American Merchant Ships and Sailors eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 320 pages of information about American Merchant Ships and Sailors.

In finally estimating the effect upon the American fortunes in the War of 1812, of the privateers and their work, many factors must be taken into consideration.  At first sight it would seem that a system which gave the services of five hundred ships and their crews to the task of annoying the British, and inflicting damage upon their commerce without cost to the American Government, must be wholly advantageous.  We have already seen the losses inflicted upon British commerce by our privateers reflected in the rapidly increasing cost of marine insurance.  While the statistics in the possession of the Government are not complete, they show that twenty-five hundred vessels at least were captured during the War of 1812 by these privately-owned cruisers, and there can be no shadow of a doubt that the loss inflicted upon British merchants, and the constant state of apprehension for the safety of their vessels in which they were kept, very materially aided in extending among them a willingness to see peace made on almost any terms.

But this is the other side of the story:  The prime purpose of the privateer was to make money for its owners, its officers, and its crew.  The whole design and spirit of the calling was mercenary.  It inflicted damage on the enemy, but only incidentally to earning dividends for its participants.  If Government cruisers had captured twenty-five hundred British vessels, those vessels would have been lost to the enemy forever.  But the privateer, seeking gains, tried to send them into port, however dangerous such a voyage might be, and accordingly, rather more than a third of them were recaptured by the enemy.  We may note here in passing, that one reason why the so-called Confederate privateers during our own Civil War, did an amount of damage so disproportionate to their numbers, was that they were not, in fact, privateers at all.  They were commissioned by the Confederate Government to inflict the greatest possible amount of injury upon northern commerce, and accordingly, when Semmes or Maffitt captured a United States vessel, he burned it on the spot.  There was no question of profit involved in the service of the “Alabama,” the “Florida,” or the “Shenandoah,” and they have been called privateers in our histories, mainly because Northern writers have been loath to concede, to what they called a rebel government, the right to equip and commission regular men-of-war.

But to return to the American privateers of 1812.  While, as I have pointed out, there were many instances of enormous gains being made, it is probable that the business as a whole, like all gambling businesses as a whole, was not profitable.  Some ships made lucky voyages, but there is on record in the Navy Department a list of three hundred vessels that took not one single prize in the whole year of 1813.  The records of Congress show that, as a whole, the business was not remunerative, because there were constant appeals from people interested.  In response

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American Merchant Ships and Sailors from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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