The story of the founding of the U.S. Navy during the American Revolution has been told many times, yet largely missing from maritime histories of the war is the ragtag fleet of private vessels that truly revealed the new nation’s character ― above all, its ambition and entrepreneurial ethos.
Privateers were privately owned vessels, mostly refitted merchant ships, that were granted permission by the new government to seize British merchantmen and men of war. At a time when the young Continental Navy numbered no more than about sixty vessels all told, privateers rushed to fill the gaps. Nearly 2,000 set sail over the course of the war, with tens of thousands of Americans serving on them and capturing some 1,800 British ships.
Privateers came in all shapes and sizes, from twenty-five foot long whaleboats to full-rigged ships more than 100 feet long. Bristling with cannons, swivel guns, muskets, and pikes, they tormented their foes on the broad Atlantic and in bays and harbors on both sides of the ocean.
The men who owned the ships, as well as their captains and crew, would divide the profits of a successful cruise ― and suffer all the more if their ship was captured or sunk, with privateersmen facing hellish conditions on British prison hulks, where they were treated not as enemy combatants but as pirates. Some Americans viewed them similarly, as cynical opportunists whose only aim was loot.
Yet in his new book, Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution (Liveright, 2022), Eris Jay Dolin shows that privateersmen were as patriotic as their fellow Americans, and moreover that they greatly contributed to the war’s success: diverting critical British resources to protecting their shipping, playing a key role in bringing France into the war on the side of the United States, providing much-needed supplies at home, and bolstering the new nation’s confidence that it might actually defeat the most powerful military force in the world.
The book looks at the privateers that were critical to the American victory in the Revolution: diverting critical British resources to protecting their shipping, playing a key role in bringing France into the war on the side of the Contientals, providing much-needed supplies at home, rushing to fill the gaps of a young Continental Navy of about sixty ships, and bolstering the new nation’s confidence that it might actually defeat the most powerful military force in the world.
Eric Jay Dolin has held a variety of jobs, including stints as a fisheries policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a program manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an environmental consultant stateside and in London, an American Association for the Advancement of Science writing fellow at Business Week, a curatorial assistant in the Mollusk Department at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and an intern at the National Wildlife Federation, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, and the U.S. Senate.
The Massachusetts Historical Society will host a book talk with Eric Jay Dolin on Rebels at Sea, set for Wednesday, September 28th from 6 to 7 pm. This program will be held both in person and virtually. There is a $10 fee for in person attendence, free for virtual attendence. To register, click here.
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