The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

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Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812

American privateering in 1812 was even bolder and more successful than during the Revolution. It was the work of a race of merchant seamen who had found themselves, who were in the forefront of the world’s trade and commerce, and who were equipped to challenge the enemy’s pretensions to supremacy afloat. Once more there was a mere shadow of a navy to protect them, but they had learned to trust their own resources. They would send to sea fewer of the small craft, slow and poorly armed, and likely to meet disaster. They were capable of manning what was, in fact, a private navy comprised of fast and formidable cruisers. The intervening generation had advanced the art of building and handling ships beyond all rivalry, and England grudgingly acknowledged their ability. The year of 1812 was indeed but a little distance from the resplendent modern era of the Atlantic packet and the Cape Horn clipper.

Already these Yankee deep-water ships could be recognized afar by their lofty spars and snowy clouds of cotton duck beneath which the slender hull was a thin black line. Far up to the gleaming royals they carried sail in winds so strong that the lumbering English East Indiamen were hove to or snugged down to reefed topsails. It was not recklessness but better seamanship. The deeds of the Yankee privateers of 1812 prove this assertion to the hilt. Their total booty amounted to thirteen hundred prizes taken over all the Seven Seas, with a loss to England of forty million dollars in ships and cargoes. There were, all told, more than five hundred of them in commission, but New England no longer monopolized this dashing trade. Instead of Salem it was Baltimore that furnished the largest fleet--fifty-eight vessels, many of them the fast ships and schooners which were to make the port famous as the home of the Baltimore clipper model. All down the coast, out of Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, sallied the privateers to show that theirs was, in truth, a seafaring nation ardently united in a common cause.

Again and more vehemently the people of England raised their voices in protest and lament, for these saucy sea-raiders fairly romped to and fro in the Channel, careless of pursuit, conducting a blockade of their own until London was paying the famine price of fifty-eight dollars a barrel for flour, and it was publicly declared mortifying and distressing that “a horde of American cruisers should be allowed, unresisted and unmolested, to take, burn, or sink our own vessels in our own inlets and almost in sight of our own harbors.” It was Captain Thomas Boyle in the Chasseur of Baltimore who impudently sent ashore his proclamation of a blockade of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which he requested should be posted in Lloyd’s Coffee House.

A wonderfully fine figure of a fighting seaman was this Captain Boyle, with an Irish sense of humor which led him to haunt the enemy’s coast and to make sport of the frigates which tried to catch him. His Chasseur was considered one of the ablest privateers of the war and the most beautiful vessel ever seen in Baltimore. A fleet and graceful schooner with a magical turn for speed, she mounted sixteen long twelve-pounders and carried a hundred officers, seamen, and marines, and was never outsailed in fair winds or foul. “Out of sheer wantonness,” said an admirer, “she sometimes affected to chase the enemy’s men-of-war of far superior force.” Once when surrounded by two frigates and two naval brigs, she slipped through and was gone like a phantom. During his first cruise in the Chasseur, Captain Boyle captured eighteen valuable merchantmen. It was such defiant rovers as he that provoked the “Morning Chronicle” of London to splutter “that the whole coast of Ireland from Wexford round by Cape Clear to Carrickfergus, should have been for above a month under the unresisted domination of a few petty fly-by-nights from the blockaded ports of the United States is a grievance equally intolerable and disgraceful.”

This was when the schooner Syren had captured His Majesty’s cutter Landrail while crossing the Irish Sea with dispatches; when the Governor Tompkins burned fourteen English vessels in the English Channel in quick succession; when the Harpy of Baltimore cruised for three months off the Irish and English coasts and in the Bay of Biscay, and returned to Boston filled with spoils, including a half million dollars of money; when the Prince de Neuchatel hovered at her leisure in the Irish Channel and made coasting trade impossible; and when the Young Wasp of Philadelphia cruised for six months in those same waters.

Two of the privateers mentioned were first-class fighting ships whose engagements were as notable, in their way, as those of the American frigates which made the war as illustrious by sea as it was ignominious by land. While off Havana in 1815, Captain Boyle met the schooner St. Lawrence of the British Navy, a fair match in men and guns. The Chasseur could easily have run away but stood up to it and shot the enemy to pieces in fifteen minutes. Brave and courteous were these two commanders, and Lieutenant Gordon of the St. Lawrence gave his captor a letter which read, in part: “In the event of Captain Boyle’s becoming a prisoner of war to any British cruiser I consider it a tribute justly due to his humane and generous treatment of myself, the surviving officers, and crew of His Majesty’s late schooner St. Lawrence, to state that his obliging attention and watchful solicitude to preserve our effects and render us comfortable during the short time we were in his possession were such as justly entitle him to the indulgence and respect of every British subject.”

