Two Revolutionary War Privateers

William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut

Non-Fiction - Historical
414 Pages
Reviewed on 03/02/2021
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Author Biography

After a beginning interest in genealogy for my wife’s family, I became curious about my own. After exhausting the library and office information about the Packwood’s in Louisiana, l learned that the family came from New London, Connecticut to Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. That piqued my interest. I had to find out more. Little did I know that there were Packwood papers housed in the Yale library where I had studied as an undergraduate. These papers were about my privateer ancestors and included documents of their ship voyages to the Caribbean during the Revolutionary War. The papers called out to me to write a book because they were so interesting and connected to American history. The papers also tell a considerable amount about the early maritime history of the country.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite

Do you wonder what skeletons lie in your closet? Have you studied your family history, or looked into genealogy to trace your roots? When William T. Packwood started looking into his family’s past, he was surprised to find his ancestors hailed from New London, Connecticut and he was a direct descendent of two prominent American Revolutionary privateers, brothers William and Joseph Packwood. The discovery led William T. Packwood and his wife, Virginia M. Packwood, on an exciting journey of discovery as they traced the history of these revolutionary patriots. It became a family project that included picnics in cemeteries where they searched for answers on old gravestones, and days spent in libraries and archives, plowing through old records. The journey opened a wealth of previously unknown family stories and two historic figures of a bygone era in American history.

The end result of all this research is William T. Packwood’s and Virginia M. Packwood’s book, Two Revolutionary War Privateers: William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut. This is a thorough look, not only at two prominent figures of the American Revolution but also at an era of unrest and revolution, an era when the fledgling nation of what we now know as the United States of America didn’t even have a navy to fight the battles at sea. In come the privateers, the unsung heroes of these traumatic years of unrest. The book is a well-documented, thorough investigation of the lives of two of these privateers. As a historian, I appreciate all the work that goes into this type of research and I marvel at the way this book is laid out, chronologically and with considerable reproductions of letters, maps, illustrations, and important documents. This is a comprehensive study of the beginnings of the U.S. Navy, as well as U.S. trade and commerce. As one would expect with any well-documented historical account, the authors provide a concise and thorough list of sources and references. I can’t help but marvel at the intense thought, care, and research that has gone into this project. This is a marvelous contribution to the historical archives of America’s beginnings.

Mamta Madhavan

Two Revolutionary War Privateers by William T Packwood, Ph.D. and Virginia M Packwood chronicles the story of two revolutionary war privateers, William and Joseph Packwood, who were Connecticut sea captains. The book gives glimpses of the American Revolutionary War and the voyages of these two men, remarkable ships' captains, merchants, patriots, and privateers who played a key role in the success of the American Revolution. William and Joseph were born in Bermuda and they worked as ships' captains all their lives and were based in New London. They did their business dealings with Nathaniel Shaw, Jr. who ran many ships from Connecticut and other colonies to the Caribbean, Europe, and elsewhere to trade goods. During the American Revolutionary War, the Packwoods brought gunpowder, guns, and other wartime supplies to the colonies. They captured British ships, were also captured and taken as British prisoners, were exchanged or escaped, and overall made good contributions to the American cause in the war. Both William and Joseph died in Connecticut, Capt. William at the age of 52 and Capt. Joseph, 26 years after Benedict Arnold's 1781 invasion of New London.

Two Revolutionary War Privateers gives a peek into history and authors William T Packwood, Ph.D. and Virginia M Packwood have shared minute details and important information, making that time of war palpable for readers. The narration is engaging and interesting and is also about how the American Navy used privateers during the Revolutionary War. There is a lot of information and pictures to give first-hand documentation of William and Joseph Packwood's connection with the war and also their personal lives, which helps readers connect with them. It is an enjoyable book for all those readers who like to learn about history and genealogy. Just reading the narration in the book is also interesting and will engage readers till the very end to learn more about the lives of Capt. William and Capt. Joseph. It is a perfect blend of history, military, genealogy, and drama put together deftly and masterfully.

