The War of 1812: Looking at the merchant marine role

The following blog was originally published in August 2012 as a special to Sealift’s print edition, by Dr. Michael Crawford, Naval History and Heritage Command.


The War of 1812 was important to the U.S. Navy for several reasons. The war demonstrated to the American public the vital importance of an effective naval force for national defense. It validated early policy decisions to implement cutting-edge technology for our warships. And it established a heritage of competence, heroism and victory.

Merchant mariner-crewed privateers like the Pride of Baltimore, a War of 1812 ship replica, harassed British commerce at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Elisandro T. Diaz)

Merchant mariner-crewed privateers like the Pride of Baltimore, a War of 1812 ship replica, harassed British commerce at sea. (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Elisandro T. Diaz)

When the United States declared war in defense of free trade and sailors’ rights, America’s merchant marine responded to the economic hardship brought by war between 1812 and 1815 with vigor. At sea, American merchantmen were subject to capture by Royal Navy ships and enemy privateers. As the war progressed, the Royal Navy’s blockade of the coast of the United States became more and more effective and gradually expanded to cover the entire coast from the Gulf of Mexico to the border with Canada.

As a result, American exports fell from $61 million in 1811 to $28 million in 1813 and $7 million in 1814, a decrease of 89 percent, and between 1811 and 1814 imports decreased by 75 percent, declining from $53 million to $13 million. The American merchant marine fought back by arming their merchantmen under letters of marque and directly brought the war to the enemy through privateering: fitting out, manning and sending out their own ships to prey on British seaborne commerce.

Privateers were privately-owned armed vessels whose captains held permits, called letters of marque, issued by their governments to capture vessels and property of the enemy. Governments found the private armed vessel a useful ancillary to their official navies. Privateersmen were not pirates, but were bound by the internationally recognized laws of war. They were required to post bonds as guarantees of proper conduct. They were expected to treat prisoners humanely. They had to respect the rights of neutrals. Having captured a vessel, a privateer captain would place a prize master and prize crew on board with orders to bring it into port to be tried in an admiralty court, which would determine whether the captured vessel was a lawful prize.

Vessels carrying letters of marque, but sailing on commercial voyages, were usually also called letter-of-marque traders. Letter-of-marque traders would take prizes that fell in their way, but their main purpose was trade. Vessels carrying letters of marque and purposefully cruising against the enemy were referred to as privateers.

The city of Baltimore, Md., was a major center of privateering during the War of 1812. Its example illustrates the contributions of the private armed ship to the war effort. Within a month of the declaration of war, 15 Baltimore privateers had received letters of marque. By the end of the war in 1815, Baltimoreans had dispatched some 122 privateers and letter-of-marque traders. Just under fifty of the Baltimore armed ships of war were privateers and the balance were letter-of-marque traders.

Congress authorized privateering in order to war against the enemy’s commerce. That citizens could profit from preying on British commerce while contributing to the war effort only made privateering that much more attractive. Baltimoreans were proud of the contribution their privateers made to the war effort. Baltimore’s commissioned vessels took more than five hundred British merchant ships, sent in some 1,600 prisoners, and cost British merchants millions of dollars. Privateers forced the British to use naval vessels to convoy merchantmen, and persuaded them to devote naval assets to blockade the Chesapeake and to assign warships to protection of ports and islands.

The young American Navy came of age during the War of 1812. A small but determined corps of officers and sailors demonstrated that, man for man, ship for ship, they were the equal of any seagoing force afloat including the Royal Navy. America’s merchant mariners also contributed mightily to the war effort, cementing a tradition of service that continues to the present day.

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