The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 15: May 2011


Now a Yankee Prize: The Voyages of the Privateer Saratoga during the War of 1812

By Professor Harvey Strum

On the evening of July 12, 1813 the crew of the Saratoga, an American privateer, threw overboard twelve of the brigantine’s sixteen guns and sixteen barrels of provisions and canister shot to avoid capture by three British frigates that were “gaining on us fast.”[1]

This happened four days out of Newport, Rhode Island. A week later the crew “heard several guns fired through the night” from a British fleet of four men of war, oneship of the line, one frigate, and two gun brigs.[2] On both occasions the Saratoga avoided capture, a risk American privateers faced when they searched for British merchant vessels to board and seize. Privateers sought to capture as many rich prizes as possible without falling victim to a British warship. Not only did they have to avoid destruction or capture at sea, American privateers had to successfully dodge the British blockading squadrons off the American coast in order to reach home port.

At the start of the War of 1812 the American Navy consisted of seventeen vessels and at its peak the American naval strength reached twenty-three ships. The United States depended on the entrepreneurial skill of its merchants and bravery of its merchant mariners to supplement what it lacked in an official naval force. Merchants rushed to convert anything that would sail into an armed privateer. “Every available pilot boat, merchant craft, coasting vessel, and fishing smack,” maritime historian Edgar Maclay reported, “was quickly overhauled, mounted with a few guns, and sent out with a commission to burn, sink, and destroy.”[3]  Within three months of the declaration of war in June 1812 New York City sent out twenty-six privateers. Baltimore, one of the major privateering ports, sent out forty-two privateers during the first six months of the war. Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland dispatched the largest number of privateers, primarily from Boston, New York, and Baltimore. These cities along with the ports of Salem, Philadelphia, Bristol (Rhode Island), Charleston, and Portsmouth (New

Hampshire) emerged as the “leading privateer havens and reaped a financial windfall” from the rich prizes captured.”[4] From Baltimore alone one hundred and twenty-two privateers set sail. By the war’s end the United States commissioned 515 privateers, and they captured 1,345 British vessels and 30,000 seamen.[5] As historian Jerome Garitee concluded, ‘privateering reached its peak of effectiveness in this country during the War of 1812.”[6]

The Saratoga was one of the earliest of the privateers to set out to sea in search of enemy vessels. While New York City was its home port Saratoga spent much of the war sailing from Newport, New Bedford, and Wilmington, North Carolina, and did not return to New York until the end of the war because of British blockading vessels off New York. It did not take long for Saratoga to find action and capture “a great many very valuable prizes.’[7]  One of its most heated engagements took place in December 1812 off La Guaira, Venezuela Twenty-four days out from New York, Saratoga, commanded by Captain Charles W. Wooster, made anchor off La Guaira. The American consul warned Wooster to stay out of the town’s batteries because the local Commandant threatened to fire on the American brigantine if it came too close to shore. Setting sail Saratoga quickly found a prize, a schooner with $20,000 worth of dry goods and captured it.

The next morning, on December 12, 1812, as a heavy fog lifted, Wooster’s crew sighted a British privateer, brig Rachel that mounted twelve long nine-pounders and had a crew of sixty men. News of the potential engagement spread through La Guaira, “all the inhabitants, from the commandant to the beggar, left their business to see the engagement.”[8] Saratoga opened fire with the starboard guns, and Rachel returned fire from the larboard quarter. The cannonading was so furious “that both vessels were hid from us in columns of fire and smoke.”[9]  Only one man was wounded aboard Saratoga, but most of Rachel’s officers and crew were killed or wounded. Captain Wooster sent the survivors to La Guaira while his crew seized the brig and its rich cargo of dry goods. Two months later, after Saratoga seized a British brig carrying dry goods,

Wooster placed a prize crew aboard. Unfortunately, the prize master stopped at the wrong port in Venezuela, and the Spanish put the prize crew in irons. The crew spent the rest of the war in Latin American jails or performing hard labor in Cuba.

Saratoga’s crew found adventure and danger in other voyages. On July 8, 1813, Saratoga left Newport under the command of Captain Thomas Aderton with a crew of one hundred and twenty men, and evaded an English vessel off Point Judith. For American privateers British warships in Long Island Sound posed almost as much a risk as British vessels off New York City. Four months later another privateer captain and historian George Coggeshall ran into the same problem when he sailed from Newport. “I was chased several times by British ships of war” Coggeshall remembered, “for our coast at that time was lined with unwelcome visitors.”[10]

After evading the British warships, Saratoga sailed for the Azores to take on water and vegetables. Cruising between the Madeira and Canary Islands Saratoga stopped several vessels, but they turned out to be Spanish or Portuguese. On August 12, 1813, Saratoga encountered a British brig, Lloyd, from Liverpool and boarded it. Captain Aderton seized the cargo of wood, provisions, and weapons, but allowed the British crew to row off to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. A week later, off the Isle of Sal in the Cape Verde Islands, Saratoga encountered a British privateer, Vestal, with ten guns and seventeen crewmembers. After the British captain called the Americans pirates, used “much insulting and abusive language,’ and opened fire on Saratoga the Americans fired back forcing Vestal to surrender.[11] Guns taken from Vestal allowed the American privateer to rearm since the guns replaced those thrown overboard during Saratoga’s flight from British warships.

