Are there any firsthand accounts from Confederate privateers?

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't America still today reserve the right to issue letters of marque? I recall a couple articles put out by the US Naval Institute on the subject a year or so ago.
Well, yes, that's the point I'm making. The US swung wildly from "privateering is an inherent right we will never give up" to "privateering is illegal and we propose to hang captured privateers as pirates" to "privateering is an inherent right we will never give up" depending on whether they were looking at actually facing privateers. The states which went ahead and committed to not having privateers straight off based on a legal quid pro quo (you don't have to face privateers if you are willing to give them up yourself, see "land mine treaties" for an analogy) are on rather firmer ground for having consistent principles.



Also keep in mind that privateers of the 1860s didn't necessarily have to carry a lot of armaments ... merchant ships by that time were already starting to drop the practice of carying artillery as had been common in the preceding century. A supply of small arms was sometimes all you needed. Look at the way Somali pirates have attacked unarmed merchants in the late 2000s ... not an artillery piece in sight, just some AKs. Replace those AKs with Enfield muskets and revolvers, and you've got a privateer that can take on a merchantman that has no cannons aboard ca. 1860s.
Are there any actual cases of such an operation taking place in that period, especially on the open sea? The only one I know about was a customs scam in the War of 1812, though I've not exactly looked and only know that one because it's funny.

As for guns left over from 1812, yes, I should clarify the state has to provide the guns in general. I'm not aware of much in the way of cases of a privateer purchasing overseas cannon, either (in the Napoleonic wars when there was a lot of privateering) though ditto for my not having looked.


 

SeaTurtle

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Are there any actual cases of such an operation taking place in that period, especially on the open sea?

I recall an incident in April 1863 where a group of guys from Alabama went to the mouth of the Mississippi in a launch, armed with nothing but sidearms, and boarded and captured a US Army transport called Fox at Pass a l'Outre without a shot being fired. As far as I remember their leader was seeking (or already had) commission as a master-not-in-line-of-promotion, but the rest of the men were private citizens who volunteered, watermen from the docks of Mobile if I recall rightly. They made it back to Confederate territory with the captured vessel.

As for guns left over from 1812, yes, I should clarify the state has to provide the guns in general. I'm not aware of much in the way of cases of a privateer purchasing overseas cannon

Not purchased overseas, but of foreign make: the privateer Jefferson Davis (aka Putnam, aka Echo) was outfitted with iron guns of English manufacture dating back to 1801. Hardly a financial burden on the state. Remember that the state doesn't have to supply privateers with cannon ... they acquire it themselves. Even if the guns come from state stocks, the government is making money if they sell old surplus to privateers.
 
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Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
I'd not have considered a US army transport to be in the category of merchantman offhand (though that's not a reason it doesn't count), though I am surprised a steamer could be caught by a launch paying any sort of attention! I'm picturing the steamer just steaming away and wondering why they didn't do that...


Not purchased overseas, but of foreign make: the privateer Jefferson Davis (aka Putnam, aka Echo) was outfitted with iron guns of English manufacture dating back to 1801. Hardly a financial burden on the state.
They are however an allocation of guns which the state could otherwise have allocated to other purposes (such as arming gunboats etc). There is an opportunity cost of a different type - instead of using those guns, the state sells them and when it needs another gun it has to buy that other gun it needs, and while funds are fungible this is the most direct consequence involved.
 

SeaTurtle

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I'd not have considered a US army transport to be in the category of merchantman offhand (though that's not a reason it doesn't count), though I am surprised a steamer could be caught by a launch paying any sort of attention! I'm picturing the steamer just steaming away and wondering why they didn't do that...

Double-checking my source, it seems the Confederates snuck aboard in the wee hours of the morning and took the crew by surprise. I guess poor watch-keeping on the part of the Union sailors helped them out.

They are however an allocation of guns which the state could otherwise have allocated to other purposes (such as arming gunboats etc). There is an opportunity cost of a different type - instead of using those guns, the state sells them and when it needs another gun it has to buy that other gun it needs, and while funds are fungible this is the most direct consequence involved.

