Patriots Pirates: The Privateer War For Freedom And Fortune In The American Revolution, by Robert H. Patton
This book is one I have read before, but it forms a poignant part of a much longer story. After all, this book talks about the importance of privateering to the American war effort in the Revolutionary War. It also speaks movingly about the price that was paid by many privateers who were captured by the British and spent time in horrible brigs, many of them dying in terrible conditions. Yet there is something incomplete about this book. To be sure, the privateers of the American Revolution had plenty of foreign help in places like St. Eustatius and France, but there is more to this story than this book covers. This is not to say anything bad about the book, because it does a very good job at showing how the privateer war was of the highest importance in providing for American trade during the American Revolution. It is just that there is a great deal more to the story, because smuggling and privateering and generally living in violation of the restrictions and laws of other nations when it came to their naval policy was a fundamental aspect of American policy.
This particular book is strangely but compellingly organized as a series of twelve chapters that tell a chronological tale of the American Revolution and how it was shaped by American disregard for the laws of England that apparently were meant to govern its trade, and even the rules involving obtaining gunpowder and other key war material from neutral powers that are interspersed with various vignettes in different cities over the time from 1775 to 1783 over the course of almost 250 pages. For example, the book covers scenes in Macias (Maine), Boston (Massachusetts), Providence (Rhode Island), Brooklyn (New York), Barbados (West Indies), Penobscot (Maine), New London (Connecticut), Newfoundland (Canada), Portsmouth (England), Guadeloupe (West Indies), and Brooklyn and Providence again as it details the story of privateers and of the various political leaders who had ambivalent relationships concerning their behavior and who used them to gain necessary material that could not be produced in the colonies and that was vitally necessary to resist the British. The book shows how privateers were vital for logistics and how America’s need for trade and willingness to skirt the law provided plenty of people willing to deal with them on mutually acceptable terms.
Again, though, this book leaves a sense of melancholy with the reader. For example, one reads about the death of tens of thousands of largely unaccounted for men from New England who went on ships seeking glory and money while serving patriotic interests and found themselves wounded, imprisoned, and often put to death in terrible circumstances. Britain’s cruelty to these men ended up leading to a great deal of dissatisfaction in England when it was realized how much alike the English commoner was to these suffering American prisoners. Likewise, the book details how sloppy accounts on the part of one Silas Deane led to his dismissal and destitution and how he was likely killed by the double agent who felt threatened by his return to the US and the discovery of the double agent’s own deeds. Whether one looks at the nature of smuggling, of the lack of honor of the American side towards those who had sacrificed much for the cause of liberty in its most vulnerable days, or at the human cost of America’s war for independence, this book is a stark reminder that warfare, and certainly American warfare, is not as idealistic as the history books would often wish to paint it.