Origins of a Confederate Privateer

By Sam Craghead
Public Relations Manager

H. L. Hunley, A Primer…Part 2 of 6


Reiterating a topic introduced in Part 1, a "privateer" was a vessel owned by a private individual or group of individuals.  Its owner(s) were focused upon the profit to be gained, while functioning beneath the government-issued letter of marque.  Profit would be realized by capturing an enemy merchant ship; substituting a “prize crew” (a few of their own men on board); and the prize crew sailing the merchant ship to a neutral or friendly port, where the case of the captured would be presented in a “prize court” for adjudication.

If the court determined the capture was legitimate and not a neutral vessel, the ship and its goods would be sold at auction.  The proceeds of such sale would be divided between the court (the government) and the owners and crew of the vessel which captured it.  If the ship was declared neutral, it would be returned to its owners.

From the Southern government, Confederate privateers destroying enemy warships would receive twenty percent of the ship’s cost and $20.00 per person on board the defeated ship at the commencement of the attack. (Standard practice for a privateer had been not to attack an enemy warship.)

As also outlined in Part 1, the United States was not a signatory to the Declaration of Paris, outlawing privateering.  Therefore, it was not a violation of international law for the Confederacy (formerly part of the United States at the time of the 1856 Declaration) to issue such letters of marque.

Although not considered a means for blockade-breaking, the reward proffered by the Confederate government to privateers, under the authority of a letter of marque, served as an incentive to two New Orleans’ business partners: Baxter Watson and James R. McClintock, who manufactured steam gauges in their shop.  Another gentleman was to join them in their work:  Horace L. Hunley.  A wealthy planter and lawyer, Hunley also was the Deputy Collector of Customs for the city of New Orleans.  Their “submarine propeller” would be constructed at the Leeds Foundry in New Orleans.

Steamer New London (no information found on Clarence)

Mr. McClintock stated to a U. S. Naval Officer that, “…U.S. steamers New London and Clarence had been a menace on the lake (Pontchartrain), and this gave rise to the torpedo boat.”  By February 1862, the small vessel was ready for trials.  The successful trials took place from the launching point at New Basin in the city.  The builders applied for a letter of marque for a vessel called Pioneer (a Hunley predecessor), listing: John K. Scott as commander; and Robert R. Barrow, Baxter Watson, and James R. McClintock as the owners.  Pioneer was described as a propeller:  34 feet in length; 4 feet breadth; and 4 feet deep.  Pioneer measured 4 tons; had round conical ends; and was painted black.  The armament consisted of a “magazine of powder,” (i.e. a torpedo…known today as a mine).  The owners submitted a bond for $5,000, and the letter of marque was issued on March 31, 1862.

With the capture of New Orleans by the U. S. Navy at noon on April 25, 1862, Pioneer was scuttled in the New Basin Canal. The submarine later was raised and inspected by two U. S. naval officers.  In addition to the information listed on the application for the letter of marque, the officers added:  “The torpedo…was of the clock-work type, and, was intended to be screwed to the bottom of the enemy’s ship.  Mr. McClintock…informed me that he made several descents in his boat, in the lake (Pontchartrain), and succeeded in destroying a small schooner and several rafts.”

Baird, Cmdr. G. W. USN, Submarine Torpedo Boats, Journal of the Society of Naval Engineers, Volume XIV, Washington, D. C., 1902

With New Orleans now in the hands of the Union and their submarine lost, privateers Watson, McClintock, and Hunley relocated their operation to Mobile, Alabama.

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