The typical American’s knowledge of the War of 1812 is limited to the British burning of the White House, Francis Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner amid the bombing of Fort McHenry and the United States’ lopsided victory at the Battle of New Orleans.
In reality, the conflict was a complicated matter that dragged on for 2-1/2 years, crippled American trade and led to strong internal divisions within the United States.
One of the key factors in the United States’ ability to hold off the British, the world’s pre-eminent sea power, was the American’s fleet of privateers, ships that were privately owned but authorized to attack enemy shipping.
It’s necessary to remember that by the time war was declared in 1812, the US was still a fledgling nation, less than 30 years from having concluded the Revolutionary War.
“When we declare war on England in 1812, they have 1,048 ships in the British Navy, and we have 17,” author J. Dennis Robinson told New Hampshire Public Radio.
Robinson, author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, said privateers were the naval version of militias – private citizens called into service during a national emergency.
“If you remember John Adams,” Robinson says, “He says privateering, that’s the answer. He calls it a short, easy, infallible method of humbling the British.”
The idea behind privateering was simple: attack an enemy ship and make off with the cargo. The reward was whatever the privateers could capture.
“The privateers, then, were used to essentially hijack British supply ships,” according to NH Public Radio. “Technically these weren’t pirate ships because they had official government backing, but the idea was pretty much the same – the privateers raided British ships before they could resupply their troops, and they took away the booty.”
While privateers did serious damage to the British war effort – in the first four months of the war alone, American privateers captured 219 British merchant ships, according to Jon Latimer’s 2007 work 1812: War with America – it also crippled parts of the American economy.
New England had already been hurt by embargos put in place by President Thomas Jefferson, and the War of 1812 meant ships were in danger of being captured by the British and American sailors being taken prisoner, Robinson told NH Public Radio.
But the privateers proved successful. Some 1,700 British merchant ships were sun, disabled or otherwise looted, according to Robinson.
By mid-1814, American privateers found chances of success much reduced, with most British merchantmen now sailing in convoy.
Still, privateering continued to prove troublesome to the British, as shown by high insurance rates, according to Donald Hickey in his 1989 book The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.
Not surprisingly, it was economics that tipped the scales in favor of the war’s conclusion: British landowners had tired of high taxes, and colonial interests and merchants were in need of the lucrative income the former American Colonies offered.
The groups’ urgings helped lead the government to end the war with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814.