The Confederate privateers were privately owned ships that were authorized by the government of the Confederate States of America to attack the shipping of the United States. Although the appeal was to profit by capturing merchant vessels and seizing their cargoes, the government was most interested in diverting the efforts of the Union Navy away from the blockade of Southern ports, and perhaps to encourage European intervention in the conflict.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, the Confederate government sought to counter the United States Navy in part by appealing to private enterprise to engage in privateering. This was the practice of fitting ordinary merchant vessels with modest armament, then sending them to sea to capture other, unarmed, merchant vessels. The captured vessels would be taken to the jurisdiction of a competent court. If the court found that the capture was legitimate, the ship and cargo would be forfeited and sold at auction. The proceeds would be distributed among owners and crew according to a contractual schedule.
In the early days of the war, enthusiasm for the Southern cause was high, and many ship owners responded to the appeal by applying for letters of marque. Not all of those who gained authorization actually went to sea, but the numbers of privateers were high enough to be a major concern for US Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Many ships of the Union Navy were diverted from blockade duty in efforts to capture privateers. Most of the privateers managed to remain free, but enough were caught that the owners and crew had to consider the risk seriously. The capture of one privateer, schooner Savannah, resulted in an important court case that did much to define the nature of the Civil War itself.
Initial enthusiasm could not be sustained. Privateers found it difficult to deliver their captures to Confederate courts, and as a result the profits dried up. By the end of the first year of the war, the risks far exceeded the benefits in the minds of most owners and crews. The practice continued only sporadically through the rest of the war. The Confederate government turned its efforts against Northern commerce over to commissioned raiders.
The Civil War was the last time a major power seriously resorted to privateering. The practice had already been outlawed among European countries by the Declaration of Paris (1856). Following the war, the United States agreed to abide by the Declaration. More important than any international agreements, however, is the fact that the increased cost and sophistication of naval weaponry effectively removed any reasonable prospects for profit.
Call for privateers
Following the 12 April 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, President Abraham Lincoln called for raising 75,000 troops to put down the "rebellion". In response, on the 17th Confederate President Jefferson Davis called both for raising troops and for the issuance of letters of marque.
Although the Federal government had only 42 warships in commission, and most others that were laid up were unserviceable, the Confederate States had almost nothing to offer in opposition. With no navy yet established, they turned to the alternative of privateering. The issuance of letters of marque and reprisal was explicitly allowed by the Confederate Constitution and in fact was copied almost directly from the American Constitution. The privateeers were expected to prey upon commercial vessels of the enemy. Their pay would consist of the value of seized ships and cargoes, less legal costs. Two benefits would accrue to the Confederate government; the disruption of commerce might persuade the European nations to pressure the North to end the conflict, and it would also force the North on its own to ease the blockade in order to chase down the raiders.
By this time, the European maritime powers had declared the practice of privateering to be illegal, in the Declaration of Paris (1856). According to the treaty, privateers were to be regarded as equivalent to pirates, meaning that they had the protection of no national flag. A privateer could be seized by the ships of any signatory nation and tried in that nation's courts. In 1856, the United States had declined to ratify the treaty. When the Civil War broke out, the Lincoln government tried belatedly to make this nation a signatory.
If the previous signatories had accepted American entry into the scope of the treaty, it would have meant that they were taking sides in the rebellion. Rather than do so, they insisted that the United States should get its own house in order first. The governments of the treaty participants, in order to avoid becoming involved in the conflict in North America, refused to regard Confederate privateers as pirates. In doing so, they had to acknowledge that a war existed, and therefore both parties had belligerent rights. Although the government of US President Abraham Lincoln objected that this gave legitimacy to what they considered to be properly merely an insurrection, the policy actually worked to the advantage of the Federal government because it meant that British, French, and Spanish courts, including those in colonies in the Caribbean, were closed to the privateers. They would therefore, in order to make good their prizes, have to take them into Confederate ports for adjudication.
Shipowners throughout the South, and perhaps some from the North as well, responded with enthusiasm to the call. The initial burst of ardor was great enough that the Confederate government could lay down some rather stringent conditions, such as requiring the deposit of large bonds, to insure that the practice did not degenerate into outright piracy. The holders of letters of marque were also required to be the actual owners of the ships; this was to discourage speculation in the letters.
An anomalous feature of the legislation governing Confederate privateering was that it considered attacking enemy warships. To give an incentive in the absence of valuable cargoes of merchant vessels that could be sold for profit, the law provided for fixed monetary awards for capturing or destroying ships of the US Navy, with the size of the awards to be based on the numbers in the crews and the value of the ships taken or destroyed. This provision was never applied, as no Union warships were destroyed by privateers.
