When the United States went to war against Britain in June 1812, the U.S. Navy had about 15 warships in commission, including a squadron of three frigates and two sloops-of-war that sailed from New York within an hour of receiving word of the declaration of war. America began the War of 1812 with no privateers ready to sail. Privately owned merchant ships that, in wartime, were armed by their owners and licensed by the government to attack the maritime trade of the enemy, privateers profited by the sale of ships and cargoes they captured. As soon as word of the war arrived, ship owners in the port cities up and down the Atlantic coast raced to get their sleek sloops and schooners to sea in their new predatory role. They found cannon where they could, signed up oversized civilian crews, and sent messengers to Washington to get licenses called letters-of-marque from the federal government. On 26 June 1812, a week after Congress voted for war, it passed a bill allowing privateers, which President James Madison signed the next day.
With their licenses—which would make their captures lawful, not piratical, prizes—and their ships manned and outfitted for war, privateers began to stream out of American ports in July 1812. Observers assumed that privateers, a historical weapon of weaker maritime powers, would be critical to the American war effort. In a 4 August 1812 letter, former President Thomas Jefferson predicted that the Royal Navy would prevail against the U.S. Navy, but “our privateers will eat out the vitals of their commerce.” Jefferson was no great military mind—in the same letter, he infamously predicted that conquering Canada would be a “mere matter of marching”—but he may have been right about the privateers.
A Fad of Omission
Yet many recent historians apparently do not think so. Despite an avalanche of titles published about the War of 1812 in the past few years, little has been written about privateers, and that little tends to depreciate their impact. For instance, privateers are entirely absent from popular works such as Walter Borneman’s 1812: The War that Forged a Nation and from A. J. Langguth’s Union 1812. Nor will privateers be found in J. C. A. Stagg’s excellent The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. Despite a title that seems to scream privateers, Stephen Budiansky’s Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815 hardly mentions them. Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies focuses on the war on the northern frontier and mentions privateers only in terms of the exchange of prisoners of war. Nicole Eustace’s 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism does not purport to be a military history—it considers the conflict a cultural event and looks at the war in terms of romantic passions—but privateersmen apparently did not stir such passions, because they are not mentioned. In Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers & Heroes: Madison’s Commanders in the War of 1812, David Fitz-Eng suggests that his “may be the only book one needs on the War of 1812,” but, significantly, he does not mention privateers.
The U.S. Navy began the war with resounding single-ship victories—the Constitution sank the Guerriere, the United States captured the Macedonian, and the Java was blown up after “Old Ironsides” pummeled her into a wreck. In many of the recent books about the War of 1812, those victories receive a great deal of attention. That is not surprising. They stirred America’s pride at a time when the country was reeling from the capture of Detroit and defeats along the border with Canada. Yet the U.S. Navy’s inspiring battles on the high seas did not alter the course of the war. The loss of a few warships did not seriously weaken the Royal Navy. Rather, three other maritime campaigns were significant:
• the battles for control of the lakes (Erie, Ontario, Champlain) that were critical for both sides’ efforts to attack or defend the northern frontier
• the British blockade of the American coast, which slowly strangled the U.S. economy and strained the government’s financial ability to wage war
• America’s privateering campaign against British trade.
‘War of the People’
Privateering was critical for the American war effort. In the three years of the War of 1812, U.S. Navy warships captured about 250 vessels, but American privateers took at least five times that number of British merchant vessels—at least 1,200, but probably as many as 2,000, although no one knows for sure. The privateers burned some of the British merchant ships they captured, ransomed others back to their owners, lost many to recapture by the British navy, and brought home prize ships and goods that sold for millions of dollars.
The privateering business was thoroughly modern and capitalistic, with ownership consortiums to split investment costs and profits or losses, and a group contract to incentivize the crew, who were paid only if their ship made profits. A sophisticated set of laws ensured that the capture was “good prize,” and not fraud or robbery. After the courts determined that a merchant ship was a legitimate capture, auctioneers sold off her cargo of coffee, rum, wine, food, hardware, china, or similar consumer goods, which ultimately were bought and consumed by Americans. Because it involved so many owners and seamen directly, and the American populace indirectly, some earlier historians termed the privateers’ war a “war of the people.” In addition, the government took a large cut of the proceeds off the top as customs duties, which flowed into the Treasury.
