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Chapter 5

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 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p39  6[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]It Could Be Called a Gold Rush

Suppose that you are a man of means, looking for a place to invest your money, and your country has just gone to war? There was no stock exchange in America in these early days. Suppose you thought of privateering? What would you do? How would you go about it?

Well, first of all (if you did not happen to be a captain yourself) you must get a skipper. Discipline on American privateers was not as strict as it was aboard of naval vessels, but neither was it lax, and the captain was all‑powerful, a man whose orders could not be appealed.

It would be well to look into this prospective captain's reputation among the foremast hands who had served under him as well as among the owners, his past employers. Many a sea skipper was all affability ashore but a very devil off soundings, a different man altogether.

A sullen crew might be all right aboard a merchantman, but a privateer needed alertness, smartness, a willingness to fight. The crew would be so large that the work would not be hard — which meant that even more depended upon  p40 the personality of the captain, since an idle sailor can be a dangerous sailor.

A privateer was always overcrowded when she set forth. There were several reasons for this.

Virtually all merchant vessels in war times were armed, and some skippers might elect to resist a privateer's attack. A deckful of men waving cutlasses and boarding pikes as the privateering vessel overtook its intended victim would go a long way toward discouraging such a decision. Just the sight of such a crowd might bring about a peaceful submission — saving time, trouble, and conceivably lives.

Though the privateer would sail with an empty hold it was hoped by everybody connected with her that this hold would soon be filled with a miscellaneous cargo taken from other vessels. Men were needed to move this cargo, and move it fast, before an enemy warship could heave into sight and spoil the whole operation.

Many prisoners might be taken, and men would be needed to guard them or to give them battle if they broke loose, as often happened.

Most important of all, whenever it was possible the seized vessel would be sent to an American port for condemnation. That meant a prize crew of anywhere from half a dozen to twenty‑odd men, depending upon the size of the prize, would be needed to take her in. Thus a privateer might return from a successful cruise with only about one tenth the crew she had signed on.

Next, you would need the vessel. There would be a wide choice here in almost any port, though prices would go high as soon as the word got out — and it would get out — that you were preparing to outfit a privateer.

 p41  What kind of vessel should you buy? The type of rig this vessel carried doesn't really matter. It could be a sloop or a schooner, a brig or a barkentine. The big thing was speed. Above everything else, this vessel must be fast. Maneuverability might count too; and certainly this vessel should not have too deep a keel, for if you were chased you might want to take her up some shallow river or inlet where a warship couldn't follow. But speed is the first thing to look for, as it is the last.

Or perhaps you have a vessel of your own that can be converted? All sorts of men did own vessels or parts of vessels then.

Since you plan to crack on every inch of canvas she will hold, you must see to it that all her spars are sound, her mast or masts well and firmly stepped. This craft will be under a great strain.

There must be storage space for an exceptionally large supply of spare sails and running- and standing-gear. Chain shot, in a tussle, might carry away a crippling amount of your canvas and sheets and lines, and your very life could hang on the speed with which you made repairs.

Remember, too, that you will be carrying an extraordinarily large supply of shot and powder — much more than a mere merchant vessel. The powder in particular must be stowed low, yet not so low that it won't be easy to get at in a fight. Anti-fire construction will be one of your biggest costs.

If the privateer is to operate in tropical waters (this would be up to the captain, provided that the license was unlimited), she should have her bottom scraped, then sheathed with copper, which was not easy to get in  p42 America. A fouled bottom would slow any vessel, no matter how much canvas she had cracked on.

In appearance, even after the conversion job has been done, your privateer at a slight distance will look like an ordinary, inoffensive merchantman. That's good. That's the way you want it to look.

The work of conversion should not take long, a couple of weeks at most, for you'll drive the men night and day. You will have to pay through the nose, but you'll get a good job done.

Meanwhile, government vessels, Navy vessels, or, in colonial times, royal vessels, would be laid up for lack of repairmen, since the crown or the federal Congress could not possibly match the wages privateers paid in the shipyards.

In the War of 1812 all sorts of costly concessions and extra allowances had to be made to ship carpenters and builders to get them to go north to Lake Champlain and Lake Erie and build the fleets that scored such stunning victories under Macdonough and Perry. Even so, they were always short-handed at both places. Sailors could be ordered to the spot, but workmen had to be wheedled.

Before you pierce too many gunports it might be well to make sure that you have or can immediately get the guns to go into them.

The number does not matter, nor is the size important, though they must not be too large for your vessel. A prolonged firing might tear her seams open. The British regulations as to the minimum number and size of the guns a privateer must carry were little respected on this side of the sea in colonial days, nor were state or congressional  p43 restrictions observed later. The American privateer pushed out as soon as he could and with whatever armament he had managed to get because he knew that the first thing he would take off a prize was her guns. In the Revolution a ketch called Skunk, commissioned by New Jersey, carried but two guns and twenty men, yet she took nineteen prizes — making the fortune of everybody aboard, not to mention the owners.

There were three types of naval guns. One, the columbiad, was not used on privateers, which mounted only long guns and carronades.

A long gun was heavy, and it used a heap of powder. It would carry far, and it was accurate. The carronade, on the other hand, was not accurate and it did not have a long range, but up close in a broadside it could throw a tremendous weight of iron; and the privateers, who liked to work close, preferred the carronade, but they took what they could get.

