top of page

Introduction to Rebels At Sea


A tall, angular man with a Roman nose and a cool demeanor stood on the quarterdeck of the American privateer Pickering peering through a spyglass at the British privateer Achilles. It was late in the day on June 3, 1780, and Captain Jonathan Haraden was in sight of the friendly port city of Bilbao, Spain, where the Pickering had been expecting to sell goods and to resupply. The Achilles, however, stood in the way. Nobody would have faulted Haraden had he fled in the face of this superior foe: while the Pickering had a crew of thirty-eight and sixteen six- pounder cannons, the Achilles, according to one of Haraden’s British prisoners, bristled with one hundred thirty men and forty-three cannons, many of which were nine- and eighteen-pounders. Hardly a fair fight. But that’s not how Haraden saw it. He relished the chance to confront the enemy and strike a blow for the revolutionary cause. Turning to the prisoner who had informed him of the Achilles’ might, Haraden calmly said, “I shan’t run from her.”


As with many men of the time who were not from wealthy or prominent families, we know little about Haraden’s early life. Born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1745, he was sent to Salem as a boy to apprentice as a cooper in the employ of Joseph Cabot, a successful merchant. Haraden must have gained some experience at sea in the years leading up to the American Revolution, because in June 1776 he was commissioned as first lieutenant on the aptly named sloop Tyrannicide, which Massachusetts sent out as part of its colonial (soon to be state) navy. The idea was to protect its merchantmen and seize British ones. As first lieutenant and later captain of the Tyrannicide, Haraden did just that, earning the respect of the Massachusetts Board of War, which called him a “brave officer” who “always acquitted himself with spirit and honor.” Disagreements over pay, however, led him to leave the Massachusetts navy and become a privateersman. On September 30, 1778, he took command of the Pickering.


The Pickering was one of more than a thousand American privateers, and Haraden was one of tens of thousands of privateersmen who served during the American Revolution. (Often both the vessels and the men who served on them are called “privateers.” Because that can lead to confusion, here the vessels will be referred to as “privateers” and the men sailing them “privateersmen.”) Privateers were armed vessels owned and outfitted by private individuals who had government permission to capture enemy ships in times of war. That permission came in the form of a letter of marque, a formal legal document issued by the government that gave the bearer the right to seize vessels belonging to belligerent nations and to claim those vessels and their cargoes, or prizes, as spoils of war. The proceeds from the auction of these prizes were in turn split between the men who crewed the privateers and the owners of the ship. Typically, governments used privateers to amplify their power on the seas, most notably when their navies were not large enough to effectively wage war. More specifically, by attacking the enemy’s maritime commerce and, when possible, its naval forces, privateers could inflict significant economic and military pain at no cost to the government that commissioned them. Privateers were like a cost- free navy. One late eighteenth- century historian dubbed them “the militia of the sea.”


There were two types of privateers. Some were heavily armed with large crews, their sole purpose to seek out and capture enemy ships. The large crew was needed to work the cannons and fight enemy sailors and marines with muskets and swords but also to man the newly acquired prizes and sail them back to port— while allowing the privateer to continue on, now with a smaller but still sufficient crew, searching for the next prey. Other privateers were primarily merchant vessels intent on trade; these traveled between ports to buy and sell goods but also had permission to attack enemy shipping, and would do so when the opportunity arose. This

latter type of privateer was often referred to as a “letter of marque”— not to be confused with the authority described above— whereas the first type of privateer was called just that, a privateer. Because the letter of marque’s main purpose was trade, it generally had fewer cannons and a smaller crew than a conventional privateer, although it usually took along enough crewmen to man a few prizes. One other crucial difference concerned pay. While the crews of privateers earned money only if they took prizes, those on letters of marque were paid a base salary, which was supplemented by any prize money they earned. Privateers brought in the vast majority of the prizes during the Revolution, as compared to letters of marque. Some vessels alternated between the two statuses. The Pickering sailed variously as a privateer and a letter of marque; and it was a letter of marque on its trading voyage between Salem and Bilbao when it sighted the Achilles. (This book uses the term “privateer” to cover both types of vessels, except where differentiating between the two is necessary.)


