And-a privateering we shall go…

It was 242 years ago today when the Continental Congress first took the critical action needed to try to balance out the enormous naval power of the British empire.

It had to do it.

After all, the colonies were at war. The other side was perhaps the preeminent naval power of the world. And the colonies had no navy.

So what exactly did it do?

It hired one.

And it was perfectly legal under international law at the time.

War of 1812 prizeTo say that the Americans were ill-prepared to fight the British at sea at the start of the Revolutionary War is an understatement and a half. There was nothing even remotely resembling a naval force at the start of the war, and a proposal by Rhode Island’s Assembly to build one was practically laughed out of the Continental Congress. Maryland delegate Samuel Chase called it “the maddest idea in the world” and John Adams later wrote that the whole notion was derided as “an infant taking a mad bull by his horns.”1

By the beginning of 1776, fewer than 10 warships were actually in the service of the rebelling colonies…2 and the British navy was enormous. Something had to be done. The British couldn’t be allowed to bottle up all American shipping, and the Americans needed supplies, especially gunpowder, from foreign sources.

What the Continental Congress did, on 3 April 1776, was effectively to hire a private navy. It commissioned more than 1,000 private vessels as privateers with the right to bear arms, and attack and seize British ships and cargoes at sea. The ship owners in turn got a big share of whatever booty they could capture.3

The documents that commissioned those private vessels were called letters of marque and reprisal.4 The owners of the commissioned vessels were supposed to act within the limits set by Congress, including:

• You may, by force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all ships and other vessels belonging to the inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high water and low water mark, except ships and vessels bringing persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies; or bringing arms, ammunition, or war-like stores, to the said colonies, for the use of such inhabitants thereof as are friends to the American cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the commanders thereof permitting a peaceable search, and giving satisfactory information of the contents of the ladings, and destinations of the voyages.5

• You may, by force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all ships and other vessels whatsoever, carrying soldiers, arms, gunpowder, ammunition, provisions, or any other contraband goods, to any of the British armies or ships of war employed against these colonies.6

• You shall bring such ships and vessels, as you shall take, with their guns, rigging, tackle, apparel, furniture, and ladings, to some convenient port or ports of the United Colonies, that proceedings may thereupon be had, in due form, before the courts, which are or shall be there appointed to hear and determine causes civil and maritime.7

• You shall keep and preserve every ship or vessel, and cargo, by you taken, until they shall, by a sentence of a court properly authorized, be adjudged lawful prizes; not selling, spoiling, wasting, or diminishing the same, or breaking the bulk thereof, nor suffering any such thing to be done.8

• If you, or any of your officers or crew, shall, in cold blood, kill or maim, or by torture or otherwise, cruelly, inhumanly, and, contrary to common usage, and the practice of civilized nations in war, treat any person or persons surprized in the ship or vessel you shall take, the offender shall be severely punished.9

• You shall not ransom any prisoners or captives, but shall dispose of them in such manner, as the Congress, or, if that be not sitting, in the colony whither they shall be brought, as the general assembly, convention, or council, or committee of safety, of such colony shall direct.10

The letter of marque and reprisal wasn’t anything new when the Americans put it to use in the Revolution. It had been around since it was first used by the English crown in the 13th century.11 The power to grant one in the United States was committed to Congress when the Constitution was adopted in 1787,12 and the War of 1812 saw the letter of marque and reprisal used repeatedly.13 Even the Confederacy issued letters of marque and reprisal, leading the Union to threaten to try Southern privateers as pirates.14

So… are there records? You betcha. Many of the records relating to American privateers are held by the National Archives, and exist only in textual format.15 Only a few of the actual letters of marque can be found.

But the treasure trove from a genealogical perspective is in the records of the prize cases that resulted when the privateers brought the captured vessels back into port. Take a look, for example, at one set of records — those of the War of 1812 prizes brought into the Southern District of New York. They’re on microfilm at FamilySearch16 and have been digitized by Fold3.com.17

These roughly 1100 pages of prize documents include great details on the sailors of these privateers. Just as one example: on 19 September 1812, John Small “of the City of New York formerly of the Privateer Schooner Benjamin Franklin and now an Ordinary Seaman of the Privateer Schooner Gov Tompkins” gave his power of attorney to his “father Christian Small of the said City Tavern Keeper.” Or the 17 January 1811 paper signed by Francis Adams, son of Francis Adams of Castine, Hancock County, Maine, as a minor over the age of 14 selecting Robert McFarland of Portland, a housewright in the County of Cumberland, as his guardian.

The records range from depositions of witnesses, including full names, where they come from and, sometimes, relationships to others involved; records of courts martial; muster rolls; licenses for ships in British ports; receipts for payments to the widows, orphans and disabled seamen’s funds in England; even personal correspondence of British soldiers seized on board prize vessels.

All because, starting 242 years ago today, a bunch of rebels had to hire a navy.

And we today have the records to prove it.


SOURCES

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Continental Navy,” rev. 12 Mar 2018.
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C. : Govt. Printing Office, 1906), IV (Jan 1- June 3, 1776): 251-254; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 3 Apr 2018).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 756, “marque and reprisal, letters of.”
  5. Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, IV (Jan 1- June 3, 1776): 253.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. at 254.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Letters of Marque and Reprisal: A Quick History,” EvolutionistX, posted 18 Aug 2017 (https://evolutionistx.wordpress.com/ : accessed 3 Apr 2018).
  12. The United States Constitution,” Art. I, sec. 8, U.S. House of Representatives (http://www.house.gov : accessed 3 Apr 2018).
  13. For a list of commissioned privateers and their captures from colonial times through the War of 1812, see George Foster Emmons, The Navy of the United States, from the Commencement, 1775 to 1853 (Washington, D.C. : Gideon & Co., 1853), 124-201; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 23 Feb 2012).
  14. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Letter of marque,” rev. 17 Mar 2018.
  15. Try a search of the Archives.gov website with the search term marque or marque and reprisal.
  16. See “Prize and related records for the War of 1812 of the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York,” FHL microfilms 1605489-497, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 3 Apr 2018).
  17. See “War of 1812 Prize Cases, Southern Dist Court, NY,” Fold3.com (https://www.fold3.com/ : accessed 3 Apr 2018).
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