Naval combat was a fundamental aspect of the Revolutionary War. British ships ferried thousands of Redcoats to the shores of North America at the outset of the conflict, while a French fleet sealed Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown. Prior to this, the British Royal Navy was one of the most well-respected maritime forces in the world. But other European powers, such as the French and Spanish, constantly engaged the King’s ships on the high seas or in littoral actions near major colonial cities. The Continentals, on the other hand, were relative latecomers to the war, due to the logistical and financial challenges of standing up an entirely new navy.
An interim solution to this problem was the Continental Congress’s official sanctioning of privateers during the struggle for independence. According to the American Merchant Marine at War, the Thirteen Colonies, in lacking a sufficient number of wartime ships, “issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships… which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships.”
Thereafter, everyday merchants and tradesmen set out to disrupt enemy shipping and commerce. To put the significance of this policy in context, consider that the Continental Navy mustered only 64 warships, armed with about 1,200 guns, while the privateers, on the other hand, boasted over 1,500 ships and some 15,000 guns.
Many private sailors were virtually euphoric at the idea of facing the British Royal Navy that, for ages, had administered King George III’s punitive trade regulations at sea. Following the opening shots of the war, a Boston newspaper of the period (again according to the American Merchant Marine at War) boldly invited, “all those Jolly Fellows,” and promised, “a hearty Welcome by a Number of Brave Fellows there assembled, and treated with that excellent Liquor call’d [sic] GROG which is allow’d [sic] by all true Seamen, to be the LIQUOR OF LIFE.” By war’s end, these “jolly pirates” aided in the capture of almost 16,000 British prisoners!