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. These Patriot Pirates flew a black and yellow flag that the British soon came to fear more than the flags of the colonies.
Throughout the war, it was estimated that 70,000-plus men served aboard privateers that carried upward of 20,000-plus guns. Compare that with the Continental Navy, which had a total of 53 ships, 340 officers and 3,000 men, and carried only 2,770 guns.
Privateers captured an estimated 3,087 prizes, including 89 British privateers.
American seamen captured at sea’ were considered traitors and their treatment was harsh, particularly for those imprisoned in England, which most Americans were captured on land. also received harsh treatment on the British prison ships, but they were considered to be prisoners of war. It is a little-known fact that more Americans died while in captivity than in all the sea and land battles combined. The Continental Navy and the privateers combined captured 16,000 seamen, compared with 22,000 British soldiers/loyalists captured on land.
Estimates of the total value of privateers’ prizes captured range from $15 million to $60 million. (The British estimated that 10 percent of the troops and cargo sent to. America never made it.)
The navy never had more than eight ships at sea at one time during the war, while the privateers had hundreds. In 1781, for instance, there were only three navy vessels at sea compared with 499 privateers.