All Things Considered
4:46 pm
Thu July 12, 2012

The Tall Ship Privateers Who Shaped the War of 1812

Today is the first day of Sail Portsmouth, a four day festival of tall ships on New Hampshire’s Seacoast.

One of the featured ships in this year’s festival is called The Pride of Baltimore II. It’s a recreation of a topsail schooner that served as a privateer in the War of 1812 - ships that shaped the course of the war between the United States and Britain two hundred years ago.

"Short, easy, infallible"

The term privateer sounds odd today; one might ask why wouldn’t the country use naval ships? But in the early 19th century America was led by the Revolutionary War generation, who were very opposed to having a large standing military. They worried troops could become the personal army of whichever person or faction was in power.

The problem was this: in 1812 President James Madison convinced Congress to declare war against the British – and when you’re at war, you kind of need an army and a navy.

“When we declare war on England in 1812, they have 1,048 ships in the British Navy, and we have 17," J. Dennis Robinson says. He's an author and historian at SeacoastNH.com – he wrote about the Lynx, a tall ship similar to the Pride of Baltimore, in his book America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. He says privateer ships were the naval version of militias – private citizens called into service during a national emergency.

“If you remember John Adams," Robinson says, "He says privateering, that’s the answer. He calls it a short, easy, infallible method of humbling the British.”

Privateers, not pirates

It might sound a little audacious to think that private lobster boats and merchant ships could take down the largest naval power in the world. Fortunately the British stayed focused on European turmoil and didn’t put their full might into the war, and the few American ships that were equipped for battle did well, most famously the USS Constitution, christened “Old Ironsides” after a British vessel fired on the Constitution and the cannonballs bounced off its hull.

The privateers, then, were used to essentially hijack British supply ships. Technically these weren’t pirate ships because they had official government backing, but the idea was pretty much the same – the privateers raided British ships before they could resupply their troops, and they took away the booty.

J. Dennis Robinson says a number of New Hampshire families made their fortunes in part from privateering work. But he says many others were concerned privateers would ended up hurting the economy.  “New Englanders had already been beaten into the ground by embargos," Robinson explains. "We couldn’t take our ships anywhere, our sailors were being captured by the British and we did not want to into a war in which shipping would be just shut down. So New Hampshire was actually very much against the war.

"And as evidence of that, Daniel Webster, who at that time was living in Portsmouth, made a speech in Brentwood, New Hampshire, in which he suggested that we, New England, secede from the United States.”

Webster’s speech was so well-received that he wound up winning a seat in Congress for the first time, the start of a hugely successful political career that’s now best remembered for a speech in 1850 where he urged Southerners not to secede from the United States.

But that's a story for another bicentennial.

The "perilous fight"

The privateers, meanwhile, were proving largely successful, too. “Privateering ships were annoying the heck out of the British," J. Dennis Robinson explains. "Think of it as kind of an army or navy of mosquitoes" - mosquitoes that left 1700 British merchant ships sank, disabled or otherwise looted. And by 1814, Britain’s forces decided to swat back by attacking Maryland, where many of the privateer ships were built or based. Ground troops stormed Washington DC; they burned the White House and the US Capitol while President Madison and his government fled to Virginia. British ships sailed to Baltimore; they bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours in what local poet Francis Scott Key called “a perilous fight" in his poem (and now national anthem) "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Unable to take Baltimore or keep its star-spangled banner from waving, the British left the Chesapeake and headed to New Orleans, where they were roundly defeated by American general Andrew Jackson just as the two countries decided to call an end to the war.

Lost and found

And with the end of hostilities, the privateers went back to private work, just as they were intended to do. Shortly after the war the Pride of Baltimore, officially known as the Chasseur, sailed to China and brought back tea and other goods to the US. It was eventually sold to the Spanish Royal Navy and renamed the Cazador.

Over the last two hundred years these ships – much like the War of 1812 as a whole – were largely forgotten. But history buffs and boat enthusiasts remembered – and so today, a number of nonprofit groups operate built replica ships, like the Pride of Baltimore II, which sail from town to town and tell the story of the privateers of the War of 1812.

J. Dennis Robinson sailed on the replica of the Lynx schooner as he was writing his book – he even got to take part in a mock sea battle – and he says seeing the ships up close gave him a new appreciation for the privateers.

“Here are these two ships swooping in on each other and firing their guns – blanks, luckily," Robinson says. "You really get the sense of what an incredible mastery of sail it would take to run these ships in that time period. Lots of men, super speed, and tons and tons of sails… they wrote back then that it looked like the schooners were going to lift up into the sky and float away – they were like clouds.”

This year’s Sail Portsmouth festival continues through Sunday.

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