The Prince de Neuchatel had the honor of beating off the attack of a forty-gun British frigate--an exploit second only to that of the General Armstrong in the harbor of Fayal. This privateer with a foreign name hailed from New York and was so fortunate as to capture for her owners three million dollars’ worth of British merchandise. With Captain J. Ordronaux on the quarterdeck, she was near Nantucket Shoals at noon on October 11, 1814, when a strange sail was discovered. As this vessel promptly gave chase, Captain Ordronaux guessed-and as events proved correctly--that she must be a British frigate. She turned out to be the Endymion. The privateer had in tow a prize which she was anxious to get into port, but she was forced to cast off the hawser late in the afternoon and make every effort to escape.

The breeze died with the sun and the vessels were close inshore. Becalmed, the privateer and the frigate anchored a quarter of a mile apart. Captain Ordronaux might have put his crew on the beach in boats and abandoned his ship. This was the reasonable course, for, as he had sent in several prize crews, he was short-handed and could muster no more than thirty-seven men and boys. The Endymion, on the other hand, had a complement of three hundred and fifty sailors and marines, and in size and fighting power she was in the class of the American frigates President and Constitution. Quite unreasonably, however, the master of the privateer decided to await events.

The unexpected occurred shortly after dusk when several boats loaded to the gunwales with a boarding party crept away from the frigate. Five of them, with one hundred and twenty men, made a concerted attack at different points, alongside and under the bow and stern. Captain Ordronaux had told his crew that he would blow up the ship with all hands before striking his colors, and they believed him implicitly. This was the hero who was described as “a Jew by persuasion, a Frenchman by birth, an American for convenience, and so diminutive in stature as to make him appear ridiculous, in the eyes of others, even for him to enforce authority among a hardy, weatherbeaten crew should they do aught against his will.” He was big enough, nevertheless, for this night’s bloody work, and there was no doubt about his authority. While the British tried to climb over the bulwarks, his thirty-seven men and boys fought like raging devils, with knives, pistols, cutlases, with their bare fists and their teeth. A few of the enemy gained the deck, but the privateersmen turned and killed them. Others leaped aboard and were gradually driving the Americans back, when the skipper ran to the hatch above the powder magazine, waving a lighted match and swearing to drop it in if his crew retreated one step further. Either way the issue seemed desperate. But again they took their skipper’s word for it and rallied for a bloody struggle which soon swept the decks.

No more than twenty minutes had passed and the battle was won. The enemy was begging for quarter. One boat had been sunk, three had drifted away filled with dead and wounded, and the fifth was captured with thirty-six men in it of whom only eight were unhurt. The American loss was seven killed and twenty-four wounded, or thirty-one of her crew of thirty-seven. Yet they had not given up the ship. The frigate Endymion concluded that once was enough, and next morning the Prince de Neuchatel bore away for Boston with a freshening breeze.

Those were merchant seamen also who held the General Armstrong against a British squadron through that moonlit night in Fayal Roads, inflicting heavier losses than were suffered in any naval action of the war. It is a story Homeric, almost incredible in its details and so often repeated that it can be only touched upon in this brief chronicle. The leader was a kindly featured man who wore a tall hat, side-whiskers, and a tail coat. His portrait might easily have served for that of a New England deacon of the old school. No trace of the swashbuckler in this Captain Samuel Reid, who had been a thrifty, respected merchant skipper until offered the command of a privateer.

Touching at the Azores for water and provisions in September, 1814, he was trapped in port by the great seventy-four-gun ship of the line Plantagenet, the thirty-eight-gun frigate Rota, and the warbrig Carnation. Though he was in neutral water, they paid no heed to this but determined to destroy a Yankee schooner which had played havoc with their shipping. Four hundred men in twelve boats, with a howitzer in the bow of each boat, were sent against the General Armstrong in one flotilla. But not a man of the four hundred gained her deck. Said an eyewitness: “The Americans fought with great firmness but more like bloodthirsty savages than anything else. They rushed into the boats sword in hand and put every soul to death as far as came within their power. Some of the boats were left without a single man to row them, others with three or four. The most that any one returned with was about ten. Several boats floated ashore full of dead bodies . . . . For three days after the battle we were employed in burying the dead that washed on shore in the surf.”

