During the war, privateers commanded 1,697 ships– 26 times as many as the continental navy’s 64 vessels. Privateering was lucrative, but it was also dangerous. Seventy-eight percent of privateer ships were captured or sunk by the Royal Navy.
American privateers fought throughout the Revolution. In Canada, they cruised along the coast like wolf packs. They harassed ships and raided Loyalist settlements at Liverpool, Annapolis Royal, Canso, Lunenburg and Cape Breton Island.
John Adams was a fan of the privateer.
This is a short, easy, and infallible method of humbling the English, preventing the effusion of an ocean of blood, and bringing the way to a conclusion … it is by cutting off supplies, not by attacks, sieges, or assaults, that I expect deliverance from [our] enemies.
The Sack of Lunenburg
In the early morning, the privateers with 170 crew arrived from Boston. Some accounts say there were only four of them. Stoddard and his crew of 60 landed two miles from the town and marched toward it. The local militia resisted their attack at first. But then the other ships landed and their crews stormed the town.
Stoddard threatened to burn down the entire settlement unless the militia surrendered. It did.
Nonetheless, the privateers burned the blockhouse and the militia captain’s home. Then they looted everything they could get their hands on. They confiscated muskets, spiked cannon and seized the scarlet uniforms of the British soldiers. After fortifying themselves with rum stolen from the warehouses, they dressed up in the British uniforms and looted the entire town.
Anything they didn’t want they destroyed. They broke up furniture, scattered books and paper in the streets and smashed china. Total damage was estimated at 12,000 pounds.
By the time British reinforcements arrived, the privateers were safely at sea.
After the sack of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia’s coastal towns began outfitting their own privateers to defend against the enemy attacks.
Privateers proved so invaluable to the war effort that the Constitution made provision for them in Article I, Section 8. It allows Congress to ‘grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.’
With thanks to Frigates and Foremasts by Julian Gwyn, Mercenaries: A Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies by Alan Axelrod and Pirates and Privateers: Swashbuckling Stories From the East Coast by Joyce Glasner. This story was updated in 2021.