America’s military conflicts have given birth to countless war heroes, lauded for their bravery and patriotism in the face of the enemy and the heart of battle. Unlikely celebrities, constructed from the harsh landscape of wartime, these are mostly simple souls who majestically rise to the occasion and have their names etched into the annals of time. Even the most unsung or short-lived conflicts produced their heroes, and the War of 1812 was no exception. Of course, the South is the perfect hatchery for such heroism. Otway Burns, a Southerner and talented navigator before the War of 1812, flourished under the challenges of wartime and rose to stardom, a historical figure for the ages.
At the start of the War of 1812, or the Second War for Independence, the still-fledgling United States faced a serious problem: the US Navy, though in existence, was hardly more than a placebo, a token force that was nowhere near prepared to fight a war. Under such harrowing circumstances, the American people provided a simple solution in the form of privateers, privately-owned and privately-armed ships who would voluntarily wage battle against the British, attempting to capture the enemy and loot their hulls with the intention of disrupting enemy commerce.
Otway Burns, already a successful merchant and navigator on the coast of North Carolina, was the perfect candidate for such patriotic piracy. He and his friend and funder, Edward Pasteur, set out to purchase a privateer soon after the beginning of the War. The two traveled north to New York City, where they purchased a vessel for $8,000. After some re-outfitting and a rechristening under the name “Snap Dragon,” the two were ready to take on the enemy—or so they thought.
Though they had obtained letters of marquee allowing them to privateer, Burns did not anticipate the backlash his intended actions would receive from his local community. Many of the coastal communities’ leaders viewed privateering as piracy (which, in truth, it was) and refused to support the cause, but instead complicated matters for Burns and Snap Dragon as much as possible. But Burns and his crew were no more accommodating of their dissenters. When a boat of constables approached Snap Dragon, for example, Burns sank the boat and watched, laughing, as her paltry crew flapped and spluttered in the shallow waters of the bay. And when an attorney in defense of the constables labeled Burns as a “licensed robber,” the incensed pilot rowed to shore, confronted the man and threw him into a river.
Despite these challenges, Otway Burns and Snap Dragon eventually began an incredibly successful career of privateering. Tales of their mishaps and narrow escapes, captured ships and valuable booty abound. After the first encounter of their inaugural expedition, Snap Dragon sailed away with a British merchant ship outfitted with fourteen guns. When Snap Dragon next met the enemy, a cache of British ships, Burns had no choice but to disguise his shining ship as a British ally; he traded in his crisp sails for worn and ragged ones and hid his guns, hoping to blend in with the British crowd. But the enemy soon realized the ploy and it was only narrowly that Burns and his crew escaped alive.
Such adventures became commonplace for Burns. Over the course of the War of 1812, Snap Dragon undertook three cruises, traveling through the Caribbean and around the coasts of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina. Burns and his crew captured nearly 300 enemy soldiers, forty-two vessels, and an extraordinary amount of valuables—all of which totaled, in value, approximately $4 million. Beyond making him very rich, Burns’s privateering also made him an icon of American patriotism. He returned to North Carolina as a war hero.
After the end of the war and his privateering days, Burns struggled to find his niche in a new profession. He tried his hand at storekeeping, salt-making, brick-making, investing, and shipbuilding (the final of which he was fairly successful at, even building the first North Carolina steamboat, the Prometheus, in 1818). The latter part of his career he spent in Congress, but eventually even that profession failed him when his constituents refused to re-elect him after he (quite fairly) pushed for equal representation from the Western part of the state. Burns spent his final days at home, no career to distract him, alone with the memories of his glory days. But given the adventures of his youth, a year filled with piracy and plotting, pillaging and plunder, I’m sure that old Otway Burns had plenty to ponder in the quietude of old age.
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