Unable to finance or form a navy, Confederate President Jefferson Davis chose a unique way of raising troops and a naval presence against Federal ships. Davis issued a “letters of marque” calling for privateers to raid Federal vessels. A Letter of Marque or Reprisal was a government license which authorized privateers to attack and capture enemy vessels. Once in the privateer’s hands, these vessels were brought before courts for sale.
How one viewed a letter of marque depended on which side one declared allegiance. For the Confederacy, a letter of marque was a time-tested calling dating back to the 1300s. This calling was a combination of profit and patriotism. For the Federal government, such a practice was without question piracy.
One of the first such vessels for the Confederacy was the Privateer Savannah. Armed with single eighteen-pounder cannon which had been converted into a rifled gun, the Savannah quickly captured a merchant ship as a prize of war.
Commanded by Captain Harrison Baker, the Savannah’s naval career was short. Two weeks after leaving Charleston it was captured by the USS Perry. Baker and his crew was put in irons and taken to New York. Once at New York, the privateers were imprisoned and tried for piracy.
Since the Lincoln administration failed to recognize Davis’ letter of marque, the privateers from the Savannah were imprisoned and prepared to stand trial for piracy. If they were found guilty, these privateers could receive a death sentence.
On Oct. 23, 1861, the trial against Baker and his privateers was held in New York. The trial attracted public attention from the north and outrage from the south. The Confederate government threatened certain retaliation, a life for a life.
After a week long trial, the case was sent to the jury. By the next day, the jury announced that they were deadlocked. The prisoners remained imprisoned until a second trial could be held. Meanwhile, the Federal government decided to no longer press charges against the privateers. They remained behind bars as prisoners of war and were later exchanged for Union prisoners.
With privateers being tried as pirates, the allure of serving the Confederacy as privateers began to wane. The most successful Confederate privateer was the former slave ship Echo which was renamed the Jefferson Davis in honor of the Confederate president. In two months at sea, the Privateer Jefferson Davis captured nine vessels before running aground in a gale near Jacksonville, Fla.