Baltimore Clippers - Pirates of the Chesapeake

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During the War of 1812, Baltimore was referred to a "nest of pirates" by the British whose commercial shipping was repeatedly attacked by the swift and daring privateers sailing under a "Letter of Marquee" from the infant United States of America.

The Baltimore Clippers, with tall masts and vast expanses of canvas for it's relatively small size, chased down British commercial shipping and frustrated blockades by outsailing the powerful but sluggish British Naval ships. A replica of the famous Baltimore Clipper ship was constructed as a good will ambassador for the City of Baltimore. She was named "Pride of Balimore". That ship was lost at sea with all hands during an Atlantic crossing.

A second replica, named "Pride of Baltimore II" was built and is still sailing the world when not birthed at the inner harbor in Baltimore.

From the Pride of Baltimore


Letter of MarqueDuring the War of 1812, America's Second War of Independence, President James Madison attempted to overcome the small size of the US Navy by issuing Letters of Marquee and Reprisal to private ship owners. This document allowed its holder to arm his vessel and act as a privateer, or, in essence, a legal pirate, representing the United States. Privateers were permitted to prey upon the merchant fleet of the belligerent nation, Great Britain, and take captured cargo and vessels as prizes. American privateers, many of them sailing out of Chesapeake Bay in Baltimore Clippers built in Fells Point, captured or sank some 1,700 British merchant vessels during the two and a half year war. Other Baltimore Clippers served as cargo vessels to bring needed munitions and other armaments through the naval blockade that the British imposed on the US coastline, including Chesapeake Bay.

Schooner Painting Schooner Painting


the original "Pride of Baltimore"

Ship Burning PaintingOne of the most famous of the American privateers was Captain Thomas Boyle, who sailed his Baltimore Clipper, Chasseur, out of Fells Point, where she had been launched from Thomas Kemp's shipyard in 1812. On his first voyage as master of Chasseur in 1814, Boyle unexpectedly sailed east, directly to the British Isles, where he unmercifully harassed the British merchant fleet. In a characteristically audacious act, he sent a notice to the King by way of a captured merchant vessel that he had released for the purpose. The notice, he commanded, was to be posted on the door of Lloyd's of London, the famous shipping underwriters. In it he declared that the entire British Isles were under naval blockade by Chasseur alone! This affront sent the shipping community into panic and caused the Admiralty to call vessels home from the American war to guard merchant ships which had to sail in convoys. In all, Chasseur captured or sank 17 vessels before returning home.

On Chasseur's triumphal return to Baltimore on March 25, 1815, the Niles Weekly Register dubbed the ship, her captain, and crew the "pride of Baltimore" for their daring exploits.

The Chesapeake Campaign

and the "Star Spangled Banner"

In retaliation for the actions of the Baltimore privateers, the British launched the Chesapeake Campaign in 1814 for the purpose of "cleaning out that nest of pirates in Baltimore." Its goal - to shut down the shipyards of Fells Point and halt the production of the deadly Baltimore Clippers. On their way up the Bay, the British captured and sacked Washington, DC. They burned the Capitol and White House ( Editor's note: actually the President's house. It was not named the White House until it was rebuit after the fire. ), the only such indignity to our national capital by a foreign power.

Continuing up the Bay, they sought to capture Baltimore by way of a combined land and naval attack. They were rebuffed on both fronts. On September 12, 1814, Baltimore troops fought a two hour battle to delay the British land forces at the Battle of North Point before they reached the City. Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore harbor, withstood a ferocious 25 hour naval bombardment on September 12 and 13, 1814. It was during this bombardment that Maryland lawyer poet, Francis Scott Key, spotted "by dawn's early light" the huge "star spangled banner" still flying over Ft. McHenry. He penned a description of the sight and his patriotic reaction on the back of an envelope. The poem has gone down in history as our national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

Rebuffed by the Baltimore patriots, the British retreated down the Bay to [ on to ] New Orleans, where on January 8, 1815, they were soundly defeated by Andrew Jackson. The Treaty of Ghent, signed by the British on Christmas Eve, 1814, and by President Madison on February 12, 1815, brought a formal end to hostilities between America and Britain. This time the armistice held. The victory, although a great triumph for American sailing ingenuity and audacity, signaled the end of the era dominated by Baltimore Clippers.

