Privateers Make Their Mark

Painting of a large American schooner sailing by Fort McHenry.
Jubilant citizens line the shores to celebrate the homecoming of one of Baltimore’s most successful privateers CHASSEUR, soon to be rechristened the “Pride of Baltimore.”  Painting by Patrick O’Brien, ©Patricia B. Kummerow Memorial Fund

“By licensing private armed vessels the whole naval force of the nation is truly brought to bear on the foe.”
--Baltimore Niles’ Weekly Register, August 1, 1812

The young United States, with its tiny navy of frigates, had one sea-bound advantage—its growing fleet of privately owned vessels sent out with government licenses called "Letters of Marque." Authorized to carry guns, the ships preyed on defenseless British carriers. It was a lucrative business, although captured prizes were subject to the customary import taxes. The U.S. government issued 1,100 commissions to privateers between 1812 and 1815. The self-styled marauders were a serious annoyance for British commerce and drove up insurance rates. Merchants demanded government protection. Cruising around shipping lanes in the West Indies, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and near the British Isles, American privateers forced many British carriers to sail in armed convoys.

Baltimore had a leg up on the rest of the maritime community. In their search for speed under sail, local ship builders and owners had developed a topsail schooner known as the Baltimore clipper. Heavy with sail, they were the majestic, sleekly designed thoroughbreds of their day. Clippers were known to taunt their competition by flying pennants with slogans like “catch me if you can.”

Baltimore privateers garnered122 letters of marque from the U.S. government. After a British blockade closed in on the Chesapeake and American warships were trapped or closed out, swift-sailing clippers were still able to occasionally slip out to sea, especially when the weather and visibility were poor. As early as 1812, legendary skipper Joshua Barney, commanding the clipper Rossie, set a high standard by capturing 18 British prizes valued at $1,500,000. In 1814, Thomas Boyle, at the helm of the Chasseur, displayed Baltimore’s own brand of bravado by proclaiming a mock one-ship blockade of the entire British Isles. After defeating H.M. schooner St. Lawrence near Cuba in early 1815, Boyle returned to his home port in triumph, winning the title “Pride of Baltimore” for his plucky vessel. The Pride of Baltimore II, a modern-day reproduction of a Baltimore Clipper, serves as a world ambassador for Baltimore and is named for Boyle’s famous privateer.

excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow

Black Privateers

Many Black men were privateers tool; it is estimated that as many as 20 percent of privateer crews were African American. Serving as a possible alternative to serving the American military, there was no law stating that Black men could not be sailors. However, how Black privateers were treated is still up for debate. Some historians contend that, to Americans, the war against Britain was a bigger issue than race at the time and, as a result, Black and white privateers were treated about the same.

Others argue that Black privateers faced racism and were denied truly equal rights because of their race. For example, there are records from Dartmoor Prison, a prisoner of war camp for American sailors, that stated white sailors and privateers requested that the British give them separate housing than their Black counterparts, who, against what some may consider their best interest, were loyal and refused to fight against America.

To learn about specific privateers, click on one of the icons below. To read more about Black sailors and privateers, please visit this subject guide created by the USS Constitution Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • A black and white illustration of a man in a naval uniform.
    Joshua Barney

    Joshua Barney lead the U.S. Chesapeake Flotilla during the War of 1812.

  • George Roberts
    George Roberts

    George Roberts, a free African American seamen who was a gunner on the privateer CHASSEUR, participated in several battles while at sea.

  • John Adams Webster
    John Adams Webster

    Webster was Commodore Joshua Barney’s sailing master during the War of 1812.

Last updated: August 8, 2023

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