When the American colonists finally realised that they must resort to open hostilities in order to maintain their rights, they became extremely active in fitting out vessels at private expense. Every seaport soon had its quota of privateers scouring the seas or hovering on the coasts of the enemy. Merchant ships that were no longer able to ply their usual trade were hastily fitted with a few guns and were sent to sea with a commission. Fishing smacks were divested of their cargoes and were transformed into belligerent craft, while even whaleboats ventured out, and in many cases succeeded in making valuable prizes.
In the first two years of the war New Hampshire, although pretending to only one considerable seaport, sent out eight privateers, while her powerful neighbour, Massachusetts, had in commission fifty-three. Little Rhode Island and Connecticut had six and twenty-two, respectively, and even New York, whose principal seaport was held by the British through most of the war, managed to secure seven commissions. New Jersey, in the first two years, had only one privateer credited to her, but Pennsylvania had thirteen and Maryland twenty-one, while six were sent out from South Carolina and three from North Carolina, making a total of one hundred and forty-two privateers fitted out by the colonists in the first two full years of the war.”The people have gone mad a-privateering” said one of the writers of the day, and in some cases the expression “the enemy’s coasts are swarming with our armed ships” was literally true. This was especially the case off Halifax and in the Gulf of St. La ,wrence, where so many American privateers had collected that they, in truth, very much interfered with one another. In reading over the personal narratives of privateersmen concerned in that period, it is surprising in how many instances we find American privateers chased by their own countrymen, and in some instances guns, provisions, and other equipage were thrown away in frantic effort to escape from friends.
Among the first of these privateers to get to sea were the Yankee, the Yankee Hero, and the Yankee Ranger, all of Massachusetts. Like the vessels bearing the name “Yankee” in the War of 1812, this trio of Revolutionary Yankees had singularly exciting and varied experiences. The Yankee was a large sloop, carrying nine guns and a complement of sixteen men, under the command of Captain Johnson. She got to sea early in the war, and in July, 1776, captured the valuable British merchantmen Creighton and Zachara, laden with rum and sugar. Johnson detailed prize crews to man these vessels, and then proceeded to escort them to an American port. Before gaining a place of safety, however, the prisoners in the prizes rose on their captors, retook the ships, and then united in an attack on the Yankee. Captain Johnson, as we have noted, had only sixteen men, which number had been seriously reduced by the drafts for prize crews. Each of the British crews numbered more than the entire crew of the Yankee, and, as the merchantmen were well armed, the prisoners soon compelled the privateer to surrender. The Creighton and Zachara arrived at Dover, England, with their prize, the Yankee, and Captain Johnson, with his men, was thrown into Mill Prison.
Scarcely less unfortunate than the Yankee was the Yankee Hero, Captain J. Tracy, a brig of fourteen guns, with a crew of forty men. In June, 1776, this privateer was chased by the English frigate Lively. Captain Tracy did his best to outsail his powerful pursuer, but the Englishman managed to get alongside and compelled the Americans to surrender; not, however, until the latter had made a desperate resistance, in which four of their number were killed and thirteen were wounded. The Yankee Ranger was more fortunate than either of her sisters. In August, 1776, she made prizes of three brigs laden with cotton, coffee, and oil.
Some of the other successful privateers from Massachusetts were the 10-gun schooner America, Captain McNeil, which in October, 1777, captured a ship laden with rum, sugar, wine, and logwood. The 12- gun brig Charming Peggy, Captain J. Jauncey, in October, 1776, seized a small vessel having a cargo of provisions, and the schooner Dolphin, Captain Leach, in September, 1776, captured the brig Royal George (also laden with provisions) and a sloop loaded with fish. The brig Hannah and Molly, Captain Crabtree, in the same year took a ship mounting four guns and eight swivels, one brig, two schooners, and a sloop – a very successful cruise for that day. These vessels were taken by a stratagem in the harbour of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. The 6-gun schooner Independence, Captain Nichols, in September, 1776, captured six vessels; while the Independency; Captain Gill, in the same month took a brig, but it was retaken by the prisoners.
In September, 1776, the 8-gun brig Joseph, Captain C. Babbidge, afterward commanded by Captains Field and West, made a prize of a schooner in ballast, and two months later took a valuable ship. In September, 1776, the 16-gun brig Massachusetts, Captain D. Souther, captured a brig of six guns and twenty-eight men, having on board a company of dragoons. About the same time the 12-gun sloop Republic, Captain John Foster Williams, captured two valuable ships, one named Julius Caesar, and sent them into Boston. The Retaliation, a 10-gun brig commanded by a Mr. Giles, took, in the same year, after a severe action of two hours’ duration, a ship armed with two guns.
