It began offhandedly in the fall of 1775. Unable to attack British-occupied Boston because of shortages of cannons and gunpowder, George Washington observed the flow of enemy supplies into Boston harbor and wondered if intercepting a British weapons ship might help replenish his meager armory and uplift his army's spirit.
Offering a percentage of the spoils as inducement to the crews, he dispatched several armed schooners to prowl Massachusetts Bay. In their hunger for loot, the schooners mistakenly snatched a number of patriot vessels before capturing a British transport carrying tons of munitions. Word spread that the seamen had made their fortunes. Yet Washington's joy at the windfall didn't change his low opinion of the colonials involved. Of the lowly shipboard "tars" and the commercial agents who outfitted the schooners, he said, "I do believe there is not on earth a more disorderly set."
The last of Washington's schooners left government service in 1777. In their place were a fledgling Continental Navy and a marauding horde of civilian privateers, essentially legalized pirates who were permitted under international law to plunder the enemy's commercial ships.
Though the Continental Navy launched only a handful of warships during the Revolution, more than 2,000 privateers sailed from colonial ports. They seized 600 ships in American waters and hundreds more in the North Atlantic, as well as in the West Indies, then a teeming marketplace for New World commodities and African slaves. In Britain, privateering caused the price of imports and maritime insurance to soar. Newspaper editorials denounced the American "pyrates," and merchants wondered, "Where is the boasted navy of our country?"
In fact, the Royal Navy captured or destroyed hundreds of American privateers in bloody mismatches of firepower and seamanship. But the payday was deemed worth the risk. One success, shrugged the Philadelphia financier Robert Morris, an avid investor, "will pay for two, three, or four losses." The crews themselves were no less bullish. One New Hampshire seaman, just 14 years old, collected a ton of sugar, 40 gallons of rum, and $100 in gold from the proceeds of one captured ship. Although a six-week privateering jaunt turned into two years of combat and harsh imprisonment for a Connecticut teenager, he astonished his family by hopping another privateer two days after staggering home. He ended the war a wealthy man.
These ambitious mariners ultimately wore down an enemy whose military superiority was strained by the commitments of building a global empire. Benjamin Franklin, America's first emissary to France and a strong supporter of privateering, had no illusions about defeating the Royal Navy, but he aimed to prolong the sea war in order to weaken British resolve. "We expect to make their merchants sick of a contest in which so much is risked and nothing gained."
Franklin devoted himself to aiding privateersmen jailed in Britain. Their plight had become dire after Parliament voted in 1777 to deny them legal rights typically granted prisoners of war. Presaging the current controversy over the rights of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Britain allowed rebels captured at sea to be held without trial or any prospect of exchange.
Tables turned. Parliament also legalized Britain's own privateers, and French trade ships inevitably fell prey to them. In 1776, French officials had dismissed British complaints about American privateers with amusement. "Shall we say they are pirates? They do not commit any acts of piracy against us." But by the fall of 1777, the French were the ones lodging complaints about hijacked cargoes.
Privateering's casualty toll is hard to calculate. But male populations in seaports from New Hampshire to Maryland were decimated after the war, and public records cite countless men missing at sea. Certainly, thousands died under the guns of British warships, and most of the 12,000 Americans who perished on the infamous prison ships anchored off New York were civilian mariners, their bodies thrown overboard or shoveled under the sandy banks of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard.