High school and even college textbooks oversimplify the War of 1812 - when they don't ignore it completely. Popular histories emphasize the military as opposed to the economic and political aspects of the war. The U.S. Navy's role has been written about ad nauseum. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for a definitive work on the equally important contributions of American privateers.
While the Navy's outstanding performance in single-ship engagements remains a source of national pride, those victories did not change the course of the war one iota. Had Constitution defeated a dozen British frigates, the thousand-ship Royal Navy would still have blockaded our coasts, strangled our commerce, bottled up our warships, and hunted down those that escaped. Even her former commander, Tyrone Martin, conceded that Constitution's victories were "no more than pin pricks" that "had no direct effect on the course of the war."
The most important campaigns of the war were not those of the Great Lakes, the Niagara frontier, the Chesapeake, or New Orleans. They were the Royal Navy's blockade of the American coast, and America's privateering campaign against British trade. As Faye Kert emphasized, it was "economic pressure - not decisive military or fleet actions - [that] finally brought the war to an end."
The British blockade devastated the American economy. The coasting trade - carrying goods up and down the coast in small schooners and sloops - became so dangerous that merchants were reduced to hauling goods by wagon, even though it "took ten times longer and cost a hundred times more." Foreign imports declined dramatically. Deprived of customs duties, the United States government was in dire straits by the end of 1814. Had the conflict continued, the nation would have been incapable of defending itself without a central bank, new taxes, and conscription.
Meanwhile, America's privateers were waging a highly effective war against British trade. They captured an estimated 2,000 prizes worth $40 million, sent insurance rates to unprecedented levels, and drove up prices at a time when Britain's economy was groaning under the strain of two decades of warfare. The British public was outraged; merchants bombarded the government with protests and appeals. With the United States incapable of maintaining the initiative in Canada, privateering became the nation's last, best, and only offensive weapon.
Henry Adams stated flatly that "the privateers contributed more than the regular navy to bring about a disposition for peace in the British classes most responsible for the war."
The intention of this book is to examine the American privateering campaign as waged from Salem, Massachusetts. Salem was in many ways representative of the nation as a whole. Deeply divided over politics and the war, Salem was home to both Republicans and Federalists, privateers and smugglers. Massachusetts led the nation in outfitting privateers and Salem sent out 43 cruisers, ranging from 300-ton ships owned by merchant princes to open boats manned by unemployed sailors. Her privateers roamed the Atlantic from the North Sea to the coast of Brazil - and also patrolled the harbors of Maine and Massachusetts, searching out smugglers.
The privateers whose careers are covered in this book ran the gamut from scintillating success to abject failure. Here are tales of heroism and cowardice, generosity and greed, astonishing good fortune and deep personal tragedy. By gathering these tales together in one work for the first time, and attempting to quantify their successes and failures, it is hoped that some light will be thrown on the critical contribution of America's privateers. The men who sailed from Salem deserve their due for bringing the war home to Great Britain, and enabling their country to make peace with honor.
Author: Capt. Michael H. Rutstein
Title: The Privateering Stroke: Salem's Privateers in the War of 1812
First Published by: CreateSpace
Date: 25 March 2012