cover image Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution

Rebels at Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution

Eric Jay Dolin. Liveright, $32.50 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63149-825-1

American privateers were “at the very center” of the patriotic cause during the Revolutionary War, according to this spirited account from historian Dolin (A Furious Sky). Armed ships that were “owned and outfitted by private individuals who had government permission to capture enemy ships in times of war,” privateers were “like a cost-free navy,” Dolin explains. He vividly describes a privateersman’s life at sea on a typical “cruise”; contends that American privateering in the Caribbean helped “create the situation” in which British general John Burgoyne’s surrender at the Battle of Saratoga led France to enter the war against Britain; and details horrific conditions in British prisons where captured privateersmen were held. But the book’s greatest strength are the up-close portraits of the sailors themselves, a motley crew that includes George Washington’s future dentist, John Greenwood, and Capt. Jonathan Haraden of Massachusetts, who seized hundreds of British cannons and prisoners. In Dolin’s eagerness to show that privateering “was critical to winning the war,” and to portray privateers as well-organized revolutionaries rather than lawless pirates, he occasionally veers into hagiography. Still, this is a well-researched and thoroughly entertaining tribute to men who “stepped forward and risked their lives to help make [the United States] a reality.” (May)