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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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,
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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p32  5[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]Chaos on the High Seas

Privateers were individualists. They liked to do things their own way, and resented regulation. Some in truth were downright misfits — and those were the ones who slipped over the line, becoming pirates.

Unlike navy vessels, privateers never had to fight anything close to their own size. They could run away if they thought running away the best course. They were not held down by onerous duties, like patroling or blockading an enemy port. They were entirely on their own, within the time and space limits imposed by their individual commissions, and they never kept a regular premapped course.

This encouraged boldness of imagination. Whatever else they might have been, the privateers were not in a rut. This also made for a great deal of confusion, a confusion that was not entirely the fault of the privateers themselves but was inevitable because of the nature of their job, and also because of their lack of cohesion. This confusion grew as privateering increased, from war to war. Some of the mistakes made at sea as a result of it were comic. Others were tragic.

 p33  In those days, of course there were many more sea‑crossing and coasting vessels than there are now, and though they were much smaller they were at the same time much more varied. Here are only a few of the types:

Bilander: a two‑masted vessel, somewhat like a brig, but with the mainmast bent to the whole length of the yard, hanging at an angle of 45 degrees and the foremost lower corner made fast to a ring-bolt on deck.

Brigantine: a two‑masted merchantman, square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and‑aft rigged on the mainmast.

Frigate: a fast-sailing Navy craft, meeting 20 to 60 guns. Frigate-built vessels had the quarterdeck and forecastle raised from the waist, in distinction to the galley-built boats which were flush the whole length. They were usually, though not invariably, rigged as ships.

Fly‑Boat: a large, flat-bottomed, high-sterned Dutch vessel of 400‑500 tons burden.

Gallot: a Dutch or Flemish trading vessel, with rounded ribs and almost flat-bottomed. She had no foremast but a mizzenmast right in the stern and used only to carry a sail to assist in the steering. The mainmast was sometimes square-rigged.

Galleass: the largest type of galley, castellated fore and aft and carry three lateen-rigged masts and further propelled by 32 banks of oars, each bank containing two oars and each oar worked by six or seven slaves chained to it.

Galley: a vessel resembling a galleass but smaller, carrying two lateen-rigged masts and worked by 25 banks of  p34 oars. The term was also applied to any large, broad-built boat, flush from bow to stern.

Galleon: a large vessel with three or four decks, used almost exclusively by the Spaniards in their trade with the West Indies and their other American possessions. The galleon could be identified as Spanish — or almost certainly Spanish — from a good distance.

Hag‑Boat: a frigate-built ship, with a narrow stern and deep waist. Hag‑boats were largely used as colliers and for carrying heavy goods.

Ketch: a two‑masted vessel of about 100 tons burden. She was square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and‑aft rigged on the mainmast, which was considerably shorter than the foremast. Schooner-rigging for ketches was not introduced until about 1720.

Long-boat: the largest boat accompanying a ship and usually furnished with mast and sails. Long-boats were sometimes decked and armed for short expeditions.

Pettiauger: also called "perriagua" or "piragua," this was a sort of large canoe composed of the trunks of two trees hollowed out and made into one boat. The term was also applied to a flat-bottomed boat or barge for shallow water, occasionally fitted with two masts.

Pink: a general name applied to any sailing ship with a very narrow stern.

Schooner: a two- or three-masted vessel fore-and‑aft rigged on all masts.

Shallop: a term applied to almost any kind of open boat.

Sloop: a term used loosely, and there were various kinds of sloop afloat. The actual sloop was a one‑masted vessel, fore-and‑aft rigged with a gaff-mainsail and jib. The Navy,  p35 however, used the word differently. A Navy sloop might be ship-rigged, brig-rigged, even schooner-rigged; but it was never sloop-rigged.

Snow: the largest type of two‑masted vessel. Mainmast and foremast were square-rigged; just abaft the mainmast was a small mast with its foot fixed in a block of wood on the quarter-deck and its head attached to the maintop. This mast carried a trysail.

Tall Ship: this phrase was employed to describe English-built craft which were usually short-hulled and tall-masted, in distinction to the large hulls and small spars of Spanish vessels.

Yawl: a small ship's boat, often fitted with a mast.

The galley and galleass were never seen on this side of the Atlantic. The frigate was distinctly a fighting vessel, but the term concerned the number of its guns and gun decks, not its hull or rig, which were conventional. There were also Navy sloops, which were quite different from merchant sloops and totally different from the modern sloop.

