Privateers and the War of 1812 -Fall 2014
by: John Stanton
The battle raged close to shore. Years later one man, who was 16 years old on that October evening in 1814, remembered hearing people watching from a rooftop on Orange Street, pointing out the flashes of musket and cannon fire to each other, as the man-made thunder rolled into town from the water.
In a bloody battle, taking place just off the south shore, the American privateer Prince de Neufchatel was squaring off with the British frigate of war Endymion in what has been called the most remarkable military action of the War of 1812.
What the people gathered on Nicholas Meader’s rooftop observatory could not see from the safety of the shore was the captain of the Prince de Neufchatel holding an open flame over the passageway to the ship’s powder room, as British marines attempted to swarm onto the deck, screaming to his vastly outnumbered crew that he would blow up the ship before he allowed her to be taken.
The War of 1812 began against the backdrop of the struggle for European dominance between France and Great Britain. When that war spilled over into embargoes on merchant shipping, American merchant seamen were caught in the middle.
The British Navy had successfully closed down most European harbors to American ships, unless they routed their trade through British ports. Thomas Jefferson countered with the Embargo Act of 1807, prohibiting imports to and from France and Great Britain. The British Navy’s practice of impressments – taking British deserters, and often Americans, off American merchant ships and forcing them into service in the Royal Navy – further fueled the march toward war.
Nantucketers were already well-versed in European efforts to stop free trade. Memories of hard times under the British blockade during the Revolutionary War were still fresh in everyone’s mind, as new war talk began to dominate conversations.
The Nantucket whaling fleet had been decimated during the War for Independence. A naval blockade had driven islanders to near starvation conditions. In the two decades since that war ended, the island slowly crept back toward prosperity. The population had grown to 7,000 and the first ship built on Nantucket, Rose, was launched from Brant Point Shipyard. In 1812 the Nantucket fleet had grown to 116 boats, including 46 whaleships.
On May 15 of that year, as what islanders sometimes called the second war for independence loomed on the horizon, Nantucket Town Meeting sent a letter to Congress urging it to avoid war. The vote was made by people with a clear understanding of just how stocks and provisions can run low on an island that is kept forcibly out of touch with the mainland. The vote did not sway history. War with Great Britain was declared on June 18, 1812.
The first Nantucket ship captured by the Royal Navy was the whaler Mount Hope. Captain David Cottle had taken the ship to the southern whaling grounds in the spring of 1812. When she was taken by the British frigate Belvidere, the Mount Hope was carrying 60 barrels of sperm oil. She was set on fire and destroyed.
“Gradually but surely the accumulation of fortunes from years of toil and sacrifice were again swept away,” wrote Obed Macy in his book “The Story of Nantucket.” “Suffering and privation again ruled where for such a brief time before had been happiness and abundance.”
A gallows-humor joke told during the blockade featured a neighbor who knocked on a door asking to borrow a hammer. When asked what he wanted it for, he said, “To smash out my teeth, as I find I have no use for them.”
Not all Nantucket ships went so easily. In The Inquirer and Mirror, dated April of 1878, the writer of a letter to the editor remembered the sloop Yankee, captained by Daniel B. Hussey, whose first mate was a man named Peter Paddack. She was taken by the British off Gay Head, after leaving Nantucket for New York, and ordered to Halifax. Common practice was to place a stand-in crew, called a prize crew, on the captured ship to take it into port.
“Soon as the warship was out of sight, Capt. Hussey, a powerful and violent man ... with a handspike in hand, commenced operations for retaking his vessel,” reads the letter. “He knocked one fellow down, and the prize master approached Capt. Hussey with his pistol cocked and drew trigger. It missed fire. Capt. Paddack, a man of great strength, seized the officer, threw him over the quarter, and held him there.”
The prize master agreed to surrender, but only if Paddack took him back onto the ship. Being a good Quaker, Paddack agreed to not simply toss the man into the ocean.
“As soon as he gained the deck he seized a loaded shotgun and pointed it at Capt. P., who quick as a flash, with his left hand, struck the gun from the officer’s grasp ... then (he) clinched the deceptive officer, threw him onto the deck, got his knife from his pocket, got a piece of sounding line, tied his hands solid behind him, and put him down into the forecastle. Soon they were masters of the situation.”
The letter-writer has the ship returning safely to Newport, and greeted “by a great crowd of persons, who pressed on board of the Yankee to welcome the Nantucket heroes.”
Nantucket formally appealed to President James Madison to make cod and whaling fisheries exempt from the war. The request was denied. Fast, heavily-armed vessels flying the Union Jack constantly patrolled Nantucket Sound. Provisions began to run low. By that summer, food and fuel were in very short supply.