As captain of the Pickering from the fall of 1778 to early 1780, Haraden took numerous prizes. A particularly spectacular success came in October 1779 off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when he came upon three British privateers, armed with fourteen, ten, and eight cannons, respectively. One of Haraden’s officers, “though a brave man, advised him not to engage them as it would be imprudent, on account of their force.” Haraden evenly replied that the officer was free to go below, but with or without him, he was going to do “his duty” and attack. In an engagement lasting one and a half hours, the Pickering captured all three ships. The speed with which Haraden accomplished this feat was a function of his fighting style. As one of his crewmen said, Haraden liked to “go alongside, and do what was to be done in a short time.”


Haraden’s encounter with the Achilles came at the end of a voyage that began in the spring of 1780 when the Pickering, loaded with West Indian sugar, sailed for Bilbao. Upon entering the Bay of Biscay on June 1, Haraden spied a British privateer named the Golden Eagle, which had a crew of fifty- seven and twenty- two cannons, fourteen of which were nine pounders. A furious battle ensued, with the Pickering emerging victorious. Haraden put first mate Jonathan Carnes on the Golden Eagle, as prize  master, along with nine other crewmen from the Pickering. While some of the Golden Eagle’s crew were imprisoned on the lower decks of their own ship, the captain, Robert Scott, along with the balance of his men, were brought onto the Pickering.


Two days later, as the Pickering made its final approach to Bilbao, Haraden saw a large lugger in the distance, closing in fast. Scott identified it as the Achilles. When he told Haraden about its size and strength, and that it “was the largest of its kind that had ever been fitted out from Great Britain,” he assumed the American would try to escape. Instead, Haraden decided to stand and fight.


On its way toward the Pickering, the Achilles easily recaptured the Golden Eagle and placed a prize crew of its own on board. As the sky turned overcast and the night grew darker, Haraden surmised that the Achilles would put off its attack until morning. He retired to his cabin, ordering the watch to keep a sharp eye on the enemy ship and wake him should it approach.


As dawn broke, the Achilles began its advance, and a crewman rushed to alert Haraden. He “calmly rose and went up on deck, as if it had been some ordinary occasion,” and surveyed his ship to make sure his men were prepared for the confrontation. Concerned about his diminished ranks, he offered a healthy reward to any of the British prisoners who would fight alongside him. Ten stepped forward.


Haraden told his newly augmented crew “that though the lugger appeared to be superior to them in force, he had no doubt that they should beat her off if they were firm and steady, and did not throw away their fire.” Meanwhile, in Bilbao word quickly spread that two vessels just offshore were about to fight, and about a thousand people rushed to the water’s edge to watch the spectacle.


Booming broadsides and a staccato of musket fire filled the air, as the vessels engaged in their deadly dance, each trying valiantly to gain the upper hand. Robert Cowan, one of Haraden’s crew, later remarked that the Pickering “looked like a longboat by the side of” the Achilles. He added that Haraden “fought with an energy and determination that seemed superhuman,” and that while “shot flew around him” he was “as calm and steady as amidst a shower of snowflakes.”


The men on the Golden Eagle, American and British alike, watched the pitched contest intently, knowing that their fate hung in the balance. When the British prize master asked Jonathan Carnes to describe the Pickering’s crew size and armaments, he didn’t believe the response. How, he wondered, could such a lightly manned vessel with so few cannons put up such a spirited and effective fight against a much more powerful foe? “If you knew Captain Haraden as well as I do,” Carnes replied, “you would not be surprised at this— it is just what I expected.”

The battle raged for more than two hours, with no clear advantage on either side. Then, Haraden ordered his men to fill the cannons with bar shot—two iron balls or hemispheres connected by a solid rod. These projectiles, violently spinning as they flew through the air, were devastating, slashing through the Achilles’ rigging and sails. Having had enough, the Achilles turned and fled, with the rebel commander close behind. But the Achilles was too fast despite its injuries, and Haraden soon spun about to reclaim the Golden Eagle. All told, one of the Pickering’s crew had been killed— his head sheared off by a cannonball— and another eight men were wounded. The number of British killed or maimed is unknown.


