A painting of the Prince de Neufchatel by Charles J. Lundgren. (IMAGE COURTESY HELMUTH STONE GALLERY)

My late father, a dedicated builder of wooden model ships, gifted me my favorite model, of the War of 1812 privateer Prince de Neufchatel. My wife and I proudly displayed the Prince in the parlor when we owned the Brewster House Bed & Breakfast in Freeport. Being retired, I was recently searching the internet for the history of this beautiful Baltimore clipper. I managed to find not only an amazing, detailed history, but also a crew list from British archives, taken from a prisoner list made following the ship’s capture in late December 1814. On that list was James Alexander, able seaman from Harpswell and member of one of the town’s founding families.

At the time of the War of 1812, the young USA had a tiny Navy relative to Britain’s, so the system of offering “letters of marque” to private vessels was the U.S. counter to British warships and their incredible numbers. The letters entitled the captain and crews of these privateers to split the value of their victims’ cargo and specie (coins, some made from precious metals), so they had great incentive to be ferocious! In fact, the pressure these privateers applied to British merchant shipping was a prime motivator behind the British mercantile public pressing their government for peace at war’s end.

The Prince was built in New York in 1812, a topsail schooner. She was converted to an armed, 18-gun privateer, with letter of marque issued in Cherbourg, France, in the spring of 1814. She was 110 feet overall; 93 feet, 8 inches on the waterline; carrying four spars for square sails on her foremast; with a crew of 35-80 men.

These Baltimore clippers were famous blockade runners and interdicted British shipping, as U-boats did for the Germans in the world wars. With much lighter-caliber guns, they carried huge sailing rigs. They could not only easily outrun the much larger British men-of-war, with a top speed of 13 knots to 6 for the big British frigates; they could also sail much closer to the wind.

On departing France in early March 1814, the Prince quickly took nine enemy vessels as prizes, most of which were returned to French ports. We don’t know if James joined the ship’s company in France, or later in New York or Boston, but the promise of riches for a hardscrabble 25-year-old from Harpswell must have been exciting!

In June, the Prince sent six more prizes into Le Havre, France, in a week. In August, she was back in the English Channel, where she sank a merchant ship that refused to surrender. In September, she took or sank 15 more prizes, then made for Boston.

In October, the Prince set sail for more action. On Oct. 10, she was about a half-mile south of the Nantucket Shoals with a prize in tow when, at noon, the crew noticed a pursuer off Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard. As sometimes happens, the Prince was becalmed, while the 50-gun British frigate Endymion had the breeze and was closing. By 7 p.m., the Endymion and Prince were only about a quarter-mile apart. Capt. J. Ordonaux cast off her prize, the Douglas, in one last attempt to evade the Endymion, but to no avail.

Ninety minutes later, when it was dark, Prince’s crew in the Douglas signaled that several boats from the frigate were approaching the Prince. Ordonaux called all hands and prepared a reception for the British boats. As soon as she could make them out, the Prince opened fire with cannon and small arms. The English continued their attack and boarded from five boats at five different points.

A bloody battle ensued on deck, with knives, pistols, cutlasses and belaying pins. A few British tars did make the deck, but Prince’s crew dispatched them, knowing that Ordonaux had vowed he would never be taken alive by the British.

After 20 minutes, the British called out for quarter. Endymion counted 49 dead and 37 wounded, while 30 of her crew were prisoners. This attack was against a total crew of 37 on the Prince, which suffered seven dead and 24 wounded. The prisoners were sent ashore to Nantucket, while Prince ran into Boston on Oct. 15.

In December, following repairs, the Prince set sail again, running a blockade off Boston on the night of Dec. 21. On the fifth day out, she ran into a horrendous, three-day storm, which seriously damaged her rigging and spars. She was overrun by three British frigates, Leander, Newcastle and Acosta, and taken back to Fayal in the Azores, to await transport to Britain. The crew would spend the rest of the war as British prisoners.

The Prince was returned to Britain for study, as she was so fast. Sadly, she was dropped and damaged beyond repair when being dry-docked for examination. 

Fortunately, the War of 1812 ended shortly after Alexander and his shipmates on the Prince were imprisoned. Alexander returned home, where he married Eleanor Dunlap, from Brunswick, in June of 1815. They had a son, Robert, born in December 1816, and purchased a 100-acre farm in Bowdoinham in February 1818. Was he able to do so from prize money won during his adventures on the Prince de Neufchatel? The value of the prizes taken by the Prince were estimated at $3 million in 1800s dollars, not including specie, so her owner and many crew members’ lives were greatly improved by the 10 short months of her privateering life!

Thanks to Sam Alexander for providing information on his family’s deep roots here.

References for the history of the Prince de Neufchatel include “A History of American Privateers,” by Edgar Stanton Maclay.

Scott Gile, a longtime sailor, lives on Orr’s Island. He inherited his interest in history from his father, who served with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.