Quickly Saratoga turned from hunter to near prey. Off Cabo de Sao Roque, on the Brazilian coast, the crew saw “sail close aboard and under a press of canvass standing for us.”[12] Two British warships, including one with two tiers of guns, probably a 74, chased Saratoga for two days before the Americans got too far ahead leading the British to abandon the pursuit. Blind luck and the right winds saved Saratoga from becoming a British prize.

Off the Surinam coast Saratoga gave chase to an English packet brig. After a twenty-four hour chase the Americans got ‘nearly within musket shot” when the English brig opened fire cutting away Saratoga’s “both fore topmast backstays” and damaging the mainsail.[13] The Americans cut off the escape of the brig, Morgiana, to Surinam, and “having got within good musket shot of the Enemy” Saratoga “hoisted American colours (sic).”[14]  The two ships exchanged broadsides. After firing round grape and muskquitry as well as additional broadsides the two vessels maneuvered “to get a raking position and to avoid being raked.”[15] For over an hour the two ships exchanged fire until the Americans got close enough to use their grapplings to board the enemy. The British ship managed to disengage the grapplings. George Fellows, Prize Master, jumped overboard to avoid capture but the ship’s carpenter, Ebenezer Compton, was taken prisoner. Firing continued for another twenty minutes before the Americans finally boarded Morgiana and completed the capture. In the engagement, the British lost two men killed and eight wounded, six mortally. Americans lost two killed and six wounded, one of them mortally. “Both vessels were left almost wrecks,”[16] but Morgiana, described by Captain Aderton as a beautiful brig, was “now a Yankee Prize.”[17]  Historian Edgar Maclay described the engagement as ‘one of the most obstinately contested actions between an American privateer and a British government packet.”[18]

After having damages to Morgiana repaired, Captain Aderton dispatched Prize Master George Fellows with fourteen men to sail the prize to Newport. Since this was a government packet without cargo the Americans sold the rigging, canvas, weapons, cannons, and provisions. In an unusual gesture, the wounded British captain, upon arriving at Newport publicly thanked the Americans, especially Fellows for “the humanity and kindness during his captivity.”[19]

Meanwhile, Captain Atherton had to make provisions to repair Saratoga, tend to wounded seamen, and renew the search for new prizes. Over the next few days the crew repaired rigging and sails. On September 30, 1813, the crew held a funeral service for Steward Truman A. Hewitt, the mortally wounded seaman, and his remains were “consigned to the Deep.”[20] Off the coast of Venezuela, Saratoga captured two prizes within a week, the schooners Joseph and Fame, from Barbados. A prize crew took

Fame to the United States but it ran aground off Long Island. The prize crew saved the cargo for sale. After stopping at Isla de Margarita for water Captain Aderton discovered acts of theft and desertion. When he learned that a sailor has stolen thirty-five pairs of shoes and planned to desert Captain Aderton confronted the sailor. The sailor knocked Captain Aderton to the ground several times before “he was secured below in Irons.”[21] Five other sailors with stolen items from Morgiana went ashore to sell their goods, but it was too late for the Captain to stop them. A few days later he caught another sailor with stolen goods. Apparently, crewmen seized their own opportunities for personal profit that life aboard a privateer might offer.

After resupplying and making repairs at Margarita and La Guaira, Saratoga returned to the hunt capturing several prizes. On October 19th, Saratoga captured the schooner Lady Cockburn with a cargo of indigo and coffee, and on November 7th the sloop General Hodgkinson with a cargo of salt and hides. Returning to the United States, the crew of Saratoga held a funeral service for an African-American sailor who died of a liver infection, consigning his body to the deep off Cape Fear. Saratoga evaded a British man of war off the North Carolina coast before docking at Wilmington.  The voyage of Saratoga represented the experiences of American privateers.[22]

