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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

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 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p118  19[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]The Harder You Hit Them

Loudest and most pestiferous of all those mosquitoes was the same Thomas Boyle of Baltimore who had issued the blockade "proclamation." That particular gesture was only the climax to a series of irreverent tricks.

Captain Boyle was by no means the only American privateer who again and again moved breathlessly close to British warships almost as though asking to be sunk, and then darted away, barely in time. But he was the most notable of them.

Boyle operated off Spain, off South America, Africa, France, and in the West Indies, but his favorite cruising ground was the English Channel, for he believed in the stout fighting motto that the nearer you get to your enemy the harder you can hit him.

His two vessels, Comet in the early days of the war, Chasseur in the later, were both schooners, and almost unbelievably fast. Of equal importance was their maneuverability, far greater than that of any square-rigged or brig-rigged vessel. Each vessel could do almost anything  p119 but turn around in its own length. And on the poop of either of these, giving his orders to the helmsman laconically and in a low voice, Thomas Boyle could play with a hulking warship as a slim, supple toreador plays with a bull. And he did, repeatedly.

An example:

At daylight of February 6, 1813, while among the West Indies, Boyle in Comet sighted two brigs to leeward, and promptly went after them. The first struck without demur. The second showed a little resistance, not much. Neither gave him any trouble or cost him any casualties. However, before the second one had struck, still a third vessel, a man-of‑war, hove into sight. By questioning prisoners taken from the first brig, Alexis, Captain Boyle learned that this and the other one had been part of a convoy of nine sail that had left Demerara for St. Thomas two days before, their cargo mostly rum and molasses. All the others excepting those two brigs and the warship had made the harbor the previous night. They had stood off and on, waiting for the dawn which, alas, only revealed to them the sight of Comet bearing down.

The skipper of the second brig remembered a set of suggestions recently sent out by the British Admiralty to all masters of merchantmen. When taken by an American privateer the merchantman should, before being boarded, "cause their gears, trusses, and halyards to be cut and unrove, and their vessel to be otherwise so disabled as to prevent their being immediately capable of making sail." This the skipper started to do, cutting away his topsail and jib halyards and in general making more of a wreck of his rigging than even Comet's cannonballs had done.

 p120  It was now a little after nine o'clock, and the warship was approaching rapidly.

From the schooner Captain Boyle saw what they were up to on the brig, for he had seized those Admiralty "suggestions" from a previous prize. He immediately sent over a boarding crew with extra lines and tackle, and ordered them to work fast.

Then he put about and sailed right toward the oncoming men-of‑war.

Oh, he had no thought of fighting her! A long cannon-shot away he began to tantalize her with imprudent moves this way and that, now sailing almost across her stern, now all but snapping her bowsprit off. He was saucy about this, and adroit. It was the bullfighter and the bull all over again. Comet was holed more than once in the course of these daring moves, but she was not seriously damaged, and she lost no men. She fired no shots of her own.

This business, infuriating the English vessel (improperly named Swaggerer), lasted for nearly two hours. Then Boyle, having seen that the second brig, now repaired, was stepping for freedom with all canvas spread, blithely followed her, leaving a frustrated Swaggerer far, far behind.

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Captain Boyle did tangle with a war vessel once, but she was Portuguese, not British. That was outside of Pernambuco, on the coast of Brazil, the night of January 11‑12, 1813.

Four vessels had come out of that port late in the afternoon, and Comet, which had been watching for them, immediately gave chase. Catching this little group was not hard for the schooner, but it was a little disconcerting to  p121 learn, up close, that one of them was a brig-of‑war. The others, obviously merchantmen, though armed merchantmen, were two brigs and a ship.

By this time it was dark, but a bright full moon was rising.​a The war brig hailed the schooner, announcing that she was Portuguese and that she was sending over a boat. She did so. The officer, sure enough, wore a Portuguese uniform, and though he spoke English he was undoubtedly a Latin. He stated that his vessel was escorting these three British merchantmen, which Boyle must leave alone. Boyle retorted that he intended to take them, right now.

The officer pointed out that the merchantmen were armed. Boyle answered tartly that he could see that for himself. He added that Portugal and the United States of America were not at war, that this was the high seas, and that he was a licensed American privateer who had every right to take these British vessels if he could.

The officer seemed nonplussed at this. Probably his captain had been bribed to act as escort to the Britishers until they got well clear of the port. However he said, ominously, that the brig-of‑war had a crew of 165 men and mounted twenty 32‑pounders.

This was a clear bluff, and Boyle called it, warning that if they got in his way he would blast them.

The officer said he thought he'd better go back aboard the brig-of‑war and see his captain for further orders.

He did so; and for a long while nothing happened. The moon rose higher; the night was bright. The four vessels drifted along in something of a huddle, though Comet had difficulty keeping back with the others.

At last the Portuguese hailed Comet and asked her to  p122 send over a boat. Captain Boyle replied that he would do no such thing. He then proceeded to hail the merchant ship, demanding her surrender. She opened fire — and so did he — and so did everybody.