The carronade was not as heavy as the long gun, and not as big — it did not preempt as much room. It did not use nearly as much powder, though it could be reloaded at least as quickly. And if it had to be jettisoned, like the guns of that brig the Constitution chased, then not as much was lost, for you could buy five or six carronades — when you could buy them — for the price of one good long gun.

You need not be afraid of revealing your mission. There was no disgrace connected with the financing of privateers. In Rhode Island, and particularly at Newport, it was a way of life. Governor Benedict Arnold has been mentioned. Thomas Paine, one of the biggest investors there,  p44 was a founder of Trinity Church, which still stands. In neighboring Massachusetts the house of Cabot, then as now to be mentioned only with bated breath, had extensive privateering interests. So did the house of Crowninshield.

You apply either for a letter of marque or a privateer's license, at a vice-admiralty court. In colonial times each provincial governor had vice-admiralty powers, and he could and did issue letters of marque and privateering commissions in time of war, either directly or through somebody to whom he delegated that power. In the Revolution the governors retained this authority, and the Continental Congress issued such papers as well.

The Constitution of the United States authorizes Congress "to declare War, grant letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water" (Article 1, Section 8), by implication taking this power from the individual States. After its formal ratification in 1788, this work was done by agents of the federal government, who, however, were to be found in every port.

A letter of marque was carried by a merchantman who did not plan to rove, but who wanted to be able to protect himself if attacked. A privateering commission, on the other hand, was issued to a captain who had no thought of carrying cargo — at first.

Let us say that you seek a privateering commission. If your background is not murky, you should have little trouble getting it, though of course you will be obliged to post a bond to the value of your vessel as an insurance against possible future claims, and there will be sundry  p45 lawyers' and clerks' and officials' fees. These men too want to cash in on the madness of privateering, just like the ordnance merchants and the shipbuilders, and they can always threaten you with delay, with red tape. Delay is what you most dread, and you'll pay anything to avert it, for privateering is a fever that burns in the blood. Like all the others you believe that if you can only get out there early enough you will make millions.

It's like a gold rush. Indeed in a manner of speaking it is a gold rush.

Your license may limit your roving, or it may be unlimited. However it is almost sure to have a time limit on it, and in any event it would automatically expire when peace was declared. If you should happen to be at sea when this happens, it might be a month or more, even three or four months, before you hear of it — though as a rule privateering voyages were not long. In that case, and if you took a prize or prizes after the time peace was declared but before you yourself had heard of it, that prize or those prizes will not be libelled and must be returned in good condition.

Meanwhile your captain is raising a crew. He will, of course, pick his own mate or mates, and a sailing master as well if he carries one, though most captains are their own sailing masters. As for the seamen, he will not have to go into the country and beat a drum for recruits, or offer free drinks to enlistees. The press gang, that ugly medieval hangover, never was resorted to on this side of the sea. No, the sailors will come to the skipper, once the word is out. They'll come hat in hand, pleading. All the captain has to do is pick the best men and be careful that  p46 he does not get any deserters from the Navy, because the service brass already hate him enough as it is.

"There is at this time 5 Privateers fitting out here, which I suppose will take 400 men," William Whipple of the officer procurement committee wrote to Josiah Bartlett from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the time when John Paul Jones was there desperately trying to raise enough men to permit him to take out his soon-to‑become-famous Ranger. "Besides all this, you may depend no public ship will ever be manned while there is a privateer fitting out. The reason is plain: Those people who have the most influence with Seamen think it their interest to discourage the Public service, because by that they promote their own interest, viz., Privateering."

This was true not only at Portsmouth (which, by the way, was then called Falmouth) but everywhere else in America. The Navy, too, granted prize money, breaking each prize into twenty equal pieces, of which three went to the captain; two to the sea lieutenants and sailing master; two to the marine officers, surgeon, gunner, purser, bosun, carpenter, master's mates, and chaplain; three to the midshipmen, surgeon's mates, captain's clerk, schoolmaster, steward, sailmaker, bosun's mates, master-at‑arms, armorer, and coxswain; three to the gunner's yeomen, bosun's yeomen, quartermasters, quarter gunners, coopers, sailmaker's mates, sergeants and corporals of the marines, drummer, fifer, and extra petty officers; and seven parts to the seamen, ordinary seamen, marines, and boys. Moreover, this would be paid even if you sank the prize or burned her.

This Navy regulation concerning prize money was a  p47 model one for most of the American privateers, who, however, drew up a separate contract for each cruise.

All the same, you had a much better chance of hitting it big if you sailed with a privateer. Or at least, that's what men thought. Everybody loves to gamble.

Now you must make up articles of agreement, and this can be quite a process.

As far as you can, you cover everything. The vessel and all its present and future contents, including all prizes, are divided into "lays," just as was done on so many fishing vessels and later was to be done on sealers and whaling ships. These lays usually are sixty-four in number, of which "the ship and her owners," almost always including the skipper, get half. The other half goes to the officers and men according to a complicated sliding scale of values. There are usually clauses providing extra payments to men who lose an arm, a leg, and so on, or who are killed. Often there is also a proviso that "if any man coward" in action he shall lose his lay.

The men all sign this at last, or make their marks.

You will be obliged, of course, to carry a very heavy supply of provisions and water, since you have so big a crew and hope to have so many prisoners.

But your voyage, however attended by good fortune, will not be a long one. Privateering always was a hit-and‑run business.

So now you are ready to sail — and God help you!

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Page updated: 17 May 13