Most successful of all the privateers commissioned from Massachusetts in the first two years of the war was the 12-gun sloop Revenge, Captain J. White. In August, 1776, this vessel captured the ships Anna Maria and Polly (the former with a cargo of rum and sugar, and the latter laden with wine), the brigs Harlequin and Fanny, laden with rum and sugar; the sloop Betsey, and one other that was given up to the prisoners. Prizes also were taken in this year by the Massachusetts privateers Rover, Captain Forrester, a sloop of eight guns, and the 8-gun sloop Speedwell, Captain Greely. The Rover had an action with the British merchant ship Africa, which was maintained with much obstinacy until a shot ignited the Africa’s magazine, blowing the craft to pieces, only three of her complement of twenty-six men being saved. The Rover also took the brigs Mary and James, Sarah Ann, and Good Intent, besides the snow Lively.
On October 14, 1776, the 6-gun schooner General Gates, Captain B. Tatem, captured a schooner, but shortly afterward, while off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was herself taken by the English brig Hope. The American commander and his men escaped by swimming ashore. While cruising off Boston, June, 1776, the sloop Lady Washington, Captain Cunningham, was attacked by four armed barges from British war ships. The privateer beat the boats off, killing several of the Englishmen. In October the Lady Washington, again cruising near Boston, captured a ship with a cargo of rum, sugar, and cotton. In the same month the 6-gun schooner Liberty, Captain Pierce, seized a ship with a cargo of fish and lumber.
The Baltimore Hero was one of the first privateers to leave the waters of Maryland. She was a schooner carrying from six to fourteen guns, and was commanded at first by Captain T. Waters, and in 1779 by Captain J. Earle. Under Earle she had an action with a British privateer schooner of fourteen guns in Chesapeake Bay and captured her.
About the same time the Baltimore Hero put to sea the Betsey, Captain B. Dashiell, sailed from the Chesapeake. She was a sloop of ten guns. A private armed brig of the same name sailed from Maryland waters under the command of Captain J. Brice in 1777, and under Captain B. Brudhurst in 1778. Betsey seems to have been a favourite name for privateers in this war, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut each being credited with a Betsey.
The 6-gun sloop Beaver, Captain S. Dean, sailed from New York in 1776, 1779, and again in 1781. In June, 1779, she captured a sloop. A privateer schooner of this name, but carrying twice the number of guns, was commissioned from Connecticut in 1778, under the command of Captain D. Scoville, and one from Pennsylvania, commanded by Captain W. Harris. Between August 3 and 6, 1776, the 10-gun sloop Broom, Captain W. Knott, of Connecticut, captured the ship Charles and Sally, the Snow Ann, and the brigs Caroline and John. These vessels were laden with rum, sugar, and fustic. Of the other private armed vessels sailing from Connecticut the Washington, Warren, Spy, and Shark were the most successful. In September, 1776, the Washington, Captain Odiorne, took the brig Georgia and a schooner, both laden with rum and sugar, besides making prize of a snow having a cargo of cannon aboard.
The Warren, Captain Coas, in April took the sloop Betsey and Polly, and in the following June, while under the command of Captain Phillips, seized a transport armed with four guns and having on board one hundred soldiers. Several weeks later this privateer captured the ship Isaac and Picary, and in August she captured a brig carrying three guns and ten swivels. In this prize was a quantity of gold dust and ivory. Before the close of the year the Warren herself fell into the hands of the British frigate Liverpool. The Spy and Shark cruised for some time with Captain Hopkins’ squadron, and in August, 1776, the former took the ship Hope, and in the following month the schooner Mary and Elizabeth, both prizes being laden with coffee and sugar. In 1779 the Shark made four prizes.
Of the privateers that put to sea early in the war those from Pennsylvania seem to have met with the greatest success. The Chance, a little sloop mounting four guns, under the command of Captain J. Adams, in May, 1776, took the valuable ship Lady Juliana.
The 24-gun privateer Cornet, about the same time, while off St. Kitts, fell in with a heavily armed British merchantman, and for three hours engaged her at close quarters, when the Englishmen managed to escape with the loss of their mizzenmast.
The audacity of Captain S. Cleaveland, of the brig Despatch, is typical. This vessel left Philadelphia without a gun aboard, her commander taking his chances of capturing some kind of an armament on the passage across the Atlantic or of purchasing guns in France. Captain Cleaveland had not been to sea many days before he captured a vessel, and, transferring the guns to his own ship, continued his cruise. The 12-gun brig General Mifflin, Captain J. Hamilton, in 1776 made directly for British waters, where she took several valuable vessels, one of them being a ship with a cargo of wine. On her return passage the General Mifflin fell in with a British privateer carrying eighteen guns and eighty men. An action was immediately begun, and the Englishmen, after having sustained a loss of twenty-two killed wounded, including their commander, surrendered. The American casualties were thirteen.
In October of the same year the General Montgomery, a brig of twelve guns and one hundred men, under Captain Montgomery, came across a fleet of one hundred merchantmen, convoyed by several British war ships. By adroit manoeuvring the privateer managed to cut out one of the merchantmen, the ship Thetis, with a cargo of rum and sugar.