On January 26, 1814 Saratoga left Wilmington on another voyage, this time headed to the West Indies. Off Saba a British brig gave chase but Saratoga evaded capture, and two day later avoided capture by a British frigate. Luck held and Saratoga captured a small schooner off Union Island in the Grenadines. The Americans seized the cargo and scuttled the schooner. Two weeks later Saratoga seized a British sloop sailing under false Swedish colors with a cargo of cordials and sugar. In mid-April, Saratoga captured the sloop Cygnet with a cargo of rum and sugar. Access to liquid refreshments proved too much for the American crew because Captain Aderton found that several sailors broke into the prize cargo and became “rather intoxicated.”  Led by James Carroll, also “a little intoxicated”[23] the crew mutinied and Carroll struck Aderton twice before he was subdued and put in irons which ended the attempted mutiny. Three weeks later, on May 10, 1814, Saratoga docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Saratoga left on her last voyage during the War of 1812 on July 24, 1814 from New Bedford. Four days out the crew saw a strange sail, the British schooner Henry, with a cargo of lumber and fish. The Americans captured the schooner and put a prize crew aboard. Captain Aderton then headed to the Azores. En route, Saratoga encountered two other American privateers, Whig and David Porter.  The David Porter’s Captain George Coggeshall, wrote a history of privateering forty years after the war. On September 13, 1814, off the Azores two strange sails appeared, the British brig Swiftsure and schooner James. An engagement ensued and the British broadsides tore Saratoga’s rigging and sails to pieces. However, the Americans won the battle and defeated both British ships.[24] Over the next six weeks Saratoga captured Mary with a cargo of fish, Enterprise with hides and ivory, and Ann Dorothy carrying hides and tallow. Sent as a prize to Boston, Ann Dorothy got recaptured by the British frigate Maidstone, but Captain Coggeshall retook Ann Dorothy with his privateer David Porter. After a voyage of 110 days Captain Aderton brought Saratoga into safe harbor at Wilmington loaded with a captured cargo of indigo, ivory, furs and “all valuable goods taken from the enemy.”[25]

This last voyage proved to be another profitable opportunity for plunder in the name of patriotism as American privateers prospered from the opportunities provided by the war.

While on its last voyage Saratoga sailed just one hundred miles away from the most famous battle of an American privateer during the War of 1812. On September 9, 1814, the brig General Armstrong, commanded by Samuel Chester Reid, left New York City at night to avoid detection by the British blockading squadron off Sandy Hook. Two British warships, a ship of the line and a razee, saw the American vessel and gave chase. By getting “all the canvas on the brig she could carry,” Captain Reid outmaneuvered the British warships.[26]

 General Armstrong mounted eight long 9 pounders and one 42 Pounder, known as “Long Tom,” and sailed with a crew of ninety. She reached the Azores without capturing any prizes and docked at Fayal for water and supplies on September 26, 1814.

At sunset, a British brig of eighteen guns, Carnation, arrived at Fayal roads and anchored “within gunshot when first discovered.”[27] Carnation was part of a British fleet planning to attack New Orleans. Captain Reid was meeting with the American consul in the Azores, John B. Dabney, when the British brig appeared. Dabney assured Reid the British would not violate Portuguese neutrality. Then the Americans sighted two other British warships–the 74 gun ship of the line Plantagenet and the 38 gun frigate Roca.  Since the moon appeared nearly full the Americans could observe the British ships and crew quite clearly.

Captain Reid decided to order General Armstrong made ready for action because the Behavior of the British aroused his suspicions. As he brought his vessel closer to shore the British pursed sending out four boats after the Americans. About 8 in the evening Reid saw the boats approaching and warned them to withdraw, but they ignored his warnings. After observing that the boats were “well manned, and … as well armed,” Captain Reid ordered his men to open fire.[28] The British withdrew after the American fire killed or wounded twenty of the men aboard the boats.

The second stage of the battle began around 9 P.M. when the Americans witnessed Carnation towing a fleet of boats. Four hundred men and officers crammed into the twelve boats, and they reached the Americans at midnight. In the interim, Captain Reid moved his vessel even closer to the beach and the Portuguese castle, while Carnation manoeuvred to prevent the Americans from leaving Fayal. Local people lined the shore waiting for the confrontation between the Americans and British. “From the brightness of the moon,” recorded Captain Reid, “they had a most favorable view of the scene.”[29]

As soon as the British got within range, the Americans opened fire, and the impact of the “Long Tom” initially surprised the British. Before long the British got too close for the Americans to use their guns, and Reid’s men fought with swords, pikes, pistols, and muskets. The Americans prevented repeated British efforts to board General Armstrong inflicting heavy casualties on the British. At one point in the battle, after the death of Reid’s second officer, Alexander Williams, and the wounding of the third officer, Robert Johnson, Reid took charge of the forecastle’s defense and led a charge that repulsed the British assault.  The engagement lasted forty minutes and then the British withdrew. Americans captured two of the boats from Roca the British dead and dying. In the battle, Americans lost two killed and seven wounded while the British suffered sixty-three killed and one hundred and ten wounded. Some estimates suggested total British casualties at 250.

