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The War of 1812: Privateers, Plunder, & Profiteering

by on June 3, 2013


Today’s post is written by archivist Shane Bell of the National Archives at Atlanta.

The so-called golden age of piracy ended in the early 18th century, decades before the first shot of the American Revolution.  During what is often referred to as the Second War for Independence, however, the last significant era of this practice, legally termed “privateering,” occurred during the War of 1812.  This second and final armed conflict with Great Britain is perhaps most often associated with the Battle of New Orleans, the U.S.S. Constitution, and “The Star Spangled Banner.”  But there was another component to this war.  It involved the “militia of the sea,” enterprising entrepreneurs and adventure seekers hoping to make their fortune on the open ocean at the expense of the enemy.

Privateer License/Letter of Marque for the Rapid, Privateer Rapid vs Schooner Cometa, Mixed Case Files 1790-1860, box 9, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia (Savannah); Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives at Atlanta.

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 last spring, The National Archives at Atlanta held a workshop, displayed records, and created a finding aid for documents related to the war.  What they found interspersed among customs and court records was ample evidence of this last great gasp of piracy.  Or, “privateering” as they would have called it!  In practice the difference is slight, but legally, it could mean the difference between life and death.  Although the likes of Henry Morgan and Blackbeard were long gone by 1812, other characters appear in the records.  John Peter Chazel, Hugh Campbell, and Herman Perry sailed their speedy schooners and brigs up and down the east coast in search of merchant vessels laden with goods.  As the evidence in our records show, they often found them.

Deposition of David Beck, David Beck vs Peter Bouisseren, Mixed Case Files 1790-1860, box 35, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia (Savannah); Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives at Atlanta.

As part of an intern project to capture information about legal plunder on the high seas during the War of 1812, intrepid pirate hunter… I mean “privateer” hunter Olivia Carlisle documented over 200 cases of Libel for Salvage, Smuggling, and Prize of War.  Thanks to her efforts, we now have a guide to these activities as they played out in southern ports such as Savannah, GA, Elizabeth City, NC, and Mobile, AL.  Among the usual round of court documents the files sometimes also contain Letters of Marque, crew lists, vessel registries, and depositions.  We also discovered evidence that American ships did not only prey on British merchants.  They also captured Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian ships.

One amazing little boat, and perhaps the most prolific southern privateer in the war, bore the perfect name: Saucy Jack.  The Jack was the capturing vessel in over a dozen documented cases and by all accounts had an amazingly successful string of luck during the war.  Or was it perhaps by the skill of her captain and crew?  We might never know.  We know tantalizingly little about this boat, but through the records of the Federal Courts and U.S. Customs, some of her deeds as an American privateer vessel live on.

Saucy Jack Commission, Saucy Jack vs Schooner Weazel and Cargo, Mixed Case Files 1790-1860, box 23, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia (Savannah); Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives at Atlanta.

As part of The National Archives at Atlanta’s First Friday Freebie series, we will again commemorate the 2nd year of the War of 1812 with a presentation of records related to the war.  This will be held Friday, June 7th at 12:00 at The National Archives at Atlanta.  The event is free and open to the public.  Pirate….I mean, “privateer,” themed refreshments will be served.  We welcome all who want to come explore the War of 1812 and learn more about the American militia of the sea!


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