By July of 1814, Selectmen voted to have David Starbuck sail the sloop Hawk under a white flag to meet the British Admiral Alexander Cochrane with a request that a small number of passports be issued so supplies could be shipped to the island from Boston. Cochrane agreed on one condition: Islanders would have to renounce the war by agreeing to stop paying federal taxes being used to fund it.
In her diary, Kezia Coffin Fanning notes on Aug. 22, 1814 that the British ship Nimrod “is at our bar, sent someone ashore with a flag. A First Lieutenant with a letter from the British Admiral to the Magistrate of this town – the purport of which is that if we will declare ourselves neuter and suffer them to come here unmolested – we will be permitted to bring provisions and fuel to this place.”
The next day Fanning wrote that, “Officers ashore from the Nimrod, Captain and other offices, are treated with the greatest of politeness to dine, tea, etc. At 6 o’clock at town meeting all unanimity that this island should neuter during the war. That we will suffer British vessels to come here unmolested – that if they are in want of refreshments we will supply them, they paying for the same. Voted that Zenas Coffin, Joe Chase, and Josiah Barker and Aaron Mitchell, should be a committee to go to the British admiral and conclude negotiation.”
On Aug. 28, Nantucket declared its neutrality. A letter was sent to Congress explaining the situation and asking that islanders be released from paying taxes while the war was underway. In September Town Meeting voted not to pay federal taxes for the duration of the war.
On Oct. 11, an American privateer and a prize vessel could be seen offshore. Privateers were, in effect, government-sanctioned pirates. They had been used effectively during the Revolutionary War to disrupt British commercial shipping. A "letter of marque and reprisal" was required to be a privateer, and it gave the holder permission to plunder and to commit acts that otherwise would be considered piracy. Five hundred such letters were issued during the war.
It was a very effective strategy. In September of 1814, merchants in Glasgow, Scotland, voted on a resolution which stated in part, “Resolved, the number of American privateers with which our channels have been infested, the audacity with which they have approached our coasts, and the success with which their enterprise has been attended have proved injurious to our commerce.”
The incentive behind this civilian navy was as much profit as patriotism. The ships they captured were called prize ships, and either scuttled after their cargo and crew were removed or sailed into port and sold. Successfully sail your captured ship and its cargo back to an American port and you could sell what you had captured, down to a price for every captured sailor.
By 1814, Captain John Ordronaux had already made a name for himself by skippering the French privateer Marengo. One day he walked into a New York shipyard and fell in love with a ship he saw there. She was built along the lines of the famed Baltimore clippers, part schooner and part brigantine, with sleek lines that promised to be very fast and maneuverable in the water. But the ship was not in the water. After being built in 1813 it just sat, for unknown reasons, in the shipyard.
He sent word to France. Flory Charretton was a wealthy Parisian who had funded the Marengo. He asked her to fund this new ship. He bought the ship, obtained the letter of marque and reprisal signed by President James Madison, sailed the ship unarmed to Cherbourg, France, and had her fitted for privateering.
Then he immediately got to work. In the spring of 1814 the Prince de Neufchatel wracked up $3 million in prize cargo taken off 14 British merchant ships in both the English Channel and Irish Sea. Seventeen British men-of-war had chased the American privateer, and he outran them all. His exploits made shipping along the Irish Sea all but impossible for the British that spring.
Ordronaux was sometimes called the “Sea Wolf,” a man so small in stature, almost dwarfish, that it was said he appeared ridiculously unable to control the men under his command. To assume that he was not in control, however, could be a fatal mistake.
He was a Frenchman by birth and an American for convenience. The ship and her captain were once described as a Yankee vessel commanded by a Frenchman who was so hideous in his appearance and so diminutive in stature that he is described as very “Caliban” in looks. Nobody, however, disputed the fact that he was a skilled sailor and a determined leader.
His ship was a splendid vessel of 310 tons, part schooner and part brigantine, armed with 17 guns, called cannonades, a swivel cannon that was mounted amidships and known as a “Long Tom,” blunderbusses, muskets and boarding pikes. An unusual sail configuration added to the ship’s speed. It was rumored among sailors that she could sail directly into the wind. She was a state-of-the-art vessel, built for the expressed purpose of raiding commerce ships and outrunning British warships.
On the morning of Oct. 11, 1814, the Prince de Neufchatel appeared off Nantucket. “Very pleasant wind, SE. About noon a privateer brig and a ship, her prize, hove into sight to the SW of the island, a frigate in chase,” wrote Fanning in her diary.
