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Authors: Robert H. Patton

Patriot Pirates

BOOK: Patriot Pirates
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for Vicki, of course

and for the memory of my father,
George S. Patton IV

The New Englanders are fitting out light vessels of war, by which it is hoped we shall not only clear the seas and bays here of everything below the size of a ship of war, but that they will visit the coasts of Europe and distress the British trade in every part of the world. The adventurous genius and intrepidity of those people is amazing.

—Thomas Jefferson, July 1775

It is prudent not to put virtue to too serious a test. I would use American virtue as sparingly as possible lest we wear it out.

—John Adams, in support of Congressional approval of independent privateers, October 1775


John Brown
by Edward Malbone, 1794.
(Collection of the New-York Historical Society)

James Mugford
lithograph by L. H. Bradford & Co. Published by Glover Broughton, 1854.
(Peabody Essex Museum)

Silas Deane.
(Collection of the New-York Historical Society)

Edward Bancroft.
(The Royal Society)

Robert Morris,
engraving after portrait by Robert Edge Pine, c. 1785.
(Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)

John Paul Jones,
engraving by Longmore, c. 1850 after portrait by Charles Willson Peale.
(Stapleton Collection/Corbis)

Nathanael Greene
by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1775.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Langdon,
etching by Albert Rosenthal, 1888, after portrait by John Trumbull.
(Library of Congress)

John Adams
by John Trumbull, 1793.
(Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery)

John Manley.
(Peabody Essex Museum)

William Bingham,
engraving after portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1795.
(Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Comte de Vergennes.

Benjamin Franklin
by Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle, c. 1780–1781.
(Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery)

David Murray,
Lord Stormont, by George Romney, 1783.
(The Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford)

Arthur Lee
by Charles Willson Peale, 1785.
(Virginia Historical Society)

Gustavus Conyngham
by V. Zveg, 1976, based on a miniature by Louis Marie Sicardi.
(U.S. Navy Art Collection)

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
(Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)


Beset by a sudden squall in April 1775, a small British sloop, “very much torn to pieces by the gale of wind,” ducked into the sheltered bay off Beverly, Massachusetts, sometime after dark. It proved a false refuge, for the next morning two fishermen armed with pistols rowed out from the town wharf and claimed the beleaguered vessel as a war prize. After its crew of five men and two women surrendered without protest, the event went down as Beverly’s first capture of enemy loot—a single barrel each of flour, tobacco, rum, and pork.

Citizens excitedly kept watch on the bay in anticipation of more prey. Their vigilance was rewarded when His Majesty’s ship
ran aground while pursuing
, an armed schooner recently commissioned by George Washington to hijack enemy transports supplying British troops in Boston, twenty-five miles south.

People flocked to the beach and began shooting at the stranded warship “very badly many times” with household muskets and a motley battery of antiquated cannon. “’Tis luck they fired so high,”
’s captain wrote afterward. Even so, one of his seamen lost a leg in the barrage and another was killed before the vessel rose off the sand on the incoming tide and fled to open water. Ashore, men had body parts “blowed off” by misfires of gunpowder and by accidentally shooting one another.

The mad fervor of the region’s saltwater colonials was well known to British authorities. There’d been incidents of government supply crews abandoning ship down one side as marauders in converted fishing boats clambered up the other side wielding clubs and cutlasses. In response, the Royal Navy’s commander in Boston, Admiral Samuel Graves, had directed his captains to “burn, sink, and destroy” suspicious vessels and to “lay waste and destroy every town or place from whence pirates are fitted out.”

The spiraling violence made everyone cry foul. Americans cursed “Graves and his harpies.” The British retorted that “a thief might with as much truth and reason complain of the cruelty of a man who should knock him down for robbing him!”

British leaders told themselves “those vermin” would be easily crushed, “especially when their loose discipline is considered.” But an unsigned letter from a naval officer stationed in Boston and published that winter in a London newspaper gave a darker assessment. “They are bold enough to dare and do anything,” he wrote of the American sea raiders. “Whatever other vices they may have, cowardice is not one of them.”


