"In behalf of the Continent" : Privateering and Irregular Naval Warfare in Early Revolutionary America 1775-1777

ECU Author/Contributor (non-ECU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
James Richard Wils (Creator)
East Carolina University (ECU )
Web Site: http://www.ecu.edu/lib/
Carl E. Swanson

Abstract: The goal of this thesis is to demonstrate the vital importance of American privateers during the early years of the Revolutionary War and their impact on the achievement of American independence. Most Revolutionary War historians have glossed over the naval aspects of the Revolutionary War and have virtually ignored privateers. Naval historians have long debated on the importance of privateers to a nation's maritime operations with some of the most prominent scholars arguing that privateers were secondary and ineffective. In fact privateering and prize capture often contributed greatly to national war efforts and in the case of the Revolutionary War privateers were the single most effective American force in the first three years of warfare.  At the siege of Boston beginning in the summer of 1775 George Washington recognized the necessity of a naval force to prevent resupply of the British garrison by sea. Tasking several of his army officers with procuring and arming private vessels for this purpose Washington essentially commissioned the first American privateer fleet. While these vessels were eventually absorbed into the Continental Navy upon its formation they were privateers by all but the legal definition lacking only letters of marque and Washington himself referred to them as such. This fleet was instrumental in bringing about the evacuation of British troops from Boston at the same time emphasizing the need for a national navy.  Following the successes of Washington's fleet in New England many of the colonies and eventually the Continental Congress began issuing letters of marque to owners of private vessels and able seamen took up the endeavor with great enthusiasm. Whether driven by patriotism or profit nearly 1 700 privateers cruised on behalf of the United States in the Revolutionary War. While the Continental Army labored to overcome British military might and the Continental Navy struggled to stay afloat American privateers preyed on British merchantmen and supply vessels with relative ease and great success. The Royal Navy hampered with blockade or convoy duties had little success in discouraging privateering operations. With the arrival of French forces in 1778 privateers were left nearly unchecked to continue harassing British merchant and supply lines dealing a greater economic blow to Britain than it was prepared for.  In this thesis I have outlined the history of Revolutionary War privateering from its inception its impact on public sentiment and the British war effort and its role in winning support for the American cause from France and other European allies. Where necessary I have provided an overview of eighteenth-century prize law as well as the problems privateering presented for the American government and military. Government correspondence and newspapers of the day provided many reports of privateering successes demonstrating that American privateers carried the Revolution through the early years of warfare despite failures by the army and navy. While insufficient for any significant military victory over Britain's naval superiority privateers ultimately undermined Britain's ability to fight an effective campaign in North America thereby influencing the outcome of the American Revolution. 

Additional Information

Date: 2012
History, Military history, American history, Commerce-raiding, Naval warfare, Privateers, Prize capture, Revolutionary War (U.S.)
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Naval operations
Privateering--United States
United States--History, Naval

Email this document to

This item references:

TitleLocation & LinkType of Relationship
"In behalf of the Continent" : Privateering and Irregular Naval Warfare in Early Revolutionary America 1775-1777http://hdl.handle.net/10342/3980The described resource references, cites, or otherwise points to the related resource.