Ordronaux’s prize ship that day in October was the Douglass, loaded with rum, molasses, cotton, coffee, ginger and mahogany bound for Liverpool, England, when she was taken. Prize ships, British merchant ships captured by privateers, had provided Nantucketers with a bit of good fortune during the war.
On Jan. 4, 1813 a prize ship named Queen broke up on Nobadeer beach. She had been captured by the privateer General Armstrong.
Queen was from Liverpool bound for Surinam with a cargo valued at over $100,000. It was the most valuable single prize taken in the war. The cargo was valuable enough that she did not surrender until the commander, first officer and nine of the crew were killed. A prize crew was put on board and as the ship headed for mainland America she was wrecked on the Nantucket shoals and washed ashore at Nobadeer.
Islanders saw it as a way to get through the long winter. The beaches between Sconset and Miacomet Pond were littered with hundreds of hogsheads of bottled porter, sauerkraut, cheese, hams, ready-made clothing, hats, a large number of bales, trunks and boxes of costly goods.
In “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” Arthur H. Gardner describes the scene: “The shore was immediately lined with hundreds of people, who worked day and night to secure the property, but with no regard for order, each one helping himself to whatever he could lay hold of. Carts plied day and night between the shore and town, and fires and lanterns were kept burning on the beach.”
A month earlier, another prize of General Armstrong, the Sir Sydney Smith, had run aground on Bass Rip. The crew climbed into the shrouds. The ship was close enough to the shore, and the weather bad enough, that people on the beach could only watch helplessly. The Nantucket mail packet, manned by a crew of volunteers, began to head out for a rescue but bad weather forced them back to the shore. The men in the ship’s rigging could be seen dropping into the freezing ocean. Finally the vessel rolled over and sank, taking any crew still alive with her. Nothing was ever reported recovered from the wreck, even though she was carrying a valuable cargo.
If he had been able to bring both ships safely into Boston or New York, John Barnard, the captain of the General Armstrong, stood to make enough money to become independently wealthy. In an effort to recoup what he could from the two prize ships, he sent an agent in search of goods that might have been recovered from the wreck of the Queen. Lawsuits followed.
“The value of these goods was variously estimated at from $10,000 to $40,000 but what became of them does not now appear, as they were carted off in the manner described and secreted,” Gardner wrote.
“There are, however, sundry articles which came from the Queen in existence upon the island today, preserved as souvenirs.”
After wreaking havoc in the Irish Channel while flying an American flag, Ordronaux set sail for Boston, where Prince de Neufchatel was refitted and in October she began another cruise, her first out of an American port. Four days out of Boston she captured the Douglass and took it under tow. The Endymion had been part of the naval blockade of New York, but was just returning from repairs in Halifax, Nova Scotia when she spotted the American privateer.
At noon on Oct. 11, 1814 Ordronaux had anchored his ship near the shore off Surfside. Word had been sent that he wanted to hire a Nantucket pilot to guide the ships through the shoals. Buying some local knowledge by hiring an island boatman was a common practice in the days before the shoals where accurately mapped. A boat carrying three Nantucketers made its way out to the ship, but they wanted more than the captain was willing to pay and went back home.
In The Inquirer and Mirror of Jan. 4, 1873, William H. Macy wrote that several Nantucket pilots, “tried to make a bargain to go to Boston in the privateer, but asked for twenty-five dollars for their services, while the captain offered only fifteen.”
A 36-year-old islander named Charles Hilburn, who had been taken off a fishing boat onto the Prince de Neufchatel, however, agreed to stay on as pilot.
At noon a sail could be seen in the distance, off Gay Head. It was the British frigate-of-war Endymion, commanded by Captain Henry Hope, turning toward the Prince de Neufchatel with a fresh breeze in her sails. By 3 p.m. some breeze caught the privateer and she took the Douglass in tow. But at 7 p.m. the wind died and the current was pushing the ships toward shore.
The Prince de Neufchatel and the Douglass were now anchored about a quarter of a mile apart, with the Endymion sitting just out of range of her guns. Ordronaux would be vastly outnumbered. He had left port with a full complement of men, but had split them in half so they could sail the Douglass to Boston.
It was common practice to take along extra men to sail what were called the prize ships back to port, after you had taken the crew prisoner. Problems arose, however, when you were forced into battle after depleting your crew. The Nantucket pilots who had turned down the job were told that the Prince de Neufchatel now had a crew of 33 officers and men, with 37 prisoners handcuffed in the hold below decks. The Endymion was a 40-gun frigate, on par with American warships such as the USS Constitution.
Ordronaux prepared for battle. He had captured a large stash of muskets, estimated at 200, and other small-arms weapons along the way. Now his crew brought them onto the deck, loaded them, and put them in baskets around the deck so that they would never have to reload. The sides of the ship were made slippery to prevent the British from climbing them, and the 12-pound gun was loaded with a bag of musket balls.
