American Merchant Marine and Privateers in War of 1812

The War of 1812 was fought over the Merchant Marine. The British were seizing American ships on the high seas, and forcing seamen to join the British navy or merchant navy. In addition, Britain seized vessels bound for Europe that did not first call at a British port. France retaliated, confiscating vessels if they had first stopped in Britain. Together they seized nearly 1,500 American vessels between 1803 and 1812.

The War was fought by merchant ships, because the U.S. had almost no Navy. The battle cry was; "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights!" During the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy and Privateers together captured 30,000 prisoners, while the American army captured 6,000 British prisoners. Privateers captured British prizes worth almost $40,000,000.

Comparison of Navy vs Privateers during War of 1812


 U.S. Navy


Total ships 23 517
Total guns on ships 556 2893
Enemy ships captured 254 1300


During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 the privateer had to be bold and daring in order to survive and to see financial rewards for bringing his prizes to port. The Paul Jones left New York in 1812 with 120 men but only 3 guns, while she was pierced for 17. Before she met the British merchant ship Hassan, which carried 14 guns and a crew of 20, her master had short lengths of timber painted black and mounted on buckets and filled her rigging with his men. Intimidated, the Hassan immediately surrendered, and the Paul Jones was able to fill her gun mounts with real guns.

Thomas Boyle was one of the most successful privateers of the War of 1812. His first ship, the Comet, once captured a Portuguese warship which was big enough to carry on the Comet on her deck. His second, the Chasseur, carried 16 twelve-pound guns, and was known as the "Pride of Baltimore." During her first cruise, Captain Boyle captured 18 valuable British merchant ships. The British made extraordinary efforts to capture Boyle: the Chasseur escaped from 4 men-of-war at once, then nearly fell into a trap set by two brigs, but he "edged down upon one of them. . . fired a shot to him, displayed the Yanky flag, hauled upon a wind, and outsailed them both with ease." Over the next three days he escaped groups of 3, 4, and 5 British men-of-war trying to capture him.

ChasseurOnce, the resourceful Thomas Boyle threw over 10 of his guns and his spare sails in order to lighten his ship. Then he moved two of his guns aft, sawing away the rails to give the guns freedom of movement.

On February 15, 1815, near Havana, Boyle met a schooner showing only three guns. As he got within boarding range, the St. Lawrence unloosed a broadside from 10 hidden guns. But Chasseur's deadly return fire found its mark and the British ship was captured after 15 minutes.

[The illustration at left shows the battle between the Chasseur and the St. Lawrence.]

Privateer America
The privateer America earned quite a reputation for the number of British ships she plundered and the value of the cargo seized. the marauding work of the America was so devastating to the British merchant marine that the British government built a frigate, the Dublin, for the express purpose of chasing the America from the seas.

Long after the war ended, the captain of America and the captain of the Dublin met in Valparaiso. Neither knew the other's identity. In the course of a conversation the Briton remarked:

"I was once almost within gun-shot of that infernal Yankee skimming-dish, just as night came on. By daylight she had outsailed the Dublin so devilish fast that she was no more than a speck on the horizon. By the way, I wonder if you happen to know. the name of the beggar that was master of her."

"I'm the beggar," smiled the American master and they drank a toast to each other's health.


African-American Mariners in War of 1812

January 1, 1813 letter from Nathaniel Shaler, Commander of the privateer Schooner General Tompkins to his agent:

"Before I could get our light sails in, and almost before I could turn round, I was under the guns, not of a transport, but of a large frigate! and not more than a quarter of a mile from her. . . Her first broadside killed two men, and wounded six others. . . My officers conducted themselves in a way that would have done honor to a more permanent service. . .

The name of one of my poor fellows who was killed ought to be registered in the book of fame, and remembered with reverence as long as bravery is considered a virtue. He was a black man, by the name of John Johnson. A twenty-four pound shot struck him in the hip, and took away all the lower part of his body. In this state, the poor brave fellow lay on the deck, and several times exclaimed to his shipmates, 'Fire away, my boy: no haul a color down.'

The other was also a black man, by the name of John Davis, and was struck in much the same way. He fell near me, and several times requested to be thrown overboard, saying he was only in the way of others.

'When America has such tars, she has little to fear from the tyrants of the ocean.' [sailors were referred to as Jack Tars at the time]"

From: The Negro in the American Rebellion, by William Wells Brown, Lee and Shepard, Boston, 1867
MAST Magazine April 1945

A Privateersman's Letters Home from Prison, edited by historian Bruce Felknor

American Prisoners of War died in Halifax War of 1812 Includes merchantmen and privateers

The Naval War of 1812 or the History of the United States Navy during the Last War with Great Britain to Which Is Appended an Account of the Battle of New Orleans Text of book by Theodore Roosevelt published 1883

Books about Merchant Marine in War of 1812


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