As the British blockade began to grind the American economy down, it also largely prevented the U.S. Navy from getting to sea. With the Army’s seasonal campaigns against Canada a failure, the privateers’ war on the enemy was the only way America could strike back at the British Empire. The privateers’ exploits at sea became legendary for their ruses and flair. The psychological effect (and the financial effect) on Liverpool and London merchants as the American privateers made brazen captures in the Irish Sea and the English Channel ultimately may have played a role in curbing British enthusiasm for continuing the war against America—especially after Napoleon, the existential enemy of Britain, abdicated in April 1814.
Until recently, British historians largely ignored the War of 1812. Now, with many American historians ignoring privateers, some of the recent books by British authors consider American privateers, but only to minimize their significance. In The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, for instance, Andrew Lambert acknowledges the impact of privateers in the first months of the war, but asserts that the Royal Navy minimized and ultimately defeated the privateer threat. While he acknowledges that the privateers’ guerre de course resulted in the capture of 7.5 percent of the British merchant fleet, because those losses did not produce an existential threat such as the U-boat campaigns of the world wars, Lambert concludes the privateers were “never significant.” He notes that Lloyd’s (the London insurance consortium) maintained wartime maritime insurance rates in September 1814, and infers that the stability of the insurance rates means that privateers had little effect.
But even if Lambert’s facts about insurance are true, his inference is questionable: The fact that maritime insurance rates could not be reduced by September 1814, five months after Napoleon had abdicated and Britain had returned to peace with France, is an indication of the huge and ongoing damage wrought by the American privateers.
Only in a footnote does Brian Arthur in How Britain Won the War of 1812 acknowledge that Lloyd’s own list of British merchant ships lost to the Americans undercounts the true numbers by nearly 500 vessels. Lloyds, it seems, did not count British ships that were uninsured, and many British merchant vessels sailed without insurance due to what Arthur calls the “high insurance premiums” in effect. Still, Arthur scarcely mentions American privateers. To be fair, his book focuses on the effectiveness of the British blockade of America, not the wider maritime war. Yet he cannot help inferentially making a gibe against privateers when he states that, spread over the three years of the War of 1812, the American guerre de course “loses much of its significance” compared with any year of British overseas trade, which grew in overall tonnage and numbers of ships.
Yet nowhere do Lambert or Arthur recognize that the effect of the privateers’ toll on British trade is not necessarily measured merely by the fact that more ships were built than were captured or burned, or that the home country could maintain her trade links with her possessions overseas. To that extent, the comparison with the existential war against the U-boats, which may be unavoidable for modern British historians, is flawed: The War of 1812 was not a total war, and in fact reached a negotiated conclusion in which domestic public opinion mattered.
Yet most of the books published for the bicentennial of the War of 1812 are oblivious to privateering. Although the analogy is obviously not perfect, writing about the war at sea in the War of 1812 without referring to privateers is like writing about the war at sea in World Wars I or II without referring to U-boats. Despite the critical role of privateers, despite the entrepreneurship and drama in the sort of war they waged, it is surprising that most of the new War of 1812 books by American writers minimize, if not air-brush out, the privateers’ contribution.
Why is that?
Perhaps ignoring the contribution of privateering owes something to the legacy of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s exaltation of sea power and a professional standing navy in the generations after the Civil War. In contrast to the gleaming warships of the “new steel navy,” the ad hoc, privately owned privateers seemed amateurish and disreputable. Just as the land militia ran before the British in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the navalists of the late 19th century characterized privateers as a “sea militia,” and that signaled they were unreliable and prone to running.
Profiteers—But Heroic Nonetheless
Perhaps to the high-toned Americans of the late- Victorian era, there was something unseemly about armed ships sent to sea by entrepreneurs to make money. Yet Americans, of all peoples, should not look askance at the profit motive. From the beginning of the Republic, Americans have been accused of being a mercantile nation; before the War of 1812, the British governing elite regarded Americans as “mere calculators,” who exalted making a dollar over concepts like honor. To the extent that Americans were entrepreneurial and looked at everything in terms of money, it is not surprising that those same Americans in 1812 made privateering almost an art form.
