Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > Trade & Commerce > Privateers

St. Leonard Creek
Baltimore privateer Patapsco escapes from a British brig off Lanzarote, Canary Islands, in 1814. The sleekly designed Baltimore clippers were known for their speed; some flew pennants with the taunting phrase: “Catch me if you can.” Anonymous watercolor, courtesy Maryland Historical Society

Throughout the war, privateers augmented the small US Navy. They were sailors and private ships authorized by the federal government to harass, damage, and capture British merchant ships. Privateers were also authorized to sell the captured vessels and cargo for profit.

When the British blockaded the Bay, American warships were trapped, but lower-profile boats could sometimes get past the blockade. Privateer ships were fast, agile schooners, designed for speed under sail. Known as Baltimore clippers, they were built at Fells Point and other Chesapeake Bay shipyards.

The US government issued 1,100 commissions to privateers between 1812 and 1815. These self-styled marauders cruised the high seas looking for British merchants to pillage. Privateers did major damage to Great Britain’s sea trade and threatened that country’s economy.

The port of Baltimore was a privateer hub. In 1814 the British attacked Baltimore in part to punish the homeport of the vexing privateers.


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