Privateers of ’76, Fred J. Cook, HC, 1976, Bobbs-Merrill, NY
If you want to get learn about a new topic and do it painlessly, reading a kid’s book is an excellent approach. You get the facts in easy-to-read language, and, as in this book, a palatable storytelling format that makes it go down really smooth. It’s a great place to start on a new subject and if you find you like it, you can take it as far as you want beyond that point.
The author, Fred J. Cook, offers an interesting alternative take on Revolutionary War privateers which I stumbled across recently after I read a book a few months ago aimed at more mature readers, Patriot Pirates. Unlike that adult book, this juvenile nonfiction volume, focusing on mid-to-late teen readers, relies on solid reading and only a handful of full-page illustrations. Cook passes along his facts through stories…and does a nice job of it.
The little-noted sea war against England during the Revolutionary War involved a challenge against the most powerful navy on Earth.
It succeeded like crazy. The English took tremendous losses to the Colonists, not through the tiny navy, but through their entrepreneurial privateers.
About 2,000 commissions and letters-of-marque were issued for privately-operated warships that enthusiastically hunted vessels flying the Union Jack. Their successes were vital in supplying the Colonial Army.
Privateers captured enemy ships, took them into port, then sold cargo and often the ship, with profits split between the investors in the enterprise, the crew, and the government.
As they say on election night on CNN, let’s look at the statistics: While the Colonial Army took 20,000 Redcoat prisoners, the Navy and privateers racked up a respectable 16,000. Keep in mind, the Continental Navy was not only small but, in fact, largely nonexistent through the last three years of the War for Independence.
As for losses, Lloyd’s of London recorded 3,087 British merchants ships captured, with 879 of those recaptured on the spot or ransomed. Bottom line…2,208 were destroyed or sold as prizes in American ports along with their cargoes. Not to be forgotten as the aforementioned Patriot Pirates emphasized, this was a business which combined patriotism to self-interest. Even a lowly crewman stoof to gain a fortune if his ship was successful.
This book, with its opening chapter and final chapter recap, spends most of its time to focus on a handful of notable privateers and a variety of strategies used by these legalized-priates.
It was not an easy business and it was not neat and tidy It was a WCW Championship wrestling match with gunpowder. There were many privateers lost in action against the enemy or lost due to the sea. The British eventually wised-up and started commissioning their own privateers, although by that stage the momentum was against them. There were cases of overmatched privateers fighting heroic battles against British Navy vessels. There were other cases of incredible bluffs that paid off handsomely.
There were the Nantucket whaleboat-sailors who evacuated Washington’s army from New York but also operated as pint-size privateers, taking English ships, often in crowded, heavily-guarded New York harbor. They even kidnapped high-ranking hostages from coastal cities for exchange for Colonial prisoners held by the British.
And there was Silas Talbot, who simultaneously held high rank in the Colonial Army and Navy while operating as a privateer captain. Talbot began with Washington’s army, then, recovering from wounds, began operations at sea. He captained a privateer, no navy ship was available for him to command. Unlike many privateers who operated off the English coast or in the Caribbean, Talbot’s hunting grounds were off the busy New England coast.
Gustavus Conynghm was the Dunkirk Pirate, operating with huge success in European waters, captured twice and both times escaping from British prisons. Conyngham lent support to through his privateer activities to Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to upset the delicate truce between England and France as he tried to woo France to the American side. Franklin, as everyone knows, was successful. Privateering success not only left the Brits miffed at us, but at their cross-channel rivals when the privateers were allowed to sell captured ships and cargoes in French ports.
Great summary with interesting tales. No doubt long out of print, check for it on Amazon or at the library or through inter-library loan.