Asymmetric Warfare, Early American Style

By Louis Arthur Norton

Lambert Wickes

The Continental Congress dispatched Captain Lambert Wickes in the aptly named Reprisal, an 18-gun ship-of-war that was to harass the enemy on his doorstep while delivering a blow to British commerce. Wickes left Philadelphia on 24 October 1776. With her arrival at Nantes, France, the Reprisal became the first Continental Navy warship to appear in European waters and the first American vessel to bring prizes into a French port.

Wickes launched his campaign in early 1777 with a raid in the Bay of Biscay and at the mouth of the English Channel, capturing a British packet. Five more prizes soon followed, which Wickes delivered to Port Louis. This deepened British suspicions of French collusion in the vexing operations of the Continental Navy captain. His actions caused consternation in Britain because France was still a neutral nation at this point in the Revolutionary War. The British demanded the return of the ships to their owners, but Wickes had renamed and repainted the captures. By altering their papers, it made them difficult to track within maritime legal red tape.

Wickes continued to venture into the Bay of Biscay, but the English merchantmen now knew to avoid the American. So he set his sights toward Ireland and a sweep of the sea for as many British commercial vessels as he could find. On 28 May 1777, Wickes sailed from St. Auzeau in command of a small squadron that consisted of the Reprisal and the Continental Navy vessels Lexington and Dolphin. The Irish Sea had not seen any American warships on patrol, so Wickes’ ships had a productive foray, capturing 18 vessels in one month. British merchants were frantically demanding that the Royal Navy establish protective convoys within home waters. 1

Running low on supplies, Wickes set a course for France but was pursued by the 74-gun HMS Burford. The Reprisal was badly outgunned and suffered damage in the often-turbulent Irish Sea. Wickes ordered some of the Reprisal’s bulwarks to be cut away, and many of her guns were heaved overboard to lighten her to increase her speed. After two and a half hours of battle, Wickes escaped the Burford. Greatly relieved, the Continental Navy captain sailed for home in September 1777. But misfortune finally caught up with Wickes on or around 1 October, when the Reprisal foundered in a storm off Newfoundland, and he, like all his crew save one, went down with the ship. 2

John Paul Jones

On 10 April 1778, John Paul Jones set sail for European waters so that his Continental Navy 18-gun sloop Ranger could engage the British off their coasts. Later that month, Jones learned from some local fishermen that the 20-gun sloop-of-war Drake was guarding Carrickfergus, the entrance to Belfast Lough, Ireland. Jones tried to grapple and board the Drake while she was at anchor, but failed. Undeterred, he crossed the Irish Sea to the western coast of England to search for other prey.

On 22 April the Ranger sailed to the mouth of the Solway Firth, Scotland, where Jones learned that hundreds of commercial vessels lay at anchor in nearby Whitehaven Harbor. During the ebb tide, he reasoned, the Ranger might be able to set many of them on fire and escape in the ensuing confusion.

Jones commanded the raiding party of two small boats. He split his force, ordering one boat to the northern side of the harbor to set fire to as many vessels as possible, while he led a party of men to storm the fort at the harbor’s entrance. They took the garrison with little resistance. Looking over the ramparts, Jones noticed his second boat apparently returning without having accomplished its objective. Meanwhile, a shrill alarm could be heard and, in the dawn’s light, a hostile crowd was observed gathering on shore. Jones and his retinue retired to the safety of the Ranger.

Jones next sailed into Kirkcudbright Bay, near his birthplace, to locate St. Mary’s Isle’s most prominent citizen, the Earl of Selkirk; take him prisoner,; and hold him hostage. After the Ranger entered the mouth of the River Dee, Jones, in command of a boatload of armed men, landed and inquired about Lord Selkirk’s whereabouts. He learned that the earl was in London, but Lady Selkirk and her children were in residence in the family mansion. Two of Jones’ officers and several of his men went there and demanded the Selkirk family silver as booty. Absconding with the silver was Jones’ way of demonstrating to the British that the Americans were unrelenting yet civil, not causing bodily harm. Jones’ attack in British home waters, plus the taking of a nobleman’s private property, made the Scottish expatriate appear as a pirate in the eyes of the British Admiralty.

