Prizes and Prize Money

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Prizes and Prize Money

PRIZES AND PRIZE MONEY. Although associated primarily with operations at sea, prize money also was awarded to officers and men who captured enemy property on land. The value of the capture was computed and prize money was awarded in accordance with a scale based on rank. Few disputes were as bitter and long lasting as those over prize money, with different ships, officers, and entire military services fighting over who deserved what share of captured property. For instance, after the British took Charleston in May 1780, the navy entered its claim to all of the goods seized, seeking to cut the army out of any share of the prize money. Sir Henry Clinton appealed to the Privy Council for a fair consideration of the army's claim but never received satisfaction.

In addition to every form of moveable property being subject to claims of ownership by the soldiers or sailors who captured them, slaves were considered prizes of war. Some Patriots were troubled by this standard. When a company of the Green Mountain Regiment captured a British officer in 1775, the company's men were informed that they were now considered the owner of his slave and her child. They voted unanimously that slavery violated the cause for which they fought and issued the woman a document proclaiming her freedom. Other Continental soldiers were not so scrupulous in their adherence to the ideals of liberty.

As for naval prizes and prize money, under maritime law the private property of an enemy power captured at sea under certain legal circumstances was a prize, and the proceeds of its sale were normally adjudicated by a prize court. On the English side, a healthy proportion, usually one-third, of all captured goods went to the king. Prize money usually went in its entirety to privateersmen, but if the prize were taken by a warship, then only half of the prize's value, prorated in accordance with the normal pay scale, went to the officers and men, with the rest going into state or congressional coffers. A prize master and crew took the captured ship into a home port or that of an allied power for condemnation in accordance with prize law. If the capture were illegal, that is, inside neutral waters and by a ship not bearing letters of marque and reprisal, the prize court would release the ship and award damages. Sailors were well aware that privateers did far better in the winning of prizes than ships of the Continental navy, and they therefore generally preferred service in the former over the latter. Later estimates of the amount awarded in prizes supports the judgment of the seamen. Eighteen million dollars worth of prizes were taken by six hundred American privateers whose crews averaged one hundred men, compared to two hundred prizes claimed by the Continental navy worth some six million dollars.


Clark, William Bell. Ben Franklin's Privateers: A Naval Epic of the American Revolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.

Winslow, Richard E., III. Winslow III, "Wealth and Honour." In Portsmouth During the Gold Age of Privateering, 1775–1815. Portsmouth, N.H.: Peter Randall, 1988.

                            revised by Michael Bellesiles