Right after the Revolution began, the Continental Congress began issuing a currency called dollars. Rather than use a decimal system, the smallest unit was 1/6th of a dollar. The largest bill was $80. To complicate matters, each of the 13 colonies issued their own script in a variety of denominations.
Very quickly, the Continental Dollar dropped in value and by the end of the Revolutionary War, only the coins made from metal were worth anything. Citizens of the new United States preferred to be paid in British pounds.
Several times in prior posts, I’ve mentioned that the Continental Congress struggled to collect enough money to prosecute the war. There are many, many stories about officers and men not being paid for months at a time. It didn’t help that the paper money was, at times, worth less than the paper it was printed on.
So what kind of pay are we talking about? In 1778, captains made 32 Continental Dollars (CD$) a month. Today, it amounts to $592.58. A lieutenant made CD$20 which is in 2019, $320.66.
A Gunners mate was paid CD$10.66 or $197.40 in today’s dollars. Seamen made just CD$6.66 which is a whopping $123.33 a month today.
The oddity is that Marines made more than their Navy counterparts. For example, a Marine Captain was paid CD$26.66 ($493.69) and privates CD$6.75 ($125.00).
The pay numbers translated to 2019 dollars does not show the entire picture. In the civilian world, carpenters in 1778 made roughly CD$11.85 a month, masons and bricklayers CD$19.80. If you were a farm worker and could bring an oxen to the job, you could make the princely sum of CD$45/month.
Given this disparity, it is no wonder the Continental Navy had trouble manning its ships. Between the lack of pay and the possibility you might be maimed or killed made recruiting difficult. If you were in the Continental Army or Navy, the chance of dying from disease was almost three times than on the battlefield. Seventeen thousand Americans died of disease while only 6,800 died from wounds.
The Navy’s only advantage was the lure of prize money. The individual crewmembers’ share of prize money was determined by what the ship and its cargo could was worth at an auction held by an Admiralty Court. Your share was calculated by your position on the crew. Based on the formula used by the Royal and Continental Navies, taking a single prize could earn an able seaman several years of pay or more.
Prize money and privateering went hand in hand. Consortiums invested in ships and crews and earned a return from the revenue generated by selling captured prizes. For them, it was war for profit. Don’t underestimate the effect of privateers during the American Revolution. They captured, depending on the source, between 10 and 12 percent of the British merchant fleet. It proves the adage – scratch a patriot and you’ll find a businessman!”