Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Anyone who studies the War of 1812 soon discovers there are many books that cover the land battles or the naval battles, but less than a handful actually focus just on privateers. Those can often be found in books detailing the naval war, but the information in such volumes places the privateers in second place. American Privateers in the War of 1812 focuses only on them and the gentleman who reported on them.
During the War of 1812, more than 200 privateers set sail from the United States – a number far greater than the several dozen vessels the American navy had – and they captured more than five times as many enemy ships as their naval counterparts. These privateers also had a significant effect on British shipping and the British economy. Hezekiah Niles, an avid supporter of the war, diligently published information on the war and the privateers in his newspaper The Weekly Register (which is often referred to as the Niles’ Weekly Register). He gathered the information that he printed from whatever contemporary documents he could access. This allowed him to provide readers with weekly updates and to compile a comprehensive list of British ships that fell to American privateers.
What Good has done in this volume is to organize all that information in such a way that readers can easily find it. His introduction summarizes what a privateer was and how Niles decided what constituted a successful capture. Good also explains the difference between a privateer and letters of marque. The former were ships whose sole purpose was to attack the enemy, whereas the latter refers to merchant vessels that primarily conducted trade but were also authorized to attack enemy shipping should the opportunity arise. The introduction also discusses the most ten most successful privateers, beginning with Scourge (26.5 prizes) and ending with Surprize (37 prizes). These ten vessels captured 301.5 prizes or 23% of all successful prizes seized during the war.
The first part of the book provides an alphabetical listing of the 248 privateers that appeared in the newspaper. Each listing contains all the information Niles included, as well as any additional information with which he supplemented his report. This section is further divided into “Captures by Privateers,” a list which comprises nearly 100 pages, and “Captures by Non-Privateer Forces.” The name of the privateer vessel is provided along with the number of successful captures. Beneath this additional data about the ship, if known, is provided: type of vessel, number of guns, number of crew, size, and home port. This is followed by a chronological listing of the prizes. The more successful the privateer, the longer the entry. Sometimes there is more than one vessel with the same name. For example, there were 2 America (one from Baltimore, the other from Salem) or 4 Revenge (Baltimore, Norfolk, Philadelphia, and Salem). Some entries include supplemental details, such as in the listing for Chasseur, which had 24 successful captures and was captained by the audacious Thomas Boyle. This entry contains the daring proclamation he made to the British informing them of his blockade of all their ports, several letters, and some logbook entries. Another privateer that gained notoriety, but is often forgotten in history books, is the General Armstrong, which the British sank in a neutral port. The vessels listed under the non-privateer segment are subdivided into Civilians, Custom House Barge, Fishing Smack, Gunboats, Letters of Marque, Militia, Revenue Cutters, US Army, US Navy, and Whaleboats.
Part two is a “comprehensive list of all captures made by American forces” and is presented chronologically. The first listing of privateers appeared within three months of the United States’ declaration of war, beginning on 5 September 1812 and ending on 12 August 1815. Each capture is numbered and corresponds to a listing in the first part of the book.
The book also contains the following appendices:
A. Captures by Type
B. Number of Captures by Each Privateer
C. Captures by Home Port of Privateer
In addition to these, it has a detailed notes section, bibliography, and index.
While this isn’t your typical reference work, American Privateers in the War of 1812 is a fascinating goldmine. The way in which the book has been formatted makes it an invaluable resource in which the material it contains can be easily accessed. The price may be steep, but for historians of this period, aficionados of privateering history, and libraries in search of excellent maritime resources, this is a must-purchase title.
Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
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