Distribution of Prize Money

The officers and crews of our Government warships received a proportion of the money resulting from taking a prize, and even when they failed to bring the vessel to port, and in some cases where they lost their own ship, they received their share of prize money. According to a law made April 13, 1800, the following rule for distribution of prize money was made for Government cruisers: “When the prize is of equal or superior force to the vessel making the capture, it shall be the sole property of the captors. If of inferior force, it shall be divided equally between the United States and the officers and men making the capture”. The act regulates the proportion in which the officers and men shall divide the prize money.

“All public ships in sight at the time of making prize shall share equally: Twenty dollars to be paid by the United States for each person on board an enemy’s ship at the commencement of an engagement which shall be burned, sunk, or destroyed by any United States vessel of equal or inferior force. All prize money accruing to the United States is solemnly pledged as a fund for payment of pensions and half pay should the same be hereafter granted. If this fund be insufficient, the faith of the United States is pledged for the defi-ciency; if more than sufficient, the surplus is to go to the comfort of disabled mariners, or such as may de- serve the gratitude of their country”.

By an act made June 26, 1812, the prize money from captures made by private armed craft was to go only to their owners, the officers and crew, “to be distributed according to any written engagement between them; and, if there be none, then one moiety to the owners, and the other to the officers and crew. Two per cent. on the net amount of the prizes to be paid over to the collectors as a fund for widows and orphans and disabled seamen”. The Government also paid twenty dollars bounty for every man in the captured vessel at the beginning of the engagement. Congress voted fifty thousand dollars to the officers and crew of the Constitution when they captured the Guerrière, and the same amount when she took the Java, notwithstanding the fact that each craft was destroyed at sea. The same sum was given to the captors of the Macedonian. The rule for distributing prize money in the navy was to divide the total amount into twenty equal parts. Where the sum was fifty thousand dollars the result was as follows: Three parts, or seven thousand five hundred dollars, to the captain; two parts, or five thousand dollars, to the sea lieutenants and sailing master; two parts, or five thousand dollars, to the marine officers, surgeon, purser, boatswain, gunner, carpenter, master’s mates, and chaplain; three parts, or seven thousand five hundred dollars, to the midshipmen, surgeon’s mates, captain’s clerk, schoolmaster, boat- swain’s mates, steward, sailmaker, master-at-arms, armourer, and coxswain; three parts, or seven thousand five hundred dollars, to the gunner’s yeomen, boatswain’s yeomen, quartermasters, quarter gunners, coopers, sailmaker’s mates, sergeants and corporals of the marines, drummer, fifer, and extra petty officers; seven parts, or seventeen thousand five hundred dollars, to the seamen, ordinary seamen, marines, and boys. As the last item, seventeen thousand five hundred dollars, was divided among some two hundred men and boys, it gave about eighty-seven dollars to each man, or nearly an equivalent to a year’s wages. To the commander, whose pay varied from six hundred dollars to twelve hundred dollars, the sum of seven thousand five hundred dollars was a snug fortune. Each of the sea lieutenants got a little less than one thousand dollars, their regular pay being four hundred and eighty dollars.

In case of actions between sloops of war Congress generally allowed twenty-five thousand dollars to our officers and crews if victorious, even in the case of Master-Commandant Jacob Jones, where he lost not only his prize, the Frolic, but his own ship. For the battle of Lake Erie Captain Chauncey, being the superior officer on the Great Lakes – although taking no part in the action received twelve thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars; Master-Commandant Perry, twelve thousand one hundred and forty dollars, his pay being only seven hundred and twenty dollars; Master-Commandant Elliott, seven thousand one hundred and forty dollars; each commander of a gunboat, lieutenant, sailing master, and lieutenant of marines, two thousand two hundred and ninety. five dollars; each midshipman, eight hundred and eleven dollars, the pay of a midshipman being only two hundred and twenty-eight dollars; each petty officer, four hundred and forty-seven dollars; marines and sailors each two hundred and nine dollars.

These, however, were comparatively insignificant instances of prize moneys. In a cruise lasting only a few weeks in 1779 the United States cruisers, Queen of France, Captain John P. Rathbourne; the Providence, Captain Abraham Whipple, who was in command in the first overt act of resistance against British authority in America; and the Ranger, Captain William Simpson, brought eight merchantmen into Boston, their cargoes being valued at over a million dollars.

One of the boys in the Ranger, fourteen years old, who less than a month before had left a farm to ship in this cruiser, received as his share one ton of sugar, from thirty to forty gallons of fourth proof Jamaica rum, some twenty pounds of cotton, and about the same quantity of ginger, logwood, and all- spice, besides seven hundred dollars in money. In many instances during the War of 1812 American cruisers took prizes valued at over a million dollars. The Chesapeake has been credited with being one of the unlucky cruisers in that war, yet in the cruise just before her meeting with the Shannon she captured one ship, the Volunteer, the cargo of which was valued at seven hundred thousand dollars; and in the same cruise she took the Ellen, whose cargo was sold in Boston for seventeen thousand five hundred and sixty dollars. The little sloop Peacock, Master-Commandant Lewis Warrington, in one cruise took prizes valued at six hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars. 

The Government usually allowed a bounty for each prisoner brought into port. This bounty amounted to about twenty dollars a head, but in most cases the privateersman preferred to rid himself of prisoners at the earliest possible moment. There were several reasons for this. Even had the bounty been as high as one hundred dollars a man, it would not have paid the successful privateersman to accumulate prisoners, especially when on a long voyage – and there could be no telling how long a cruise would last – for the cost of feeding amounted to a large sum. Then the danger of having too many prisoners was shown dozens of times when the captured rose on their captors, and not only recovered their own vessel, but made prisoners of the privateersmen. On August 2, 1813, a law was enacted providing a bounty of twenty-five dollars on each prisoner.

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