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Forgotten Heroes of the Revolution

 

Congress on April 3, 1776 formally authorized American privateers to raid British merchant ships.  In this Congress was merely recognizing what was already well under way, the patriot governments of the various colonies having issued letters of marque and reprisal since the beginning of hostilities.   The British parliament would authorize privateers against American merchant ships in December 1776.

Privateers were a traditional part of European naval war which fitted in well with the American national character.  Private operations, a common seamen on board a privateer after a successful cruise of capturing several British ships, could come back home with a small fortune in his pocket, often enough to purchase a small farm, or an inn, or set himself up in trade.  Privateers led by more daring commanders would even make prizes of several smaller ships of the Royal Navy.  Of course the risks were commensurate with the rewards, with death by sinking, or the slow death of rotting away in a British prison hulk if a crew was captured, ever a possibility.  Most American sailors were eager to take the risk, so many that the Continental Navy often found it difficult to man its ships. Some 11, 500 Americans died on the British prison ships, more than were killed in battle in all wars of America up to the Mexican War.  The dead are remembered in the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn.

Some 1,697 American privateers would set sail during the War, capturing an astounding 2, 283 ships, acquiring badly needed supplies for the Continental Army and sending British maritime insurance rates soaring.  Some 55,000 Americans served as privateers during the War.  About one-fifth of these men lost their lives, either in the deeps of the seas, or as unwilling recipients of the hospitality of His Britannic Majesty after capture.  It is likely that the American Revolution could not have been won but for these men who waged a private war afloat.

 

 

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Privateer McClary

A feature of the American Revolution that has never received nearly as much coverage in histories of that conflict as it warrants is the successful privateer war waged by the Americans against British merchant shipping.  This conflict helped the Americans in many ways:  got badly needed supplies to the colonies, drove up British maritime insurance rates, caused the Royal Navy to divert ships to chase privateers and increased anti-war sentiment among merchants in Britain.  A typical privateer ship of the period is the McClary.

Commissioned by the state of New Hampshire on September 2, 1776 and named after New Hampshire hero Major Andrew McClary who fell at Bunker Hill, the McClary was an armed schooner equipped during her career with 6-8 cannon and up to six swivel guns.

Between September 1776 and February 1778 she would make five voyages.

In her first voyage she captured five prizes off the Newfoundland Banks:  the schooner Neptune , the schooner Glasgow, the British Army transport Hero, the ship Live Oak and the brigantine Three Friends.

In her second voyage she took the snow (merchant brig) Resolution and a transport, name unknown.

In her third voyage she took the brigantines Jane, Two Sisters and Thetis.

In her fourth voyage she captured the schooner Lusanna.

In her fifth voyage she made no captures and was captured herself by the frigate HMS Unicorn on February 6, 1778, bringing her privateering career to an end.

Although McClary, also called McClarey, a common variant of the McClary family name, enjoyed a brief privateering career, it was a successful one. Continue Reading