David and Goliath: Privateers vs. the Mighty British Navy

When America turned to plunder to bolster its naval power during the "Second War of Independence”
A collage representing privateers in the War of 1812

Against the overwhelming strength of the Royal Navy, the new American nation implemented the piratical practice of privateers to face the British fleet. These privateers fought a war for profits and patriotism, conducting a dispersed and prickly commercial campaign against the British merchant fleet. Without a sizable battle force to challenge the Royal Navy in conventional combat, privateers augmented America’s still-growing naval force. Often derided in their motivations and methods, privateers such as Rossie and other authorized “pirates” wreaked havoc on the high seas and played an important role in the War of 1812.  

Privateers, who? 

In the Age of Sail, merchant vessels tended to be armed, as they often suffered attacks from hostile pirates and impressment by foreign navies. Maritime powers often supplemented their traditional naval forces with these privately armed ships. Commissions, called letters of marque, would enable holders to battle and capture enemy warships and trade vessels as roving privateers 

Interestingly, privateering was an entrepreneurial endeavor taken on by a group of owners who shared the cost of outfitting a vessel and the risks of war. Captured vessels would be taken to prize courts and, once the court deemed the acquisition legitimate, the seized goods of the unfortunate enemy would be sold at auction. Privateering was lucrative, as owners and crews stood to make a great deal of money from their voyages.  

Of course, the state took its share as well, with prizes taxed between 30-40 percent. Thanks to the enormous advantage of commissioning warships at no cost, governments made substantial profits from privateering, which helped fuel war efforts.  

Marauding across the seas 

Between 1812 to 1815, Congress issued 1,100 letters of marque. Throughout the war, American privateers ransacked Britain’s mercantile fleet, capturing at least 1,200 vessels — an impressive amount compared to U.S. Navy seizures numbering around 250 ships. These actions provided military supplies and tax revenues, which helped support the continuation of the war, in addition to civilian goods and victories that sustained the home front.  

In the first six months of war, when American forces suffered early defeats in Canada, privateer vessels captured 450 British ships, providing millions in revenue and tales of triumph to redeem the military’s suffering performance.

Notably, African Americans constituted an estimated 20 percent of American privateer crews during the War of 1812, compared to one-sixth of naval personnel. From 1798 to 1813, the U.S. Navy prohibited African Americans from service, but no regulation prevented Black sailors from joining the crews of privateering vessels.  

Regionally, privateers operating out of Baltimore obtained 122 letters of marque from Congress, or slightly over 10 percent of all commissions. Designed specifically for speed by local shipwrights, Baltimore clippers became some of the most famous and successful privateer vessels from the war, such as the Rossie 

The Rossie 

Launched in Baltimore in 1807, Rossie was designed by prolific shipbuilder Thomas Kemp. Throughout the war, his shipyards constructed the nation’s most distinguished privateer schooners, with his Rossie, Comet, and Chasseur capturing a combined 80 prizes.   

One week after the declaration of war, Congress authorized privateering on June 26, 1812, succeeded by President James Madison’s signature the following day. Captained by Joshua Barney, Rossie received the first letter of marque, dated July 12, 1812. On that day, Rossie sailed from Baltimore Harbor with a crew of roughly 100 men and a complement of ten 12-pound cannons and one 9-pounder swivel gun.

Rossie commenced her three-month cruise from Newfoundland to New England and finally down to the West Indies. During this roughly 90-day period, Rossie captured, sunk, or burned 18 British vessels worth a total of $1.5 million.  

The American Clipper Rossie and the Princess Amelia, 16 September 1812.
The American Clipper Rossie engaged in combat with the British ship Princess Amelia, an armed trader, on September 16, 1812. Naval History and Heritage Command

On September 16, 1812, Rossie encountered the British post office packet ship Princess Amelia. Illuminated by the moon, both ships exchanged cannon and musket fire within “pistol-shot distance” for nearly an hour. Armed with four 6-pound and two 9-pound cannons, Princess Amelia fought a stubborn defense until her captain was killed and the vessel struck her colors.  

Hunting for targets in the Caribbean, Rossie stopped an American merchant ship returning from Martinique. Onboard this craft, Rossie’s crew discovered British molasses and a forged manifest accounting for only half of her cargo. Soon, the merchant captain announced that the ship belonged to William King, a prominent New England Republican and future first governor of Maine, warning that “no person dared to seize her, if they did Mr. Madison being his friend would order her release.” Thus, Rossie quietly let King’s vessel go. 

Returning to Baltimore on October 22, 1812, Barney refused a second cruise, determining the ship was “too old and worn out” from her age and battle-inflicted damage. Sold at auction, Rossie received new owners and a new commission as a trader. On January 6, 1813, Rossie was captured by the British off the coast of France while carrying coffee to Bordeaux.  

The Privateer Effect  

Privateers and their captains obtained a disputed reputation after the war. Although Congress retained the power to issue letters of marque and the U.S. was not a signatory to the 1856 Treaty of Paris outlawing privateering, the nation’s declaration to respect the agreement made the practice defunct. Meanwhile, shifting Victorian attitudes blurred the distinction between disreputable piracy and patriotic privateering. Compared to the U.S. Navy, the lack of a centralized historical record and documentation of privateering actions de-emphasized their role in histories detailing the war.  

While privateering drove up insurance rates and forced merchants to sail in armed convoys, British trade cumulatively grew in the period between 1811 to 1814. Nevertheless, to deal with privateers, the Royal Navy instituted a naval blockade that restricted their movements and shrank U.S. exports from $45 million in 1811 to $7 million in 1814. Indeed, British privateers also found success raiding the less well-protected American merchant fleet.  

Despite their contested legacy, privateers played a substantial role in the naval war against the British, augmenting America’s scanty naval power with a strong mercantile auxiliary. Their triumphs in the early months of the war roused American spirits with their swash-buckling tales of plunder and battle, becoming a captivating part of the war’s naval history.