On 24 April 1778, Jones returned to Carrickfergus with the intention of reengaging the Drake, which was still in the harbor. The Drake weighed anchor and came out to meet the challenge. The battle between the Ranger and Drake was fought at close range, producing much British carnage. The English ensign was struck, and Jones took possession of the sloop-of-war. With the defeat of the Drake in British home waters and the interruption of the enemy’s domestic shipping, Jones had agitated the populations of the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, causing the British to expend considerable resources to fortify their many harbors.

The Ranger had served Jones well, but the vessel had her shortcomings. Jones obtained command of the former French 40-gun Duc de Duras, changing her name to the Bonhomme Richard. The Richard, as she became known, now served as the flagship of Commodore Jones’ potent American squadron that included the 36-gun frigate Alliance, the 32-gun converted merchantman Pallas, the 18-gun cutter Cerf, and the 12-gun brigantine Vengeance, plus two privateering vessels whose commanders joined the fight for a share of the money that prizes would bring.

On 14 August 1779, Jones’ squadron sailed in search of English ships. When the Richard approached the coast of Fife, she was mistaken for the 50-gun British warship Romney. A pilot cutter was sent from shore to warn the ship’s master that the “pirate Jones” was in these waters and he should be vigilant. Jones thanked the local men and requested the pilot’s help in navigating the treacherous shores. The mariner complied and asked if Jones could spare some powder and shot for shore defenses against the dreaded buccaneer. Jones then identified himself as the very “pirate” the man feared. The stunned pilot pleaded that his life be spared. Amused, Jones released the frightened pilot unharmed and sent him off with a small barrel of powder, apologizing that he had no shot to spare. Throughout Jones’ career he appeared to enjoy taunting his opponents. He would start to close with an enemy vessel, then sail out of harm’s way, frustrating the foe with the display of a mischievous and contemptuous nature, even in dangerous situations.

On 23 September 1779, in the North Sea off England’s Flamborough Head, Jones came across the 44-gun HMS Serapis. The Serapis opened fire first, blasting the Richard in the initial broadside. The Serapis deployed her formidable armament against the Richard’s 40 guns (6 18-pounders, 28 12-pounders and 6 9-pounders). The Serapis’ deadly shot wounded or killed many members of the Richard’s gun crews, thereby reducing much of the Richard’s firepower. In addition, the Richard’s hull was breached in several places and her rudder badly damaged.

The commander of the Serapis, Captain Richard Pearson, correctly assumed that the Richard was in danger of sinking. Through his speaking trumpet he called out to Jones to ask if he was ready to strike his colors and surrender. Legend has it that Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight,” words that have inspired and echoed down through American naval history. With the two ships literally locked together in combat, sharpshooting Marines fired from the Richard’s fighting tops, raking the Serapis with gunfire and devastating the vulnerable British sailors on deck. Jones and his crew fought tenaciously, even as their ship appeared to be sinking beneath them. Finally, the Serapis’ Union Jack was struck. The next morning, the American ensign could be seen flying from both the Richard and the vanquished Serapis. From the bloodstained deck of the Serapis, the survivors of both the American and British vessels watched the waves engulf the wrecked Richard on 25 September.

When the Americans reached the safety of Holland, arrangements were made for a prisoner exchange. Jones once again had attacked and defeated a Royal Navy warship in her home waters, creating political repercussions ashore.