You will note that there is no "warship" in that list. The warship as such, the so‑called "ship of the line," built only for the purpose of fighting, was just beginning to appear in the world. Even up to the time of the Revolution many of the vessels in the British and French navies, and all in our own, were converted merchantmen.

Nor was this conversion anything startling or radical in point of appearance. It consisted chiefly of strengthening the decks against recoil, piercing the bulwarks for guns, and installing the guns themselves. There were certain other interior changes, such as an enormously enlarged  p36 magazine and the building of powder hoists; but from the outside, at a short distance, except for the extra numbers of gun ports — virtually all vessels carried some guns, even in time of peace, and the ports of a war vessel could readily be masked — there was little to distinguish a warship from a merchantman. By the time you could make out the difference it might be too late.

The first thing you would see of an approach vessel was her rig — her masts, sails, spars. There were many different kinds of rig, as we have already seen, but there was no kind that was distinctively military, just as there was no kind that which was distinctly national — that is, in the Western world. Moreover, even if there had been such a distinction, the way vessels were passed back and forth, captured and recaptured again and again, sometimes five or six times in the course of a single war, would have obliterated the lines.

You ask, What about the flag? Couldn't you tell by that?

Now, it's an odd thing but vessels at sea in the old days did not fly national flags. These were kept for special events only — or for battle. When two strange ships met at sea and after examining one another decided at last to fight, the flags went up as the first broadside boomed, not before. It would have been considered the height of rashness for a master to show a stranger at sea who he was before they were within speaking-trumpet distance. It was even esteemed a perfectly good trick, an accepted ruse de guerre, to run up a false flag at the last moment, to pretend that you were something you weren't. This was done not only by privateers but by warships as well; so that customarily  p37 nobody believed anything — until the shooting had started and it was too late.

What's more, the sight of naval uniforms — and if you were close enough to make out an epaulette, even with a spy glass, you might be much too close — did not prove that the other vessel was a naval vessel. Privateers had been known to employ such window-dressing in the hope of overawing their opponent and causing him to strike his colors. Rosebud tried that very trick — without success — when she tangled with Robinson and Barney in Pomona.

Except for signs that two or three or more captains might agree upon for a sailing cruise — it was not unusual for them to hunt together — the privateers had no regular set of signals as navies did. They had no over‑all understanding or organization, no admirals, no board of war, no central intelligence agency. They were separate kingdoms and seldom compared notes, for they did not even have one notable, favored eating place. They had no publication, no circulars, and no code of ethics. Not only did they have no standard wage-scale, they had no wages at all; but officers and crew depended upon prizes and if they caught nothing, they got nothing.

It was not at all unusual for one privateer to chase another all day — or even for two or three days if the nights were clear and she could be kept in sight — before they both discovered that they were of the same nationality or that they were on the same side in the war.

It was not even unknown for them to start to fight, though fortunately no such fight ever went far. All the same, one well-delivered broadside from up close could sink a ship in a matter of minutes.

 p38  True, the privateer operated under a law, or was supposed to; but this law was changed from time to time and from colony to colony, later from state to state. Bonds were raised, requirements were stiffened. But the confusion at sea persisted and grew even worse.

Not only did the privateers fail to establish among themselves any set of signals, they did not even have any agreement with their own navies.

Early in the War of 1812 the U. S. S. Constitution was proceeding north toward Nova Scotia. This was just before she met and sank the British frigate Guerrière, thus winning for herself immortal fame and the sobriquet of "Old Ironsides." She sighted a small brig and made for it, not wishing it to be known that she was in these waters. The brig, understandably, ran.

Now, that brig was an American privateer fresh out of Boston on the beginning of what he hoped would be a short but prosperous cruise. He mounted fourteen guns, brand‑new ones, hard to come by in times like those, and expensive. He knew of course that he was being chased by a warship — there could be no doubt about Constitution! — but he assumed that it was a British warship, a natural assumption in the circumstances. The chase lasted all day, and by the time the Constitution did manage to overhaul the brig, the privateering skipper, frantically trying to lighten his load and perhaps escape, had heaved twelve of his fourteen guns overboard. After that, there was nothing for him to do but to go back to Boston for more.

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Page updated: 20 May 13