On the Water

Defending Independence

Americans fought two wars to gain independence and then defend it against the world’s mightiest naval power.

During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the Americans faced a British navy with hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of sailors and marines. Lacking time and funds to build an adequate fleet, the American government authorized hundreds of privately armed ships to attack British vessels. These “privateers” captured more than a thousand ships, called “prizes,” and helped the new nation gain and hold independence.

Ship Rhodes

Built in Salem, Massachusetts, 1782

Length: 98 feet

Privateer Rhodes

The privateer Rhodes carried a crew of 90. Large crews helped privateers intimidate and overpower their prey, and provided crew for any ships captured. The Rhodes was built for speed and was heavily armed with 20 cannon. Still, it was captured on a cruise in the West Indies, sailed to England, renamed Barbadoes, and used against the American colonies until the end of the American Revolution.

Recruiting Broadside, 1776

This early advertisement was designed to recruit crewmen for the American privateer Washington. It was posted in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1776. The Washington captured eight enemy vessels in the first year of the Revolution, but was captured itself by a British warship the following year.

Courtesy of the Beverly Historical Society & Museum

Courtesy of The National Archives of the UK, ref. HCA 32/1292

Privateer Commission, 1813

Signed by President James Madison in 1813, this form authorized the New Hampshire schooner Dart to “subdue, seize and take any armed or unarmed British vessel.” The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to grant these commissions to private armed ships like the Dart. Privateers without proper authorization were often treated as pirates and hanged.


By British law, naval captains had the right to stop ships at sea, search for deserters and other British citizens, and force them to join the crews of warships—a practice called “impressment.” Some British captains seized almost any able-bodied, English-speaking sailors they could find. As many as 6,000 American sailors were impressed in the period, and American outrage over the practice contributed to the War of 1812.

British Admiralty Press Warrant, 1794 [1794]
British Admiralty Press Warrant, 1794

Press Warrant, 1794

View Object Record

This British Admiralty document authorized Capt. John Thomas Duckworth of HMS Orion to seize, or impress, as many men as he needed to man his vessel or “any other of His Majesty’s Ships.” Each man recruited this way was to receive one shilling as “Prest Money.”

Instructions for Impressment, 1794

This British Admiralty pamphlet outlines the conditions for impressing men into the Royal Navy. British warships in need of crewmen routinely bent these rules.

Rigged Model, Privateer Prince de Neufchatel [1965]
Rigged Model, Privateer Prince de Neufchatel

Brig Prince de Neufchatel

Built in 1813

Length: 117 feet

Armament: 18 guns

Crew: 129

Privateer Prince de Neufchatel

View Object Record

The Prince de Neufchatel was one of the most successful American privateers of the War of 1812. Its mostly American crew was augmented by 18 sailors from 11 different countries. In early 1814, the brig captured nine British vessels in the English Channel. In October, it survived a battle off New England with a much larger British frigate. Three British frigates finally captured the Prince in December 1814 and promptly sailed it back to England to have shipwrights copy the lines of the speedy vessel.

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Kohl

Articles of Agreement, 1814

This manuscript laid out terms between the owners and crew for a cruise of the privateer Prince de Neufchatel. The owners paid for all the initial armaments and provisions. The privateer was expected to replenish its needs from captured vessels. The owners received half of the proceeds from any vessels taken. The crew divided the other half by rank. The first two men to board an enemy ship earned six extra shares, while the loss of an arm or leg earned double the money.

