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Chapter 9

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 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p62  10[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]Fight to the End

The surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, did not end the Revolutionary War. The British still had two armies in America. They still had large naval forces in American waters, forces capable of imposing an effective blockade on large portions of the coast. And they still occupied New York, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah.

It was not until almost a year later, in Paris, that peace was agreed upon, and it was not until April 19, 1783, that this agreement was ratified and proclaimed.

As far as the land forces were concerned, Yorktown did indeed mark the end of the war; but the situation at sea  p63 was different. The infant United States Navy had been mostly taken or sunk, and what few warships remained in commission were bottled in ports they did not dare to leave. The privateers, however, had never been so active. Perhaps sensing that there would not be much more time, they swarmed everywhere.

De Grasse, after having helped so much, had withdrawn to the West Indies, where he was having trouble of his own.

The valuable (if ugly) Dutch port of St. Eustatius ("Statia"), one of the Leeward Islands, very popular as a refitting stop for privateers and smugglers and a reshipping center for at least half of the French muskets and ammunition en route to the American colonies, had fallen to the British Navy, which dismantled it. And now at the tail end of the war the convoy system was becoming increasingly effective, and such British merchantmen as did sail alone were much more heavily armed.

Nevertheless, the American privateers, as though in a frenzy, redoubled their activities.

Though generally larger in size and more heavily armed than privateering vessels had been at the beginning of the war, they now ranged all the way from the 2‑gun, 15‑man Chance, out of Philadelphia (which on June 12, 1780, off Sandy Hook fought and captured the British sloop Comet, 10 guns, 50 men), to the 24‑gun Congress with a crew of 200 under Captain George Geddes of Philadelphia (which on September 6, 1781, off the coast of Georgia encountered the 16‑gun British sloop Savage).

The Savage was herself a privateer, and the skipper, a man named Sterling, used somewhat unconventional  p64 methods. He had a vessel of slight draft and liked to poke into small bays and up rivers in the southern part of the Atlantic Coast. He would spot a plantation house and turn away, but after dark he would land a raiding party that would plunder that house. This was a lucrative business but it did not make him well liked. So when the dawn of that memorable September day off Georgia showed him that he was sharing the sea with a larger American vessel, Captain Sterling quite properly decided to run away.

But Congress not only was heavier, she was also faster. By half past ten she had drawn close enough to the English privateer to open up with her bow chasers, long-range guns. By eleven she was near enough to open fire with her carronades as well, and soon afterward even with muskets and pistols.

There was nothing left for Sterling to do but stand and battle it out. And this he did — extremely well.

The fight was so fierce and so close that men on both sides were scorched by the flashes from opposing cannons. A few, in their rage, even picked up small balls and threw them at the enemy.

When it became clear that under that terrible pounding Congress was becoming unmanageable, Captain Geddes had her fall back out of range for repairs.

There was no worry that the Britisher might run away. Savage was already a wreck, her skipper dead, both mates wounded, her mast down, her deck a shambles, her rudder shot away, her sails in ribbons.

Nevertheless, when a hastily patched Congress returned to the fray, Savage opened up on her.

Toe-to‑toe again, gunnel-to‑gunnel, they slugged it out  p65 for half an hour. Then it became plain to Captain Geddes that only a boarding party could convince those stubborn Englishmen they were licked.

He gave the order. The men assembled in the waist, where pikes and cutlasses were passed out. Sleeves were rolled up, belts tightened, bare feet dipped into sand.

But at this moment the bosun, as the senior surviving officer — Savage's flag had long since been shot down, so he couldn't strike his colors — waved his cap in a signal of surrender. The guns fell silent.

The British casualties were thirty‑two, the American thirty.

That victory, however, did the Congress no good, for immediately after the fight a British frigate came along and scooped up both the wounded ships and sent them to Charleston. Congress was taken into the British Navy as the Duchess of Cumberland. She was filled with prisoners of war and dispatched to England. She never got there. She was wrecked off Newfoundland.

Some of the hottest fights were between privateers, as when, in February of 1781, the 16‑gun brig Holker from Philadelphia took on the British cutter Hypocrite, similarly weaponed, and after a furious fifteen-minute fight caused her to strike.

Or the Viper of Boston, skippered by Captain William Williams, on October 22, 1780, off Cape Hatteras battled and beat the Hetty out of New York, each, again, with 16 guns.

An even bloodier affair occurred on the high seas in January of 1781 when the 18‑gun ship Pilgrim from out of  p66 Boston (there were also in this war Pilgrim privateers from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) met and tackled the 22‑gun British Mary, which was more heavily manned. Pilgrim's men were veteran fighters, for their vessel had a long record of prizes. In time they prevailed, but both vessels, at the end, were virtually wrecks.

Not all privateering skippers were as lucky as Jonathan Haraden. To young Captain John Manly, high on the list of U. S. Navy officers early in the war, a stunning career seemed certain. Alas, there was no vessel for him to command, the greater part of the Navy being at that time under construction. So rather than wait around doing nothing he accepted command of a privateer, Cumberland, with 16 guns. Before he could accomplish anything with this vessel it was taken by a British frigate of overwhelming strength, and Manly and his men were thrown into jail in the Barbadoes. They escaped, and made their way back to Boston, where Manly was given another privateer to command, the 20‑gun Jason. Twice he had narrow escapes in this ill‑fated vessel, once being saved from a British fleet by fog, the other time by a violent gale that dismasted him off the Isle of Shoals, New Hampshire. While supervising the rigging of jury masts he was threatened by a mutiny (he seems not to have been a popular skipper) which he put down almost singlehandedly. Nothing daunted, he set out for the English Channel, where the pickings were supposed to be best. Off Newfoundland, at night, he came upon the British frigate Surprise. Greatly outweighed, he should have run; but he made about. He fought for hours, until his men refused any longer to handle their guns, refused  p67 even to come up on deck. And only then did he surrender.