In the wake of the battle, the Portuguese governor asked the British to halt their Attacks, but the British refused, threatening to destroy Fayal if necessary to capture the Americans. Reid met with Consul Dabney and decided he could not save his vessel, ordering the wounded and dead taken on shore. Before he could scuttle General Armstrong, dawn broke and the battle resumed when Carnation opened fire. Several broadsides from the Americans put a hole in Carnation’s hull and tore up the rigging and foretopmast before the British withdrew. At this point, Reid scuttled his ship. As the Americans abandoned the sinking General Armstrong British boat crews boarded the vessel and set the sinking ship afire.

Over the next week the British treated their wounded and buried their dead. When two additional warships, the sloops Thais and Calypso, arrived at Fayal they were sent back to England with the wounded. The Americans stayed in the Azores before going home in November. More British sailors were killed or wounded in this engagement with an American privateer from New York City than in any of the battles with American warships during the War of 1812. The British attack on General Armstrong slowed the arrival of reinforcements for the assault on New Orleans. The British might have attacked in November 1814 before General Andrew Jackson had time to prepare his defenses. As Andrew Jackson, later admitted, “If there had been no battle of Fayal … there would have been no battle at New Orleans.”[30]

The actions of General Armstrong and Saratoga played a crucial role in harassing and destroying British shipping during the War of 1812. Naval historian Edward Beach believed that American privateers did far more damage to British trade “than did the exploits of our navy.”[31] By the end of the war American privateers inflicted over $39 million in damages on the British and raised British insurance rates. American privateers disrupted communications and lines of supply and made the sea, even near the British home islands, unsafe for British merchant shipping. A combination of greed and patriotism pushed Americans from Maine to Louisiana to go to sea in search of plunder. They succeeded in making at least 1,345 British vessels, “now a Yankee prize,” fulfilling former President Thomas Jefferson’s 1814 prediction that the privateers were “the dagger which strikes at the heart of the enemy.”[32]

Harvey Strum had been a professor of history and political science at the Sage College of Albany for the past 24 years and serves as program coordinator for Public Affairs. He has written articles and encyclopedia entries on the War of 1812. Recently, he delivered a paper on "New York and Chesapeake Affair, 1807, at the New England Historical Association Conference and on "A House Divided: New York Gubernatorial Election of 1813" at the Researching New York Conference at SUNY Albany and at the Sage Research Cafe. Harvey also delivered a paper on "Free Trade, Sailors Rights and Freedom for African-Americans" at the Underground Railroad Conference at the Sage Colleges.


[1] July 12, 1813, Log of the Brigantine Saratoga, Manuscripts Division, New York State Library, Albany, N.Y.

[2] Ibid, July 19-20, 1813.

[3] Edgar Maclay, A History of American Privateers (New York, 1899), 225.

[4] John Fredriksen, “Privateering,” in David and Jeanne Heidler, editors, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812  (Santa Barbara, 1997), 430.

[5] For figures on privateers, see Heidler and Heidler, Encyclopedia, 429; Maclay, Privateers, 506; Jerome Garitee, The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as practiced by Baltimore during the War of 1812. (Middletown, Ct:, 1977) XVI, 32.

[6] Garitee, Private Navy, xvii.

[7] George Coggeshall, History of the American Privateers and Letters of Marque During Our War with England in the Years 1812, ’13, and ’14. (New York, 1856), 425.

[8] Ibid, 71. Also, Maclay, American Privateers,436-37.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Coggelshell, American Privateers, 178.

[11] August 20, 1813, Log of the Brigantine Saratoga

[12] Ibid, September 11, 1813.

[13] Ibid, September 27, 1813.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Maclay, American Privateers, 454.

[19] Coggeshall, American Privateers, 150.

[20] September 30, 1813, Log of Saratoga

[21] Ibid, October 8, 1813.

[22] Ibid, October 19, November 7, 22, 1813; Coggeshall, American Privateers, 156.

[23] April 19, 1814, Log of Saratoga.

[24] Ibid, September 13, 1814.

[25] Coggeshall, American Privateers, 307; October 1, 5, 30, November 12, 1814, Log of Saratoga.

[26] Maclay, American Privateers, 491. Also, see Samuel Reid’s account of events in A Collection of Sundry Publications and other Documents in Relation to the Attack Made During the late War Upon the Armed Brig General Armstrong (New York, 1833), 8.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 9, For other accounts, see for example, Maclay, American Privateers, 491-502; Edward Beach, The United States Navy: A 200-Year History (Boston, 1986), 136-37l Garitee, Republic’s Private Navy, xiii-xv; Harold Langley, “Samuel Chester Reid,” in Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, 445-46; Coggeshall, American Privateers, 370-84.

[29] General Armstrong, 10.

[30] For Andrew Jackson, Beach, United States Navy, 137.

[31] Ibid, 136.

[32] Richard Winslow III, “Wealth and Honor” Portsmouth During the Golden Age Of Privateering, 1775-1815.  (Portsmouth, N.H., 1988), 236-40. Jefferson citation is quoted by Winslow.

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