The American Revolution never impressed me. For one thing, it seemed far surpassed by the Civil War in terms of drama and palpable grit, Currier & Ives compared with Mathew Brady, powdered wigs and tricorner hats compared with the sprawled bodies and forever-young faces of the dead in that road at Antietam.

One of my colonial ancestors, General Hugh Mercer, was mortally wounded at the battle of Princeton in 1777. A famous painting by the Revolutionary War artist John Trumbull depicts Mercer sprawled on the ground parrying a British redcoat’s bayonet, yet the work’s heroic appeal pales beside the letter composed by my great-great-uncle at a Gettysburg field hospital where he lay dying after Pickett’s charge; or beside the chunk of Yankee cannonball that killed his brother, Colonel George S. Patton, at Winchester one year later. Retrieved by a surgeon from Patton’s gut, the shrapnel is crescent-shaped and rusted red at its edges, and lies heavy in your hand when you hold it.

Ken Burns’s 1990 television documentary,
The Civil War
, blended scholarship and artful detail to make its subject powerfully immediate to millions of viewers, creating through music, images, and lyrical voiceovers a video equivalent of the poignant artifacts passed down from my doomed Rebel forebears. A steady outpour of histories and novels keeps the Civil War current today, as do perennial pageants of battle reenactment, lucrative speculation in its memorabilia, and the war’s fundamental relation to African American history and the struggle for civil rights. Small wonder the Revolution can’t compete.

The great figures of American independence remain intriguing, of course. Enduring popular interest in the Founding Fathers confirms our desire to view them as human and accessible—as people like us, and yet not. But the proverbial search for an era’s characteristic specimens is a tall order when prospecting among such singular men. Put another way, can George Washington possibly have been anything like anyone we know? In photographs of Abraham Lincoln’s gaunt face we glimpse the terrible toll of prosecuting a war that took hundreds of thousands of lives. Of Washington, however, we praise his wisdom, vigilance, and modesty, but on a personal level generally recall him as dour and toothless.

The Revolution suffers in the same way. Bunker Hill and Valley Forge seem mere milestones in the march of progress rather than fateful occasions of risk and peril. Joseph Ellis observes, “No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.” Conversely, the Union’s triumph over the Confederacy never comes across as a foregone conclusion; that sense of precariousness gives its memory lasting vitality. Yorktown occurred almost a century before Appomattox. The added distance dulls the suspense and thus the humanity of the Revolution, allowing us to see it as myth, which is to say, scarcely to see it at all.

This book looks at the Revolution in a way that has brought the subject to new life for me. Maritime privateering—legalized piracy in the shortest of shorthand—engaged multiple areas of Revolutionary life that, examined together, present a colorful and surprisingly broad portrait of the era. Washington, his army stymied in its siege of Boston in 1775, initiated the enterprise offhandedly. “Finding we were not likely to do much in the land way, I fitted out several privateers, or rather armed vessels, in behalf of the Continent.”

Offering a percentage of spoils as inducement, the call for citizen sailors to raid British shipping tapped the same vein of self-interest and comradeship that had led the colonies to seek independence in the first place. It attracted a slew of waterfront denizens as varied in seamanship as in motive and whose balance of greed and patriotism tilted from case to case. The emergence from that hodgepodge of some of the most intrepid mariners in American history highlights the strategic element of Revolutionary privateering, for they would spearhead what became a massive seaborne insurgency involving thousands of privately owned warships whose ravages on the enemy dwarfed those of the fledgling United States Navy.

The industry of privateering proved a boon to the battered wartime economy. It supported shipbuilders, service workers, and a complex network of agents and legal officials to adjudicate captured prizes. It sparked wild speculation in purchased shares in privateer ventures, gave sailors a chance to make more money in a month, through crewmen’s shares of the loot, than they might otherwise earn in a year, and enabled investors who bankrolled successful voyages to create fortunes that survive to this day.

