Feliksas Miklaševičius on the deck of the “Prince Radziwill.”

A Lithuanian Privateer in the American Revolution


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DURING THE AMERICAN Revolution, the Continental Congress built and commissioned a number of men-of-war. Several colonies also maintained their own fleets to engage the British warships and convoys. However, it was not the fledgling American Navy which bore the brunt of seafighting. The burden rested on the privateers. Privateers were adventurers, men of varied nationalities who received “letters of marque and reprisal” from a warring state to prey upon and plunder the shipping of the enemy. During the Revolutionary War, privateers harassed the English on the seas. They captured British supply and munitions ships. Sometimes the more daring privateers even succeeded in taking British menof-war.

Members of the Confederation of Bar pause for a moment of prayer before confronting the Russian army.
Members of the Confederation of Bar pause for a moment of prayer before confronting the Russian army.

Since privateering yielded much booty, it attracted many volunteers. On the other hand, privateering was a dangerous business. Many privateers died in the uneven seafights with the British. If captured, the privateers languished on the horrible prison ships in New York harbor or in English prisons. Commodore Herbert Hartley in his article “Down to the Sea in Yankee Ships” (American Legion, October, 1930) evaluates the role of the privateers as follows: “With all due respect to John Paul Jones, privateering did more to help us win the Revolution than the heroic efforts of our tiny navy.”

One of these patriotic privateers was a Lithuanian nobleman—Feliksas Miklaševičius (Felix Miklaszewicz). Although the Poles claim him as one of their own, neither his origins, nor his previous career in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had much to do with Poland Proper.

The Miklaševičius were a Lithuanian-Ruthenian noble family from the palatinate of Vitebsk.(2) The family name was first recorded in Vitebsk. During the 17th century, it also appeared in the palatinate of Polotsk. Both provinces were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the first loyalty of the LithuanianUkrainian-Belorussian nobility was to the Grand Duchy. Their fortunes were tied to Vilnius, not to Warsaw.

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Prince Karolis Radvilas, Palatine of Vilnius, Marshal of the Confederation of Bar, and great supporter of Feliksas Miklaševičius.

There are no records of Feliksas Miklaševičius’ past. We cannot determine where or when he was born. Only the archives of the majorat of Nešvyžius, home of the all-powerful Radvilas family, contain several letters of a Miklaševičius to Prince Karolis Radvilas. But none of these letters have the first name in the signature. The letters are dated 1748-1771. Their contents reveal that the author was a confidant of Karolis Radvilas, the Palatine of Vilnius. It appears that the author of the letters conducted Radvilas’ affairs in Warsaw. To tie this Miklaševičius with Feliksas is improbable, because the handwriting in these letters does not match that of Feliksas in America. These same archives of the Radvilas show that an Antanas Miklaševičius, born in Mogilev, was a sergeant in the Radvilas’ private army between 1760 and 1767. If these documents prove anything, it is the fact that the Miklaševičius family was in the service of Karolis Radvilas, in all probability as client gentry. In the words of the Polish American historian Mieczyslaw Haiman: “Felix Miklaszewicz, like many other nobles of the northeastern provinces of Poland, must have found himself early within the orbit of the Prince’s influence.” (Poland and the American Revolutionary War, p. 70.)

Like his benefactor, Feliksas Miklaševičius participated in the Confederation of Bar, an armed attempt by patriotic Lithuanian and Polish nobles to rid their Commonwealth of Russian interference. He was forced to flee into exile together with Karolis Radvilas. Although most of Prince Radvilas’ huge fortune was destroyed or seized by the victorious Russians, Radvilas gave financial assistance to his exile followers. Karolis Radvilas financed Count Casimir Pulaski who was in France with a number of other exile soldiers. It is possible that Miklaševičius was in France with them.

When news of the American Revolution reached Europe, Miklaševičius was either in Saxony with Radvilas, or in France with Pulaski. Inspired by the American call for assistance in their fight for freedom, Miklaševičius responded and left for America. One cannot determine when he arrived in America, there are no documents for the period prior to 1782. In all probability he arrived earlier, and he might have come over with Pulaski.

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Count Casimir Pulaski, another hero of the American Revolution, is believed to have accompanied Miklaševičius to America.

It is impossible to explain why this nobleman from landlocked Lithuania chose to fight for the American cause as a seaman. He might have joined some privateer earlier as a means of serving the Americans. On the Continental bond of “Prince Radziwill,” he gave his occupation as “mariner.” Once he became commander of his own vessel, he must have had some practical knowledge of naval warfare. An excellent training for landlubbers was to join as a sailor on a privateering ship.

In 1778, Casimir Pulaski proposed to the governor of Maryland that a brig be furnished for sea action. But this proposal came to nought. Miklaševičius may have had a hand in this project.

