Chesapeake Bay Privateers in the Revolution by Leonard Szaltis (The History Press, 2019)
Leonard Szaltis does the reader the favor of stipulating the intent of his piece: “To demonstrate the circumstances colonists faced in one local region . . . to increase knowledge about the history of the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore during the American Revolution.” One of the most effective ways to learn history is to focus on a narrow time, specific place, and focused topic. Szaltis’ book paints a detailed picture of the Chesapeake Bay region by offering detailed accounts of specific armed conflicts and the activities of individual privateers. Through reading Chesapeake Bay Privateers in the Revolution however, the reader is also exposed to broader topics such as the different loyalties of the colonists during The American Revolution, the hypocrisy of nascent colonial governments, the burden placed on the colonists’ resources by both sides, and the continued hostilities after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and before the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The context surrounding the intent of the book teaches the reader a lot about the American Revolution while focusing on the activities of privateers operating in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Bay “included the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) Peninsula,” referred to as the Eastern Shore, which is a major focus of the book. The unique geography of the region, where “mainlanders” and “eastern shoreman” were separated by the Chesapeake Bay, contributed to political and social divides among the local colonists. One of the questions the author asks is why members of the same family would have fought on opposite sides of the war. He delves into the Mister family to explore that question, including the privateer Stephen Mister who attacked American vessels and Marmaduke Mister who fought on both sides of the war. To further complicate the dynamic in the region, some colonists disapproved of both sides due to the pillaging of the loyalist privateers and confiscation of provisions by patriot forces. The topic of the book provides an interesting view of the lack of unity among the colonists and why they were not completely unified.
Hilary G. Derby, PhD, aptly describes the privateers discussed in the book as those “who combined patriotism with profit” (page 8). Chesapeake Bay was a “vital water way for Loyalists and Patriots,” which is why the local sailors attracted “letters of marque” from both sides to act as privateers. Szaltis creates a vivid picture of how privateers operated by focusing on the activities of specific privateers like Joseph Wheland and Stephen Mister. To do so, he includes fascinating primary sources such as depositions and correspondence to the Maryland Council of Safety. In his description of the Battle of the Barges and its aftermath alone there are over forty references, including primary sources, which demonstrates the author’s dedication to providing the reader with intricate anecdotes of the activities in Chesapeake Bay during The Revolution. The extensive use of primary sources also provides small pleasures to enthusiasts of the American Revolution. The casual historian would likely be unaware that colonial governors referred to each other as “Excellency” if they had not seen the correspondence between Maryland governor Thomas Sim Lee and Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson that Szaltis publishes in the book.
Szaltis acknowledges that there is a lack of published media focused on the events that occurred in the Chesapeake Bay during the war for American independence, which makes his efforts to provide a cohesive vision of the topic important. He used over 200 references and over 60 sources to produce Chesapeake Bay Privateers in the Revolution. From introduction to conclusion the book is only ninety-six pages, which, considering the number of sources and the range of material presented, proves the rigorous effort the author expended to illuminate a very important and narrow topic essential to understanding the American Revolution as a whole. Leonard Szaltis indicated his hope that there will be further examination of the events in the Chesapeake Bay during the American Revolution and the skill with which this book was written should ensure that there is.