The financial fluctuation of privateering and other wartime commerce was a social obsession. Suspicious of all centralized authority, whether a king or legislature, the colonists took a similar view of wealthy capitalists, acknowledging their stature while embracing rumors of ill dealing with righteous zeal. Ostentatious success drew particular skepticism, but with inflation soaring due to Congress’s reckless printing of money to fund the war, businessmen had little choice but to spend as fast as they could lest their profits depreciate to nothing. It made sense to build mansions, buy fancy goods, and invest in myriad ventures, though doing so frequently prompted, whether whispered in town or declaimed in the halls of Congress, allegations of corruption and treachery.

The vicissitudes of any commercial market were exaggerated in privateering with its violence and uncertainty. The savviest entrepreneurs made it merely one part of their investment portfolio. Some who bet on it heavily wound up among the wealthiest men in America. Others came to regret participating after losing their shirts or their public honor.


t’s often overlooked that in the years leading up to 1775 rising anger over Britain’s restrictive trade policies coincided with an economic surge in the colonies. Americans were the most prosperous people in the world, and also the lowest taxed. In fiscal terms rebellion was inspired by ambition rather than hardship, by a desire not for financial freedom but for
financial freedom. This push for opportunity spurred people’s envy of success, their scorn for failure, and their increasingly dubious view of their compatriots’ integrity.

The Declaration of Independence may have been an audacious leap of political optimism, but the society from which it sprung was steeped in cynicism. “This corrupt age” was a widespread sentiment echoed by General Nathanael Greene in a 1778 letter urging a cousin to get into trade “on an extensive scale.” His reasoning was pragmatic. “Without wealth a man will be of no consequence. Mark my words for it—patriotism and every sacrifice will soon be forgotten.” It was ironic advice given Greene’s misgivings about the many outside ventures he pursued during the war, including the one that cost him most dearly, “a gamester’s hope” as he ruefully put it—privateering.

Its inherent risks, financial and mortal, drastically steepened once the Royal Navy recognized the magnitude of the threat and moved to destroy it. Adapting tactics as ruthless and crafty as those of the colonists, Britain dispatched dozens of warships after the privateers and their partners in nautical daring, the blockade-runners who smuggled arms and contraband across the Atlantic. American losses were huge, but sailors and businessmen deemed the potential payday worth the risk. “One arrival will pay for two, three, or four losses,” wrote the Philadelphia financier Robert Morris. “Therefore it’s best to keep doing something constantly.”

Their aggressive spirit set privateers apart from the Continental Army, which never did much “in the land way” except hold out long enough for France to make up its mind to formalize an alliance with America. Washington, ever the realist, acknowledged early on that his best strategy was “to sink Britain under the disgrace and expense” of slogging through to victory. Simply surviving against the vaunted British military was an amazing feat involving countless small-and large-scale offensive operations to keep the enemy off balance, under strain, and demoralized. But essentially the Continentals won by not losing; or, in the manner of modern guerrilla insurrections, by making the cost of victory too high to seem worth it to a complacent, superior foe. Privateers, on the other hand, carried the war to Britain. Many were plain bandits; some were genuine patriots. Yet whatever their motivation, they panicked the British public, intimidated the merchants, and humiliated the crown.

Privateering had a longstanding tradition. For centuries, governments at war had authority under international law to license independent operators to plunder the shipping of a declared foe. The Continental Congress, in permitting civilians “to cruise on the enemies of these United Colonies,” was exercising what it presumed to be its sovereign right. But deeming Congress and thus its edicts to be illegitimate, Parliament passed a “Pirate Act” in 1777 that, in denying privateersmen the legal rights typically granted to prisoners of war, allowed them to be held without trial or prospect of exchange. The controversial bill divided British lawmakers and citizens, many of whom believed it unconstitutional and bound “not only to destroy the liberty of America, but this country likewise.” It motivated humanitarian groups in the cause of prison reform and sharpened the split between Britain’s hawks and doves, undermining the war effort to the advantage of the American underdogs.

The plight of its captives turned privateering into a political phenomenon as well as a naval and economic one. The issue particularly absorbed Benjamin Franklin. Dispatched to France in 1776 to negotiate a treaty of alliance, he sent aid to jailed privateersmen and arranged for many to escape with the help of sympathetic Britons. But his primary interest was more cunning than altruistic. With Britain and France still outwardly at peace, he encouraged American skippers to sell their British prizes in French ports, a breach of neutrality he knew would infuriate Britain.

