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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p57  9[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]You Can Go Home Now

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To a regular Navy man, battle was opportunity. It might mean a citation, a medal. It might mean promotion or prize money. Assuredly, and whatever the outcome, it  p58 would mean valuable experience; it would help him in his profession. The Navy officer never turned away from battle, but sought it out, eagerly.

With the privateers it was different. To a privateer, fighting was no more than an occasional unfortunate necessity. He tried to keep it at a minimum. A show of force, not a struggle, was usually all that he needed. He wasn't seeking glory for his country or for himself; he was seeking profits for his owners, and common sense told him to keep from being hurt or his vessel damaged, whenever this was possible. He would fight, oh, yes! But fighting was a sideline, not the central part of his business.

There were exceptions. Every now and then some privateer would be cornered and have to slug his way out, and every now and then, too, one of them would challenge a bigger and more heavy armed vessel, even in some cases a war vessel, for all the world as though he just needed the exercise.

In Salem, Massachusetts, during the Revolution, as later during the War of 1812, privateering was a way of life, an accepted and highly acceptable condition. It occupied almost everybody's time and attention.

Jonathan Haraden lived in Salem, when he wasn't at sea, though he had been born in nearby Gloucester. A quiet, efficient man, cool in action, never flustered, he had far more than his share of fighting.

He was one of the first of the "nautical militiamen," a lieutenant aboard Tyrannicide, a small but exceedingly active vessel. After taking sundry prizes near home, and finding among them some dispatches valuable to General Washington, Tyrannicide, on March 29, 1779, came upon  p59 the British brig of war Revenge, off Bermuda, and instantly attacked. They were well matched, and, locked with grappling hooks, they had been at it for two hours hammer-and‑tongs, when the Britisher at last struck.

It was Jonathan Haraden, a skipper now, commanding the 180‑ton General Pickering, again out of Salem, who fought one of the most sensational sea duels in the history of privateering. General Pickering had aboard a cargo of sugar for Bilbao, a Spanish port on the Bay of Biscay. In the early days of the war the Spaniards at Bilbao had been leery of American privateers, and had even come near to hanging one of them as a pirate. Lately, however, they had been more accommodating; they did not draw any national line, but welcomed English and American and French alike. After selling her sugar General Pickering wanted to see what she could pick up in the Channel.

She was set upon in mid‑ocean by a British cutter which greatly outweighed her, and there was a running fight of several hours, General Pickering in the end being saved only by the coming of night.

Another night, soon afterward, was helpful to General Pickering, when under cover of darkness and not far from the Bay of Biscay she all but collided with the British armed brig Golden Eagle. Thinking fast, Captain Haraden called upon the brig to strike instantly or he would sink her, for he identified his own vessel as "a United States frigate of the heaviest class." At any time this might have been a disconcerting message, but now when John Paul Jones was sinking warships large and small all around the island of Great Britain it was downright alarming to a skipper who could not get a good look at his neighbor.  p60 A frigate at that range, even a comparatively light one, could have knocked him out of the water with a single broadside, in a matter of seconds. So without firing a shot, the Englishman surrendered. He expressed his humiliation later, when he went aboard General Pickering as a prisoner and saw how small she really was, about the size of his own brig. Still the trick was a fair one, as seamen looked at things in those days. Haraden put a prize crew aboard of Golden Eagle and ordered her to follow him into Bilbao.

As they approached that port a large vessel, bristling with gun ports, was seen striving to get out, for the wind was very light. Haraden asked the captain of Golden Eagle if he knew her. The captain did. She was a privateer out of London, Achilles, much larger than General Pickering and with forty‑two guns and 140 men. (General Pickering had 16 guns, 6‑pounders, and 45 men.) Now, the English captain might have been saying this only in order to scare Haraden. So the privateer only replied, "Well, I won't run away from her," and kept his course.

They could not come together that night nor all the next day, because of tricky winds. It was a time of great strain, a situation calculated to rasp the nerves of even the most stolid. It was made endurable in the American vessel by the demeanor of Captain Haraden, who might have been in his own parlor back in Salem, waiting to be called to supper. Haraden saw that everything that needed doing was done, but he never raised his voice, never fussed. He ate well, and slept well; and his men, seeing, this, remained steady.

It was clear to those on land that these two vessels were  p61 preparing to fight, and the word spread. Spaniards came hurrying into Bilbao from all over the countryside. The shore and the streets were black with them. They leaned out of windows, breathless. They sat on rooftops. They climbed into trees. Hundreds of them even pushed out in small boats to get a better look.

There was distinctly a holiday atmosphere about Bilbao and its offing that early morning of June 4, 1780, when Achilles and General Pickering at last sailed within range of one another. And the spectators were given a good show.

It lasted for more than three hours. Achilles wished to close, to grapple, but Haraden kept away from her. Achilles, being so much larger, made a better target, and again and again, even in that light air, sometimes using sweeps, or long oars, Haraden managed to get under her stern and rake her. He didn't miss a trick. The English had plenty of spirit, but the American gunnery was better; and at last Achilles had to quit. She didn't strike, but, badly crippled, she backed away.

All the while Jonathan Haraden had been as calm as though, as one of his men, put it, "he was only in a snow storm."

The crowd went wild with delight, waving and shouting for a long while, milling about the victor in their boats; and when a little later the still unsmiling Haraden went ashore to see about the sale of that sugar, he was treated to the sort of ovation that ordinarily would have been given only to a success­ful bull fighter.

Incidentally, Haraden encountered three armed merchantmen on his way home. They were sailing together  p62 for purposes of protection, and since each was about his own size they could have slashed him to ribbons if they had stayed together. But in an exhibition of consummate seaman­ship, Haraden cut them apart and took them one by one. It was a great day in Salem when he got back.

Sometimes called the "Salamander" because of his ability to stand fire, Jonathan Haraden was to have yet more spirited sea duels before the end of the year, and he never lost a ship. But that bright windless morning outside of Bilbao, while thousands watched, would always remain the high point of his life.

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