We can better appreciate the high plane to which privateering had been raised, at the hands of American seamen in the war for independence, when we remember that some sixty of our most formidable privateers were commanded by men who were, or became, soon afterward captains in the navy. In fact, the privateer service became the training school of our embryo navy, not only in supplying officers, but seaman. The conditions of early privateering were such as to develop an exceptionally capable group of officers, and not a little of the marvellous success attained by the infant navy of the United States is directly traceable to this circumstance.
Among the first of our navy officers to engage in privateering was Lieutenant Joshua Barney. Barney had been taken prisoner early in the war, and after a confinement of nearly five months in the prison ships at New York he was exchanged for an English officer of equal rank – the first lieutenant of the British frigate Mermaid, which had been compelled, by the approach of the French fleet, in July, 1778, to run ashore on the Jersey side of the Delaware. Making his way to Baltimore, Barney secured the command of a trading vessel, which was described as “a fine little schooner, armed with two guns and eight men”, having a cargo of tobacco bound for St. Eustatia. This craft had a short and unfortunate career. In going down Chesapeake Bay she fell in with an English privateer carrying four guns and sixty men, and after a running fight of a few minutes was overtaken and carried by boarding, the Ameri cans having one man killed and two wounded. As the Englishman had no desire to incumber himself with prisoners, he landed them at Cinapuxent, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, and sailed away with the prize.
Lieutenant Barney returned to Baltimore, where, after several weeks spent in a vain endeavour to secure another vessel, he met his old commander, Captain Isaiah Robinson, whose creditable career in the navy of our embryo navy, also has been recorded. These two officers soon came to an agreement by which Robinson was to secure the command of a privateer and Barney was to serve in her as first officer. Much difficulty was found in securing a suitable vessel, and still more in getting the necessary arms, ammunition, and men, so that it was not until February, 1779, that they were able to leave Alexandria on a private cruise. The craft they secured was the brig Pomona, carrying twelve guns, of varying calibres, and a crew of thirty-five men. She was loaded with tobacco consigned to Bordeaux.
The adventures of these two navy officers began on the third day after clearing the Capes, when they were discovered by a vessel and chased. As Captain Robinson’s first object was to get the cargo of tobacco safely to France, he made every endeavour to avoid the stranger, but she proved to be a remarkably fast sailer. At eight o’clock in the evening, a full, unclouded moon giving the chase every opportunity, the stranger came within hailing distance, and, running up English colours, asked, “What ship is that?”. The only answer Robinson made was to show his flag, which the Englishman immediately ordered down.
The Pomona then delivered her broadside, which brought down the enemy’s fore-topsail, cut away some of their rigging, and apparently caused much surprise and confusion on board. The Englishman responded with his battery, and a running fight was kept up until nearly midnight. Early in the fight the enemy discovered that the Americans had no stern gun ports, and availing themselves of this they manoeuvred for positions off the Pomona’s stern and quarters where she could not return their fire. As an evidence of the confusion into which the enemy had been thrown by the first broadside from the Pomona, it was noted that, with all their advantage of position, the English gunners were able to fire only one or two shots every half hour. Noting this, Robinson caused a port to be cut in his stern and a long 3-pounder whipped up from the gun deck and run out of it.
This was accomplished about midnight, when the Englishmen were drawing near for another shot. Apparently they had not discovered the shift in the Pomona’s armament, for they drew quite near, and received such a discharge of grape that they hauled off and did not again come within gunshot that night.
The light of day showed the Americans that the stranger was a brig of sixteen guns, and as several officers could be seen through her ports wearing uniforms, it was believed that she was a regular cruiser. Afterward it was learned the stranger was only a privateer, and her officers had resorted to the trick of donning uniform and displaying themselves in conspicuous places, So as to lead the Americans to believe that they were contending against one of the king’s cruisers. This, the English thought, would show the Americans the hopelessness of the struggle, and would induce them to surrender without further resistance.But Captain Robinson was not to be frightened by gold buttons and epaulettes, and when about sunrise the stranger ran close under the Pomond’s stern for the purpose of boarding the Americans made every preparation for giving her a warm reception. The solitary 3-pounder in the stern was loaded with grapeshot, and the charge was topped off by a crowbar stuck into the muzzle.
Just as the English were about to board Barney, with his own hand, discharged this gun, and with such accurate aim that the British were completely baffled in their attempt, their foresails and all their weather foreshrouds being cut away. The loss of these supports compelled the Englishman to wear in order to save his foremast from going by the board. This manoeuvre gave the Americans an excellent chance for raking, and promptly going about Robinson delivered an effective broadside. The enemy did not again return to the attack, so the Pomona resumed her course, arriving in Bordeaux without further incident.
Captain Robinson afterward learned that his antagonist was the privateer Rosebud, Captain Duncan, with a crew of one hundred men, of whom forty-seven were killed or wounded. The Rosebud made her way to New York, where Duncan “charged” the Americans with a “unfair fighting in using langrage”. The only langrage Captain Robinson used on this occasion was the crow bar referred to.
No better illustration of the dare-devil spirit of our privateersmen can be had than in the manner many of them put to sea. Any old tub of a craft, if nothing better offered, would do them, and if there were no cannon the junk shops were ransacked for old muskets, pistols, blunderbusses, swords, hand- spikes, and knives, and the commander went to sea in the hope of capturing merchantmen and transferring their armaments to his ship. Many of our privateers put to sea in this condition and met with astonishing success.
The Pomona sailed from the Chesapeake with guns, it is true, but with less than she was pierced for, and the cannon she did carry were of varying and small calibres, which made it difficult to secure the proper-sized shot. She also started out with only half her complement, hoping to make up the full number from prospective prisoners. As we have seen, she did not succeed in making any prizes on her way across the Atlantic, but on reaching Bordeaux Captain Robinson sold his cargo of tobacco, and from the proceeds loaded with brandy and purchased eighteen 6-pounders, the regular armament of the brig, and a sufficient quantity of powder and shot. He also succeeded in enlisting thirty five additional men, raising his complement to seventy. Sailing from Bordeaux in the early part of August, 1779, in this much improved condition, the Pomona shaped her course for the return passage to America. One morning at daylight, when about halfway across the ocean, Captain Robinson made a sail which, from her peculiar manoeuvres, seemed to be “feeling” the Pomona’s strength. By the time the sun rose the vessels had come within gunshot and several broadsides were exchanged, but at the end of the first half hour the stranger crowded on sail before the wind to escape. The Americans were promptly in chase, but being heavily laden the Pomona steadily fell behind, although she managed to keep the enemy in sight all that day.
Toward evening a squall of wind and rain came on. Availing himself of this Captain Robinson crowded on canvas, and on again coming up with the stranger exchanged several more broadsides, the Englishman still endeavouring to escape. During the night the chase was lost sight of, but on the following morning she was made out, in the somewhat thick weather, four or five miles ahead, it then being calm. Captain Robinson now got out his sweeps, and by dint of hard rowing managed to get alongside of his foe for the third time, When the stranger, without waiting for another broadside, surrendered at the first summons. The prize was found to be an English privateer carrying sixteen 6 and 9 pounders, and a crew of seventy men. Twelve of her people had been killed and a number wounded, besides which she had been seriously injured in her hull, rigging and spars. The only man killed in Pomona was a lad who had shipped at Bordeaux as a passenger. Two of the Americans were wounded. Lieutenant Barney, with a prize crew, took possession of the privateer, and both vessels arrived safely at Philadelphia in the following October.
Both Captain Robinson and Lieutenant Barney realised a handsome fortune in this audacious venture.