Commerce Raider

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Again, the reason for this success was in large measure ship design. The Baltimore clipper, a lean, deephulled schooner that had originated in this country, made a nearly perfect privateer. Exceptionally fast, it was more than a match for the tubby merchant ships of the day. Equally important, it could also outsail anything it couldn’t outfight. And it could accommodate a very large number of men while being handled by very few. This allowed many of the men to be deployed as prize crews, sailing the captured ships into friendly ports to be sold along with their cargoes.

One of these privateers, the Prince de Neufchâtel , had a short, brilliant, and highly profitable career, one that might have been summoned from the vasty deep of Patrick O’Brian’s imagination, except that it happens to be true.

The Prince de Neufchâtel was built in New York in 1812–13 and was owned by a New York woman named Flory Charretton, whose son-in-law, J. Ordronaux, captained the ship. The Prince was 110 feet long, with only a 25-foot beam. Even in heavy seas she was capable of more than thirteen knots and under ideal conditions might have reached twenty, a breathtaking speed for a sailing ship.

The American government granted her owner a letter-of-marque (a license to operate as a privateer) on October 28, 1813, and she soon sailed for Europe, slipping into the French port of Cherbourg. Fitted out as a privateer there, she evaded the British blockade in March 1814 and quickly snapped up nine prizes in the English Channel. In June she took six more in as many days and spent the rest of the summer in European waters, capturing merchantmen and leading the Royal Navy a merry chase, easily outsailing no fewer than seventeen British men-of-war who pursued her. Altogether the Prince de Neufchâtel profited her owners and crew that summer to the tune of three million dollars, a great fortune by the standards of the day.

The Prince came to an early end after a glorious career, but many of her sister privateers went on to do ugly postwar work.

By September she had recrossed the Atlantic and, again running a British blockade, entered Boston Harbor for a refit. Soon back at sea, the Prince de Neufchâtel was becalmed off Nantucket in early October with a prize in company (and more than two hundred thousand dollars in booty in her hold) when a British frigate, the Endymion , sighted her. Had the Endymion been able to bring her vastly greater armament to bear, she would have made short work of the Prince de Neufchâtel . But after she gave chase, she, too, was becalmed.

Shortly after dark, the Endymion launched a cutting-out expedition, loading her five ship’s boats with 111 men, perhaps a third of her crew, in order to surround and capture the privateer. Although the Prince could carry as many as 150 men, so many had been detailed as prize crews that there were only 37 men on board fit to fight.

But while outnumbered three to one, Captain Ordronaux vowed to blow his ship up rather than surrender, and his crew fought with extraordinary ferocity. Theodore Roosevelt, in his utterly splendid The Naval War of 1812 , described the “desperate and bloody struggle”: “Men fought like wild beasts and grappled with each other in deadly embrace. Knives, pistols, cutlasses, marlin spikes, belaying pins—anything that could deal an effective blow—were in requisition, while even bare fists, fingernails, and teeth came into play.”

The battle was over in twenty minutes, when the surviving British called for quarter and were taken prisoner. Of the five attacking boats, one was sunk, three adrift beyond recovery, and one was captured. The British losses were 33 killed and 37 wounded, and 30 made prisoners; only 11 escaped. Of the Prince de Neufchâtel ’s crew of 37, 7 were killed and 24 were wounded, 15 severely. Only 6 able-bodied sailors were left to handle the ship. Regardless, Ordronaux was able to land his prisoners and wounded on Nantucket and make it back to Boston safely with his prize and booty intact.

A few months later, under a different captain, the Prince de Neufchâtel was captured when she encountered three British frigates in a fierce storm and lost a spar trying to escape. So impressed was the British commander with the Prince that he ordered her to England to have her lines taken off. Unfortunately, when she was refloated in dry dock, she hung up on the sill of the dock gates and broke her back.

But if the Prince de Neufchâtel came to an early end after a glorious career, many of her sister privateers survived and entered a far less glorious form of enterprise after the war. For alas, the very qualities that made them successful as privateers—great speed and the ability to hold large numbers of human beings—made them all too useful as slavers.