privateers and the revolution -- 2/6/23

Today's selection -- from Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin. In the American Revolution, the number of privateer ships -- estimated at more than 1,500 ships and tens of thousands of men -- far exceeded the number of official navy ships, and these were far more instrumental in the American victory:
"Many believed [during the American Revolution] and have believed since [then that] privateering was a sideshow in the war. Privateering has long been given short shrift in general histories of the conflict, where privateers are treated as a minor theme if they are mentioned at all. The coverage in maritime and naval histories of the Revolution is not much bet­ter, with privateering often overshadowed by the exploits of the Continen­tal navy. As John Lehman, former secretary of the navy under President Ronald Reagan, observed, ‘From the beginning of the American Revolu­tion until the end of the War of 1812, America's real naval advantage lay in its privateers. It has been said that the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers to thank even more than the Continental Navy.’ Yet even in the face of plenty of readily available evi­dence, ‘the official canon of naval history in both Britain and the United States virtually ignores’ privateers.

"The relatively small number of books that focus specifically on priva­teering during the Revolution do succeed in showing how it contributed to the American victory. But none of these books offers a comprehensive picture of the full extent of privateering, and just how important it actually was to the American cause. Rebels at Sea fills that void and demonstrates that privateering was critical to winning the war.

"American privateersmen took the maritime fight to the British and made them bleed. In countless daring actions against British merchant ships and not a few warships, privateers caused British maritime insur­ance rates to precipitously rise, diverted critical British resources and naval assets to protecting their vessels and to attacking privateers, added to British weariness over the war, and played a starring role in bringing France into the war on the side of the United States, a key turning point in the conflict. On the domestic front, privateering brought much-needed goods and military supplies into the new nation, provided cash infusions for the war effort, boosted coastal economies through the building, outfit­ting, and manning of privateers, and bolstered America's confidence that it might succeed in its seemingly quixotic attempt to defeat the most powerful military force of the day.

Portrait of William Moultrie by Charles Willson Peale, 1782

"Critics of privateering have admitted its influence but characterized that influence as largely negative, if not deleterious. These claims come mainly from those who blame privateering for siphoning valuable man­power and munitions from the Continental navy and army and for con­tributing to a coarsening of American morals and republican ideals by purportedly offering a means for men to place profit over patriotism. But such arguments lose much of their sting and persuasive power when con­sidered within the actual context of the war. And whatever drawbacks came with privateering, they pale in comparison to its positive contribution to the Revolution.

"The importance of privateering can only be grasped when the practice is set against the precarious nature of the war. At the outset, there were few reasons for the rebellious colonies to be confident of a good outcome. As William Moultrie, South Carolina's most famous Revolutionary War hero, would write years after the conflict, Americans were rising up against 'a rich and powerful nation, with numerous fleets, and experienced admirals sailing triumphant over the ocean; with large armies and able generals in many parts of the globe: This great nation we dared to oppose, without money; without arms; without ammunition; no generals; no armies; no admirals; and no fleets; this was our situation when the contest began.' Every year of the Revolution, there was cause to doubt that the colo­nies would be able to hold on, much less win. George Washington later reflected that the American victory in the war 'was little short of a stand­ing miracle.' At many points during the Revolution, the war might have ended in American defeat had different decisions been made or different actions taken, and had various elements not been in place. Yet throughout, privateering provided a source of strength that helped the rebels persevere. Although privateering was not the single, decisive factor in beating the British -- there was no one cause -- it was extremely important nonetheless.

"The exact number of privateers and privateersmen who operated during the Revolution is unknowable, but the figures we do have sug­gest that they were pivotal to the war. Records are incomplete and often duplicative -- many were logged both at the congressional and state level. Further complicating any attempt to arrive at reliable figures is that con­temporary accounts often applied the term 'privateer' to vessels that were most certainly not privateers. As a result, many Continental navy ves­sels as well as state navy vessels were incorrectly labeled as privateers in newspapers, letters, and official government documents printed during or just after the Revolution. Some historians have perpetuated the error. Haraden's sloop Tyrannicide, which was a Massachusetts navy vessel, is frequently called a privateer in modern accounts.

"The best single source of basic facts on privateering during the war is the Library of Congress's Naval Records of the American Revolution. It lists 1,697 armed vessels that received letters of marque from the Con­tinental Congress and which were manned by 58,400 men and carried 14,872 cannons. Yet these numbers cannot be taken at face value. Quite a few of the listed vessels received multiple letters of marque, for different cruises in different years, and thus were double- or triple-counted; many men served on more than one privateer; and a considerable portion of the cannons saw service on more than one ship as well. Even as they are, in part, duplicative, the Library of Congress records are also incomplete: a few states, notably Massachusetts and New Hampshire, issued their own letters of marque independent of Congress, but it is not clear exactly how many of these state privateers there were. Some sources claim the num­ber was relatively low, perhaps around one hundred, while others say that there was as many as one thousand. Although the overall number of privateers cannot be precisely known it was large, and most likely within a few hundred of 1,697. Similarly, the number of privateersmen certainly was in the tens of thousands, and the privateers upon which they served carried many thousands of cannons. Reflecting on the sheer size of such a fleet, historian John Franklin Jameson claimed that privateering during the Revolution evolution 'assumed such proportions as to make it ... one of the leading American industries.'"



Eric Jay Dolin


Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution




Copyright May 31, 2022


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