Privateering in the American Revolution: Its Effectiveness, Its Annoyance, and the British Assault on Connecticut



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Privateering, a form of armed force, was used for centuries to advance imperial missions and wage war. During war, merchant vessels, retrofitted with munitions and men, targeted adversaries’ provisional and trading ships, or “prizes,” to confiscate supplies and ships. Britain perfected this practice in the New World and called on North American colonists to serve as privateers in Britain’s colonial wars of the 1700s. Americans used their privateering expertise to gain their independence in the American Revolution. This dissertation confronts the body of privateering historiography that largely fails to recognize the significance of the American privateering effort in the war. “Privateering in the American Revolution” argues that privateers were a major factor in the American victory and caused extreme anxiety for the British. To confirm the extent and effectiveness of American privateering, this study relies on evidence from the opposing narratives of British and American political and military leaders and print media. This evidence establishes that America’s privateers numbered in the thousands, and that they had a substantial effect on British merchants and British war strategy, including raising British insurance rates, reducing British merchants’ revenue, and dictating how the British responded to the American privateers. The number of colonists who signed on to American privateers also prevented the complete development of a Continental navy. In the end, a Continental navy never rivaled the quantity, or success, of American privateers. One aspect of British war policy was a “scorched-earth” strategy on privateering ports. This project effectively proves the degree of American privateering through a case-study of Connecticut, the scope of Connecticut privateering, and the violent raids that the British carried out against Connecticut privateering ports in the summer of 1779 and September 1781. Through the framework of the Connecticut raids, this dissertation engages with the historiographies of revolution regionalism and violence. Repositioning the spotlight on Connecticut reveals the continued relevance of the Northeast colonies and military history. The personal stories of the raid victims, expose the consequential violence suffered by privateering communities, including women and elderly civilians, and how they navigated the American Revolution.



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