While piracy is alive and well on planet Earth even as we speak, the privateer has gone by the wayside to such a degree that a lot of people don’t know he ever existed. The idea of a government condoning sea raiding, which in any other situation would indeed be piracy, is alien to the general populace. I personally find that curious considering that the last great moment of privateering was the Civil War. For Americans, who seem overwrought with that war to the point of obsession, you would think that memory would serve a bit better.
Confederate privateering had some interesting quirks, however, which are very much worth considering. If privateering ever does return to vogue, this last gasp of greatness may have some effect on how it’s done.
Essentially, the Civil War proper began with the April 12, 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter. Lincoln declared not war but a need to put down rebellion and promptly raised troops. He also goosed Gideon Welles, then Secretary of the Navy, into action to begin blockades against the largest Confederate ports. The problem for the Confederates was their complete lack of a navy. Enter the privateer.
On April 17 Jefferson Davis put out the call for not only troops but the issuance of letters of marque. One of Commodore Welles’ early concerns, aside from the number of his ships that were laid up in ordinary (almost half, leaving him with only 40 warships at the beginning of hostility), was the surprisingly high number of ship owners that answered the Confederate call. He went to Lincoln with this concern and the President turned to Europe. In 1856 the Declaration of Paris had outlawed privateering. The U.S. was asked if they wanted to join the Declaration as a signatory but then President Franklin Pierce declined. Lincoln tried to have the U.S. added to the Declaration in order to make the Confederate privateers pirates in European eyes but Europe would have none of it. With the war now official, none of the European powers wanted to take sides. They would wait and see and, although they would not libel Confederate prizes in their ports, they would turn a blind eye to their activities.
The embarrassment of riches that came in the form of an initial rush to take the Confederate States up on their offer of commissions made it possible for Davis to be picky. The Confederate Constitution used the language of its parent country’s own Constitution regarding privateering and letters of marque and reprisal, but Davis’ government added some stringent requirements on top of that. Only a ship’s owner would be granted a commission. In other times, for instance during the South American wars for independence in the early 19th century, an individual representing other ship’s captains might be handed a stack of commissions with the names of ships, owners and captains left blank. A good example of this was the Cartagenan commissions held by Laffite privateers out of Barataria. These letters of marque were most often collected by Renato Beluche, given to Jean Laffite and then the bos of Barataria would dole them out as he saw fit. The Confederate States were not going to put up with that kind of shenanigans, which could – and in the Laffites’ case did – lead to speculation for profit. They also required steep deposits from ship owners which would also deter that kind of thing.
The Confederate privateers were a daring bunch, regardless of your sympathies one way or another. They ran the Union blockades on an almost daily basis sometimes with a prize or prizes in tow. They caused a large number of Union merchant ships to change their registries from the U.S. to Britain or France, taking at least some of their trade away from the Union and out to the Caribbean or South America. Then too, the raiders’ unparalleled success in the Cape Hatteras area led the Union to its first substantial victory of the war, taking two forts off Hatteras Inlet in an effort to stop the privateers’ harassment of New England shipping.
Perhaps the most interesting point about Confederate commissions, and what set them far apart from any that had come before, was that they specifically provided for the capture or destruction of Union navy vessels. Since no cargo would be eligible for libel in such cases, which incidentally never happened, specific monetary values were assigned to vessels of war based on their size, their number of guns and their crew. These would be paid to the privateer by the government. The only privately owned ship that came close to effecting this provision was CSS Manassas, an armored ship out of New Orleans which engaged Union ships at the Battle of the Southwest Pass where she disable USS Richmond. Unfortunately that was only after she had been official commandeered by the Confederate States. Her owner, Captain John Stevenson, was not paid out as per his original letter of marque.
The individual privateers, particularly the schooner Savannah whose capture resulted in a famous court case that may have affected the outcome of the Civil War, at least in part, are worth discussing in future posts. I’d like to give them their proper due, after all. Suffice it to say that the last days of privateering surrounded the American Civil War, and an interesting chapter in history was made a little bit more swashbuckling because of that largely forgotten fact.
Header: Manassas at the Battle of the Southwest Pass