Moreover, in denigrating privateers as mere profiteers, we risk forgetting about the bravery that privateers occasionally exhibited: These cruises were not only about making money. There are stirring stories of stiff combat that, if now barely recalled, are not to be belittled. When they had to fight, privateers stood and fought, as the 40-man crew of the American privateer Prince de Neufchatel proved off Nantucket in October 1814. Then there is the Chasseur, later nicknamed the “Pride of Baltimore,” which captured the Royal Navy schooner St. Lawrence on 26 February 1815 off Havana Harbor after a brief but vicious fight. Following the battle, Thomas Boyle, the captain of the Chasseur, wrote somewhat apologetically to one of her owners, “I should not willingly, perhaps, have sought a contest with a king’s vessel, knowing it is not our object; but my expectations were at first a valuable vessel and a valuable cargo also—when I found myself deceived, the honor of the flag entrusted to my charge was not to be disgraced by flight.”
Perhaps modern historians gloss over the contributions of privateers because it is hard to write about them. Unlike the Navy, which had a secretary of the Navy who controlled the operations of his two dozen ships from an office in Washington, D.C., privateers had no centralized governmental direction. Hundreds of privateers were commissioned during the war. They put to sea when they could avoid or break through the British blockade, and they sailed where their owners or masters thought they could take prizes—off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, in the chops of the English Channel, in the Arctic Ocean, off Brazil. Privateers had economic incentives suggesting where they should sail, based on British trading patterns, but there was no strategic concept behind their operations.
Privateers sailed from every port from Portland, Maine, to Savannah, Georgia, at different times, for different cruising grounds. Sometimes they achieved spectacular successes, hovering off convoys, burning or seizing straying merchant vessels, but some privateers cruised and captured nothing, others could not get to sea, and still others were caught by British cruisers. In short, it’s a messy narrative, with many stories, hundreds of scarcely known seamen and shipowners, and diverse outcomes.
‘A Critical Aspect . . . May Be Lost’
Moreover, historians can read and analyze the secretary of the Navy’s orders and correspondence. But because privateers were privately owned, they left behind a scattered record. If their papers still exist, they are scattered around the country in libraries and historical societies and in the dusty attics of descendants. The records of their prizes condemned in the federal courts, although public records, are incomplete and widely dispersed, so that even now, 200 years after the War of 1812, no one has determined with any accuracy the number of captured British merchant ships actually brought home for prize proceedings.
As fewer historians write about privateers, the popular understanding of privateers disappears, and a critical aspect of American maritime history may be lost. Yet according to Andrew Lambert, American privateers captured 1 of every 15 British merchant vessels during the War of 1812. By the last year of the war, privateers were really all the United States could mount as a maritime threat to Britain. Whether their audacious captures and burnings influenced British public opinion or diplomacy are contested issues. But privateers were a critical aspect of war-fighting for the United States in the War of 1812.
Although nations had used privateers for centuries before 1812, privateering became a peculiarly American way of war, an effort from the ground up, decentralized, tied to entrepreneurship and patriotism. Privateering drew on the resources of the civilian world, and without calling upon a beleaguered and insolvent government for funds or direction, privateers allowed the profit-making motive, and the mass of American people, to be harnessed to the war effort.
Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812–15 (Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011).
Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War that Forged a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
Stephen Budiansky, Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
George Coggeshall, A History of American Privateers and Letters of Marque (New York: C. T. Evans, 1856).
John Philips Cranwell and William Bowers Crane, Men of Marque: A History of Private Armed Vessels Out of Baltimore During the War of 1812 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1940).
Wade G. Dudley, Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812–1815 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002).
Nicole Eustace, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
David Fitz-Eng, Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers & Heroes: Madison’s Commanders in the War of 1812 (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012).
Fred W. Hopkins Jr., Tom Boyle, Master Privateer (Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1976).
Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber & Faber, 2012).
A.J. Langguth, Union 1812 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).
Jon Latimer, 1812: War With America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).
Edgar S. Maclay, A History of American Privateers (New York: D. Appleton, 1899).
John A. McManemin, Privateers of the War of 1812 (Spring Lake, NJ: privately printed, 1992).
J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).