This tragedy cost the British squadron one hundred and twenty men in killed and one hundred and thirty in wounded, while Captain Reid lost only two dead and had seven wounded. He was compelled to retreat ashore next day when the ships stood in to sink his schooner with their big guns, but the honors of war belonged to him and well-earned were the popular tributes when he saw home again, nor was there a word too much in the florid toast: “Captain Reid--his valor has shed a blaze of renown upon the character of our seamen, and won for himself a laurel of eternal bloom.”

It is not to glorify war nor to rekindle an ancient feud that such episodes as these are recalled to mind. These men, and others like them, did their duty as it came to them, and they were sailors of whom the whole Anglo-Saxon race might be proud. In the crisis they were Americans, not privateersmen in quest of plunder, and they would gladly die sooner than haul down the Stars and Stripes. The England against which they fought was not the England of today. Their honest grievances, inflicted by a Government too intent upon crushing Napoleon to be fair to neutrals, have long ago been obliterated. This War of 1812 cleared the vision of the Mother Country and forever taught her Government that the people of the Republic were, in truth, free and independent.

This lesson was driven home not only by the guns of the Constitution and the United States, but also by the hundreds of privateers and the forty thousand able seamen who were eager to sail in them. They found no great place in naval history, but England knew their prowess and respected it. Every schoolboy is familiar with the duels of the Wasp and the Frolic, of the Enterprise and the Boxer; but how many people know what happened when the privateer Decatur met and whipped the Dominica of the British Navy to the southward of Bermuda?

Captain Diron was the man who did it as he was cruising out of Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1813. Sighting an armed schooner slightly heavier than his own vessel, he made for her and was unperturbed when the royal ensign streamed from her gaff. Clearing for action, he closed the hatches so that none of his men could hide below. The two schooners fought in the veiling smoke until the American could ram her bowsprit over the other’s stern and pour her whole crew aboard. In the confined space of the deck, almost two hundred men and lads were slashing and stabbing and shooting amid yells and huzzas. Lieutenant Barrette, the English commander, only twenty-five years old, was mortally hurt and every other officer, excepting the surgeon and one midshipman, was killed or wounded. Two-thirds of the crew were down but still they refused to surrender, and Captain Diron had to pull down the colors with his own hands. Better discipline and marksmanship had won the day for him and his losses were comparatively small.

Men of his description were apt to think first of glory and let the profits go hang, for there was no cargo to be looted in a King’s ship. Other privateersmen, however, were not so valiant or quarrelsome, and there was many a one tied up in London River or the Mersey which had been captured without very savage resistance. Yet on the whole it is fair to say that the private armed ships outfought and outsailed the enemy as impressively as did the few frigates of the American Navy.

There was a class of them which exemplified the rapid development of the merchant marine in a conspicuous manner--large commerce destroyers too swift to be caught, too powerful to fear the smaller cruisers. They were extremely profitable business ventures, entrusted to the command of the most audacious and skillful masters that could be engaged. Of this type was the ship America of Salem, owned by the Crowninshields, which made twenty-six prizes and brought safely into port property which realized more than a million dollars. Of this the owners and shareholders received six hundred thousand dollars as dividends. She was a stately vessel, built for the East India trade, and was generally conceded to be the fastest privateer afloat. For this service the upper deck was removed and the sides were filled in with stout oak timber as an armored protection, and longer yards and royal masts gave her a huge area of sail. Her crew of one hundred and fifty men had the exacting organization of a man-of-war, including, it is interesting to note, three lieutenants, three mates, a sailingmaster, surgeon, purser, captain of marines, gunners, seven prize masters, armorer, drummer, and a fifer. Discipline was severe, and flogging was the penalty for breaking the regulations.

During her four cruises, the America swooped among the plodding merchantmen like a falcon on a dovecote, the sight of her frightening most of her prey into submission, with a brush now and then to exercise the crews of the twenty-two guns, and perhaps a man or two hit. Long after the war, Captain James Chever, again a peaceful merchant mariner, met at Valparaiso, Sir James Thompson, commander of the British frigate Dublin, which had been fitted out in 1813 for the special purpose of chasing the America. In the course of a cordial chat between the two captains 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,” chuckled Captain Chever, and they drank each other’s health on the strength of it.

