Connecticut Privateers in the War of 1812


“The Privateersmen, may they receive reasonable encouragement from Congress as they hazard their lives, for small profits, while they render an essential service to our government”—toast by Dr. Vine Utley, Surgeon of the New London Privateer Mars, 1812-13


This engraving from George Coggeshall’s 1856 "History of the American Privateers" depicts his Milford-built schooner DAVID PORTER hove to in a gale in the Bay of Biscay in 1814. Named for the captain of the USS Essex, the PORTER carried a letter of marque and took prizes during her trading voyage. In her configuration (and her extreme-weather situation) the PORTER resembles the New London privateer MARS, as well as other extreme privateers built on the Baltimore schooner model.


President James Madison did not intend to employ merchant mariners as maritime warriors in the impending new war with Great Britain, but only eight days after voting to declare war, Congress passed the Act Concerning Letters of Marque, which authorized the secretary of state to license private armed vessels. The concept of privately owned armed vessels waging war went back at least as far as the 1100s among the Italian city states. By 1400, letters of reprisal permitted preying on enemy vessels in one’s territorial waters, and letters of marque licensed attacks in foreign waters. Privateers—private vessels armed specifically to capture the enemy’s merchant ships—and trading vessels carrying letters-of marque and reprisal authorizing them to capture enemy vessels during their regular trading voyages, had played a large role during the Revolutionary War at sea. A mixture of veteran privateersmen and aggressive young captains hoped to be equally effective during this second British war.1

To distinguish privateering from piracy, strict rules were devised through the centuries. During the War of 1812, the State Department sent printed commissions signed by the president to local customs collectors for issue to captains, who posted performance bonds. Privateers could board vessels on the high seas but not in neutral waters. Enemy vessels, or enemy goods on neutral vessels, could be seized and sent to an American or allied port for sale. Generally at least one enemy crewmember was sent in to give testimony to a prize commissioner to verify that the capture was legal. If a prize court approved the seizure, the vessel and cargo were sold at auction and the proceeds were divided among the shareholders and crew, with any required duties deducted, along with 2 percent of the value to be contributed to the fund for disabled seamen.2

The war’s first privateers were converted merchant vessels. The 56-foot Guilford sloop Actress, commanded by Captain George Lumsden, may have been the first Connecticut privateer, getting to sea on July 11, followed two weeks later by the Stonington schooner Lewis, commanded by Benjamin Pendleton. Both vessels survived about a week before being captured by the Royal Navy.3

By the fall of 1812, the first generation of vessels built specifically as privateers went to sea. Joseph Belden of Hartford had the 81-foot schooner Blockade built at Glastonbury and obtained a letter of marque from the Middletown collector of customs. With 15 guns and a crew of 75, Captain Mix headed for the Caribbean trade routes late in September. The Blockade captured one interisland schooner before HMS Charybdis appeared on October 31, 1812, and ran her down.4

Late in September, Captain Oliver Champlin of New London obtained a commission for his brand-new schooner Joel Barlow. Named in honor of the Connecticut-born poet and minister to France, she was built in East Hartford and carried eight cannons and a crew of 90. Champlin headed south in October to harass the British West Indies shipping lanes. The Barlow captured several prizes and took British merchandise out of a Spanish vessel before returning to New London in December. Her second cruise, beginning in January 1813, ended in Charleston.5

A celebrated veteran of Revolutionary War privateering, New London’s Captain Charles Bulkeley, age 59, commissioned a privateer schooner with the warlike name Mars. She was “built upon the new and most improved plan for fast sailing”—meaning designed on the Baltimore or Chesapeake Bay pilot model, with long, narrow hull, low freeboard, and very tall rig. “She carries a cloud of canvass, and dances over the waves like a feather,” remarked her surgeon, Vine Utley, whose journal, offering many details of privateer operation, is quoted here. She mounted one swiveling 24-pound “long Tom” and eight 6-pound cannon. Her crew of 93 included five prize masters who would take command of captured vessels. Her owners represented New London, Groton, Norwich, and Hartford.6

The Mars departed New London on November 17, 1812, bound for the trade routes in the eastern Atlantic. A very stormy passage brought them to the Azores on December 3, and the next day they took their first prize “without our being oblige to fire a single gun, even to bring him too.”

The Mars took three more vessels, and on Christmas eve: “We gave chase to one, and came within cannon shot by 9 o’clock A.M. and gave her 3 shots from the 24 pounder,  . . . We soon found her to be an armed vessel by her commencing a fire upon us. . . . A scattering fire was kept up about half an hour, at which time we came near enough to fire grape shot about their ears, upon which she soon struck her proud colours to us.”

