When the Revolutionary War began, the British navy had only 39 ships that could be made battle-ready within the first year (it was depleted because of the Seven Years War). Therefore, British ships were used mostly to support land operations, although a few punitive strikes were made against the Americans. The Colonies had no navy at all, and had to rely on private vessels to defend coastal towns and harass British shipping. One of the perks of being a privateer was the lure of capturing a British vessel and keeping the spoils.
George Washington realized early on that there was a lack of courts to process the prizes of war, and pushed the Continental Congress to create new courts or broaden the jurisdiction of existing courts. The purpose of these courts was to decide whether the vessels captured should be released or, if they were to be kept, how to divide the proceeds of the venture. Since many of the captured vessels themselves were sold and the profit distrubuted, Britain often ended up buying back her own ships.
Footnote provides access to the court minutes, letters, dockets etc through the Revolutionary War Prize Cases: Records of the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, 1776-1787. Within this body of appeals, we can find the names of captured vessels, their owners and masters (and their residences), the date and place and circumstances of the capture, the inventory on board, the port of departure, and the intended port of arrival. On the side of the captors, we get the name of the vessel, her captain and his representative at court. We also get the names of the judge, court clerk, jurors and witnesses. We can gather from all this that there was a fairly lengthy legal procedure to be followed before a decision was made and the spoils divided.
In the case of Jackson v. The Dolphin (captained by David Forman), Nathan Jackson, commander "of the private armed Boat of War called the Grey-hound" requested that the Dolphin and its cargo "be adjudged and condemned as forfeited to the use of the captor thereof". The Greyhound, coincidentally, had been outfitted by "sundry persons" - in other words, there were a lot of investors. The Dolphin had been captured by the Greyhound on or about 4 December 1782 near Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Jackson claimed that the Dolphin belonged to the King or citizens of Great Britain and that it was being used to carry supplies to the British army. However, because of an "Act to Allow the Exportation of Provisions, Goods, Wares and Merchandize", and evidence presented, the captain of the Dolphin was allowed to post a 2000 pound bond for clearance to proceed to Halifax; he was to deliver his goods then return to England with a cargo of fish.
An inventory of the cargo appears within the papers of this case, including a packet of letters from people in New York to associates in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The names of each author and recipient are given! Also given are the names and occupations, in some cases, of the 12 jurors. Jackson and the Greyhound were also responsible for the capture of the Diamond; both instances are catalogued as cases 91 and 92.
This collection of maritime cases provides a valuable source of documentary material for the study of the American Revolution and admiralty law. You can find original documents relating to some of America's most famous naval heroes, including John Barry, John Manley, Daniel Bucklin and Stephen Decatur, and letters written by Benedict Arnold and Alexander Hamilton. There are 114 cases as well as Miscellaneous Case Papers and Miscellaneous Court Records.