Other privateers commissioned from Pennsylvania that got to sea early in the war were the 6-gun brig Nancy, the 14-gun Snow Ranger, and the 14-gun brig Sturdy Beggar. The Nancy, on June 29, 1776, was chased ashore near Cape Henry by a British cruiser. After getting a portion of their cargo and powder on land the Americans blew the Nancy up. The Ranger, Captain Hudson, captured two storeships laden with military supplies. The Sturdy Beggar, in May, 1778, was captured, with eight other American vessels, in Croswell Creek by an English force consisting of two schooners, four gunboats, four galleys, and about twenty flatboats, under the command of Captain Henry, of the Royal Navy, and Major Maitland.
Besides her privateers Pennsylvania had a number of galleys built especially for river defence. They were armed with two or three guns each and carried from twenty to fifty men. These boats were constructed under a resolution passed by the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, July 6, 1775, under which Robert White and Owen Biddle were appointed a committee to attend to the construction of these gun-boats and to prepare machines for the defence of the Delaware. The first of these boats to be launched was the Bull Dog, built by the Messrs. Manuel, Jehu, and Benjamin George Eyre, for half a century well- known shipbuilders in Philadelphia. The Bull Dog, Captain Henderson, took the water July 26, 1775, and the others followed in rapid succession. They were the Burke, Captain Blair; the Camden, Captain Nicholas Biddle, afterward famous in the navy; the Chatham, Captain J. Montgomery; the Congress, Captain Hamilton; the Convention, Captain J. Rice; the Delaware, Captain Doughty; the Dickinson, Captain Rice; the Effingham, Captain Mears; the Experiment, Captain Thompson; the Franklin, Captain Biddle; the Hancock, Captain Moore; the Spitfire, Captain Grimes; and the Warren.
The Spitfire, on August 3, 1776, took part in the attack on the British warships Rose and Phoenix in Hudson River. In this affair the Spitfire had one man killed and three wounded. Pennsylvania also had a fire ship called the Etna, commanded by William Gamble. The Ranger, a craft hastily fitted for harbour defence, in October, 1775, under the orders of Captain Hume, captured a West India privateer. The vessel was carried by boarding, the English having forty men killed or wounded before they surrendered.
Among the first privateers to get to sea from South Carolina was the 14-gun brig Cornet, Captain J. Turpin. This vessel sailed on her first cruise without instructions. On November 2, 1776, she captured the ship Clarissa, the schooner Maria, and the sloop George.
New York, having her most available seaport in the hands of the enemy during the greater part of the war, did not send out her usual quota of armed craft. Some of her ships put to sea, however, and were successful. The sloop Montgomery, Captain William Rodgers, in 1776 captured two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop; while the privateer Schuyler, Captain J. Smith, in June took a ship having on board twenty prisoners. In August the Schuyler seized five other vessels and recaptured the Nancy. The galley Whiting, Captain McCleave, on August 3, 1776, took part in the attack on the British war ships Rose and Phoenix, the galley having one man killed and four wounded.
The only privateer from New Jersey that succeeded in getting to sea early in the war was the schooner Enterprise, Captain J. Campbell. In July and August, 1776, she captured the ship Lancaster, carrying four guns and sixteen men; the ship Black Snake, with a cargo of rum and sugar; the snow James, having twenty-three men and a cargo of molasses and rum, and the ship Modesty, laden with sugar. On July 22nd the Enterprise captured the ship Earl of Errol, mounting six guns and having a cargo valued at one hundred thousand dollars. On the same day the Enterprise took the ship Nevis after a spirited action of one hour.
New Hampshire, in 1776, sent out the 12- gun brig Putnam, Captain J. Harman, which in one cruise captured a ship and four schooners. Other private armed craft sent out from Portsmouth in this year were the brig Enterprise, Captain D. Jackson; the 14-gun sloop Harlequin, Captain D. Shaw; the 6-gun schooner McClary, Captain R. Parker; and the 20-gun ship Portsmouth.
The privateers sent out from Rhode Island in 1776 were highly successful. Between July 1st and August 30th the Diamond, Captain N. Chase, captured the ships Jane, Star and Garter, and Friendship, the brig Mars, and the snow Portland. These vessels had cargoes of cocoa, fustic, rum, and sugar. In August the privateer Eagle, Captain Paine, took the ship Venus, with a cargo of mahogany, shells, etc. She also seized another ship (name not given) laden with rum, sugar, cotton, and the brig Virginia, with a cargo of tobacco.
In the following October the brig Favorite, Captain Coffin, captured a ship and a schooner, with cargoes of pimento, rum, and sugar. Two years later the same privateer, while under the orders of Captain Lamb, captured a ship armed with sixteen guns having a cargo of logwood. The 10-gun brig Industry, Captain Child, in 1776, captured a brig, and then had a drawn battle with a ship of ten guns. The action lasted two hours, with a loss of two killed and six wounded on the part of the American. In October the 16-gun ship Montgomery, Captain Bucklon, captured the ships Rover, Isabella, and Harlequin and the brigs Devonshire and Henry. The 12-gun brig Putnam, Captain Ferguson, took four ships; and the same vessel, while under the command of Captain C. Whipple, captured two snows, one brig, and had a severe action with an armed ship. The Independence, of ten guns, also made a cruise under Captain Thomas Whipple.