Although Captain Bulkeley made the command decisions, he did consult with his officers and prize masters, several of whom owned shares in the Mars. After such a consultation on December 29, with six prizes taken, they decided “for the interests of the owners and crew of the Mars to cruise along towards Madeira, the coasts of Spain, the Canary Islands and from thence homeward to the United States.”

On New Year’s Day, “We drank freely of sour punch at 11 o’clock, dined on good animal food & an excellent plumb pudding, after dinner we drank a glass of sherry wine, which we had lately won by our adventures, and wished each other a happy new year.”

The next day the lookout at the masthead sighted a sail. “Our men by labouring hard at the sweeps [14 long oars, operated by 70 men] without intermission brought us within cannon shot of the vessel about an hour before the setting of the sun. We gave her a shot from the long Tom.” Finally, in the waning light, Captain Bulkeley raised his speaking trumpet and ordered the British captain to “come on board the Mars in his own boat, which order he immediately complied with.”

So another prize was taken, which added to the prisoners under guard in the hold. Sentries paced the deck and called out every half hour during the night, but on January 17 they discovered the prisoners using a file to remove their shackles so they could seize the Mars. The next day she took another prize, and Captain Bulkeley made it a cartel vessel to carry 25 paroled captives to England.

With 11 prizes taken, food and water running short, and the wet and moldy quarters making the crew sick, Captain Bulkeley turned toward home. But Atlantic winter gales repeatedly threatened the Mars, driving her away from her destination and testing the endurance of her crew. Struggling past the Gulf Stream, the sleek vessel nearly met with catastrophe, when, “Just as we had cleared the cabin of water, another heavy sea rolled onto our decks and buried her in water six feet deep.” Though nearly filled with water, the Mars rose after two desperate minutes to continue toward home with her battered and shaken crew.

At last, on February 25, 1813, Utley wrote: “Every man was flushed with joy at the sight of his Native shore. We all rose early, & as soon as the day dawned with sails unfurled we seized the favourable gale from the S.W and ran up into New London Harbor, where we arrived about the middle of the day. As we passed Fort Trumbull with colors flying we fired eleven guns, one gun for each prize, which were answered from the garrison. As soon as we cast Ankor, which was off in the channel of the harbor, the wharfs were soon crouded with the people of the city, who gave us three welcome cheers while we were droping the Ankers which resounded thro the harbor and struck my ear with pleasure, to hear the voice of my Native Citizens once more.”

Two prizes eventually found their way to New London, but the rest remained unreported. While awaiting word of the missing prizes and his prize-master son, Captain Bulkeley solicited crew for a second voyage, offering a $20 bounty. But before he could get under way, Commodore Decatur’s squadron arrived and the Royal Navy sealed the port, ending the career of the privateer Mars.7

The record for the shortest successful privateering voyage is undoubtedly held by the little sloop Hero of Mystic. A 13-year-old coasting sloop, she had already been captured once and ransomed on a passage from Charleston to Mystic. After HMS Ramillies captured the Mystic sloop Fox at the beginning of April 1813 and armed her as a British cruiser, a number of Mystic mariners decided to recapture her. Captain Ambrose Burrows gathered 30 volunteers and one cannon on April 13 and sailed to New London, where he obtained a letter of marque. The Hero departed at 2:00 p.m. the next day, convoying several coasting schooners as far as Watch Hill before heading for Block Island. At 5:00 p.m. they sighted the Fox several miles southeast of the island, and an hour later she turned, intending to capture the Hero. The sloops came together at 7:00, and the Hero’s crew overwhelmed the 13 men on the Fox without firing a shot. The two vessels arrived in Mystic at 11:30 p.m., having made a successful privateering voyage of nine and a half hours.8

With the British squadron off New London and patrolling the Sound, Connecticut ports did not commission seagoing privateers after the spring of 1813. However, the increasing number of Connecticut residents willing to load their boats with goods and trade with Royal Navy ships gave rise to a new form of privateer, the private armed boat. Perhaps inspired by the British barges that overtook and captured so many coasting vessels, at least eight of them were commissioned in New London. Daniel Ladd’s Experiment, a 36-foot boat powered by 20 oars, raced up the Sound as far as Milford in December 1813, capturing one suspicious boat. The most successful private armed boats were the Yankee and True Blooded Yankee of Mystic. Lemuel Burrows’s Yankee prowled the Sound and even seized former British consul James Stewart at Plum Island in September 1814. The True Blooded Yankee went as far as Massachusetts waters, where she captured a sloop with provisions for the British.9

