When revolution broke out, the Continental Congress decided to augment its tiny navy by licensing commercial ships to harass and capture British vessels. Since it was an easy matter to convert a merchantman into a privateer, Salem became a center for this combination of profit and patriotism which was also practiced during the War of 1812.
Privateering was by far the most popular form of patriotic service since it paid better wages, was safer, and more fun than the army or navy. It was more patriotic than profitable, however, and the Derbys, already merchantmen, were the only firm to maintain their fortune during this period.
Privateering helped the port of Salem survive the Revolutionary War, but the lack of steady, lucrative trade severely weakened Salem’s economy. By the time the war ended, the port of Salem was nearly idle and the monopoly on the West Indies trade had been lost along with most of the cod fishing vessels. It would have been no easy matter, at this point, to rebuild a fishing fleet. This forced the expansion of Salem’s trade routes to Africa, the Indies, and the Far East.
Following the lead by Elias Hasket Derby’s Astrea around Africa in 1789, Salem ships such as the Friendship traded West-India sugar, New-England rum and French brandy for tea, silk, ginger, Indian cottons, wine, and whatever produce of Asia, Africa and the Indies was selected at the shipmaster’s discretion.
One of Salem’s most famous ships was the U.S. Frigate Essex, the only warship Salem’s shipyards ever produced. The 850-ton frigate was the largest ever built in Salem and was constructed entirely from Essex county materials by master shipbuilder, Enos Briggs. The 32-gun Essex was built from a $75,000 subscription raised by Salem merchants and citizens as a donation to the fledgling American navy. The copper fittings were provided by Paul Revere of Boston, while the figurehead and fancy woodwork were provided by Salem’s Samuel McIntire.
Although launched in 1799, the Essex saw no combat until the war of 1812. In 1814, at the neutral harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, in a final battle, two British warships continued to fire upon the Essex even after she had struck her colors. The captured Essex was reduced to a shattered hulk and almost one quarter of the crew killed.