Exploring the High Seas of the Revolution: Privateers in the First-Half Survey

Kylie A. Hulbert

American Vessels Attack the Phoenix and the Rose, two British war ships on the Hudson River, NY on August 16, 1776. Courtesy, The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

The preponderance of students who walk through my classroom door for American History to 1877 are not history majors. Almost all are required to take the course, but would rather be anywhere else. Many arrive with preconceived notions—or in some cases none at all—about American History. The hardest one to grapple with as a historian of early America is the idea that the patriot victory in the American Revolution was foreordained long before the Declaration, Valley Forge, or Yorktown. Even worse for this maritime historian, the few students who do know about the Revolution think George Washington won the entire war by himself, with a little help from Thomas Jefferson’s quill and Mel Gibson’s tomahawk.

Commission from the Continental Congress for the Brigantine Fame, Dated April 15, 1779. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Hence, my challenge: to present the maritime aspects of the American Revolution and their importance to its outcome in a survey course already brimming with material to students who think they already know how and why the war concludes as it does. My solution: the balance sheet of war. Following a couple lectures encompassing all the acts and crises paving the road to war, I take time to lay out a balance sheet—or tale of the tape—that compares the advantages and disadvantages of the American and British sides in a variety of categories on the eve of the war in 1775‒1776. For example, the Army, Recruitment, Weapons, Finances, International Allies, and Supplies are all potential categories. Of course, I take this opportunity to include “Presence on the Waters” as a category. I am careful not to use the term Navy, for when it comes to the Revolution, the war is not just about the British navy or the rebellion’s lack thereof. Privateers played a critical role in the colonial war effort, and I seize the chance to highlight their work.

Students are often shocked to learn that the fledgling American nation had no navy to speak of in 1775. In their eyes, the United States is and always has been a global superpower. The balance sheet illustrates how that was far from true during the Revolution, especially in maritime matters. So, I ask students, what would the colonies need to build a navy? Answers range from ships to sailors to supplies. I ask follow-up questions about building those ships, recruiting those sailors, and

paying for those supplies. Slowly, students begin to realize that creating a navy from scratch would be a difficult and laborious undertaking for any upstart nation, let alone a Continental Congress already strapped for cash. Then I plant the seed: What if Congress could rely on others to outfit and man ships? What if merchant ships that already existed could be converted for the war effort? Again, students begin to think, and I nudge them along with questions about New England, its main industries, and its maritime roots. I challenge them further. Why might merchants be willing to engage their vessels in wartime efforts? What happens to their businesses during war time? Finally, a light bulb flashes on. Students ask about how the Continental Congress could procure and promote this makeshift flotilla. Usually someone suggests “Pirates!” I respond: Privateers.

Advertisement Calling for Sailors to Serve Aboard the Privateer Washington, Dated 1776. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Privateers are typically unfamiliar to students. Immediately and not surprisingly, they think of swashbucklers like Jack Sparrow or Blackbeard sailing the high seas, attacking the British. We take the time to define the terms and make distinctions between the two. Privateers are commissioned, pirates are not. Privateers have instructions and guidelines, pirates do not. Privateers must bring their prizes into courts, pirates take whatever they please. Privateers are loyal to a cause, in theory; pirates are loyal only unto themselves. Once students understand who and what privateers are, we then turn our attention to what privateers accomplish during the war.

While the Continental Navy struggled to leave the docks, privateers expeditiously took the war to the British at sea. They engaged with enemy vessels and brought prizes back to colonial ports. They harassed British ships, causing insurance rates to rise alongside public displeasure with the war in Britain. Their exploits filled colonial newspapers with tales of heroics and victories at a time when Washington and the Continental Army were barely surviving and the Continental Navy scarcely existed. They presented a quick and easy solution to the question of a colonial presence at sea and, for a time, the Continental Congress was happy to accept their help and to take credit for their successes.

Eventually, despite my desire to spend lecture after lecture upon privateers, we move on from the sea to other categories of the balance sheet. However, the seed planted in this lecture allows me to return to matters of the water throughout my lectures on the Revolution. Students seem to better understand the significance of France’s Navy at Yorktown and they almost always ask about the size of the Continental Navy by war’s end, expressing dismay at its paltry state even in 1783. If I had infinite time in the survey, I would return to those privateers at the end of the war and relate the tale of how—despite their efforts on behalf of the American cause—they were whitewashed from the Revolutionary narrative, deemed as profiteers rather than privateers, unworthy of the war’s legacy. But I tell students if they want to hear even more about privateers—and how they came to be labeled as pirates and ungentlemanly figures following the war—they will just have to take my upper-level on the American Revolution.

12 August 2019

About the Author

Kylie A. Hulbert is a historian of Early America, whose research focuses on privateers operating during the American Revolution.

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