Connecticut masters and vessels figured as prominent privateers from New York as well. The Middletown-built Anaconda, commanded by Connecticut-born Nathaniel Shaler, took a number of prizes before she was captured on the North Carolina coast in 1813. Shaler then commanded the New York privateer Governor Tompkins until he was lost overboard in 1814. Stratford’s Samuel Nicoll was very successful with the New York privateer Scourge, which took as many as 22 prizes in the North Sea and off Norway. Both New Londoner Guy R. Champlin and Norwich native Samuel Chester Reid had notable voyages with the New York privateer General Armstrong. After being wounded, Champlin threatened to blow up the Armstrong if his officers surrendered her. Champlin went on to command the New York privateer Warrior. Samuel Reid is best known for his strong defense of the General Armstrong against repeated British attacks at Fayal in the Azores in September 1814. Milford’s George Coggeshall and Adam Pond carried letters of marque during their trading voyages in the Milford-built schooners David Porter and Sine qua non, and Coggeshall took several prizes before he was captured in the privateer Leo late in 1814. Reporting on an engagement between the Governor Tompkins and a British frigate in 1813, Nathaniel Shaler memorialized two black sailors who were mortally wounded. One asked to be thrown overboard so he didn’t impede the crew, while John Johnson, with his body torn open by a cannonball, called out, “Fire away my boys!—No haul a color down.” Shaler concluded, “Whilst America has such tars, she has little to fear from European tyrants.”10

Exciting stories aside, the purpose of privateering was to profit by disrupting the enemy’s trade. The premier privateering port of Baltimore has received the most analysis, and the data indicate that of the port’s 126 privateers, 54 (43 percent) took prizes during their cruises, while 57 percent of the privateers failed to make a capture. The financial risk was almost matched by the danger of destruction: 43 percent of Baltimore’s privateers were lost, with 40 captured, 8 chased ashore, and 6 lost at sea. Overall, of 515 American letter-of-marque vessels, 300 (58 percent) failed to make a capture, and 250 (49 percent) were taken by the British—a percentage matched by Connecticut-owned or -commanded vessels. A few were spectacularly successful. The Baltimore schooner Surprise took a likely record 43 prizes. The average take for successful vessels was 11—the total taken by Captain Bulkeley’s Mars.11

But the resolution of the Mars captures emphasizes the marginal profits in privateering. She took 11 prizes during her 100-day voyage and sent 9 of them home. Only three arrived. Captain Bulkeley’s son Thomas and his prize crew were lost at sea, as were Prize Master Rufus Avery of Groton and his crew. The others were recaptured at sea, representing the loss of 27 of the Mars’s 93 crewmembers and two-thirds of her potential profits. The prize vessels and cargoes were auctioned for approximately $25,000. When duties and fees were deducted, each of the 153-1/8 shares in the 100-day voyage was worth about $140.12

As for disrupting the trade of Great Britain, privateers did capture an estimated 1,300 British merchant vessels overall, nearly 400 of them in the first year of the war. But when measured against the overall volume of trade, those losses amounted to less than 5 percent of the British merchant marine and were easily sustainable. And the Royal Navy was large enough to protect the merchant marine. In May of 1813, three British warships safely conducted a convoy of 226 merchant ships from the West Indies to England. Privateers did, however, increase the risk and uncertainty of shipping for British merchants, with insurance rates rising as much as 13 percent. This led to loud cries by influential British merchants for a speedy resolution to the war. In the end, the privateers’ greatest value was the threat they posed, rather than the actual damage inflicted by the republic’s private navy.13



1. Connecticut privateersman George Coggeshall wrote the most comprehensive narrative of American privateers during the War of 1812, History of the American Privateers, and Letters-of-Marque, During Our War with England in the Years 1812,, ’13 and ’14 (New York: author, 1856). The most analytical treatment remains Jerome R. Garitee’s The Republic’s Private Navy: The American Privateering Business as Practiced by Baltimore During the War of 1812 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press for Mystic Seaport, 1977), which gives a brief history of privateering, 3-10.

2. See Garitee, Republic’s Private Navy. Evidence of the process for Connecticut privateers is found in NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39, and RG 21, USDC-CT, Case files, 1790-1915, Terms: Dec 1812-May 1813, Box 13, Charles Bulkley vs ship Lord Keith, Charles Bulkley vs Dry Goods, Charles Bulkley vs Sloop Hero Cargo, NARA, Waltham, Massachusetts.