Privateering activity was strongest at the major ports, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, and off the North Carolina coast where the trade of Northern cities with Caribbean and South American countries made use of the Gulf Stream to speed their northward voyages. The first capture of the war was made on 16 May 1861, when the bark Ocean Eagle was taken by privateer J. C. Calhoun at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Ocean Eagle was registered in New England, so the capture was legal, but it is not clear that it aided the South, as she was carrying her cargo of lime to New Orleans. By disrupting the New Orleans trade, the privateers there aided the blockade.
Privateering activity near Cape Hatteras, on the coast of North Carolina, was particularly irksome. Northern shipowners either dropped out of the Caribbean trade or transferred their registry to Great Britain. Insurers pressured the Federal government to defend their interests. In response, the Union sent a combined Army-Navy expedition to take possession of two Confederate forts at Hatteras Inlet. This was the first reclamation of seceded territory by the Union, and was also the first notable Union success of the war.
Union suppression of privateers: three Charleston vessels
Charleston provided a large fraction of privateering activity, and it is fitting that the fates of three of them were particularly important in its early demise. The three vessels were Petrel, Jefferson Davis, and Savannah.
First to leave Charleston Harbor, on 2 June 1861, was the privateer Savannah. Her second day at sea, she captured brig Joseph, and thereby became the first Charleston privateer to take a prize in the war. Later the same day, she chased another sail, but discovered too late that it was USS Perry, an armed brig. After a brief running gun battle, Captain Harrison Baker of Savannah surrendered his lightly armed ship. He and his men were put in irons and were taken to New York, where they were imprisoned and tried for piracy (see below).
Privateer Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis was a 187-ton brig, originally named Putnam at her launching in about 1845. Sometime later she was renamed Echo, and under that name was used in the illegal African slave trade. On 21 August 1858 she was captured by USS Dolphin off the coast of Cuba with 270 Africans aboard; the Africans were transported to Liberia, where they were set free. Echo was taken to Key West, where a court held that her seizure was valid, and she was confiscated and sold at auction. Her new owners restored her original name and applied for a letter of marque at the start of the Civil War. A week later, they amended their application to rename their ship the Jefferson Davis in honor of the Confederate president. Despite the name changes, Northern newspapers consistently referred to her as "the former slaver Echo."
On 28 June 1861, Jefferson Davis slipped out of Charleston Harbor and easily evaded the rudimentary blockade that was then in place. She remained at sea for nearly two months, making nine captures: the schooner Enchantress, brig John Welsh, schooner S. J. Waring, brig Mary E. Thompson, ship Mary Goodell, ship John Carver, bark Alvarado, schooner Windward, and brig Santa Clara. Of these, Enchantress was recaptured, Alvarado was chased ashore and destroyed by a blockader, Windward, Mary E. Thompson, and Mary Goodell were released with prisoners, John Carver was burned at sea, and the black cook of S. J. Waring killed three sleeping members of the prize crew and sailed her to New York City, where he was received as a hero. Only John Welsh and Santa Clara were taken into Southern ports for adjudication.
Jefferson Davis attempted to enter Jacksonville, Florida, but arrived off the coast during a gale. Unwilling to risk capture by nearby blockaders, her captain chose not to ride out the storm. Jefferson Davis ran aground and could not get free. Her crew were saved, but the ship was a total loss.
Petrel had been Revenue Cutter Aiken before the war. Seized by the state of South Carolina, she was offered to the Confederate States Navy, but was rejected as unsuitable. Renamed Petrel, she was sold to private interests who outfitted her as a privateer. On 28 July 1861, she left Charleston and the same day encountered USS St. Lawrence. Unable to escape, Captain William Perry decided to fight. In a twenty minute gun battle, Petrel's hull was holed and she began sinking. Perry then hauled down his flag. Four members of the crew were lost with the ship. The rest, including Perry, were put in irons and taken to Philadelphia, where they, like the crew of Savannah, were to be tried for piracy.
Trial of the officers and crew of the privateer Savannah
Through much of the first year of the war, the government in Washington continued to regard the conflict as merely an insurrection, and that the Confederate government had no legal standing. According to the view of the Lincoln administration, the letters of marque issued by Jefferson Davis or the seceded states had no legal force, and the privateersmen who relied upon them did not represent a legitimate authority. Taking merchant vessels on the high seas therefore was piracy, which the penalty for upon conviction was death.
