Merchant Seamen Struck First Blow for U.S. Independence

By MarEx 2014-07-03 15:07:00

On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the independence of a new United States of America from Great Britain and its king. The declaration came 442 days after the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts and marked an ideological expansion of the conflict that would eventually involve France's intervention on behalf of the Americans.

Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War

The 13 Colonies, having declared their Independence, had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic.

On June 12, 1775, near Round Island on Machias Bay the patriots crashed into the British armed schooner Margaretta and engaged in hand to hand combat. The British crew was disheartened when their captain was mortally wounded and lost the one hour long battle. 25 of the combatants were killed or wounded. The victors claimed "four double fortified three pounders and fourteen swivels" and some smaller guns.

This was considered the first sea engagement of the Revolution and the start of the merchant marine's war role.

Because of British policy regarding import of gunpowder, the colonists did not have enough to repel the third British charge at Bunker Hill. A survey by George Washington at the time showed army stockpiles were sufficient for 9 rounds per man. By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter. 

Privateer John Manley captured the Nancy, supplying the American army with 2,000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 7,000 round-shot for cannon, and other ammunition. Captain Jonathan Haraden from Salem, Massachusetts, who captured 1,000 British cannon, was considered one of the best sea-fighters, successfully taking on three armed British ships at the same time. Privateers captured countless British reinforcements and over 10,000 seamen, keeping them out of the British Navy.

In 1777, there were 11,000 privateers at sea intercepting British shipping in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and even between Ireland and England.

Together, the Continental Navy and privateers captured 16,000 British prisoners, a substantial contribution in comparison with the 15,000 prisoners taken by the entire Continental Army before the surrender at Yorktown. The crew of the privateers were well paid for their hazardous work, earning as much as $1,000 for one voyage, while average pay at the time was $9 per month.

About 55,000 American seamen served aboard the privateers. When captured by the British Navy, they were given a choice: join the British Navy or prison. The conditions of captivity aboard the prison ships, mostly abandoned ships moored in New York harbor, were inhuman. The most infamous of these was the HMS Jersey. About 11,000 privateers died of disease and malnutrition, their bodies dumped onto the mud flats of Wallabout Bay, where Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands.

These Mariners lost their lives in the founding of our Nation and were a major factor in the winning of the Revolution.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was largely the work of Virginian Thomas Jefferson. The declaration features the immortal lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It then goes on to present a long list of grievances that provided the rationale for rebellion. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve a Virginia motion calling for separation from Britain. The dramatic words of this resolution were added to the closing of the Declaration of Independence.

Two days later, on July 4, the declaration was formally adopted by 12 colonies after minor revision. New York, the 13th colony, approved it on July 19. On August 2, the declaration was signed. 

Many Americans celebrate Independence Day with fireworks and patriotic displays of red, white and blue, just as the founding fathers commemorated the Fourth of July at the end of the Revolutionary War. 

This is a time for us to reflect on how we can best uphold the same ideals that drove our founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, which among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."