The French foreign ministry rebuked Franklin and Silas Deane, a fellow diplomat with many shadowy ties to privateering, for over-stepping their authority. But the continued collusion between privateers and French merchants was like a stick beneath a scab, aggravating Britain’s relations with its fellow superpower across the Channel. America desperately needed France’s military partnership in order to induce Britain to capitulate. Franklin and Deane, concluding that “some accident may probably bring on a war sooner than is desired by either party,” used privateering to get the ball rolling.

The Continental Navy, notwithstanding the exploits of John Paul Jones, was a non-factor in determining the war’s outcome; much to Jones’s outrage, competition from privateering robbed it of the ships and manpower needed to become a decisive force. Privateering’s contribution to the eventual victory, though far greater in statistical terms, is difficult to assess, for Britain was a massive sea power able to absorb considerable damage without losing its dominance. But the psychological impact was major.

Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic carried running accounts of privateer actions that readers followed like standings in a pennant race. The details were lurid, the facts often wrong, but the up-and-down tally of ocean kills and captures generally uplifted Americans and unsettled Britons, who couldn’t understand why their naval Goliath couldn’t crush those pesky Davids.

In both countries, popular support for the war hinged on perceptions of its progress, and one consistent perception was that the privateers—“rebel pirates” in the British view, “our little cruisers” in the American—were swarming the seas at will. The descriptive term of choice for their depredations was “insult,” which in its eighteenth-century usage connoted physical assault as well as social effrontery, the kick in the shin and the thumbing of the nose.


rivateering’s undersung role in defeating Britain is one thrust of this book. Close-quarter engagements among little boats on a wide ocean are its central feature; so numerous were these, our capacity for astonishment at the bravery and brutality risks becoming exhausted, like seeing too many cathedrals or beautiful sunsets. But beyond the sea battles, Revolutionary privateering represents a rare historical instance in which the experiences of its participants perfectly coincide with its role in the broader society, for the impetus behind privateering’s growth from a New England fad to a transatlantic phenomenon, from small-time to big business, was the same for its lowliest seamen and richest investors: to make money and whip the British besides. That combination of impulses, fortuitous for American independence if not for every American, is my larger subject.

“There is a time for understanding the particular,” writes Gordon S. Wood in
The Radicalism of the American Revolution
, “and there is a time for understanding the whole.” This book trusts that the particular sometimes reveals the whole. Though no study of Revolutionary privateering could pretend to give a complete picture of that complex era, the enterprise combined service and self-interest in a fluid balance whose shifts and moral accommodations constitute a basic theme of American life both today and in 1776.

As an arm of warfare in a stratified age, many among our most notable patriots considered privateering coarse and demeaning. “No kind of business,” one lawmaker complained, “can so effectually tend to the destruction of the morals of people.” Its freebooting sailors were praised and scorned in the same breath. Its advocates in Congress were, out of social embarrassment, often ambivalent about their support; and privateering profits, when and if they came, were hushed up by respectable businessmen. Such contradictions are totally recognizable to our modern sensibility and open a window on Revolutionary America, which, for me at least, has long seemed too obscured to care.

Any history that would connect scruffy, illiterate deckhands with such lofty characters as Silas Deane or the talented and naïve General Greene; connect assorted low-level merchants and bureaucrats with such powerful money men as Robert Morris, William Bingham, and the notorious Brown brothers of Providence, Rhode Island; or the urbane Ben Franklin with the cantankerous captains who, despite complaints about prize money and lack of respect, repeatedly took on the Royal Navy as if actually putting the cause before the cash—any history looking to connect such men through the web of privateering ought to take as its starting point an event no less unlikely. So rather than open with an overview of the Revolution’s political background or, say, a description of some especially bloody battle, I’ll begin in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, where His Majesty’s eight-gun schooner,
, ran aground on June 9, 1772, eighteen months before the Revolution’s most famous act of maritime sabotage, the Boston Tea Party.

BOOK: Patriot Pirates
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