Dangers Peculiar to Privateering

Ordinarily there was little glory or sympathy for the privateersman. The navy man went to sea knowing that if he made a good fight, even though defeated, his professional standing would in no way be impaired; on the contrary, decidedly improved. He knew that if he fell he, at least, would have the grateful record of history. Almost any man can be brave if he be conscious that the eye of the world is upon him. The average man can perform deeds of heroism when he knows that substantial rewards and professional advancement are in store for him. But it requires a man of unusual bravery to face danger unflinchingly when he realises that no one will be cognizant of his deeds save the immediate participants, and when loss of life or limb will be regarded merely as his own personal misfortune.

Our privateersmen did not have the stimulus and advantages of an organised service. They left port with the avowed intention of plundering the enemy. If they were successful, their only reward was a division of the spoils; if failure attended them, they were kicked about like the under dog in the fight. “Served them right” said their envious brothers on land. “They wanted to get rich too fast, while poor fellows are obliged to plod along in the usual slow, poking way”. If the officers and men sacrificed life or limb to secure a prize, no pension awaited them or their families. If they came out unscathed they were rewarded, perhaps, with a cold “thank you” and received their share of the profits calculated down to the last cent with mathematical exactness. There was no generous Congress to vote fifty thousand dollars to them if they sank their prize in the effort to capture her, as was the case with the captors of the Guerrière and Java; neither could they expect twenty-five thousand dollars if they lost both prize and their own ship, as was the case in the Wasp Frolic fight.

In no light does the daring of our privateersmen shine more resplendently than in this. They went to sea, it is true, for mere pelf, but in many instances they performed services of national importance. Scores of American seamen, like Reuben James, John Cheever, Bartlett Laffey, and John MeFarland won imperishable fame by acts of heroism because they were performed in an organised service and under the national colours. But the privateersman, although materially assisting in the defence of the flag, could die at his post and the fact might easily pass unrecorded. A commander of a privateer could capture the king’s cruisers, thereby inflicting unprecedented shame and humiliation on the Royal Navy, and the incident scarcely would be known; while the owners of the privateer would not thank him for the unwarranted risk he ran, as, ordinarily, there was nothing to be got out of a war ship except hard knocks and empty holds. Had the capture been made by an officer of the navy in the Government service it would have been heralded abroad, while substantial rewards and rapid promotion would have followed.

Under these circumstances it is truly surprising that we discover acts of such superb bravery among the American privateersmen, yet a careful research into the history of that most important branch of our maritime power shows that it is replete with deeds of heroism. An instance of the daring of American privateersmen is related with characteristic frankness in a London periodical of the year 1777 : “An American privateer of twelve guns came into one of the ports of the Jersey Islands, in the English Channel, yesterday morning, tacked about on the firing of the guns from the castle, and just off the island took a large brig bound for this port, which they have since carried into Cherbourg. The American Privateer had the impudence to send her boat in the dusk of the evening to a little island off here called Jetto, and unluckily carried off the lieutenant of Northley’s Independent Company with the garrison adjutant, who were shooting rabbits for their diversion. The brig they took is valued at thirty-five thousand dollars”. 

Charles W. Goldsborough, who during the first twenty years of the navy’s existence as a separate department acted as its chief clerk, relates that during one of the many battles between British cruisers and American privateers a cannon ball came aboard the latter, and, after spending its force in smashing things up indiscriminately, rolled along the deck not quite decided what to do next. An American sailor picked it up and wrote on it with a piece of chalk, “Postpaid and returned with the compliments of Yankee Doodle”, then putting the shot in a cannon fired it back to its owners.

In privateers speed was a great and ruling consideration, and in their efforts to attain it the builders – having no Government or public opinion check them – were apt to get their craft dangerously top-heavy. This eagerness to acquire speed resulted disastrously in the case of the privateer Arrow, Captain E. Conkling, of New York. She is described as a beautiful brig mounting fourteen guns and carry ing a complement of one hundred and fifty men. Sailing from New York January 14, 1815, she cruised some time in the West Indies. After leaving one those ports she was never heard of, and, being heavily spared, the opinion was generally expressed that she was capsized, either in a squall or during a chase.

