. It had enjoyed its moments of color, of thrills, even its moments of grandeur; but it was poorly organized, a discontinuous system dependent upon wars, and it had suffered from a bad press. It had no central office, no continuing tradition, no official historian, and as a result amazingly little has been written about it, by Americans at least. In the mind of the average man today it is inextricably entangled with piracy, and indeed many millions must believe that privateering and piracy were one and the same thing.

Yet Americans have no reason to be ashamed of a history of privateering. The Navy might damn it as irresponsible, irregular, and a great waste, and Henry Adams, the historian, might argue that the same amount of money spent on small vessels of war, manned by regular Navy men, subject to Naval orders and Naval discipline, would result in much greater efficiency. For Navy vessels would sink or burn their prizes, not send them back so that they could be recaptured, as happened so many times with privateers. Nevertheless privateering was a system peculiarly adapted to a young, growing, hardy, maritime nation.  p161 The privateer needed, above all, independence, initiative, imagination. He was on his own. He could not "go by the book."

Independence, initiative, imagination — these are markedly American characteristics. And so it is no wonder that this nation took to privateering early, played it harder and faster in proportion to population than did any other seagoing country, and was the very last to lay privateering aside when clearly it had outlived its usefulness.

Independence, initiative, imagination: applied to privateering, together with a liberal dash of courage, these have resulted in some of the most stirring pages of American history, pages of which we should always be proud.

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Page updated: 20 May 13