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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p48  7[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]The Mosquito Fleet

The colonial wars — King William's, Queen Anne's, the others — made up a carnival for the American privateer.

These war were fought for remote political reasons of which he knew little and cared less. And they were fought far away. The skipper of an American privateering vessel, the mates and hands as well, did not have to worry about their wives and children who were perfectly safe at home. No enemy would descend upon such comparatively barren shores when there were prizes like the West Indian islands so near at hand — and so weak. Except for a few daring, eccentric pioneers who had pushed inland — (nine-tenths of the seamen in the American privateers lived on or within a few miles of the coast), the colonists no longer feared redskin raids. No taxes or irksome restrictions were imposed upon them as a direct result of these wars, which, as far as they were concerned, were a series of romps. They brought no responsibilities; but the training was fine, and the pickings were good.

The French and Indian War (the Seven Years' War) had to be taken more seriously. There were special taxes —  p49 taxes imposed by the colonial legislatures, to be sure, but they had to be paid anyway. For the first time a large force of British regulars, under General Braddock, was landed in America, and spirited efforts were made to swell their ranks with colonists. The press gang was not resorted to, but sometimes it was hard to stay away from those recruiting sergeants. The redskin was as far off as ever, but he was acting ugly, and for the first time in many years, egged on by his French allies, he was showing signs of coming back.

Americans, somewhat scared, played an active part in the French and Indian War, both on the field and at sea.

Yet truly it was not until the outbreak of the Revolution that Americans had to concern themselves with matters maritime, with the task of organizing their own Navy. And the inspiration for this, as much as it could be said to be from one man, came from, unexpectedly, George Washington.

He had no seafaring background. True, his estate, Mount Vernon, had been named after an admiral, but George Washington himself had not named it. He had no association with ships. He lived inland. He had never been to Europe, and his only experience in voyaging was a trip to the West Indies with his sick half-brother Lawrence (who died soon afterward), when George himself was still in his teens. That voyage could hardly have been a happy one, since besides the fact that he was probably seasick much of the time (he had a queasy stomach in the best of circumstances), he contracted smallpox down there and all but died of it, his face being marked for life.

Yet this same man displayed an uncommon interest in  p50 sea warfare and did everything he could to get an American Navy started.

A real Navy, a regular, uniformed, disciplined force, was what Washington wanted. But privateering was helped indirectly by this interest of his and, for a little while, it looked as though the privateers, the irregulars, would run the entire show.

When the day of Lexington and Concord ended, the British redcoats, dazed, dusty, and dead tired, stumbled back to Charleston; then they went on to Boston, which was immediately surrounded by the angry buzzing American militiamen, who started a siege.

It was an odd sort of siege, not carried on along conventional lines, as it would have been in Europe, with parallels and redoubts and redans and covered ways and half-moons and counterscarps and terrepleins and all the rest of it, but consisting only of a cluster of disconnected and red‑necked rawboned farmers who squatted everywhere and dared the British to come out. This the British very sensibly declined to do.

They were not completely surrounded however. The side of the sea was open. To bring in all their supplies by ship, in the summertime when the land was filled with orchards and vegetable gardens and cattle and swine, was costly, but they could afford it. And Concord and Lexington had taught them that to go out and raid those stables and orchards might prove a great deal more costly in the long run. Meanwhile, they had sent for reinforcements.

Washington strove to regularize the siege, and he sent Henry Knox to Ticonderoga in northern New York to bring down a whole train of cannons captured there by  p51 Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, "in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress." Then Washington turned his attention to the sea.

It was shameful, he agreed, that the British should be allowed to come and go as they pleased on the bay side of Boston. But he had no navy; nor is a national navy the sort of thing that you can organize and equip in a few weeks or even months. Washington did the next best thing, the best immediate thing. Paying them from his own military chest, he authorized certain army or militia officers with nautical backgrounds to pick up coasting vessels here and there, hastily arm them, and then go out near the entrance of Boston harbor and see what happened.

A great deal did happen.

These men could not be called privateers, because they fought at the public expense, but they worked with such privateers as there were, and they must certainly, by any definition, be called irregulars. They were "sea partisans," for a little while. They were sometimes called a marine militia, sometimes a voluntary navy; and they did telling work there in the first few months of the struggle, catching the British off balance.

For instance, on November 29, 1775, Lee, a vessel commissioned by Washington himself, though owned by the colony of Massachusetts, brought into Cape Ann roads the British Nancy with 2000 muskets and 2000 bayonets, 3000 rounds of shot for 12‑pounders, some gunpowder, and 50 carcasses, or fire shells. Here was a welcome cargo indeed! Until this time there had been hardly a bayonet in the whole Continental Army.

 p52  That same small vessel soon afterward, in the company of Defense, Captain Seth Harding, master, and three small privateers with which they had joined company, chased two transports into the harbor at Nantasket, and took them there, together with their cargo of 200 regular British redcoats, intended as reinforcements to the Boston garrison.

The next day the same vessels went outside again and captured yet another British transport with yet another 100 redcoats. And soon afterward the armed sloop Warren duplicated this feat.

It was no thunderous victory, but at least the British had been served notice. This would not be as easy a squashing party as it had seemed at first. Hereafter they had better detail a warship when they wished to send soldiers across the sea.

The British Navy after the French and Indian War had been whittled down dismally, and weakened. But even at its lowest, it was quite capable of whipping, with one hand tied behind its back, the absurd conglomeration of cockleshells that the revolting colonists could send against it.

Cockleshells? No, say rather mosquitoes. They performed that function; they were pesky and persistent. And within their limits, those first American sea partisans got good results. At least they held the line for a little while.

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Page updated: 20 May 13