Welcome to the eighteenth day of Blogtober, where we try and recall the glories of the past. I remember how glorious it was getting sleep at regular intervals; next time Speaker7 and Sips of Jen and Tonic suggest something crazy like a post a day all month, I should just ask the Lovely and Talented Susan to keelhaul me. Twice!
Which has a plus in that, now we’d have an excuse to get a boat…
And speaking of getting something to go to sea with, the next part of our miniseries THE PRIATES OF NEW YORK continues, as we cover a lot of different ships, from frigates to aircraft carriers, many of whom are involved directly in the Sweet Trade…
Part the Fourth: From Privateers to Professionals, or Taking Care of Business
New York’s involvement with the Sweet Trade can be compared with Henry Morgan’s career, in that like the captain the city started off with a wild side that encouraged all sorts of rowdiness, but as they both matured they stopped going on the account, and later had a hand in reigning in the pirates on the seas.
They also both got heavily involved in having their names and likeness associated with major product branding, but that’s a post for another time…
When the United States was formed, New York was already established as a major port city where many of the goods from the newly formed United States. So important was the city that it served as the new nation’s capital from 1785 through 1790, which was convenient for those looking for jobs as privateers; under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the US Constitution, Congress has the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal, which were probably sought with great frequency to go after the first foreign powers the United States went to war overseas with: The Barbary Pirates of North Africa.
Unlike the Revolution, however, the United States this time went with professionals to do most of the fighting. Ironically, a nation that owed its birth to privateers used regulars to go after pirates themselves, which gave Stephen Decatur his baptism by fire and gave the US Marine Corps something to sing about, having marched to the shores of Tripoli during this action.
This was not to say, however, that we were done with such rogue. Came the War of 1812, aka Round 2 of our issues with Great Brittan, or as the British thought of it, “that damnable sideshow keeping us from fully dealing with Napoleon,” and suddenly letters or marque were being issued with greater frequency, nationally as well as on the state level.
It was inevitable that a war whose causes included impressing American sailors at sea, an act that required the seizure of ships in open water and removing content (in this case compliment) off board, would result in calling up privateers. One survey of the privateers of the War of 1812 indicated that out of 518 vessels logged, 100 claimed New York as her home port. The only port to have more vessels claim her as their home port was Baltimore, and only by a thin margin.
Let’s keep two things in mind with regards to the rush to issue letters of marque, one verifiable and one assumed. What we do know is that many of the ships issued license were sloops or schooners, many with no more than eight guns on their decks, often less. A look at the actions listed in the link above shows that not all of these vessels running out with the “naval militia” were successful in patrolling the seas; quite a number were more prey than predator.
The second, an assumption, is that with the large number of sloops and schooners claiming some form of authorization to board and seize vessels, that a number of captains and ship masters may have tried to use the crisis to their advantage to engage in their own boarding actions, who when asked for their letters of marque might have claimed any number of excuses as to why they could not produce their paperwork. The opportunity and temptation was probably too great for a number of potential pirates to not hoist the colors and engage in their own actions, though at this point there is no verification of this, merely an understanding of human greed that allows for such to be a possibility.
Regardless of who was a privateer and who was an out-and-out pirate, there were more small boats willing to go up against a professional foreign navy than there were small boats in the climax of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (which frankly is a great film, if you have a moment to watch it). This proved to be an issue with the British, especially to Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who was stationed in Bermuda and tasked with putting down the American naval presence.
Cochrane had a number of options before him, which included going into the known pirate dens and taking out these centers. (Bear in mind, to the British any vessel engaged in seizure, letter of marque or not, was considered a ‘pirate.’ Hell, they still thought John Paul Jones was a pirate back then…) And given the fact at sea, he had to consider the possibility of coming for New York, which was filled with such raiders as well as being a major economic target.
Unfortunately, there was the matter of the just completed Castle Williams, built to insure that the British would not repeat what happened in 1776. Placed on Governors Island, her two tiers outfitted with a combination of 32-, 42- and 52-pounder guns enabled the fortress to take out just about any vessel that got between her and Manhattan, with heavy direct fire shot on a stable platform that would have taken out even the heaviest first-rate designated vessel.
Castle Williams, New York Harbor
Photo Courtesy of Susan Ryan
The alternative for Cochrane was the other great hub of pirates that plagued the seas, Baltimore, which was less well protected by a smaller-grade set of defenses, a set of works call Fort McHenry…
Fort McHenry, Baltimore
As a result of New York’s defenses, the British decided not to come here, instead going south, losing a major ship-to-shore engagement, in addition to losing a favorite drinking song, “Anaceron in Heav’n”. Yes, New York’s pirates lost some of their cred because of Castle Williams, though as no one wanted to go through repeats of what happened 40 years before they were more than willing to forego a little reputation for some safety…
What would remind people of the potential pirates found on the wharfs here was an incident that changed how the US Navy trained its recruits. In 1842, the brig USS Somers was launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and served as a school ship for potential seamen by giving them “on-the-job” training.
