Privateering During the War of 1812

On April 14th, 1812, the War of the Sixth Coalition (the next to the last of the Napoleonic Wars) ended. Napoleon was exiled to Elba and Great Britain (and Europe) was at peace. Or so the Brits thought.

Peace for the United Kingdom ended abruptly when James Madison asked for a declaration of war on June 18th, 1812. After a life-and-death struggle with their traditional enemy, France, the Brits turned their attention to their upstart former colony. Their first move was to send the Royal Navy to blockade the U.S. and strangle our economy.

Former President Thomas Jefferson whose policies that limited the funding of the Army and Navy and allowed the issues that led to Madison’s declaration of war fester, wrote to his successor, “The Royal Navy will prevail against the U.S. Navy, but our privateers will eat out the vitals of their commerce….” Later in the letter, Jefferson showed his lack of understanding of warfare by stating that “conquering Canada would be a mere matter of marching.”

To his credit, Jefferson got the impact of U.S. privateers on British commerce right. On the other two, he was wrong. Although the U.S. Navy only had 15 ships in commission on June 18th, the U.S. Navy was an ugly surprise to the Royal Navy who found that unless they outnumbered the U.S. warship, the sailing qualities, seamanship, and gunnery of the U.S. ship would prevail. The invasion of Canada was an unmitigated disaster.

However, to be fair, once the Royal Navy deployed enough ships to blockade every major port from Maine to Georgia, it began to strangle the U.S. economy. U.S. merchant ships to sail to overseas customers and bring goods into the U.S. and the U.S. Navy were often bottled up in port.

Madison signed the law on August 4th, 1812, allowing consortiums to be issued letters of marque which would enable the ships they owned to seize British ships and sell the vessel and the cargo. When Congress issued a letter of marque, it did not require any sort of reporting of what they captured or sank or if the consortium’s ship was captured by the British.

The Congress issued 515 letters of marque and the number of His Majesty George III’s merchant ships captured runs between 1,500 and 2,000.

A better way to look at the impact of the American privateer on the British economy were the insurance rates charged by Lloyds of London. If, as the British contend, the U.S. Navy and privateers were not a threat, then why were the wartime insurance premiums not eliminated after the victory over Napoleon? Lloyd’s continued to charge them until after the Treaty of Ghent was ratified by the U.S. Congress on February 17th, 1815.

The value of the American privateer during the War of 1812 was significant. One, it forced the Royal Navy to assign ships to hunt them.

Two, the money the U.S. government earned through the sale of captured cargos and vessels helped pay for the war.

Three, the goods on captured vessels were sold in the U.S. which benefited U.S. consumers.

Four, privateer crews were a polyglot lot with many freed slaves and immigrants from all over the world. Many family fortunes got their start from prize money earned by serving on a successful privateer.

Five, the ships and cargoes taken by American privateers caused English merchants’ money and the loss of seamen, ships and cargoes helped convince parliament that it needed to end the War of 1812.

Hand colored cartoon Yankey Torpedo by Thomas Tegg published in London on November 1st, 1813, courtesy of the Library of Congress

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