From Hillsdale College
Privateer in the War of 1812
Joseph Valpey

After taking our prisoners out we put a prize master and crew on board and ordered her for the United States. On the twentieth "Sail O" again was the cry of the man at the mast head and all hands was called to make sail in chase. After coming up with her she proved to be the English merchant brig Harriot in ballast. After taking out the prisoners, sails, and provisions &c we burnt her there. It appears that the Lord does favour us. We steered away to the eastward under easy sail until the twenty-third, when we discovered a brig endeavoring to shun us if possible, but we soon in a cloud of sail overhauled her. She proved to be the English merchant brig placed in ballast. After taking out the prisoners, sails, provisions, and four twelve-pound cannonades, we burnt her. That evening we boarded an Portuguese brig and put all of our prisoners on board and ordered her to Lisbon by the prisoners' request.

Early in the morning on the twenty-eighth the man at mast head discovered a sail. On boarding her we found her to be the same brig that we ordered for the United States on the Eighteenth Ins. The prize master, in hopes of making his fortune, put back for Cadiz but he was received on board the privateer again and put on board and ordered for the States. Then we bore up to the northward and eastward and on the first day of May at daylight we discovered a large ship and a brig. It being moderate, all hands was immediately called to sweep oars. We swept to windward of them and then observing that they wished for to keep clear from us we in sweeps and then went to breakfast. After breakfast all hands was called to quarters and sweeps again and hoisting our colours and then all hands with cheerful hearts turned to and by this time the brig had displayed the proud British flag and began to play upon us with her stern chaser's cannons but we took no notice of her shot but kept sweeping until the wind dying away and a smooth sea and we did not think it prudent to sweep along side not knowing what she was.

We took in our sweeps and cleared away for action. Their shot still flying over us with British glory we spliced the main brace and then turned to with coolness. We had given her but three broadsides when she gave us an unlucky shot between wind and water which obliged us to haul off as there was six feet of water in our hole and our powder considerably damaged. All hands then turned to our pumps and we stopped the leak in a few minutes. Our enemy was by this time in a crowd of sail endeavouring to get clear of us but our leak being stopped and we all taking a stiff dram we went to our sweeps and sweept towards a Portuguese brig who stood a silent spectator to our unpleasant play.

We boarded her and took out several boxes of oranges and learnt by her that the enemy was a brig-of-war mounting fourteen guns and ninety men. We took in our boat and stowed her and then opening the boxes we ate up all the oranges and then went to our sweeps again like hardy tars and with a light breeze of wind we had the pleasure of being along of him by dark when we began our play again and continued it until ten at night when it being very dark and we could not see her. But when she discharged her guns we thought it best to leave off our play until daylight but not forgetting to give her our long two-and-thirty guns every half-hour until half past one in the morning when it being our Second Lieutenant's watch on deck and he not having a good lookout kept she escaped us.

The next morning there being several sail in sight we gave chase to the one who was most suspected, but she proved to be a neutral. Then we turned to mend our sails and rigging, and the carpenters in repairing the shot holes and, as kind heavens would have it, we had no employment for the doctor. Nothing more worth our notice until the eighteenth when the man at the mast head discried a sail. All hands was called to make sail in chase. At eleven in the forenoon we came up with her and she proved to be an Irish schooner with a cargo of provisions bound to Lisbon.

After taking out our prisoners we put a prize master and crew on board and ordered her for the United States. The next day we boarded a neutral vessel and put our prisoners on board and wished them good luck. On the ninth at 1:00 PM the man at the mast gave us the joyful cry of "Sail O," but as the wind was light we made but little progress in coming up to her. At five in the afternoon we dispatched our boat with the First Lieutenant and fourteen men well armed to see what she might be. At half past nine the boat returned and gave us the joyful tidings that she was a brig under Sweedish colours with a British cargo of dry goods and jewlery from London.

Joseph Valpey. Journal of Joseph Valpey, Jr., of Salem. (Ann Arbor: 1922).




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