Historical Documents

of the United States of America

Instructions To The Commanders Of Private Ships Or Vessels Of War ~ 1776

Passed 03 April 1776


     In keeping with the subject of the resolves enacted by the Second Continental Congress regarding privateers, on Wednesday, April 3rd, the following Instructions To The Commanders Of Private Ships Or Vessels Of War were discussed and approved.


     Instructions to the commanders of private ships or vessels of war, which shall have commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, authorizing them, to make captures of British vessels and cargoes.
     1. You may, by force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all ships and other vessels belonging to the inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high water and low water mark, except ships and vessels bringing persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies; or bringing arms, ammunition, or warlike stores, to the said colonies, for the use of such inhabitants thereof as are friends to the American cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the commanders thereof permitting a peaceable search, and giving satisfactory information of the contents of the ladings, and destinations of the voyages.
     2. You may, by force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all ships and other vessels whatsoever, carrying soldiers, arms, gunpowder, ammunition, provisions, or any other contraband goods, to any of the British armies or ships of war employed against these colonies.
     3. You shall bring such ships and vessels, as you shall take, with their guns, rigging, tackle, apparel, furniture, and ladings, to some convenient port or ports of the United Colonies, that proceedings may thereupon be had, in due form, before the courts, which are or shall be there appointed to hear and determine causes civil and maritime.
     4. You, or one of your chief officers, shall bring or send the master and pilot, and one or more principal person or persons of the company of every ship or vessel by you taken, as soon after the capture as may be, to the judge or judges of such court as aforesaid, to be examined upon oath, and make answer to the interrogatories which may be propounded, touching the interest or property of the ship or vessel, and her lading; and, at the same time, you shall deliver, or cause to be delivered, to the judge or judges, all passes, sea-briefs, charter-parties, bills of lading, cockets, letters, and other documents and writings found on board, proving the said papers, by the affidavit of yourself, or of some other person present at the capture, to be producd as they were received, without fraud, addition, subduction, or embezzlement.
     5. You shall keep and preserve every ship or vessel, and cargo, by you taken, until they shall, by a sentence of a court properly authorized, be adjudged lawful prizes; not selling, spoiling, wasting, or diminishing the same, or breaking the bulk thereof, nor suffering any such thing to be done.
     6. If you, or any of your officers or crew, shall, in cold blood, kill or maim, or by torture or otherwise, cruelly, inhumanly, and, contrary to common usage, and the practice of civilized nations in war, treat any person or persons surprized in the ship or vessel you shall take, the offender shall be severely punished.
     7. You shall, by all convenient opportunities, send to Congress written accounts of the captures you shall make, with the number and names of the captives, copies of your journal from time to time, and intelligence of what may occur or be discovered concerning the designs of the enemy, and the destination, motions, and operations of their fleets and armies.
     8. One-third, at least, of your whole company shall be landsmen.
     9. You shall not ransom any prisoners or captives, but shall dispose of them in such manner, as the Congress, or, if that be not sitting in the colony whither they shall be brought, as the general assembly, convention, or council, or committee of safety, of such colony shall direct.
     10. You shall observe all such further instructions as Congress shall hereafter give in the premises, when you shall have notice thereof.
     11. If you shall do anything contrary to these instructions, or to others hereafter to be given, or willingly suffer such things to be done, you shall not only forfeit your commission, and be liable to an action for the breach of the condition of your bond, but be responsible to the party grieved for damages sustained by such malversation.
From Journals Of The Continental Congress 1774-1789, Volume IV, 1906, Government Printing Office, Pages 253-254.