Totally fair point. I guess it just depends on the situation. I wish I knew more about where Confederate privateers secured their artillery, private sources or public. Most of the Confederate privateers I've come across were able to secure cannon of some variety, though sometimes not much more than a bow chaser. Then again, that was usually all they needed when taking on unarmed merchant ships. I've read more than one account where a warning shot was enough to make a target heave to and surrender to a Confederate privateer. Most merchant sailors aren't going to be ready to fight to the death when they've got nothing to shoot back with. They'd be more likely to try and run, but if you were being chased by a steam privateer like the Calhoun, then you might not always be able to get away.
 
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Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
I think what's also worth taking into account here is that there are entirely workable countermeasures to commerce raiders and to privateering in general, especially for a strong naval power (like the Royal Navy, and indeed the US Navy could have done). That's first a convoying system, and secondly stationing ships at vulnerable points.

The institution of the convoy system in the War of 1812 meant that the insurance rates for British merchant shipping "went up temporarily by 30%, generally with a rebate of a third or more for convoy, and were no higher on average in 1812-14 than they were in 1810-11." Which suggests that the convoy system meant that ships sailing in convoy in 1813 were actually paying less for insurance than ships sailing alone in 1810.

As for stationing ships, well, Semmes:

The time had now arrived for me to stretch over to the Cape of Good Hope. I had been three months near the equator, and on the coast of Brazil, and it was about time that some of Mr. Welles’ ships of war, in pursuance of the tactics of that slow old gentleman, should be making their appearance on the coast in pursuit of me. I was more than ever astonished at the culpable neglect or want of sagacity of the head of the Federal Navy Department, when I arrived on the coast of Brazil, and found no Federal ship of war there. Ever since I had left the island of Jamaica, early in January, I had been working my way, gradually, to my present cruising ground. My ship had been constantly reported, and any one of his clerks could have plotted my track, from these reports, so as to show him, past all peradventure, where I was bound…

the old gentleman does not seem once to have thought of so simple a policy as stationing a ship anywhere. The reader who has followed the Alabama in her career thus far, has seen how many vital points he left unguarded. His plan seemed to be, first to wait until he heard of the Alabama being somewhere, and then to send off a number of cruisers, post-haste, in pursuit of her, as though he expected her to stand still, and wait for her pursuers! This method of his left the game entirely in my own hands.

A strong naval power can have ships aready stationed in good "hunting grounds".
 

SeaTurtle

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I think what's also worth taking into account here is that there are entirely workable countermeasures to commerce raiders and to privateering in general, especially for a strong naval power (like the Royal Navy, and indeed the US Navy could have done). That's first a convoying system, and secondly stationing ships at vulnerable points.

The institution of the convoy system in the War of 1812 meant that the insurance rates for British merchant shipping "went up temporarily by 30%, generally with a rebate of a third or more for convoy, and were no higher on average in 1812-14 than they were in 1810-11." Which suggests that the convoy system meant that ships sailing in convoy in 1813 were actually paying less for insurance than ships sailing alone in 1810.

As for stationing ships, well, Semmes:



A strong naval power can have ships aready stationed in good "hunting grounds".

Certainly. I'd also add that by the ACW period privateering was going be much harder from a financial standpoint than it had in the age of sail. Steamships were expensive to run, and it's no surprise that a good few (but by no means all) Confederate privateers I've come across were sailing vessels, which obviously would put them at a disadvantage to steam-driven targets and force them to look out for other sail-only prey.

But overall, I think the blockade was one of the key things that helped kill Confederate privateering. It became too hard to bring prizes back into friendly ports when there were enemy warships patrolling all over the place. As you say, stationing warships around hunting grounds proved to be a good tactic to counter privateering. CSA privateering was at its most effective in the first year of the war, when the Union blockade was not well-established and there were plenty of Yankee ships still hanging around Confederate waters that hadn't had a chance to get away after the outbreak of war.
 

Saphroneth

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I have this suspicion that the causes of the privateering ban in the Treaty of Paris included the idea that it just wasn't really worth it, plus that it involved men outside the control of the government (so higher chance for abuse), plus the increasing costs (and the fact that warships were now more specialized) all created pressures which combined to result in the end of privateering in the treaty.

I also think however that the US folk memory of effective privateering in the War of 1812 (which was probably not justified) led to US reluctance.
 

SeaTurtle

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I have this suspicion that the causes of the privateering ban in the Treaty of Paris included the idea that it just wasn't really worth it, plus that it involved men outside the control of the government (so higher chance for abuse), plus the increasing costs (and the fact that warships were now more specialized) all created pressures which combined to result in the end of privateering in the treaty.