The first trial for piracy was of the 13 men, including Captain Thomas H. Baker, captured on privateer Savannah. The trial was held in the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. It began on 23 October 1861, and from the start attracted wide public notice. The mere fact of the trial drew outrage in the Confederacy, where the government threatened retaliation, life for life. To increase pressure on Washington, the prisoners of war who would have been executed in retaliation were selected and their names made known.
The trail went to the jury on the seventh day, but the next day the jury announced that it was deadlocked.  The prisoners were sent back to prison to await a second trial. The United States government, however, had decided that it would no longer press the charges. The thirteen men would not be regarded as pirates, but as prisoners of war. The decision in effect meant that Washington was conceding the rights of belligerency to those who took up arms against it at sea.
The end of privateering
With the examples of Petrel, Jefferson Davis, and Savannah before them, shipowners realized that privateering was no longer profitable, and the practice soon died out. Some privateers sailed during the remainder of the war, but none had even the qualified success of Jefferson Davis.
The reason for the demise was not purely economic. Privateering represented a decentralization of power that was inconsistent with both technology and the evolution of the modern state. It fell victim to changes: steam power and gunnery in ships, more rapid communications that enabled greater central control, and the increasing reluctance of governments everywhere to relinquish power. It was this last that doomed privateering, according to Robinson, the primary modern historian of the Confederate privateers; his opinion is echoed by Luraghi. The effort of the Confederate government turned from privateers to their regularly commissioned raiders, which had spectacularly more success in attacking the northern mercantile fleet.
Long before the war was over, privateering could be evaluated, and clearly it was of minor importance. Only a handful of vessels fell victim, and these were balanced by losses of the privateers themselves. The most important aspect of their history in the war was probably the piracy trial of the men of Savannah, which forced a recognition of the belligerent status of the seceded states.
Luraghi, Raimondo, A history of the Confederate Navy (tr. Paolo E. Coletta). Naval Institute Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55750-527-6
Robinson, William Morrison, Jr. The Confederate privateers. Yale University, 1928. Reprint, Univ. of South Carolina, 1990.
Soley, James Russell, The blockade and the cruisers. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883. Reprint, Blue and Gray Press, n.d.
Warburton, A. F., Trial of the officers and crew of the privateer Savannah, on the charge of piracy, in the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, Hon. Judges Nelson and Shipman, presiding. Reported by A. F. Warburton, stenographer, and corrected by the counsel. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1862. Reprint, Kessinger, 2006. ISBN 1-4286-5226-4, 9781428652262
Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, 27 volumes; Series II, 3 volumes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894–1922.
Abbreviations used in these notes:
- ORN: Official Records, Navies. Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.
- The United States authorized a privately-owned airship, Resolute, for submarine spotting in late 1941 and early 1942.
- Article 1, Section 8.11.
- Luraghi, History of the Confederate Navy, p. 71.
- The blockade was proclaimed on 19 April 1861, after Davis's call for privateers, but soon became a major justification for the practice. See ORN I, v. 4, pp. 156–157, 340.
- Luraghi, History of the Confederate Navy, p. 73.
- Luraghi, History of the Confederate Navy, pp. 73–74.
- The largest privateer, Phenix, was from Wilmington, Delaware. Robinson, Confederate privateers, p. 30
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, p. 20.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, p. 22–23.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, p. 38.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, pp. 112–115.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, pp. 49–58. Tucker, Blue and gray navies, pp. 74–75.
- ORN I, v. 1, p. 818.
- ORN II, v. 1, pp. 362, 363.
- DANFS. Also Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy, pp. 79–82. No mention of Windward is made in the Official Records.
- New York Times, 22 July 1861.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, pp. 125–127
- This is why they failed to realize that the European grant of belligerent rights to the Confederacy actually hindered, rather than helped, the Southern privateers and raiders.
- Warburton, Savannah trial, p. 15
- Warburton, Savannah trial, p. 1
- Warburton, Savannah trial, pp. 368–375.
- Robinson, Confederate privateers, p. 1.
- Luraghi, History of the Confederate States Navy, p. 71.
- DANFS Online; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Page 584, APPENDIX II. ANNEX I, PRIVATEERS COMMISSIONED BY THE CONFEDERATE STATES GOVERNMENT
- List of privateers and their captures.
- Civil War naval chronology, 1861–1865, (Government Printing Office, 1971), Appendix A.
- Illustration of encounter between USS St. Lawrence and privateer Petrel.
- Illustration of privateer Savannah after capture.
- Illustrated account of recapture of S. J. Waring by William Tillman.
- Prize (law)
- Letter of marque