Privateers and the War of 1812
The War of 1812 commenced on 18 June 1812. One of the most universally accepted provocations that led to the United States declaring war on Great Britain was the British practice of impressing American sailors into service aboard Royal Navy vessels. The United States had not yet developed a standing army or navy due to conflicting opinions amongst the country’s leaders as to the needs and benefits of doing so. The answer to the United States’ lack of a naval force came through privateers off America’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The benefit to the United States in engaging privateers was obvious and two-fold. By augmenting the small navy it possessed with hundreds of commissioned privateers, the United States developed a force that was prepared for battle against the British. Secondly, the confiscation of goods aboard the British vessels was financially beneficial to the United States. The motivations for merchant sailors who turned to privateering are not as clear. Some historians have argued that privateers only served the country in hopes of financial gain. Others have argued that patriotism was a clear motivator. While it has been well documented that love of country and family may have served as motivators for the act of privateering, or as some would call it “legal piracy,” during the War of 1812, the evidence compiled from newspaper records, songs, letters, and diaries supports the argument that most privateers were motivated by the prospect of material and financial gains.
Niles’ Weekly Register, a Baltimore newspaper, published and edited by Hezekiah Niles from 1811 to 1836, kept records of the prizes taken by American privateer vessels in service to the United States for the period of the war, 1812-1815. During that period, Nile’s Weekly Register reported over three thousand prizes were taken by over two hundred American vessels. The prizes included ammunition, weaponry, gold dust, coin, rum, and other valuable and essential commodities. Most often, the vessels were turned over to the United States government or taken out to sea and sunk. In addition to the booty confiscated, Nile’s Weekly Register also accounted for the number of British sailors taken as prisoners of war. Although these men did not have monetary value attached to their person, they were valuable in that they could be used to negotiate for the release of American prisoners.
To better understand the financially lucrative business of privateering, examples of prizes taken and profits made were investigated. One source containing this valuable information was Nile’s Weekly Register, a newspaper published in Boston during the War of 1812. Owner and Editor, Hezekiah Niles, reported in his newspaper, as many as possible, the prizes collected and brought into Atlantic coast ports by American privateers from the onset of the war on 18 June 1812 and the last report on 15 August 1815. The inventory lists of the items on board these privateers that Niles reported in his newspaper were most likely obtained from the records of the port officers responsible for reporting the inventory to the United States government.
The most successful American privateer vessel reported in Nile’s Weekly Register was the Surprize, a schooner out of Baltimore. During the period between 26 February 1814 and 15 April 1815, the Surprize was credited with thirty-seven prizes. Nile’s Weekly Register reported on 29 October 1814 that the Surprize had taken twenty prizes in the one month cruise prior to its arrival in port in Salem, Massachusetts. During this cruise, one hundred, ninety-seven prisoners were taken of which one-hundred sixty were released and 37 were brought to port.
The second most successful privateer was the Prince of Neufchatel, out of New York, belonging to the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Charten. Like the Surprize, the Prince of Neufchatel would arrive at its homeport reporting multiple prizes taken during a single cruise. According to the 29 October 1814 Nile’s Weekly Register report of the Prince of Neufchatel’s arrival in Boston on 15 October, “the goods she ha[d] brought in” were worth an estimated $300,000; “she also had a large sum in specie on board.” The calculated worth by today’s standard of what the Prince of Neufchatel brought into Boston Harbor that day is staggering. By today’s calculation, that prize is valued at $3,988,000.
One last example of a financially successful privateer was the Yankee; the third most productive privateer along the Atlantic Coast according to Nile’s Weekly Register. From 22 August 1812 to 15 April 1815, the Yankee took for itself thirty-two prizes. Just like the other privateers reported in Nile’s Weekly Register, the Yankee’s booty consisted of ammunition, guns, cotton, rum and other goods. On 3 April 1813, after a cruise of about one-hundred and fifty days during which the Yankee scoured the African coast, it arrived in port at Newport, Rhode Island. The Yankee had been especially successful during that cruise. It brought to port forty tons of ivory, $40,000 worth of gold dust, numerous weapons, and ammunition. The value of that prize was $296,000. Today’s value would be estimated at 4.3 million dollars. Privateering was a financially lucrative business, and for those involved, worth the risks of financial ruin and even death.
