The Pirate Patriots

Or How "Indian" Fighting Went To Sea
By Associate Ruluff D. McIntyre

Associate McIntyre writes of the little known successes of the American Patriots in their fight against British sea power during the Revolution.

The War of Independence was won with guerrilla tactics, and the Patriots had excellent teachers - the American Indian. The British army fought with traditional methods: massed troops, cannon, and cavalry directed at undisciplined, amateur soldiers whose main attributes were raw courage and a fervent passion to be tree. While the Patriots fought with British rules of warfare, generally they lost. However, that changed.

The Patriots started using elements of surprise attack from ambush, firing at marching columns from behind trees, and imitating the coordinated and fierce attack methods of wolf packs - like the American Indian. And then the "Guerrilla Patriots" went to sea as commissioned "pirates"; that is, like James Bond - "licensed to kill".

Beating the Best
SloopOver the Atlantic Ocean, the strongest naval power in the world carried soldiers and supplies aimed at crushing the rebellious American Patriots. At the beginning of the conflict, not a single American vessel prevented the English shipping from reaching the colonies. By 1777 and beyond, an American civilian navy sprang up, and these privateersmen, or "gentlemen" pirates, outfitted ships at their own expense, having been commissioned by the new states and Congress to attack and take enemy vessels and to bring the "booty" to American ports. Over two thousand privately armed ships of varying size and shape carried eighteen thousand cannons and seventy thousand seamen into battle. Their victories brought back an impressive total of sixteen English warships and two thousand, nine hundred and eighty English merchant vessels. These captures paid fifty million dollars to the ship owners and the volunteer seamen. George Washington's army got the booty and King George III got "beat"!

The Patriot "Wolf Pack"
The privateer type of boat represented another example of American ingenuity. They were relatively small and sleek and rode lower in the water than conventional craft, which were generally bulky and clumsy in handling. The hulls had a sharp bow and narrow beam, or width, and a two-massed schooner could cut through the Atlantic waters or Chesapeake Bay with the speed of a shark after prey. By early 1776, the shipyards along the American coastline were feverishly busy creating these attack craft, and the boats grew in number as the War for Independence progressed. The American ships with their "sharp" hulls comprised a deadly "wolf pack". A flotilla of several ships provided a combined firepower that could hit an enemy vessel of great size from many sides at one, and English warships, merchantmen, transports, and supply ships felt the "bites" of their strong "teeth" with fatal results.

Birth of the Schooner
There is a story that a builder of Gloucester, Massachusetts constructed a vessel in 1713 with two masts and rigged them with fore-and-aft sails. For a head sail he used a triangular stretch of canvas. This boat was the first to carry this particular arrangement of sails. When the boat was launched and took to the water, a spectator exclaimed, "Look! See how she scoops!" To this the shipbuilder answered, "Very well, A scooner let her be!"

SchoonerSo from that word to "scoop" - which meant to skip like a flat stone over the water - came the name of the schooner, a type of ship that was soon seen everywhere on the Atlantic. With the schooner came the era of codfishing and commerce on a larger scale. The New England merchants were shrewd and farsighted. Soon after the Revolution they reached out for the Far Eastern trade. The Harriet, of Hingham, a sloop (a single masted schooner) of fifty-five tons, sailed in December, 1783, from Boston with a cargo of ginseng for China. The ship stopped at the Cape of Good Hope, where she encountered several English East India Company representatives. The captains of these ships, to avoid American competition, purchased the sloop's cargo for double its weight in Hyson tea. The Harriet returned home without completing the voyage to China. A New York ship, the Empress of China, of three-hundred-and-sixty tons, reached Canton Roads in August, 1784, and is said to be the first American-built ship to sail to China. And so, the Seamen Patriots of the American War of Independence established a Modus Operandi of courage and ingenuity that not only helped win a war, but opened up the whole wide world to the meaning of freedom - Per Ardua Ad Astra!. (Through Hardship to the Stars!)

Bulletin - Fall 1997