Although the Treaty of Ghent omitted mention of the impressment of sailors, which had been the burning issue of the war, there were no more offenses of this kind. American seafarers were safe against kidnapping on their own decks, and they had won this security by virtue of their own double-shotted guns. At the same time England lifted the curse of the press-gang from her own people, who refused longer to endure it.

There seemed no reason why the two nations, having finally fought their differences to a finish, should not share the high seas in peaceful rivalry; but the irritating problems of protection and reciprocity survived to plague and hamper commerce. It was difficult for England to overcome the habit of guarding her trade against foreign invasion. Agreeing with the United States to waive all discriminating duties between the ports of the two countries--this was as much as she was at that time willing to yield. She still insisted upon regulating the trade of her West Indies and Canada. American East Indiamen were to be limited to direct voyages and could not bring cargoes to Europe. Though this discrimination angered Congress, to which it appeared as lopsided reciprocity, the old duties were nevertheless repealed; and then, presto! the British colonial policy of exclusion was enforced and eighty thousand tons of American shipping became idle because the West India market was closed.

There followed several years of unhappy wrangling, a revival of the old smuggling spirit, the risk of seizure and confiscations, and shipping merchants with long faces talking ruin. The theory of free trade versus protection was as debatable and opinions were as conflicting then as now. Some were for retaliation, others for conciliation; and meanwhile American shipmasters went about their business, with no room for theories in their honest heads, and secured more and more of the world’s trade. Curiously enough, the cries of calamity in the United States were echoed across the water, where the “London Times” lugubriously exclaimed: “The shipping interest, the cradle of our navy, is half ruined. Our commercial monopoly exists no longer; and thousands of our manufacturers are starving or seeking redemption in distant lands. We have closed the Western Indies against America from feelings of commercial rivalry. Its active seamen have already engrossed an important branch of our carrying trade to the Eastern Indies. Her starred flag is now conspicuous on every sea and will soon defy our thunder.”

It was not until 1849 that Great Britain threw overboard her long catalogue of protective navigation laws which had been piling up since the time of Cromwell, and declared for free trade afloat. Meanwhile the United States had drifted in the same direction, barring foreign flags from its coastwise shipping but offering full exemption from all discriminating duties and tonnage duties to every maritime nation which should respond in like manner. This latter legislation was enacted in 1828 and definitely abandoned the doctrine of protection in so far as it applied to American ships and sailors. For a generation thereafter, during which ocean rivalry was a battle royal of industry, enterprise, and skill, the United States was paramount and her merchant marine attained its greatest successes.

There is one school of modern economists who hold that the seeds of decay and downfall were planted by this adoption of free trade in 1828, while another faction of gentlemen quite as estimable and authoritative will quote facts and figures by the ream to prove that governmental policies had nothing whatever to do with the case. These adversaries have written and are still writing many volumes in which they almost invariably lose their tempers. Partisan politics befog the tariff issue afloat as well as ashore, and one’s course is not easy to chart. It is indisputable, however, that so long as Yankee ships were better, faster, and more economically managed, they won a commanding share of the world’s trade. When they ceased to enjoy these qualities of superiority, they lost the trade and suffered for lack of protection to overcome the handicap.

The War of 1812 was the dividing line between two eras of salt water history. On the farther side lay the turbulent centuries of hazard and bloodshed and piracy, of little ships and indomitable seamen who pursued their voyages in the reek of gunpowder and of legalized pillage by the stronger, and of merchant adventurers who explored new markets wherever there was water enough to float their keels. They belonged to the rude and lusty youth of a world which lived by the sword and which gloried in action. Even into the early years of the nineteenth century these mariners still sailed--Elizabethan in deed and spirit.

On the hither side of 1812 were seas unvexed by the privateer and the freebooter. The lateen-rigged corsairs had been banished from their lairs in the harbors of Algiers, and ships needed to show no broadsides of cannon in the Atlantic trade. For a time they carried the old armament among the lawless islands of the Orient and off Spanish-American coasts where the vocation of piracy made its last stand, but the great trade routes of the globe were peaceful highways for the white-winged fleets of all nations. The American seamen who had fought for the right to use the open sea were now to display their prowess in another way and in a romance of achievement that was no less large and thrilling.


Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships  •  Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76  •  Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board  •  Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port  •  Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes  •  Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”  •  Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812  •  Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”  •  Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory  •  Chapter X. Bound Coastwise  •  Bibliographical Note

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