The Nile’s Weekly Register reported on these stories weekly for more than two years. Newspapers typically report stories that their customers want to read. Given that these reports were published consistently was a good indicator that the Nile’s Weekly Register was giving its customers what it wanted. The Nile’s Weekly Register likely experienced an economic boon from the privateers’ successes.
Further evidence of the financial benefit of privateering was found in a song printed in Boston by Nathaniel Coverly, June Corner Theater-Alley, 1813. The song “Cash in Hand” referred to the capture of the British packet Swallow by an American Commodore Rodgers. The lyrics of the ten-verse song, set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” regaled the reader with a story of American sailors going to sea and searching out British ships. Verse seven starts, “Full eighty boxes stuffed with gold, And silver there we found.” The chorus began with “Yankee doodle keep it up, Yankee doodle dandy” and ended with “At jingling cash are handy.” The value of the prize: $260,000 in gold and silver by 1813 standards.
Songs also gave evidence to another motive of privateering: patriotism. Another song published by Coverly during the War of 1812, was “Another Glorious Victory.” This ballad was composed to tell the story of the brave sailors of the privateer Saratoga and its glorious victory in capturing the British packer Morgiana. The lyrics spoke of the downfall of the Morgiana and the pride of Neptune at the success of the sailors. Coverly recounted the experience to demonstrate that the sailors aboard the Saratoga were “undaunted by fear” and that they will never disgrace their country. Coverly using the tune and some of the lyrics of “Yankee Doodle” for his song, “Cash in Hand”, gives some evidence to patriotism among privateer sailors.
Journals of ship captains and privateers along with personal letters available for review also provide evidence of patriotism as a motivator for participation in privateering. In the Journal of Jean Lafitte, Lafitte states that he made the decision to write his memoirs to appease his family members and friends who had urged him to do so after years of living incognito.
Lafitte also stated in his journal that he never served in the army before the war, preferring to spend his time on the ocean. Regarding his desire to serve the United States, Lafitte remarked, “My large and powerful fleets were always dedicated to fight against Spain and England.” After the war ended, his desire to continue with military affairs abated. Lafitte’s tone implied that he was offended by the lack of appreciation he received from General Andrew Jackson during and after the war.
Although Lafitte did mention money owed to him and his men for their successes during the war, it was the lack of appreciation that seemed to bother him most. Lafitte saw himself as a great man willing to serve the United States. According to Lafitte, the British approached him with the enticement of money and the right to govern its colonial possessions south of Santo Domingo if he would change sides and serve its government. Lafitte wrote that the offer was made three times and by the third offer, the bribe was “30,000 British pounds sterling.” “That would have been sufficient to tempt many Americans to sell out, but not one who understood that the greatest and most sacred of all documents that had ever been composed and written by men would have been wiped off the face of the earth: the great Declaration of Independence and the great Constitution of the United States.” Although Lafitte was writing what appears on the service as heartfelt words, it is possible that his words were written solely to serve the purpose of self-promotion and to ensure that his legacy was remembered as a heroic one. Establishing the reputation as a patriotic and selfless patriot certainly could have motivated ship captains and sailors to embellish the realities of their own participation in the war.
Survival of another type should be considered as a motivator for sailors to participate in privateering. Many of the crew members of these vessels had little or no choice as to whether they would continue to serve. They could either do the job or the captain would find someone who would. Some of these men were husbands and fathers with families to take care of. Three letters written by an American sailor, Perez Drinkwater, who was captured and taken by the British to Dartmoor Prison were published in the Machias Union in 1831. Drinkwater was a sailor aboard a private schooner, the Lucy. Of these three letters, only the one to his wife was delivered. It was not clear whether to the other two made their way to Maine or how they were eventually located. These letters demonstrated a love for his family that called into question the ever-present stereotype of the bounty hungry pirate. He begs his brother, Elbridge Drinkwater, to write to him, stating that it would give him great happiness if he were to hear replies to the several letters that he had written home from Dartmoor. Perez asks Elbridge to tell his wife, Sally, to be strong in baring her misfortunes. In a letter to his “Honored Parents”, he writes of the horrible conditions but assures them that he is well, and will be leaving the prison the following morning for London and begin his journey home. The letter to his wife Sally was written on 12 October 1814. He writes of the happy day that it will be when he can be with her. Perez closes the letter with these words, “wishing you all well so God bless you all. This is from your even [ever] derr and beloved Husband.” Once again, material gains, even though they were simply for the survival of ones’ family, were a motivation for privateering.