News of the American victory circulated in Bilbao. According to an eyewitness, after the Pickering came to anchor, Haraden and his men “could have walked a mile from the ship, stepping from boat to boat. So great was the admiration with which the battle and victory were witnessed that when the captain landed, he was surrounded by this vast throng of strangers, and borne in triumph into the city, where he was received with public honors and favors.”


Haraden remained in Bilbao for two months, refitting the ship, taking on a new cargo, and selling the Golden Eagle, before heading back across the Atlantic to Salem. On the return voyage, Haraden captured three more British prizes and brought them safely into port. To honor their intrepid captain, the owners of the Pickering presented him with a silver tankard and two identical mugs, each engraved with his initials and an image of the ship.


During his tenure in the Massachusetts navy and as a privateer on multiple ships, Haraden took many prizes and brought back hundreds of British cannons and at least as many prisoners, if not more. He died of consumption (tuberculosis) at the age of fifty-nine, on November 23, 1803, and his obituary in the Salem Gazette lauded him as “one of the most able and valiant naval commanders that the war produced.” Many historians over the years have come to the same conclusion, with one late nineteenth-century writer claiming that Haraden’s “desperate actions and wonderful triumphs, his consummate courage and severe intrepidity, entitle him to a place in history by the side of John Paul Jones,” the legendary naval officer. Israel Thorndike, the first lieutenant of the Tyrannicide, when reflecting on the career of his former captain, gave perhaps the most succinct judgment of Captain Jonathan Haraden’s maritime service during the American Revolution: “He was a perfect hero.”


Despite the contributions made by Haraden and thousands of other privateersmen during the Revolution, many believed then and have believed since that privateering was a sideshow in the war. Privateering has long been given short shrift in general histories of the conflict, where privateers are treated as a minor theme if they are mentioned at all. The coverage in maritime and naval histories of the Revolution is not much better, with privateering often overshadowed by the exploits of the Continental navy. As John Lehman, former secretary of the navy under President Ronald Reagan, observed, “From the beginning of the American Revolution until the end of the War of 1812, America’s real naval advantage lay in its privateers. It has been said that the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea. For this we have the enormous success of American privateers to thank even more than the Continental Navy.” Yet even in the face of plenty of readily available evidence, “the official canon of naval history in both Britain and the United States virtually ignores” privateers.


The relatively small number of books that focus specifically on privateering during the Revolution do succeed in showing how it contributed to the American victory. But none of these books offers a comprehensive picture of the full extent of privateering, and just how important it actually was to the American cause. Rebels at Sea fills that void and demonstrates that privateering was critical to winning the war.


American privateersmen took the maritime fight to the British and made them bleed. In countless daring actions against British merchant ships and not a few warships, privateers caused British maritime insurance rates to precipitously rise, diverted critical British resources and naval assets to protecting their vessels and to attacking privateers, added to British weariness over the war, and played a starring role in bringing France into the war on the side of the United States, a key turning point in the conflict. On the domestic front, privateering brought much-needed goods and military supplies into the new nation, provided cash infusions for the war effort, boosted coastal economies through the building, outfitting, and manning of privateers, and bolstered America’s confidence that it might succeed in its seemingly quixotic attempt to defeat the most powerful military force of the day.


Critics of privateering have admitted its influence but characterized that influence as largely negative, if not deleterious. These claims come mainly from those who blame privateering for siphoning valuable manpower and munitions from the Continental navy and army and for contributing to a coarsening of American morals and republican ideals by purportedly offering a means for men to place profit over patriotism. But such arguments lose much of their sting and persuasive power when considered within the actual context of the war. And whatever drawbacks came with privateering, they pale in comparison to its positive contribution to the Revolution.