So once again John Manly went to prison — this time in England. Just before the end of the war he was exchanged, and hastened back to Boston to receive his finest command yet — a regular Navy frigate, the 32‑gun Deane.

In this he hurried south, praying that there would still be time to take some prizes — only to run spang into a whole British war fleet. Close-pressed, he took refuge in the French harbor of Port Royal, Martinique (now Fort-de‑France). The British stationed a blockading squadron outside, beyond the range of the fort's guns, so that John Manly could not move; and that is where he finished the war.

The pride of the American privateering force was a late-comer, General Washington, which carried 20 six‑pounders. She took to the sea from Boston early in 1780, and soon encountered a British ship of 18 guns in company with a 6‑gun brig. The ensuing battle lasted for two hours, and it was fierce. General Washington suffered three killed and three wounded. Four of her guns were dismounted, and her mainmast was shot away, so that she could not maneuver well. The British vessels at last decided that they'd had enough, and withdrew, while General Washington limped home for repairs.

On her second time out General Washington at dawn one day found herself in the very middle of a British fleet under Admiral Arbuthnot. It was the sort of thing that happened all the time, and there was nothing to do but surrender.

The British liked General Washington, for she was  p68 fast, and they took her into their own Navy, changing her name to General Monk. Under the redoubtable Captain Rodgers, R. N., she was a notable commerce killer, ranging the coast from Maine to Florida and taking, in a year and a half, more than sixty prizes.

Then on April 8 of 1782 she was standing off and on between Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and Cape May, New Jersey — in other words, at the entrance to Delaware Bay — in the company of a few small Tory privateers from New York. They were waiting for a convoy of merchant vessels due to come down the Delaware River, hoping to get some of them as prizes before they could break up and scatter across the face of the sea. General Monk would not trouble herself with chasing these merchantmen — she'd leave that to the privateers. She was intent upon a rumor that the merchants of Philadelphia had fitted out an escorting vessel.

The merchants of Philadelphia had done just that. The Hyder Ally was pierced for sixteen 6‑pounders and carried a crew of 120, some of these being backwoodsmen from Buck's County, Pennsylvania, brought along for their crack shooting. The skipper of Hyder Ally was Lieutenant Joshua Barney, U. S. N., who like so many other Navy officers could not get a command in the service and wished to keep busy. The Philadelphia merchants could not have picked a better man.

For Barney instantly grasped the situation and never hesitated. He ignored the privateers, and, though his vessel was much smaller, made immediately for Rodgers and the General Monk.

 p69  Rodgers, for his part nothing loth, went right for the Hyder Ally.

For a little while it looked as though each was planning to lay himself alongside of the other, for boarding and hand-to‑hand fighting. Captain Rodgers asked nothing better than this, since his men outnumbered Barney's. Aboard of General Monk the quartermaster's mates began to pass out pikes and cutlasses.

But Barney swerved suddenly to starboard, and since his vessel was slightly ahead of the other this brought about a collision — which was exactly what Barney wanted.

General Monk's bowsprit and jib gear got entangled with the Hyder Ally's foremast rigging. There she was: she couldn't go ahead, she couldn't back away. If Rodgers still meant to board he would have to do it over the length of his own bowsprit, always a perilous proceeding, and Barney had provided against this with boarding nets.

More important, Barney now could hammer General Monk with every one of his starboard guns, and at point-black range. In naval parlance, he "raked" the Britisher — that is, he shot his cannonballs the whole length of the enemy vessel, where they would do the most harm, kill the most men. Rodgers, on the other hand, head‑on, could not bring a single one of his broadside guns to bear, only a few small swivels and bow chasers.

In addition, there were those Bucks County marksmen, with a whole deck to sweep. Loading and firing, they picked off their targets as cooly as squirrel hunters.

The battle lasted half an hour, and when General Monk struck her casualties were counted at twenty killed and  p70 thirty-three wounded. Hyder Ally had four killed, eleven wounded.

Joshua Barney did not even pause to ask the name of his enemy but threw a prize crew aboard, chopped off the General Monk's bowsprit, and went right after the fleeing privateers, none of which he caught. Congress gave him an engraved sword for this exploit.

That fight between Cape May and Cape Henlopen was by almost any definition the last battle of the American Revolution. There were to be skirmishes later, but this was the last real battle.

The privateers, however, went on raiding, hunting. Altogether in that war they captured or destroyed at least three times as many enemy ships as did the Navy. Their bag included sixteen vessels of war, an opponent your privateer ordinarily shunned.

Though there are no official figures, it has been estimated that the American privateers kept between 200 and 450 vessels in active duty all through the Revolution, and many more at the end than in the middle. At the end of the war too there were about 9000 American colonists at sea or about to go to sea as privateers. George Washington himself did not always have that many soldiers under his command.

But when at last peace was ratified and proclaimed, the American privateers, to a man, sailed home. There was no question, this time, of "peace making pirates." They'd had enough.

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Page updated: 20 May 13