At nine o’clock the men on the Douglass signaled that small boats had left the Endymion and were rowing toward the Prince de Neufchatel. The sound of oars could be heard. Five small barges, carrying 120 British marines and sailors, attacked the ship from each side. The battle, by all accounts, was brutal and lasted for only 35 minutes. It was close and bloody, hand-tohand combat fought with muskets and pistols, swords and knives, fists and teeth, the prisoners below screaming and cheering for the British to take the ship and struggling to escape.
When a group of British marines was able to scale the side and began to climb onto the deck near the bow, Ordronaux and two of his men were able to swivel one of the deck guns around and fire a load of musket balls into them. The ones not killed where driven back overboard. They reloaded the same gun and pointing it over the side of the ship, fired it at one of the attack barges, sinking it and killing all on board.
But the numbers seemed against the Americans and the British finally began to take the upper hand. Ordronaux held a flame above the open passageway where the gunpowder was stored and screamed at his men to push the British off the ship or he would drop the flame and blow it up. He had always told his crew that he would blow up his ship rather than let it be captured. Now they knew he was serious. When the shooting stopped the British had surrendered.
Hilburn, the Nantucket pilot, was at the helm during the battle and was shot several times before he died. He left behind a wife and several children on the island. The British losses totaled 49 killed, 37 wounded, and 30 taken as prisoners of war. The Prince de Neufchatel had seven killed and 24 wounded. The British man-of-war had lost one-third of its crew. Six of the privateer’s crew had been killed and 15 severely wounded. Ordronaux had his men strip one of the British barges of its oars, and floating it off the stern kept 15 prisoners aboard it all night.
The next morning a sail was hung across the main hatches and two boys were kept on board to play the fife and drum and march loudly back and forth so that the prisoners below would not realize they greatly outnumbered the crew. Meanwhile, six men manned the launch and took the prisoners from the Endymion ashore at Sesachacha, then a village of 30 or 40 houses, and from there to the U.S. marshal in Nantucket.
Ordronaux also brought his own wounded into town for medical treatment. Then he outran the Endymion and brought the Prince de Neufchatel into Boston Harbor.
The Douglass was not as lucky. According to “Wrecks Around Nantucket,” she “lay aground on the shoal until night, when she floated off and headed eastward. She was afterwards run aground at Sesachacha and became a complete wreck. Her cargo was 421 hogsheads of molasses, 412 bags of coffee, three bags of ginger, 254 bales of cotton and 28 logs of mahogany. The cargo was mostly landed from her and many got the benefit from it. There were no wreck agents in those days, or rather, everyone seems to have been a self-constituted agent.”
It was even said that the Douglass was decoyed onto the shore by the false information that another boat expedition was coming to attack her. The prize master may have decided that grounding his ship was the better of two bad outcomes.
In 1873, that 16-year-old boy who stood on Orange Street listening to the sounds of the battle was now 75. He wrote a letter to The Inquirer and Mirror, remembering the aftermath of the battle.
“I was on board her (Douglass) the next day. She was beached about halfway between the village of Sesachacha and the pond of that name. How she got so near the shore loaded I don’t know. The spare spars reached the dry beach from the ship’s gangway. The ship was upright, with plenty of men discharging cargo ... most of the inhabitants helped themselves to sugar and other cargo laying ashore, under the motto that it was all privateering.”
“Many of the hogsheads of sugar, bags of coffee and puncheons of rum never reached town in their original packages,” he wrote. “Sugar and rum were secreted in the swamps all over the island. One man, who had punched in the head of a hogshead of sugar on the beach, was filling his bag, but the more he put in, the more it did not get full. He looked over and saw a man behind him, who had cut a hole in the bottom of his bag, and was filling his own out of it. Remonstrance was useless; it was all privateering.”
When the Prince de Neufchatel was safely back in Boston Harbor, Ordronaux retired a wealthy man. The ship put out to sea again in early December, under a new captain, and just five days later was captured by the British. That same month American and British delegations met in Belgium to sign the Treaty of Ghent. Congress ratified the treaty on Feb. 16, 1815. The next day Madison declared that the war was over.
The following references were used in this story:“A History of American Privateers,” E.S. Maclay; “History of American Privateers,” George Coggeshall; Kezia Coffin Fanning Papers, 1775-1820, Nantucket Historical Association; Prologue Magazine, National Archives (online); Magazine of Western History, Volume 9, “Nantucket and the Whale Fisheries;” “Handbook of Nantucket,” Isaac Folger. ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. He is working on a follow-up book to “Wrecks Around Nantucket.”