The importance of privateering can only be grasped when the practice is set against the precarious nature of the war. At the outset, there were few reasons for the rebellious colonies to be confident of a good outcome. As William Moultrie, South Carolina’s most famous Revolutionary War hero, would write years after the conflict, Americans were rising up against “a rich and powerful nation, with numerous fleets, and experienced admirals sailing triumphant over the ocean; with large armies and able generals in many parts of the globe: This great nation we dared to oppose, without money; without arms; without ammunition; no generals; no armies; no admirals; and no fleets; this was our situation when the contest began.” Every year of the Revolution, there was cause to doubt that the colonies would be able to hold on, much less win. George Washington later reflected that the American victory in the war “was little short of a standing miracle.” At many points during the Revolution, the war might have ended in American defeat had different decisions been made or different actions taken, and had various elements not been in place. Yet throughout, privateering provided a source of strength that helped the rebels persevere. Although privateering was not the single, decisive factor in beating the British— there was no one cause— it was extremely important nonetheless.


The exact number of privateers and privateersmen who operated during the Revolution is unknowable, but the figures we do have suggest that they were pivotal to the war. Records are incomplete and often duplicative — many were logged both at the congressional and state level. Further complicating any attempt to arrive at reliable figures is that contemporary accounts often applied the term “privateer” to vessels that were most certainly not privateers. As a result, many Continental navy vessels as well as state navy vessels were incorrectly labeled as privateers in newspapers, letters, and official government documents printed during or just after the Revolution. Some historians have perpetuated the error. Haraden’s sloop Tyrannicide, which was a Massachusetts navy vessel, is frequently called a privateer in modern accounts. The best single source of basic facts on privateering during the war is the Library of Congress’s Naval Records of the American Revolution. It lists 1,697 armed vessels that received letters of marque from the Continental Congress and which were manned by 58,400 men and carried 14,872 cannons. Yet these numbers cannot be taken at face value. Quite a few of the listed vessels received multiple letters of marque, for different cruises in different years, and thus were double- or triple- counted; many men served on more than one privateer; and a considerable portion of the cannons saw service on more than one ship as well. Even as they are, in part, duplicative, the Library of Congress records are also incomplete: a few states, notably Massachusetts and New Hampshire, issued their own letters of marque independent of Congress, but it is not clear exactly how many of these state privateers there were. Some sources claim the number was relatively low, perhaps around one hundred, while others say that there was as many as one thousand. Although the overall number of privateers cannot be precisely known, it was large, and most likely within a few hundred of 1,697. Similarly, the number of privateersmen certainly was in the tens of thousands, and the privateers upon which they served carried many thousands of cannons. Reflecting on the sheer size of such a fleet, historian John Franklin Jameson claimed that privateering during the Revolution “assumed such proportions as to make it . . . one of the leading American industries.”


Privateers were not evenly distributed across the states. Based again on the available, imperfect data, Massachusetts launched the largest number of privateers, with approximately six hundred, followed by Pennsylvania, with around five hundred. Connecticut and Maryland each provided about two hundred. Rhode Island had nearly one hundred fifty, while Virginia and New Hampshire came in well below one hundred. There were a few North Carolina and New Jersey privateers, while South Carolina and New York, which was partially under British control from the summer of 1776 to the fall of 1783, sent out only one each. As far as is known, Georgia and Delaware didn’t commission any privateers.


Before proceeding any further, a common misconception must be laid to rest. Many observers before, during, and since the Revolution have argued that privateersmen were virtually indistinguishable from pirates, those enemies of all mankind who pillaged any merchant vessels they came upon, often torturing victims while leaving a wake of terror on the high seas purely for personal gain. Claiming that it bears more than a passing resemblance to piratical behavior, some have called privateering “licensed” or “legalized” piracy. And in truth, given the origins of privateering, it is easy to understand why so many viewed privateering and piracy as two sides of the same coin.


The first recorded instance of privateering was sponsored by England in 1243 during the reign of Henry III. From that point of origin, the legally sanctioned practice blossomed and spread, appearing in virtually every European war of consequence through the 1700s, being employed by the English as well as the French, Dutch, and Spanish. But some countries, especially England, stretched the limits of privateering beyond what was generally deemed acceptable, helping give it a dark name.