Successful participation in privateering expeditions earned Miklaševičius so much money that he was able to purchase his own vessel and use it to pursue the British in 1782. This was after General Cornwallis had capitulated at Yorktown. Though land operations had virtually ceased at the time, the sea war continued. Miklaševičius’ efforts are noteworthy because he rallied forth toward the end of the war, when, according to the noted naval historian Charles Lincoln, “privateers were few in number, the risks of venturing greatly increased.”

The Continental bond which Miklaševičius gave on September 5, 1782 in exchange for the “letter of marque” given him by the Continental Congress is the first American document about him. In fact, we learn that the first ship of Miklaševičius was the “Scotch Trick.” He probably bought it second-hand and retained the old name. In the bond, Miklaševičius is named as sole owner of the boat. Its captain was Joshua Wing of Boston. The bond was subscribed also by Captain Wing and Joshua Godfrey at Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is also given as Miklaševičius’ place of residence.

The “Scotch Trick” was not a large vessel. It was a large boat, propelled by oars and a sail. Twelve men armed with muskets constituted the crew. Its armaments consisted of two guns. This small size is not surprising, for during the Revolutionary War even smaller boats served as privateers. While large ships had up to 150 men in the crew and 20 guns, and plied the ocean, the smaller boats cruised near the American shores, lurking in small inlets and off islands to surprise enemy supply ships.

Sometimes the small privateers would band together into a coastal flotilla. These flotillas were dangerous even to large British ships. At times the banded privateers attacked ships unexpectedly at night. Miklaševičius’ “Scotch Trick” also performed coastal service. Despite the late season, she pursued English ships on the coasts of New England and New York. She descended as far south as Chesapeake Bay. Apparently Miklaševi- čius’ raids were successful because they encouraged him to think of a larger vessel.

On March 18, l783, Miklaševičius appeared before the Council of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, as proprietor and captain of a new vessel, and applied for a commission to cruise against the enemies of the United States. The Council gave him a “letter of marque” that same day. The commission read: “Felix Miklaszewicz, Boston. Petition dated Boston, March 18, 1783. Signed by said Miklaszewicz, in behalf of himself and others, of Boston asking that he be commissioned as commander of the schooner “Prince Radziwill” (privateer), ordered in Council, March 18, 1783, that a commission be issued.” (See: Secretary of the Commonwealth, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War, Vol. X, Boston, 1902, p. 728).

From the original documents in the Library of Congress (Papers of the Continental Congress, 196, XII, 18,) and those of the archives of Massachusetts in Boston (Massachusetts Archives, Vol. 172, p. 313), we learn that Miklaševičius gave Continental and State bonds, each for $20,000 as was the practice. He was not the sole owner of the schooner. The other owners were Samuel Dogget and Max Myers, both of Boston, whom Miklaševičius had evidently recruited to his plans and assistance. Caleb Coolidge and John Cause subscribed the bonds as witnesses.

The new boat was a two-masted schooner. It had 6 guns, 2 mortars, and muskets for a crew of 15 men. Though the schooner was the work of Yankee shipwrights and though Miklaševičius had established himself as a Boston patriot, the name “Prince Radziwill” was a symbolic reminder of Lithuania and the privateer’s former benefactor, Prince Karolis Radvilas.

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In this early 19th century painting, an American privateer approaches a British supply ship.

The “Prince Radziwill” was a formidable vessel. It quickly put out to sea to serve the war effort. But news of armistice between the Americans and England soon interrupted its activities. The armistice was signed on January 20, 1783, but the Continental Congress only learned of it on March 24th. On the following day, Robert Morris, Agent of the Navy, gave orders recalling all American vessels cruising under the commission of the United States. Before these orders reached all ships at sea at least another month elapsed.

Since privateers left no logs, the career of Miklaševi- čius on the seas cannot be reconstructed with accuracy. The Polish American historian M. Haiman, during the George Washington bicentennial in 1932, corresponded with Colonel Edgar Erskine Hume, President of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia. Haiman presented a list of Polish officers (including Lithuanians of course – A. B.) who fought in the American Revolution, and inquired about the eligibility of their descendents to join this exclusive American society. Miklaševičius was included in this list. As per Poles in the U.S. Navy, Col. Hume replied: “I do not think that any were eligible to the Society of the Cincinnati, as privateer service, like militia service, did not give eligibility.” Like other privateers, Miklaševi- čius remains an unsung hero of the American Revolutionary War.

After the war Miklaševičius turned to business as a merchant shipper. The next trace of him is found in the South. The Georgia historian E. P. Wilson mentions Miklaševičius, showing that he transacted some business with Puritans from South Carolina who had settled in Liberty county. His name appears frequently among the records of property deeds of that county under the following spellings: De Miklasiewitch, De Miklasraveitz, de Miklaszerwene. These references cover the period 1785-1795 and indicate that he was a wealthy man.

During the first U.S. census in 1790, Miklaševičius resided in Charleston, South Carolina in the environs of St. Philips and St. Michael’s Parish. According to the census, his household consisted of “two free white males over 16 years old, one free white female, and two slaves.” He died in Charleston and his remains were probably laid to rest in that city.