(Roughly) Daily

“Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive”*…

In the American Revolution, the number of privateers — estimated at more than 1,500 ships and tens of thousands of men — far exceeded the number of official navy ships– and were far more instrumental in the American victory…

While uncommon in the modern era, during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 the United States relied heavily on privateering, which was commonly referred to as “the militia of the sea.” In general, the term privateer refers to a privately-owned ship or sailor commissioned by a government to raid an enemy’s military and merchant shipping. Although controversial, there is a long history of privateering that dates back to the seventeenth century. The main difference between pirates and privateers is that privateers are commissioned by a specific government and can only attack ships that fly under an enemy flag, while pirates are not sanctioned by any government and can attack whomever they choose. While pirates keep the prizes themselves, privateers only receive a portion of the money generated from the sale of prizes, which is heavily taxed. Prizes refer to goods seized from a merchant or military ship. While both economically lucrative, privateers serve as a vehicle of war, pirates do not.

The Militia of the Sea

Many believed [during the American Revolution] and have believed since [then that] privateering was a sideshow in the war. Privateering has long been given short shrift in general histories of the conflict, where privateers are treated as a minor theme if they are mentioned at all. The coverage in maritime and naval histories of the Revolution is not much bet­ter, with privateering often overshadowed by the exploits of the Continen­tal navy. As John Lehman, former secretary of the navy under President Ronald Reagan, observed, ‘From the beginning of the American Revolu­tion until the end of the War of 1812, America’s real naval advantage lay in its privateers. It has been said that the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers to thank even more than the Continental Navy.’ Yet even in the face of plenty of readily available evi­dence, ‘the official canon of naval history in both Britain and the United States virtually ignores’ privateers…

An excerpt from Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin

Privateers and the Revolution, via @Battlefields and @delanceyplace; more at both links above.

* George Washington, in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette


As we seize the seas, we might recall that it was on this date in 1763 that final preparations were completed for the signing (the next day) of the Treaty of Paris. Marking the end of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), France surrendered all of its North American possessions east of the Mississippi to Britain. This ended a source of insecurity for the British colonists along the Atlantic Coast. But the costs of the war and maintaining an army led the British government to impose new taxes on its colonists, with world-shaking results– the American Revolution.

“A new map of North America” – produced following the Treaty of Paris (source– and larger version)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 9, 2023 at 1:00 am

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