For example, in the sixteenth century Elizabeth I issued letters of marque to her so- called sea dogs to attack her sworn enemy, the Spanish, and divest them of the riches they were violently looting from the Aztec and Incan Empires of Central and South America. This would have been in accord with the laws of privateering if England and Spain were at war, but Elizabeth often issued the letters when the two countries were nominally at peace.


One such letter of marque was given to Francis Drake before he left England on his circumnavigation of the globe in 1577. Drake attacked multiple Spanish towns and ships along the western coast of South America, amassing a fortune in silver and gold. His ship, the Golden Hind, returned triumphant to England, anchoring in Plymouth Harbor on September 26, 1580. While the irate Spanish king, Philip II, labeled Drake a pirate, which he undoubtedly was, the English viewed him as a privateersmen and a national hero— lending support to poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s trenchant observation some 250 years later that “no man is a pirate, unless his contemporaries agree to call him so.”


Another egregious example of piratical privateering occurred during the Nine Years’ War (1689–1697), known as King William’s War in America, which saw most of Europe arrayed against the French. In the British colonies in North America, particularly New York and Rhode Island, governors issued letters of marque to armed ships giving them permission to attack French vessels. But the governors knew full well that these “privateers” had no intention of fighting the French, and that they instead planned to sail to the Indian Ocean and prey on ships from the Mughal Empire traveling between India and the Red Sea ports of Jeddah and Mocha laden with coins, textiles, and other exotic East Indian goods. These so-called Red Sea Men were nothing more than pirates who viciously plundered Mughal shipping and brought their riches back home. And it wasn’t only the pirates who profited but also the governors themselves, who charged for privateering licenses and took a cut of the lucrative hauls.


Then there were privateersmen turning to piracy once a war ended. This happened after the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1713), when suddenly out-of-work privateersmen became pirates and launched the most notorious phase of what is called the golden age of piracy, during which thousands of pirates, including Blackbeard, terrorized sea-lanes from the North Atlantic to the West Indies.


With such a history, it is no wonder that so many have viewed privateering and piracy as synonymous. The popular historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that “privateers were essentially ships with a license to rob” that engaged in the “business of maritime breaking and entering . . . equivalent to a policeman giving his kind permission to a burglar.” But while there might be truth in this, particularly with respect to an earlier period of history, it does not apply to privateering during the American Revolution. By that time, laws had been better codified, government oversight of the practice was more effective, and legitimate privateersmen had less incentive to veer into piracy. As we will see, privateersmen operating during the American Revolution were not pirates, and the vast majority acted honorably, observing international law and the laws and regulations laid down by the Continental Congress during the war. The few exceptions only served to prove the rule.


The cast of characters in Rebels at Sea includes some of the most famous Americans of the time, and since. John Adams, Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, Elbridge Gerry, Nathanael Greene, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, Robert Morris, and George Washington, to name a few, all appear in significant roles. Beyond these well- known personages, there are numerous privateersmen who are central to the story. In addition to Haraden, their ranks include Offin Boardman, James Forten, David Ropes, Luke Ryan, and Andrew Sherburne.


Rebels at Sea does not focus solely on the achievements of American privateering. It also highlights when American privateersmen failed in their missions, and it details how the British viewed their scrappy seafaring opponents, and what steps they took to defeat them. Another dramatic and tragic thread of the story involves the prisons in England and the prison ships in New York’s Wallabout Bay, where most of the inmates were former privateersmen. While the prisons in England were bad enough, Americans who ended up on the crowded and pestilential prison ships experienced conditions so horrific that they beggar belief.


Thousands of books have approached the Revolution from every possible angle: diplomatic history, military history, the economic incentives on each side, social relations in the colonies, the fate of loyalists, and much more. There have also been countless biographies of the many leading individuals who played critical roles in the conflict. Rebels at Sea places privateersmen, most of whom were not famous or even well- known individuals, at the very center of the war effort. It demonstrates that, when the United States was only a tenuous idea, they stepped forward and risked their lives to help make it a reality.

bottom of page