Private ships of war

by J Michael Waller, Serviam, January 2, 2009.

Privately owned warships are so deeply at the heart of American maritime tradition that a reference to them is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. With their own contract crews who rushed to the fight for independence during the American Revolution and in defense of the nation during the War of 1812, the private warships successfully waged naval guerrilla warfare against the world’s most powerful fleet. Private warships also fought the Barbary pirates in the nation’s first foreign war.

The privateers of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were much different from the private military contractors (PMCs) and private security contractors of today. They operated as independent businesses, chartered by Congress and bonded to ensure observance of the law, but, unlike PMCs, they were free of the military chain of command. They served the national interest not as government contractors, but made their profits by attacking enemy shipping—especially commercial shipping, on which the enemy’s economy depended. Those on the receiving end viewed privateers as glorified pirates. But the U.S. government viewed them as legitimate weapons against the commercial engine that fueled the enemy’s armed forces. Several European powers also used privateers at sea.

By necessity, American naval warfare at the time was asymmetrical against the overwhelmingly superior Royal Navy. From the very beginning, the leaders of what would become the United States of America turned to the private sector to do cost-effectively and efficiently what the government could not do at all. Before independence, in April 1776, the Continental Congress voted to issue commissions for “private ships of war” to attack the British. Borrowing from established French and British practices, the Continental Congress authorized the issuance of “letters of marque and reprisal” for the owners and captains of private warships to attack enemy vessels. In one of the Founding Fathers’ earliest regulations of private business, the Continental Congress legislated how the private naval forces and their commanders and crew would conduct themselves, and required privateer owners to post bond to guarantee compliance.

The “letters of marque and reprisal” language appears in Article 1, Section 8, Paragraph 11 of the Constitution.

The 13 colonies had only 31 ships among them for the Continental Navy in 1776. According to a history written by a Merchant Marine veteran, the Continental Navy had 64 ships during the Revolution. The privateers numbered 1,697. Total guns on the Continental Navy vessels: 1,242. Total guns on the privateers: 14,872. The Continental Navy captured 196 enemy ships, while the privateers captured 2,283.

During the war, George Washington, who paid close attention to his business affairs while serving as general, invested in at least one privateer. On November 14, 1777, he wrote his stepson, John Parke Custis, concerning the sale of one of the vessels: “It is perfectly agreeable, too, that Colonel Baylor should share part of the privateer. I have spoken to him on the subject. I shall therefore consider myself as possessing one fourth of your full share, and that yourself, Baylor, Lund Washington, and I are equally concerned in the share you at first held.” Baylor was Washington’s former aide de camp and an escort of Martha Washington; Lund Washington was the general’s cousin and business manager.

Private warships remained a vital component of early American seapower into the early 1800s. They served the United States in the nation’s first foreign war, from 1801 to 1805, against the Muslim Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean who plundered U.S. merchant ships and sold American crewmen and families into slavery. Though the new frigates like the USS Constitution are best remembered for fighting the Barbary wars, the privateers were also decisive.

“With the implementation of the Jeffersonian gunboat diplomacy, an historic American fear of a standing military force and its attendant officer class, a dislike of taxation combined with a dependence on militia, any hope for a moderately strong navy on the eve of the War of 1812 was highly unrealistic,” writes privateer scholar Jerome R. Garitee in his 1977 book, The Republic’s Private Navy. “The government’s only realistic alternative to the path it actually followed would have been to adopt the concept of a naval commerce raiding force sooner than it did.”

The United States declared war on Britain in 1812 after the Royal Navy had kidnapped thousands of American sailors and impressed them into military service for the crown during its war with France, and attacked neutral American commercial shipping to choke off U.S. trade with Britain’s enemy. Britain had also provided military support for Indian tribes in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Wealthy states like Massachusetts, however, withheld funds from the national government out of opposition to the war.

By 1813, despite the magnificent victories of the USS Constitution and other frigates, the American Navy was mostly flattened. Privateers were no match for Britain’s powerful ships of the line, but by focusing on attacking British merchant vessels, they still fought with great effect. First, the privateers forced the Royal Navy to protect its vital trading interests and divert its fleet away from attacking the U.S. Navy and American port cities. Second, the privateers wreaked financial ruin on British merchants and industrialists who had supported the war against the United States in the first place.

This type of economic warfare placed immense pressure on the British government to end the war once it was clear by 1813 that the price for victory would be too high. Soon, British businessmen were losing an average of more than one ship a day to the privateers. Shippers, merchants, and insurers bore the cost of their government’s war—a cost that deepened after the privateers took the war to British shores and even targeted vessels in the English Channel, according to Garitee.

“The success of American privateers in the Irish Sea had made shipping rates three times higher than they were during the war with Napoleon,” historian Robert Leckie writes in The Wars of America.

Garitee says, “Whether they would have done more damage to Britain than one frigate is debatable, but the Baltimore schooners were still operable at war’s end and the Navy’s frigates were not.”

Henry Adams, great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams presidents, noted, “American privateer vessels, the nation’s greatest success in 1814, contributed more than the regular navy to bring about a disposition of peace in the British classes most responsible for the war.”

Historian Bradford Perkins observed that private armed warships “strengthened [President James] Madison’s hand as his armies and navies could not.” The great naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, though no fan of privateers, admitted that private warships in the War of 1812 “cooperated powerfully with other motives to dispose the enemy to liberal terms of peace.”