Merchantmen, Armed

views updated


MERCHANTMEN, ARMED. Absence of international law at sea in the colonial and early national periods motivated American shipping interests to arm their vessels against piracy and privateering. Freedom of the seas was essential to the young republic's economic survival. Merchant ships like the Ranger, engaged in West Indian trade in 1782, carried seven guns, plus muskets and pikes.

To limit the possibility of international incident, Congress on 3 March 1805 required such ships to pledge that their ordnance would be used for defense only. During the War of 1812, U.S. merchant ships, typically armed with six-pounders, sailed clandestinely in and out of British ports, and traded in China, the West Indies, and South America.

The Declaration of Paris (16 April 1856) abolished privateering. This action, coupled with the gradual disappearance of piracy, obviated the need for armed merchantmen. Nevertheless, in 1877 and 1894, the U.S. Department of State, responding to threats against U.S. merchant ships, authorized ships to arm for self-defense.

During World War I, Germany announced on 31 January 1917 a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Consequently, President Woodrow Wilson approved the arming of U.S. merchant ships with naval gun crews. Just prior to American entrance into World War II, German submarines had attacked U.S. ships in the Atlantic; on 13 November 1941 Congress authorized the use of naval armed guards aboard merchant ships similar to those of World War I. The convoy routes to Murmansk and to the Mediterranean were continually harried by German U-boats and bombing aircraft. The Allied combat campaigns would never have succeeded without the merchant ship convoys.


Bunker, John. Heroes in Dungarees: The Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War II. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Felknor, Bruce L., ed. The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775– 1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Safford, Jeffrey J. Wilsonian Maritime Diplomacy, 1913–1921. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1978.

Paul B.Ryan/a. r.

See alsoAtlantic, Battle of the ; Lend-Lease ; Murmansk ; Neutrality ; Privateers and Privateering .