Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War

The 13 Colonies, having declared their Independence, had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic.

Comparison of Navy vs. Privateers in Revolutionary War

   Continental Navy  Privateers
Total ships 64 1,697
Total guns on ships 1,242 14,872
Enemy ships captured 196 2,283
Ships captured by enemy ? 1,323


Graph Comparison of Navy vs. Privateers in Revolutionary War

The Patriots of Maine Fight at Sea

privateer ship during Revolutionary WarNews of the April 1775 battles at Concord and Lexington reached Machias, Maine just as citizens were anxiously awaiting long-needed supplies from Boston. When the Unity and Polly carrying these supplies arrived, they were accompanied by the British armed schooner Margaretta, under the command of Lieutenant Moore. The escort's job was to see that in exchange for supplies, lumber was taken back to Boston to build barracks for British soldiers.

The British demanded all citizens sign a petition promising to protect British property at all times in exchange for the right to buy supplies. Since many citizens were opposed to aiding the British war effort, they were angered by this.

They decided to strip the two sloops of the supplies and at the same time to capture Captain Ichabod Jones, Lieutenant Moore and his officers after they attended church services. The British fled on the Margaretta as patriots lined the shore demanding she "Surrender to America!" The reply they heard was, "Fire and be damned!"

Jeremiah O'Brien
Forty men, armed with guns, swords, axes, and pitchforks, headed by Jeremiah O'Brien, on the sloop Unity and twenty men under the command of Benjamin Foster on a small schooner pursued the Margaretta. During the chase they put up planks and other objects to defend themselves against the Margaretta's cannon.

On June 12, 1775, near Round Island on Machias Bay the patriots crashed into the Margaretta and engaged in hand to hand combat. The British crew was disheartened when their captain was mortally wounded and lost the one hour long battle. 25 of the combatants were killed or wounded. The victors claimed "four double fortifyed three pounders and fourteen swivels" and some smaller guns.

This was considered the first sea engagement of the Revolution and the start of the merchant marine's war role.

As captain of the privateer Machias Liberty, Jeremiah O'Brien later captured two armed British schooners and delivered his prisoners to George Washington. On the General's recommendation, the government of Massachusetts appointed O'Brien to command his two prizes.


Advertisement in Boston newspaper recruiting crew for privateer Deane

An Invitation to all brave Seamen and Marines,
who have an inclination to serve their Country and make their Fortunes.

The grand Privateer ship DEANE,

commanded by ELISHA HINMAN, Esq; and prov'd to be a very capitol Sailor, will Sail on a Cruise against the Enemies of the United States of America, by the 20th instant. The DEANE mounts thirty Carriage Guns, and is excellently well calculated for Attacks, Defense and Pursuit --- This therefore is to invite all those Jolly Fellows, who love their country, and want to make their fortunes at one Stroke, to repair immediately to the Rendezvous at the Head of His Excellency Governor Hancock's Wharf, where they will be received with a hearty Welcome by a Number of Brave Fellows there assembled, and treated with that excellent Liquor call'd GROG which is allow'd by all true Seamen, to be the LIQUOR OF LIFE.

Advertisement in Boston newspaper recruiting crew for privateer D


Because of British policy regarding import of gunpowder, the colonists did not have enough to repel the third British charge at Bunker Hill. A survey by George Washington at the time showed army stockpiles were sufficient for 9 rounds per man. By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter. A typical New England privateer carried two or three African-Americans who had long found employment in the fishing industry. The General Putnam from New London, Connecticut, had 4 blacks on board; the Aurora had 3. In Salem, Massachusetts, Titus, a slave owned by Mrs. John Cabot, ran a successful business recruiting blacks as privateers.

Privateer John Manley captured the Nancy, supplying the American army with 2,000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 7,000 round-shot for cannon, and other ammunition. Captain Jonathan Haraden from Salem, Massachusetts, who captured 1,000 British cannon, was considered one of the best sea-fighters, successfully taking on three armed British ships at the same time. Privateers captured countless British reinforcements and over 10,000 seamen, keeping them out of the British Navy.

In 1777 George Washington's armies totaled about 11,000 men. At the same time there were 11,000 privateers at sea intercepting British shipping in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and even between Ireland and England.

Together, the Continental Navy and privateers captured 16,000 British prisoners, a substantial contribution in comparison with the 15,000 prisoners taken by the entire Continental Army before the surrender at Yorktown. The crew of the privateers were well paid for their hazardous work, earning as much as $1,000 for one voyage, while average pay at the time was $9 per month.

American privateers battle British ships

Two unidentified American privateers battle two British ships

Joshua Barney

Joshua Barney was captured by the British while serving in the Continental Navy. He and his shipmates were kept on board in 3 foot high boxes for 53 days with minimal food and water. Upon arrival in England, he was imprisoned, but escaped with the help of a friendly guard. He returned to the Colonies to captain the privateer Hyder Ally, where he gained fame by tricking the British General Monk. As the two ships drew near, he shouted to the General Monk "Hard-a-port your helm," but had instructed his helmsman to do the opposite. The ships collided as planned, and Hyder Ally lashed her prize alongside.

Portrait of James FortenJames Forten, African-American Privateer

James Forten (1766-1843) was a 15 year-old powder boy on the privateer Royal Louis, commanded by Stephen Decatur, Sr. He was born free in Philadelphia and had already served as a drummer in the Continental Army.

The Royal Louis had a crew of 200, 20 of them African-Americans. During her first cruise as a privateer she captured a British Navy brig. On her second cruise she met the heavily armed British frigate Amphylon and two others, and was forced to surrender.

Portrait of James Forten, at right

Young James Forten expected to be sold into slavery in the West Indies, as was British custom with their black prisoners of war. However, on board the Amphylon he was befriended by the captain's son, a boy his age, who persuaded his father to send Forten to England. Forten refused to be a traitor to his country, and the captain sent him to the prison-ship Jersey [see below], along with a letter asking he be treated kindly and exchanged if possible.

Forten spent 7 months on the Jersey sharing moldy bread and foul water with a thousand other privateers. Once, he had a chance to escape by hiding in the baggage of an officer being exchanged for a British prisoner, but he allowed a younger white boy to take the space. Forten helped carry the chest off the Jersey. He was set free in an exchange of prisoners and walked home from New York to Philadelphia, where he became a successful businessman and a founder of the Abolitionist movement.

The Prison Ships
About 55,000 American seamen served aboard the privateers. When captured by the British Navy, they were given a choice: join the British Navy or prison. The conditions of captivity aboard the prison ships, mostly abandoned ships moored in New York harbor, were inhuman. The most infamous of these was the HMS Jersey. About 11,000 privateers died of disease and malnutrition, their bodies dumped onto the mud flats of Wallabout Bay, where Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands.

These Mariners lost their lives in the founding of our Nation and were a major factor in the winning of the Revolution.

Portrait of (probably) James Forten from Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution]
Black Heroes of the American Revolution
, by Burke Davis, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego: 1976
The Black presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington: 1973
Black Men of the Sea
, by Michael Cohn and Michael K.H. Platzer, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York: 1978
America's Maritime Heritage
, Eloise Engle and Arnold S. Lott, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1975
Pirates & Patriots of the Revolution: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Colonial Seamanship
, C. Keith Wilbur, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1973, 1984
Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution. Harrisburg PA: Promontory Press, 1969

American Prisoners of the Revolution: Names of 8000 Men held on Prison ships

Memorial to martyred mariners rededicated News article about the HMS Jersey and the Memorial

Books about Merchant Marine in Revolutionary War

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