3. Edgar S. Maclay, A History of American Privateers (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1899), 411; the Connecticut Ship Database, 1789-1939, indicates the Actress was built at Guilford in 1811, (accessed June 2012). Commission 61, Benjamin Pendleton, July 22, 1812, Schooner Lewis, NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39; the Connecticut Ship Database, 1789-1939, indicates the Lewis had been built in Massachusetts in 1801. The Lewis captured 1 ship and armed it, but was captured by Hope Tender, August 13, 1812, and sent into Halifax.

4. Harold D. Langley, “American Privateer Blockade in the War of 1812,” (accessed June 2012).

5. Commission 62, Oliver Champlin, September 26, 1812, Schooner Joel Barlow, NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39; Connecticut Gazette, October 14, December 9, 1812, January 13, 1813.

6. Commission 63, Charles Bulkeley, November 2, 1812, Schooner Mars, NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39; Journal of Private Armed Schooner Mars, November 1812-March 1813, Dr. Vine Utley, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 828, Box 12, Folder 8; Caroline Fraser Zinsser, Vine Utley: The Remarkable Country Doctor of Lyme, Connecticut (Niantic: East Lyme Public Library, 2010). The Mars was probably about 120 feet on deck, with a rig extending nearly 200 feet from jibboom to end of her spanker boom. She may have been built by Amasa Miller of New London, who built a similar-sized privateer in 1814, Connecticut Gazette, February 23, 1814.

7. Connecticut Gazette, May 5, 1813.

8. Connecticut Gazette, April 14, 21, 1813; Rev. Frederic Denison, “”Capture of the Sloop Fox,” Mystic Pioneer, May 21, 1859; Commission 64, Ambrose Burrows, April 13, 1813, Sloop Hero, NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39; Ambrose Burrows went back to sea in December 1813 as sailing master of the Baltimore privateer Rolla, but she was captured by HMS Loire before she had gotten off soundings, and Burrows spent the rest of the war in captivity, Rev. Frederic Denison,” Mystic Pioneer, September 24, 1859.

9. Connecticut Gazette, January 12, 1814; the other boats were named True Blooded Yankee, Defiance, Lively, Argo, Viper, Ramillies, and Yankee, NARA Microcopy 588, War of 1812 Papers of the Department of State, page 39; Connecticut Gazette, March 2, August 24, October 5, 26, November 9, December 7, 1814; Rev. Frederic Denison, “The Barge Yankee,” Mystic Pioneer, June 4, 1859.

10. Connecticut Gazette, December 16, 1812, January 6, 13, 27 1813; see also (accessed February 2012); Coggeshall, History of American Privateers, 220-21, 99, 105-09; James Terry White, National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 8 (New York: James T. White, 1898), 97-98; Reid had to scuttle the General Armstrong after inflicting as many as 250 British casualties (he lost 9), but General Andrew Jackson believed (probably incorrectly) that this action delayed the British invasion of New Orleans; George Coggeshall, Voyages to Various Parts of the World, Made Between the Years 1799 and 1844 (New York: D. Appleton, 1851), 33-41, 49-55, 76-109; Nathan Gillette Pond, “The Ponds of Milford,” The Connecticut Magazine 10, number 1 (January-March 1906): 172; Shaler to Agents, January 1, 1814, John Brannan, Official Letters of the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the War With Great Britain (Washington, DC: Way & Gideon, 1823), 293-94.

11. Garitee, Republic’s Private Navy; John A. Tures, “A Word of ‘Captain Caution’: Myths About Privateers in the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine 14 (October 2010) (accessed June 2012).

12. RG 21, USDC-CT, Case files, 1790-1915, Terms: Dec 1812-May 1813, Box 13, Charles Bulkley vs ship Lord Keith, Charles Bulkley vs Dry Goods, Charles Bulkley vs Sloop Hero Cargo, NARA, Waltham, Massachusetts. The Lord Keith sold for $2706.95, dry goods from the Richard sold for $4739.76, fruit from the Hero sold for $3180.45 (duty $439.81), and the Hero sold for $5366.63 Total $15,993.79. Her other prize landed in Charleston, South Carolina, and record of her sale has not been found, but probably totaled about $10,000.

13. Garitee, Republic’s Private Navy; John A. Tures, “A Word of ‘Captain Caution’: Myths About Privateers in the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine 14 (October 2010).