A Privately Won War

  • Prosperity
  • 1812

When the War of 1812 broke out, the U.S. Navy possessed a total of seven frigates and less than a dozen other seagoing ships. The British Navy at that same moment numbered a thousand warships—including 175 double-gundeck “ships of the line,” of which the United States had none. The comparison by firepower was even starker: the U.S. Navy carried 450 cannons; the Royal Navy 27,800.

So how did America avoid being obliterated by the English juggernaut? Individually funded, decentralized warfighting—in the form of privateers. Typical records of the day from Marblehead, Massachusetts, showed that 900 local men volunteered for service during the 1812 conflict—120 of them in the Navy, 57 as soldiers, and 726 as privateersmen. Not long after hostilities were declared, there were 517 private corsairs defending the U.S. “Let every individual contribute his mite, in the best way he can to distress and harass the enemy, and compel him to peace,” urged Thomas Jefferson in 1812. These small privateers proved enormously effective—providing the lion’s share of military punishment during the three-year struggle. Over the course of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy captured or sunk about 300 enemy ships. Privateers captured or sunk around 2,000. Maritime insurance for British traders became three times more expensive than when all of Europe was at war in the Napoleonic era.

“Privateers contributed more than the regular navy to bring about a disposition for peace in the British classes most responsible for the war,” concluded Henry Adams in his history of this era. The American merchants and ordinary sailors who organized themselves into fighting units ultimately got everything they hoped for: no more impressment of U.S. seamen, a restoration of free trading, and deep respect for the ability of America’s small colonies—weak of government but strong of civil society—to defend their interests.

  • Michael Rutstein, The Privateering Stroke (SchoonerFame.com, 2012)
  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (G. P. Putnam, 1882)