Gustavus Conyngham

Around the start of the Revolutionary War, Gustavus Conyngham, merchant captain of the Charming Peggy, sailed from Philadelphia to Europe in an attempt to smuggle arms and military supplies to General George Washington’s army. The attempt failed. He was captured by the British, escaped, and ultimately found his way to France. There he met Benjamin Franklin and American Commissioner Silas Deane, who were working to drum up support for the Revolutionary cause. Franklin, impressed by Conyngham’s zeal, signed a commission appointing him a captain in the Continental Navy.

Conyngham was given command of a nimble lugger called the Surprize. Operating out of the French port of Dunkirk, he harassed British shipping off the French coast and in the English Channel. He tried to land his prizes in France, but this proved problematic because of French neutrality. The British ambassador had become increasingly aware of French public support for the Americans but demanded that the French foreign minister do something about Conyngham, now called the “Dunkirk pirate,” who was having a major effect on homefront morale in Britain. The British were unsuccessful in interdicting the actions of the brash Irish-American, who continued to take many English merchantmen in the Channel and off the Irish Coast.

During the years 1777–78, local maritime insurance rates increased by 28 percent, and merchants “demanded escorts for linen ships from Ireland to England.” 3 British cargoes were switched to French and other neutral-nation vessels. The inhabitants of coastal communities were terrified of the self-confident American. One of His Majesty’s vessels captured the Surprize, but Conyngham cleverly escaped incarceration. Once back in France he took command of another vessel, the cutter Revenge. Later, when the French officially became allied with the American cause, Conyngham started on his quest for prizes from neutral Spanish ports. Once again the British vigorously objected, this time to Spain, but this did little to influence his activities.

Upon Captain Conyngham’s return to America, he served briefly in the Pennsylvania State Navy, then as a privateer, but he was captured during a privateering escapade. He escaped imprisonment in England, and when the Revolutionary War concluded he sought compensation for his naval service. The financial origins of the Surprize and Revenge were unclear. They appeared to be neither Continental Navy vessels nor privateers officially sanctioned by letters of marque. In addition, the legality and longevity of Conyngham’s naval commission were questioned. Conyngham may have been the Revolutionary War’s unintended American pirate. He was denied federal compensation and received little public gratitude or recognition in maritime history, but Conyngham captured more vessels than any American naval officer during the Revolutionary War, although they were armed merchantmen rather than warships.

Captain Thomas Boyle

Born and raised in the seaport of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Thomas Boyle became a resident of Baltimore in 1792. A skilled sailor, he prospered in his new community through maritime pursuits and a number of businesses. When war was declared against Britain again in 1812, Boyle took command of the privateer Comet, built by renowned naval architect Thomas Kemp.

On 26 July 1812, Boyle and the Comet sailed in search of prey and returned to Baltimore in October, after capturing four ships. On the Comet’s third voyage Boyle apprehended 20 ships before relinquishing command in March 1814. He and his fellow investors in the enterprise approached Kemp to convert the remarkably swift Chasseur into a 16-gun privateer. At about the time the British were burning Washington, Boyle sailed the Chasseur across the Atlantic and commenced raiding in British home waters. He succeeded in capturing 18 British merchant ships.

On 27 August 1814, he captured the merchantman Marquis Cornwallis and decided to use the vessel to deliver a daring message to King George. Boyle brazenly declared that the coast of Great Britain was now in “a state of strict and rigorous blockade,” a response to similar declarations by Admiral John Borlase Warren and Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who were “commanding small forces on the coast of United States.” 4 Imitating British language and phrases used in the British admirals’ declarations, Boyle sent his message by way of a captured merchant vessel to be posted at Lloyd’s Coffeehouse in London. In the declaration he forbade “ships and vessels of all and every nation in amity and peace with the United States from entering . . . any of [their] said ports.” 5

English merchants took his proclamation seriously. Shortly thereafter, insurance underwriters in Glasgow, Scotland, petitioned the king to do something about “the number of American privateers with which our channels have been infested, the audacity with which they have approached our coast, and the success with which their enterprise has been attended, it proved injurious to our commerce, humbling to our pride and discreditable to the directors of the naval power of the British nation, whose flag of late waved over every sea and triumph over every rival.” 6

The British were now determined to capture Boyle. At one point the Chasseur escaped a squadron of four men-of-war. Defiantly displaying the Yankee flag, he out-sailed them. Over the next three days he eluded capture by groups of three, four, and five British men-of-war. Once Boyle was forced to throw ten of his guns and his spare sails overboard to lighten his ship. Then he moved two of his guns aft, sawed away the rails to give the guns freedom of movement, and kept the British astern of him at bay.