The smoke was so thick (there was little wind) that all five vessels were soon enveloped. This was fine for the Comet gunners, who could shoot almost anywhere and be reasonably sure of hitting an enemy, but it was not so fine for their opponents, who might have fired at one another. The Portuguese vessel fell back. One by one the other vessels surrendered to Comet. Boyle did not put prize crews aboard of them because he had to keep all his men with him in case the Portuguese (obviously not sure of how he stood) came up fighting again. This in fact she did, but soon fell back once more.

It had been a confusing donnybrook. Dawn revealed that the merchantmen had been very badly mauled. The Portuguese signalled to them to follow him back into port, and, forgetting that they had already struck to the American, they started to obey.

Boyle retook one, a brig, but then he just stood by and watched the others, escorted by the Portuguese, limp back into Pernambuco. Obviously he could not follow them there. He had been pretty badly battered himself and needed to make repairs. Besides, the escaping brig and ship were barely afloat; they would never reach any port in the United States for condemnation. He had the best prize anyway, so he let the others go.

Thomas Boyle made a great deal of money and had a great many fights, not all of them decisive. A running battle of eight hours between Comet and the 800‑ton, 22‑gun  p123 Hibernia, in West Indian waters, ended in a draw. But his most famous duel was against an ex‑American privateer.

This was off Havana, February 26, 1815, some twelve miles from land, when Chasseur sighted and went after another schooner, which ran.

She was about the size of Chasseur, and, unexpectedly, almost as fast. As they were soon to learn, the stranger had indeed been an American privateer, Atlas, Captain David Moffat, master. She had been trapped in Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, July 12, 1813, and captured by boats from Admiral Cockburn's squadron. Then as so often happened when an American privateer was taken, the British, admiring her speed, converted her into an armed dispatch carrier, in this case changing her name to St. Lawrence.

That's what she was doing right now, carrying important dispatches, and that is why her skipper, Lieutenant Henry Cranmer, R. N., ran. Cranmer was not afraid, but he had his orders.

Until Chasseur was actually alongside the fugitive none of the Americans suspected that she was anything but an exceptionally fast merchant vessel. Very few men were seen aboard of her. There was no sign of resistance.

Then, knowing that he couldn't get away, Cranmer barked an order. Suddenly St. Lawrence's deck swarmed with seamen. To starboard ten gun ports were hoisted up as though at a single movement, and ten cannons rolled. There was a terrific broadside.

Chasseur reeled. But she recovered; and in a few moments her own guns were sounding, while musketeers clambered up the shrouds.

 p124  Boyle tried to get close, to board, but Chasseur in spite of him surged ahead. Cranmer put up his helm, thinking to wear across the privateer's stern and rake him. Boyle, no fool, sensed this move almost before it was made; and he put up his own helm, which brought back his lead and made them virtually bow-opposite‑bow.

So they were running side by side again, only a few yards apart, guns blazing.

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It was about twenty minutes to two, and a clear afternoon.

St. Lawrence's mainmast went over. That crippled her, and at last Boyle did manage to close. Cutlasses, pikes, and pistols in their hands, his men swarmed over the starboard gunnels of St. Lawrence.

They never needed to use those weapons. The British, their captain down, their guns silent, struck.

Lieutenant Cranmer was painfully but not mortally wounded. Captain Boyle sent him services of his own surgeon, and the two men had a chat.

St. Lawrence was so badly "chewed up" that she would hardly have been a safe prize, much less a lucrative one; and the nearest United States admiralty court was far away. Thomas Boyle released her, as he released all of her men on parole. He even gave them tar and tow and other gear with which to make temporary repairs, to help them stay afloat until they reached Havana. Cranmer was so touched by this gesture that he insisted upon writing a letter addressed to the commander of any British war vessel that might capture Thomas Boyle, pleading that "His humane and generous treatment of myself, the surviving  p125 officers and crew of His Majesty's late schooner St. Lawrence . . . entitle him to the indulgence and respect of every British subject."

But neither of these polite and courageous men knew that their battle had been in vain. The war was over. It had in fact been over for more than two months. Peace was signed at The Hague, December 24, 1814.

Lieutenant Cranmer learned this the next day, when he made Havana. Thomas Boyle did not learn it until almost two months later, when, on April 15, he returned to Baltimore, all set to squirm through the blockade — and found that there wasn't any.

Such was war, in those days.

Thayer's Note:

a For those of you writing books (especially history or historical novels): beware of the Moon, she's a tricky one; if you don't do your homework, someone will catch you out on it.

The Moon was neither full nor rising in the late afternoon. According to the Naval Observatory's Astronomical Tables, on January 11, 1813 the Moon was "waxing gibbous with 69% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated" (presumably at noon UT), and at Pernambuco (8°48′ S, 36°57′ W) had risen at 13:36 local time, nearly five hours before sunset at 18:26: she was pretty much in fact at her midheaven.

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Page updated: 20 May 13