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At the outset of the American Revolution, the state of the American army under the command of General George Washington was nothing to be proud of. Washington's forces lacked in equipment, training and numbers -- but at least Washington was sure his land troops existed. He had no such assurances about the a navy: there was none. Washington knew that a war against Britain would have to be fought, at least in part, by targeting their arriving ships.
Commissioning a navy became one of Washington's earliest goals. He knew the Americans had no chance of winning the war if the British were able to land and launch ships as much as they liked, up and down the coast. He did everything within his power to create a traditional navy for the Americans, but almost as soon as he looked into the venture, he discovered that a national navy could not be organized and equipped in a few weeks or months.
Faced with the dilemma of needing a navy and being unable to build one, Washington settled for what was available. He arranged and paid for several officers in his army who had some experience seafaring to arm and acquire the services of any vessel and crew floating in American waters and supporting the Revolutionary forces. His officers found eager volunteers among the many American sailors who had been amateur privateers just a few years before. Privateering was exactly the same as piracy, except that a privateer choose a country to have allegiance to and only pirated enemies of that country. Americans had experience preying on the French, the Dutch and Spanish, who had been at war with Britain frequently in the colonial period. Many of the same men who'd pirated for Britain were delighted to have the chance to turn their skills back on the British.
Though ships appeared and guarded the harbor, what Washington ended up working with could hardly be called a navy at all. His officers had commissioned everything in the water that would float, from whalers to traders. The only thing all the vessels had in common was a willingness to commit acts of piracy on British ships.
Following Washington's lead, merchants and investors began commissioning privateers left and right. The privateers were contracted to search out British merchants, board them, take their cargo and capture their crews and passengers. At first, the privateers encountered easy marks. Britain did not expect any American military action on the high seas, and so merchant ships were only lightly defended.
The captured cargo of these ships sometimes caused more problems than monetary damages for the British merchants. On November 25, 1775, the Lee, which had been commissioned by Washington himself, brought in the British Nancy. The cargo turned out to be 2,000 muskets, 2,000 bayonets, 3,000 rounds of shot for 12-pounders, some gunpowder and 50 fire shells. Until then there had been hardly a bayonet in the whole Continental Army.
Shortly thereafter, the Lee, the Defense and three small ships chased two British transports into Nantasket's harbor. They discovered that the cargo had been reinforcements for the Boston Garrison of British Regulars. They next day the same ships went out and captured another British transport with yet another 100 British regulars. Immediately thereafter this feat was duplicated by other amateur privateers in other American ports and harbors.
Troops transports, like merchant ships, were very lightly armed because the British had not anticipated that they would be attacked. The British soon stepped up their defenses. They couldn't afford to have Americans capturing their soldiers, munitions, supplies and merchant ships. They began escorting transports and merchant ships in convoys, complete with warships.
It was one thing for a meagerly armed privateer vessel to attack an even more lightly armed merchant or transport ship; a war ship was completely out of their capability. With the changes in British policy, the Americans were forced to seek out a new naval resource. The earlier American ships were sailed by Americans who had some experience as amateur privateers. When British warships entered the picture, professional privateers continued to do what was outside the talent of the amateurs. This second batch of privateers were less of the good-natured patriotic sort, and more of the blood thirsty profit hungry sort, but as privateers went, they were incredibly loyal. In general, it was not uncommon for a privateering vessel to switch sides in a war whenever doing so was advantageous, but this hardly happened at all among the Revolutionary privateers.
Privateers were not soldiers. They were not out to take down the entire British navy one ship at a time, through gory and drawn-out battles. They were interested in making money and living to spend it. As the war progressed, their primary role became as a distraction and annoyance to the British, rather than a direct line of assault. Constantly evading privateers, British warships were unable to arrive on schedule, or make attacks on more important American systems.
Individual citizens and then colonies granted commissions to privateers up until March 23, 1776, when Congress authorized privateering against enemies of the colonies. On April 3, they began issuing their own commissions for owners and captains of ships--there was no reason not to do so. Congress set strict rules about prizes, prisoners and reporting, and required that one-third of the crew must be landsmen (perhaps to protect the fledgling navy from losing all its men to privateering). All money for funding congressional commissions came from private contributors. Congress simply signed the papers and offered their blessings. But, when the privateers sold off the stolen booty, some of the profit went to fund Congress.
Under congressional rules, commissions and bonds were expensive, running from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the size of a ship. Still, there were thousands of wishful privateers seeking them from Congress. It is estimated that 2,000 commissions were issued and that between 250 and 400 privateer ships were always functioning. The smallest of the colonies, Rhode Island, sent out fifty-seven privateer ships.
American privateers began operating in the English Channel, the Caribbean, the British West Indies, as well as their home waters. Wherever the British were, the Americans followed. Hundreds of British merchant ships were captured by privateers, despite the increased number of convoys. Food headed into the British West Indies was intercepted by American ships, and the colony suffered a severe food shortage. Americans, meanwhile, could buy the luxury goods from raided ships at excellent prices, and supplies for Washington's army were frequently provided by privateers. When the French fleet finally arrived in Boston in 1778 to assist the American cause, it was the money earned by privateers that was used to pay for their provisions.
Though the American privateers were eager to rob the British blind for their own reasons, the French provided new encouragement. The French and the British had been in a state of almost constant war for centuries, and in all this time, any enemy of the British was a friend of the French. Thousands of French soldiers and sailors, including the Marquis de Lafayette, cheerfully crossed the Atlantic take up arms against the British.
France violated a 1713 treaty with England and opened its ports to American privateers. American ships sailed for French shores and worked out of the English Channel. In addition to the new ability to stop ships from returning to English, suddenly, no British vessel in the world was safe. Wherever the English had a colony, so did the French, and they allowed the Americans to hang around all of them.
Premiums for insurance of British ships sky-rocketed, even if the ship was in a convoy. In England, merchants began losing money, and actually began hiring French ships to transport their goods. The French ships, were never attacked by the American privateers. France made money, the Americans terrorized the British at home, and the British began to wonder if these colonies were worth keeping.
In 1778, the House of Lords heard a complaint that American privateers had captured or destroyed a total of 733 ships. As British enthusiasm and economy disappeared, the French made their participation in the war official. On July 17, 1778 France declared war on Britain and made a Treaty of Amity with the 'United States of North America.' One of the provisions of the treaty was that each country would leave its ports open for the other's privateers.
The full support of France, and not the privateers, cinched the war for the Americans, and in 178 the war came to an end with the Treaty of Paris. However, the circumstances surrounding France's early assistance and choice to finally endorse the Americans completely may have owed in to their earlier working arrangement with the privateers, which left Britain economical weak and vulnerable to international, directed piracy.
After years of living on the high seas, most of the privateers were ready to go home and enjoy the plentiful money they'd earned. Though they were out for money more than glory, the privateers did well for the revolution. According to Lloyd's of London, they captured 3,087 ships, and provided arms and supplies for American and French forces.
Perhaps their most important and understated role of all was as morale boosters for the colonial rebels. Most cities and towns in America were close enough the ocean, or inlets, that privateering news was local news. Every newspaper rushed to print the latest privateering adventures, and the people took a forming national pride in how well the pirates succeeding in thwarting the British.