Jean Lafitte’s journal also offers evidence that acts of privateering were done for love of family. Lafitte and his brother, Pierre, had been extremely close as children and this bond continued into adulthood. They played and studied together and children, pillaged and plundered together as men. Their older brother, Alexander, was a man and privateer that Jean and Pierre respected. In his journal, Lafitte recalled the stories his grandmother told him of the horrors his family suffered at hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Lafitte stated in his journal that Pierre’s goal, early in his career, was to confiscate as many British vessels as possible and then destroy the Spanish. Although Lafitte does not explain the brothers’ dislike of the British, he was clear on his views of the Spanish stating, “We burned with the desire to find a way to help throw off the despotic yoke of Spain and establish the reign of liberty in all of Spanish America.” Lafitte’s love of family and his desire to obtain revenge for atrocities committed against them in times past, motivated him to side with the American cause to establish a stable home country for his family.
It appears that love of money was the most common motivation for privateering. Millions of dollars-worth of prizes were documented in the Nile’s Weekly Register alone. Add to that any prizes that were not reported and those taken off the Gulf coast and the sum would increase immensely. Of course, there was also the love of country, if journals and diaries of captains can be believed. It is possible that Jean Lafitte was a true patriot and wrote his journal to solidify his status as a national hero. In 1978, Congress established the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve dedicated to Lafitte near New Orleans. However, Jean Lafitte’s journal as a reliable primary source is problematic. Its authenticity has yet to be proven. Many historians argue that it is a forgery, while some cling to the hope that it is not. Even the Smithsonian Institution cannot confirm nor deny its authenticity. And lastly, love of family served as a motivator. Men had families to feed and look after. And even though they reaped some financial benefits from their privateering activities, money was not necessarily their primary gain. For some young American men, military service in the army was not appealing therefore they served as sailors aboard privateers. Although financial gain was the most common motivator for engaging in privateering during the War of 1812, the motivations varied as much as the men who participated in privateering.
Another glorious victory. Newport Oct. 18, 1813. This afternoon arrived in this harbor the British Packer Morgiana, Capt. Cunningham, of 18 guns, and 50 men, prize to the privateer Saratoga, Capt. Addington of new Yok… 7 stanzas of ve. Boston, 1813. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, April 15, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.05000600c/.
Cash in hand, occassioned by the capture of the British Packet Swallow. by Commodore Rodgers, with 260,000 dollars, in gold and silver on board. Boston printed by Nathaniel Coverly, Jun. Corner Theatre-Alley 1813 Boston, 1813. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, April 15, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.0500060c/.
Drinkwater, Perez, “A Privateer’s Letters Home from Prison.” American Merchant Marine at War. Last Modified 17 January 2017. Accessed 12 April 2017. http://www.usmm.org/felknor1812.html.
Good, Timothy S. ed., American Privateers in the War of 1812: The Vessels and Their Prizes as Recorded in Nile’s Weekly Register. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2012.
Lafitte, Jean. The Journal of Jean Lafitte: The Privateer-Patriot’s Own Story. Lexington, KY: Moonglow Books, 2011.
Alloth, LLC. 2000 dollars in 2017 dollars. Accessed April 22, 2017. http://www.in2013dollars.com.
Coin News Media Group, LLC. US Inflation Calculator. Accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/.
Hickey, Donald R., The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
National Park Service Department of the Interior. Jean Lafitte. Accessed April 3, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/jela/upload/Jean%20Lafitte%20pirate%20site%20bulletin.pdf.
Ministry of Justice. “Dartmoor Prison.” Last modified January 30, 2017. Accessed 22 April 2017. http://www.justice.gov.uk/contacts/prison-finder/dartmoor.