Oil Painting, The Privateer Brig Warrior Capturing The Schooner Hope [ca 1814]
Oil Painting, The Privateer Brig Warrior Capturing The Schooner Hope

Gift of the CIGNA Museum & Art Collection

The Warrior Captures the Hope, 1814

View Object Record

About 1814, Philadelphia artist Thomas Birch painted this action between the American privateer brig Warrior, right, and the British armed schooner Hope. The Hope was transporting a cargo of manufactured goods from Glasgow, Scotland, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Catalog of Prize Goods, 1814

Goods from captured ships—called “prizes”—were auctioned off by the local U.S. Marshal’s office. A one-page handbill was usually enough to list a ship’s goods. A printed catalog of auction items like this was rare.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Catch Me Who Can

In this watercolor, an American privateer has mistaken the British warship Pylades as a potential prize. After the British sloop fired a shot, the American schooner fled, taunting the enemy with a flag that says, “Catch me who can.”

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Armed for the Cause, early 1800s

The last thing any privateer wanted to do was fight. Battles risked injury to sailors, damage to ships, and lost profits. But privateers had to demonstrate that they were willing to attack and even board an enemy vessel. Officers commonly brought along their personal swords and firearms. Crewmen were issued weapons. Most seamen preferred short-barreled pistols, muskets, and shotguns, which were easier to handle in shipboard fights.

Combination saber and pistol, French

Cutlass Pistol [1796]
Cutlass Pistol
View Object Record

Bequest of C. B. H. Jackson

Naval small sword, French 1782

French Naval Small Sword [1782]
French Naval Small Sword

Bequest of C. B. H. Jackson

View Object Record

Naval cutlass

Naval Figure Eight Pattern Cutlass [Circa 1780]
Naval Figure Eight Pattern Cutlass

Gift of the Peabody Museum

View Object Record

English short musket, 1799

Bequest of C. B. H. Jackson

Double-barreled shotgun with spring bayonet, late 1700s

English Coach Gun [1800-1810]
English Coach Gun
View Object Record

Gift of Ralph G. Packard

Musketoon, 1700s

View Object Record

Bequest of C. B. H. Jackson

Matched Pair of Tow Pistols [late 18th century]
Matched Pair of Tow Pistols

English pistols, late 1700s

View Object Record

Gift of Dr. Richard Rathbun

Keeping Privateers Afloat

In the young American nation, privateering kept U.S. port cities humming with activity. Shipyards built the vessels. Banks and insurance agencies financed and insured them. Sailmakers made and maintained acres of sails. Armorers and gunsmiths supplied cannon, firearms, powder, and shot. Blacksmiths and chandlers made ship hardware of all sorts. Farmers and grocers supplied ships’ provisions, and coopers made storage barrels and kegs.

Fells Point, early 1800s

The War of 1812 kept Baltimore shipyards busy. Since the early 1800s, the city had been building small, fast schooners such as pilot boats, which carried pilots familiar with local waters out to guide larger vessels in Chesapeake Bay. When war broke out, an area of Baltimore’s waterfront known as Fells Point began building slightly bigger schooners that could raid enemy shipping and outrun enemy blockades.

Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society

Pilot Boat/Privateer Snap Dragon

Built in Maryland, early 1800s

Length: 85-1/2 feet

Lent by the U.S. Navy

Original Builder’s Model, 1808

Half-hull models like this were the first step in shipbuilding in the early 1800s. The shipbuilder made the model for only one side of the hull, since ships are symmetrical. To build a ship, the model’s shape was measured and drawn full scale on a wooden floor. Then the ship’s frames were cut to fit the floor lines. The finished frames were hoisted and set along the keel in the shipyard. The privateer Snap Dragon was built from this model. In the War of 1812, it captured 19 prizes.

Letter of Marque Topsail Schooner Lynx [1964]
Letter of Marque Topsail Schooner Lynx

Square Topsail Schooner Lynx

Built in 1812

Length: 97 feet

Letter of Marque Schooner Lynx

View Object Record

Built at Baltimore by Peter Kemp, the Lynx carried six guns and a 40-man crew. In 1812, the owners received a letter of marque—the official authorization for a merchant vessel to take prizes as a privateer. The Lynx served less than a year before being captured. It was renamed the Mosquidobit, and joined the British blockade of Chesapeake Bay.