In February 1815, Boyle’s Chasseur engaged a tormentor of American shipping in the Chesapeake Bay. Boyle did not initially recognize that this was the 14-gun schooner HMS St. Lawrence, since she had suffered damage to her foremast, but the British warship was now caught alone and vulnerable. The Chasseur moved in close to engage the adversary in battle. As Boyle got within boarding range, the St. Lawrence fired a broadside from ten hidden guns. The Chasseur’s return fire found its deadly mark, and the British ship surrendered at the end of a violent 15-minute engagement. Following his capture of the St. Lawrence, Boyle noted in his log: “I should not willingly have sought a contest with a King’s vessel, knowing that 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 care was not to be disgraced by flight.” 7

Boyle was one of the most successful privateers of the War of 1812, largely by taking his audacity to the shores of the British Isles and forcing His Majesty’s merchant fleet to sail in convoys under the protection of naval warships—vessels that otherwise might have been deployed to hunt for the U.S. naval fleet.

The British also used asymmetric naval warfare to incite terror along the American coast. For example, during the Revolutionary War, Royal Navy Lieutenant Henry Mowat made a series of raids under Admiralty orders on Massachusetts Bay colony towns in Maine. 8 Lieutenant John Linzee attacked Gloucester, Massachusetts, in August 1775. 9 Throughout the War of 1812, there were small focused raids such as the bombardment of Stonington, Connecticut, and the attack at Pettipauge (present-day Essex), Connecticut. 10 Admirals George Cockburn and Alexander Cochrane conducted similar burning and pillaging raids to intimidate Chesapeake Bay shore communities. This was a strategic endeavor to overpower American commerce in this major mid-Atlantic mercantile and residential estuary as well as hopefully overrun Washington, D.C., not to mention Baltimore, then considered by many to be the privateering center of the nation. 11

Wars are won when the citizenry on either side feels directly threatened and tires of the expenditure of manpower and treasure in continuing the struggle. Asymmetric or irregular warfare in a conflict brings the horrors of war close-up and can affect its outcome. Mariners on both sides practiced asymmetric warfare during the nascent years of the United States.

1. John A. McManemin, Captains of the Continental Navy (Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Ho-Ho-Kus Publishing Company, 1981), 497–519.

2. James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait and Company, 1845), 55.

3. Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateers (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), xii.

4. Jerome R. Garitee, The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as Practiced by Baltimore during the War of 1812 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1977), 159.

5. Ibid.

6. Fred W. Hopkins, Tom Boyle: Master Privateer (Mattituck, NY: Amereon House, 1976), 42–47.

7. Faye Kert, Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 99.

8. Louis Arthur Norton, “Henry Mowat—Miscreant of the Coast of Maine,” Maine History Quarterly, vol. 43 (2007), 1–20.

9. Joseph E. Garland, The Fish and the Falcon: Gloucester’s Resolute Role in America’s Fight for Freedom (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006) 107–117.

10. James Tertius De Kay, The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines, and Rockets in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012). Jerry Roberts, The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014).

11. Charles Patrick Neimeyer, War in the Chesapeake: The British Campaigns to Control the Bay, 1813-1814 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 58–66.

Dr. Norton, a University of Connecticut professor emeritus, has published extensively on maritime history. His books include Joshua Barney: Hero of the Revolutionary War and 1812 (Naval Institute Press, 2000) and Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine (University of South Carolina, 2009).


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