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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17

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 19

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p112  18[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]The Playful Ones

Mention has been made of the patriotism of American privateers. If this did not flame as high in the War of 1812 as it had in the early part of the Revolution, it nevertheless was a living, ponderable thing, not to be sneered at.

The United States was a much younger nation than Britain or France, and her privateers were ardent. Time after time they tackled war vessels of their own size or even larger, a policy any European privateer would have  p113 deemed poor business. And time after time, too, the Americans went out of their way to send back to the federal authorities captured dispatches or prisoners who might be of value to the war effort. They did this even before the government (as we shall see) offered to pay for the prisoners and offered also to pay for any war vessel that had been captured, sunk, or burned. What's more, many times they destroyed vessels after sacking them, rather than risk a prize crew aboard of them when there was little chance that they might make an American port. They did not need to do this. It wasn't required by law, and it took time. But it helped the cause.

Another thing that marked the Americans was their humanity. The French corsairs were a rough lot, and the British were hardly noted for their kindliness to captives, but American privateering skippers went out of their way to be gallant after a fight, behaving on the whole like regular Navy captains who were sure of their positions, their dignity, and felt no need to be gruff. This amazed British Navy officers who fell prisoner to American privateers, and who, it would seem, often expected to be scalped. The letters of marque themselves insisted that all prisoners were to be treated with decency and respect, and virtually all of the articles of agreement had strongly worded reminders of this clause. There was never any prisoner scandal in this war, at least none on the American side.

Yet another characteristic of the Americans was their dash, their playfulness. Except in actual combat they were not likely to be grim. They did not seem to look upon the business in which they were engaged as in any way  p114 sordid, and some of them from time to time even treated it as a frolic. Also, it was respectable. As we have already seen the Cabots, the Quincys, the Crowninshields were in it. Captain Nathaniel Silsbee left the privateer Herald for the United States Senate. Some of the most distinguished U. S. Navy captains were or had been skippers of privateering vessels: Truxtun,​a Porter, Biddle, Decatur, Barry, Barney, Rodgers.

The sensational True-Blooded Yankee (actually a French-built brig, though she was manned by Americans and had been fitted out by a Rhode Islander, Mr. Preble, then a resident of Paris), thought nothing of holding up a Scottish town to ransom, or stopping for a few days on an Irish island for water and firewood, or sailing right into Dublin harbor to sink a schooner that had eluded her the previous day.

The Comet schooner, out of Baltimore, like Boxer, like Swift, and America from Salem, like many another, was impudent, to say the least. These privateers seemed to taunt war vessels by going almost alongside them and then darting away, so confident were they of their own speed. It was as though they were thumbing their noses at the British Navy, which was not amused.

Their very names indicate a waggish mood: Black Joke, Teazer, Orders in Council, Turn Over, Sturdy Beggar, Saucy Jack, Wild Cat, Macaroni, Right of Search, Impertinent. Two of the most aptly named were Scourge of New York and Rattlesnake of Philadelphia, both brigs. These, each boasting a record of prizes in its own right, fell in with one another in the English Channel quite by chance, and for some time cruised in company. They were startlingly  p115 success­ful, making hundreds of prisoners, taking more than forty prizes, and bringing in to their combined owners at least $2,000,000.

It was Captain Thomas Boyle of Baltimore, skipper first of the Comet schooner, and later of an equally irreverent vessel, Chasseur, who perpetrated the most outrageous jape of the war. Boyle was a sobersided person, to look at. He seemed rather sad. He never raised his voice, except in a storm or during a fight.

One of the causes of this war had been the arrogant British "paper blockades" imposed on large sections of the French coast. To be sure, the French were doing the same thing to the British, even more flagrantly and with less excuse; but we were not at war with the French. A paper blockade was simply a proclamation with no warships to back it up. So one afternoon in the English Channel when he was about to send back a cartel, or paroled prisoner, the sardonic Boyle thought that he would issue a proclamation of his own, a counter-proclamation, as it were. He retired to his cabin aboard Chasseur, and soon came forth with this masterpiece, which he gave to the cartel, saying that he hoped it would be posted on the bulletin at Lloyd's:

"By Thomas Boyle, Esquire, Commander of the Private Armed Brig Chasseur, etc.


"Whereas, It has become customary with the admirals of Great Britain, commanding small forces on the coast of the United States, particularly with Sir John Borlaiseº  p116 Warren and Sir Alexander Cochrane, to declare all the coast of the said United States in a state of strict and rigorous blockade without possessing the power to justify such a declaration or stationing an adequate force to maintain said blockade;

"I do, therefore, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested (possessing sufficient force), declare all ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands, and seacoast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade.

"And I do further declare that I consider the force under my command adequate to maintain strictly, rigorously, and effectually the said blockade.

"And I do hereby require the respective officers, whether captains, commanders, or commanding officers, under my command, employed or to be employed, on the coasts of England, Ireland, and Scotland, to pay strict attention to the execution of this my proclamation.

"And I do hereby caution and forbid the ships and vessels of all and every nation in amity and peace with the United States from entering or attempting to enter, or from coming or attempting to come out of, any of the said ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands, or seacoast under any pretense whatsoever. And that no person may plead ignorance of this, my proclamation, I have ordered the same to be made public in England. Given under my hand on board the Chasseur.

"Thomas Boyle.

"By command of the commanding officer,

"J. J. Stanbury, secretary."

 p117  Whether or not this "proclamation" really was posted at Lloyd's is not known, but undoubtedly the habitués there heard about it and quoted it, while merchants and shippers throughout the kingdom gasped at its effrontery, cursing it. This thing was going to far! Damn it, where was the Navy?

Any pronouncement by Lloyd's was to be taken as seriously as the tablets brought down from Sinai; and in regard to the matter of the American privateers Lloyd's was, unabashedly, worried.

In the first seven months of the war, Lloyd's announced, 500 British merchantmen had been captured. This, naturally, sent prices up: flour was fetching $58 a barrel in London, beef $38, pork $36, planking $72 a thousand feet, which was preposterous. It all sent up the price of insurance. Why, it cost 13 guineas a 100 just to ship something across the Irish Channel, which until this time had been considered an English lake! It cost 35½ per cent of the value of the goods to ship them to Halifax!

The mosquito bites were beginning to hurt.

Thayer's Note:

a For Truxtun's privateering career in detail, see chapters 6‑9 of Eugene S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation.

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Page updated: 22 May 13