Another danger to which we may allude as being peculiar to privateersmen was that of prisoners rising and overpowering their captors. This danger was especially great during long and prosperous voyages, when the privateer’s complement was weakened by drafts for prize crews, and when usually there was a larger number of prisoners in the ship than  there was of the crew. A striking illustration of this is had in the case of the privateer sloop Eagle, of Connecticut. This vessel carried six guns and thirty men, also commanded by a Captain E. Conkling. In a single cruise she captured six vessels, “one to every gun” that being the acme of privateering luck as expressed by the those of that day. A privateer tha made more prizes than the number of guns she carried was regarded as sailing in very dangerous waters, and was, perhaps, quite as objectionable as one that had made fewer captures. So that by capturing six vessels, or one for every gun in the sloop, it will be seen that the Eagle, on this venture, had reached the climax of privateering success. It was unfortunate for her that she took so many prizes, for by manning them all she had reduced her complement to fifteen men, besides which were a large number of prisoners aboard. Taking advantage of a favourable opportunity, these prisoners rose on their captors, overpowered them, and, putting all but two boys to death, made away with the ship. They had not gone far, however, before they were recaptured by the American privateer Hancock. 

In the following year the Eagle was blown up in New York. A case somewhat similar to this was that of the privateeer Yankee, Captain Johnson, of Massachusetts. This craft carried nine guns, sixteen swivels, and forty-three men. She was one of the first to get to sea in the war for American independence. Leaving port she made directly for English waters, and in July captured the merchant ships Creighton and Zachara laden with rum and sugar. Placing prize  crews in these vessels, Captain Johnson was continuing his cruise in their company when the prisoners in the prizes rose, secured their captors and their vessel, and then joined in an attack on the Yankee. Being short-handed, through manning his prizes, Captain Johnson was compelled to surrender. He  was taken to Dover with his men and imprisoned.

Our privateersmen were especially exposed to the anger of British naval officers, and there were but few instances in which they were treated much better than pirates. On December 1, 1812, the privateer Jacks Favorite, Captain Miller, of New York, put into St. Barts for provisions. A few days later the British 12-gun war schooner Subtle, Captain Brown, entered the same port, and her commander boasted, in the presence of a number of merchants and others, that he would “follow and take the damned Yankee privateer if he went to hell for her”. When Captain Miller sailed out of the harbour, the Subtle followed and gave chase. Not wishing to engage a man-of-war, the Americans carried a press of sail, and the Englishmen also spread all the canvas their craft could stand under. While the two vessels were staggering under the pressure, a squall came up. The Americans  adroitly took in their canvas so as to receive the brunt of the blow under bare poles, but their pursuer was capsized. In a few minutes the squall blew over, and Captain Miller, failing to discover the slightest trace of his foe, was moved by motives of humanity to retrace his course. On reaching the spot where the Subtle was last seen he found a few caps and hammocks floating in the water. This was all that left of the Subtle, all of her people having gone down with her.

Little or nothing was done to pension or assist the families of unfortunate privateers in our war for  independence, but on June 5, 1813, the Navy Department issued the following order: “To enable those who may be wounded or disabled in any engagement with the enemy to obtain certificates entitling them to pensions, the like regulations and restrictions as are used in relation to the navy of the United States are to be observed, to wit: That the commanding officer of every vessel having a commission, or letters of marque or reprisal, cause to be given to any officer or seaman who, during his cruise, shall have been wounded or disabled as aforesaid, a certificate of the surgeon on board, to be approved and signed by such commanding officer, describing the nature and degree, as far as practicable, of such wound or disability, naming his place of residence and the rate of wages, if any, to which he was entitled at the time of receiving such wound or disability; and that such certificate be transmitted to this department.

“The widows (or orphans, where the wife is dead) of those persons who may be slain in any engagement with the enemy, on board such vessels, will be entitled to pension certificates upon forwarding to this office proof from the commanding officer of the vessel to which such persons were attached of their having been slain as aforesaid, and the certificate of a justice of the peace for the county in which such widows or orphans may reside that they actually stand in that relation to the deceased”.

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