I also think however that the US folk memory of effective privateering in the War of 1812 (which was probably not justified) led to US reluctance.

I'd agree. It was probably somewhat similar to the debates today about the use of private military contractors and the fact that they're not always readily responsible to a particular government, which increases the risks of idiots acting irresponsibly with guns and dodging consequences. But I still do believe that the Paris Declaration wasn't entirely benevolent and that the original authors had self-serving motives in seeing privateering outlawed and blockading regulated. Maybe we can agree to disagree on that though :smile:

Interesting point about the folk-memory and romanticizing of privateers from 1812 ... I'd totally buy that it could have played a part in the US (and CS) hanging on to privateering. If you look at newspaper reports from various southern ports in the first year of the Civil War, they seem to like portraying privateers as dashing rogues of the sea, robbing from the rich Yankees and giving to the poor South etc. etc.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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I'd agree. It was probably somewhat similar to the debates today about the use of private military contractors and the fact that they're not always readily responsible to a particular government, which increases the risks of idiots acting irresponsibly with guns and dodging consequences. But I still do believe that the Paris Declaration wasn't entirely benevolent and that the original authors had self-serving motives in seeing privateering outlawed and blockading regulated. Maybe we can agree to disagree on that though :smile:

Interesting point about the folk-memory and romanticizing of privateers from 1812 ... I'd totally buy that it could have played a part in the US (and CS) hanging on to privateering. If you look at newspaper reports from various southern ports in the first year of the Civil War, they seem to like portraying privateers as dashing rogues of the sea, robbing from the rich Yankees and giving to the poor South etc. etc.

The popular image in the U.S. was of the plucky little Navy and privateers bearding the British lion in his den.

The reality of the situation was that the U.S. Navy was woefully unprepared for the war, vastly outmanned and outgunned, and played no really significant role in the outcome*, despite some spectacular morale-building single-ship actions (two of them starring the USS Constitution). The main causes of the U.S.'s avoidance of total defeat in the War of 1812 was that Britain was fighting a real world war at the time (against Napoleon) and could never give the American war her full attention; and the war was quite unpopular in Britain (it was also quite unpopular in a a substantial part of the U.S., notably the Northeast).

It was a really bad example to set naval policy on, but that didn't stop much of Congress from doing exactly that through most of the first half of the 19th Century.

________________________
* I'll have to walk part of this statement back. I think one could make a good case for Perry's control of Lake Erie and MacDonough's of Lake Champlain as significant factors. I was primarily thinking of the blue-water areas...
 

Saphroneth

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But I still do believe that the Paris Declaration wasn't entirely benevolent and that the original authors had self-serving motives in seeing privateering outlawed and blockading regulated. Maybe we can agree to disagree on that though
I mean, you can have the potential for self serving motives for doing something and still honestly see it as the right thing to do. The self serving motive behind the Geneva Conventions is to avoid facing those methods yourself, after all...
 

SeaTurtle

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Ironically the opposite was involved with the privateer thing...

Given the weak state (or at least numeric inferiority) of the Confederate navy compared to the Union ca. 1861, I don't think privateering was wholly idealistic for them, it had practical potential in those early days, one of which was to distract USN ships that might otherwise have chased down blockade runners.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
Given the weak state (or at least numeric inferiority) of the Confederate navy compared to the Union ca. 1861, I don't think privateering was wholly idealistic for them, it had practical potential in those early days, one of which was to distract USN ships that might otherwise have chased down blockade runners.
I actually meant the US attitude to it. They could have earned a lot of goodwill by saying "okay, we are now signing on to the Paris treaty" but instead they took an incoherent position because they wanted to preserve the option of having privateers in future while also not letting privateers be used against them.
 

SeaTurtle

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Interesting to note that the two participants in the Spanish-American War, the USA and Spain, both at that time were still not signed on to the Paris Declaration and technically still reserved the right to employ privateers, yet neither did. I can imagine this decision was partly motivated by the wish to win over international sympathies to their side and not be seen as "uncivilized" according to international laws of the day.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
The Spanish expressly reserved the right to issue letters of marque in declaring to abide by Paris. It's quite weird.
 
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