This “school” wasn’t exactly Fordham Prep, unfortunately. The vessel was badly over-crowded with too many young men given intimate exposure of some of the worst elements of a sailor’s lot, which drove some of the midshipmen to discuss what it would take to mutiny and become pirates. They may or may not have been joking when they discussed this, depending on whom you asked and when. Considering the recruits were probably not used to the harsh realities of naval service and thought they could cashier out when they got ashore, versus how truly ugly a sailor’s lot was then, the truth may have been somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately for the pirate wannabes, her captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, a native of New York and a 27 year veteran who fought Barbary and West Indian pirates and witnessed atrocities in the fight against them during his service, was probably not the person who should have been in command when some of his midshipmen discussed mutiny. A combination of low tolerance and bad fortune saw members of the crew placed in irons for discussing becoming cutthroats; ultimately, Mackenzie used his prerogative to execute three of the mutineers while thirteen days out of New York, where a court martial could have been held for the mutineers there. When Mackenzie pulled into harbor, the court of inquiry held in the matter concluded by a split vote that while the captain was within his rights to do so, they did not endorse his actions, which effectively ended Mackenzie’s naval career.
It also ended the experiment in “on-the-job” training, and encouraged the War Department to consider a new way to train seamen. One of the condemned conspirators, Philip Spencer, was the son of Secretary of War John Spencer, whose experience may have helped berth and launch the United States Naval Academy, founded at Annapolis, Maryland, a convenient trip from Washington even in the 1840s that would have insured that had another Cabinet member’s son discussed going pirate he could be visited by his dad quickly and talked out of such foolishness.
It may also have been the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, yet one more legacy to come out of either a failed mutiny or a bungled command, depending on where you stand on the incident…
Once again, something touched by pirates leads to some business heading south. There’s no apparent record if they ever considered putting a naval academy here in New York, but it’s probably for the best; imagine the chaos the Army-Navy Game would engender every time if the two campuses were only an hour’s drive away from each other…
Speaking of pirates, southerners and New Yorkers, we come to an unfortunate set of facts in the continuing narrative, how New Yorkers came to be involved with the blockade runners of the Confederate States of America.
Before the American Civil War, there was a lot of money to be made by New Yorkers willing to deal with King Cotton. The ROI on trading cotton, buying it from Mississippi and selling it to England, could be between six to seven cents for every penny paid out, which made the product very desirable and a lot of New Yorkers rich, in particular the shareholders of John Fraser & Co.
While the US had moved away from relying on privateers since the last war with the British, and had established a professional navy that was being led by graduates from Annapolis, the seceding states were in desperate need of a navy, especially as the Union blockade cut off the southern coastline. What resources they had went more into R&D (resulting in such vessels as the CSS Virginia and the CSS H L Hunley) in order to break the hold on them, leaving few ships to go up against the US Navy itself. This led to President Jefferson Davis requesting from the Confederate Congress the power to issue letters of marque, to grant to ships to run the blockade, sell goods to England and France, use the money to buy munitions to bring back, and if they had a chance to take out a Yankee merchant vessel or two.
In short, the plan was to encourage a new generation of pirates and smugglers to ride the waves again on behalf of the new nation, much the same way the first war for independence relied on a private navy.
And a major agent on the business side representing the Confederacy was John Fraser & Co., which through offices in New York, as well as Liverpool and Charleston, handled not just trades as shipping agents between Richmond and the European capitals, but provided a ship for the cause. The CSS Kate Dale was a steamer originally intended for customer service before the war between New York and Charleston, funded by John Fraser & Co., which joined the rebellion when hostilities broke out. She had 20 successful runs through the line before she was captured off Tortugas in 1863, ending her career.
Also of note was the CSS Nashville, whose hull was also laid in Brooklyn and became the first CSN warship to raise her colors in the English Channel in 1861. After she captured two prizes, she changed name twice before her sinking in Georgia, brought down by the USS Montauk.
The ship that brought her down is worth note here, as it is indicative of how New York found its way into both sides if the conflict, for the Montauk was also built in Brooklyn. In fact, her entire class of vessels, the Monitor-class (named for her most famous namesake, USS Monitor), was developed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which would go on from there to provide more warships for the navy than raiders for pirates come 1865. Among the more famous ships launched into the East River from there would be the USS Arizona, the USS Missouri and USS Constellation, none of which were ever in danger of mutiny the way the USS Somers had been…
Despite the sympathies a number of business leaders had for the Southern cause, or more precisely for the profit to be made from the Southern cause, by the 1860s respectable New York did not engage in the widespread funding of pirate ventures the way their ancestors had before the Revolution. Upper class New Yorkers were decent, law-abiding citizens, who were above such foolishness.
Their lower class neighbors, on the other hand, were about to make one last grand going on the account…