During 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.
Chasseur ~ The Original "Pride of Baltimore"
One 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, 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 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.
Baltimore Clippers After the War of 1812
With the cessation of hostilities, there was little need for fast, armed schooners with limited cargo space. American commerce required larger vessels that could carry more goods. In the 1840s a new generation of fast large ships evolved that came to be known as Yankee Clippers or simply Clipper Ships. These were three masted, full-rigged ships, that is, they had square sails on all three masts. Although the design and construction of these vessels is generally attributed to New England shipyards, some were built in Fells Point, including the beautiful Ann McKim, one of the largest and swiftest clippers ever to sail.
In the meantime, the owners and masters of the fleet of Baltimore Clippers built before 1815 searched for ways to keep themselves and their vessels profitably occupied after the war. They had three options. They could: 1) enter the emerging China trade, as depicted below in Whampao (Canton) harbor, where delivery of even a small cargo of exotic goods from the Orient could bring a profit; 2) continue as armed privateers, only this time in service to one or another of the Central or South American countries in revolt from Spain; or 3) enter the lucrative, but illegal, slave trade.
Chasseur's history is illustrative of the fate of Baltimore Clippers. Just three months after her triumphal return to Baltimore from her exploits against the British Isles, she set sail for Canton, China. According to the super cargo's log of the six month voyage around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and up the coast of Southeast Asia, she encountered gale force winds, but sailed well. In Canton, she loaded on a cargo of tea, silk, satin, porcelain and other high demand items for the return voyage. Despite deteriorating conditions of the ship, she set a speed record from Canton to the Virginia Capes in 95 days. This Orient-to-America record held for 16 years until it was broken by the clipper Atlantic in 1832. Her cargo of exotic goods did indeed sell for a handsome profit for her owners.
Shortly thereafter, Chasseur was sold to the Spanish Royal Navy and renamed Cazador. She ended her days as an armed patrol vessel in the Caribbean - ironically in the service of a colonial power.
Thus the era of the Baltimore Clipper had come to an end. However, the tradition of imaginative ship design and audacious sailing flourished in the shipyards of America. Baltimore's tradition of maritime adventure has been rekindled by the Prides of Baltimore.