Grant Leishman

Two Revolutionary War Privateers: William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut by William T Packwood Ph.D. and Virginia M Packwood EdD recalls the deeds and exploits of the authors' direct ancestors, who played a part in the foundation of the United States, before, during, and after the War of Independence against England. Using almost exclusively primary-source documents (letters, bills of lading, bills of sale, invoices, statements of account, etc.), the authors are able to resurrect and explain the lives of these two extraordinary mariners. Based out of New London in Connecticut, both William and Joseph spent the bulk of their lives traveling the trade routes between the thirteen colonies and the West Indian islands of the Caribbean. During the Revolutionary War, both captains were engaged in assisting the revolutionary army in obtaining powder and weapons from the Caribbean islands for use by Washington and his forces against the English. Both would experience the dangers of being privateers and sailors in some of the most dangerous seas and weather systems in the world. It was a difficult life, fraught with danger, as especially Joseph Packwood would discover.

Two Revolutionary War Privateers: William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut is essentially a historical textbook and needs to be read as such. By using almost exclusively primary-source documents, the authors have created a text that could have been a little dry, but the letters written by William, Joseph, their merchant agent Nathaniel Shaw, and others give the narrative a deeply personal touch as we are reading direct communications from around 250 years ago. Necessarily the letters and documents were written in a style that was appropriate for the time and is difficult to easily read in the twenty-first century. The authors do us a great service by transliterating almost all primary-source documents into understandable modern English, something this reader greatly appreciated. The extensive research, copious footnotes, and references give this work the scholarly mien it totally deserves, as well as serving as a valuable resource for the Packwood family and their descendants. I particularly loved the maps, the illustrations, and the photographs which gave the narrative color and life. As a student of history, I greatly appreciated the effort and care that went into these authors’ work in exploring the lives of their antecedents. If history is your thing or the period leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, you will definitely enjoy this addition to your historical knowledge. I can highly recommend this book.

Midwest Book Review

[This book is] unique and impressively detailed, offers compelling perspectives on a particular aspect of the American Revolutionary War, and is an unreservedly recommended addition to personal, community, college, and university library American Revolutionary History collections and supplemental studies reading lists.

Brian Rogers

Two Revolutionary War Privateers - William and Joseph Packwood of Connecticut

by William T. Packwood and Virginia M. Packwood


This year by year account of the activities of two Revolutionary War privateers is a tour de force of historical and genealogical investigation. Drawing from the research collections of Yale University, New London County Historical Society, Connecticut State Library, and several other institutions, the Packwoods afford us a vivid glimpse into the commercial and political milieu of sea captains engaged in New London’s trade with French colonies in the Caribbean. Ship invoices for “sundry merchandise,” listing such items as sugar, molasses, coffee, cocoa, beef, candles, and flour, suddenly begin to include items of a very different sort: gunpowder, small arms, gun flints and musket balls.

Through their close association with New London’s prominent merchant (and later naval agent) Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., who once put up George Washington for a night, presumably so they could discuss the importation of arms, the Packwood brothers were important players in the steady march of the colonies toward independence, and in the war that was fought to secure it.

A unique editorial feature giving the story a wonderful immediacy is the reproduction of dozens of letters, first with their original, inconsistent and often amusing spellings, followed by a precise transliteration. At a stroke the messages become crystal clear, the emotions of the moment recorded, the 18th century style no longer a discouraging impediment. But the quaint locutions and random spellings are there for the more intrepid readers, allowing them to look over Captain William’s or Captain Joseph’s shoulder in their shipboard cabin as they report to Nathaniel Shaw in faraway New London from a harbor in, say, Martinique.

The businesslike chronology moves steadily forward, punctuated from time to time by big events - the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Bunker Hill, Caribbean hurricanes, the end of the war - and matter-of-fact notices of the birth of another Packwood child, the purchase of houses and land, as the brothers prosper. Immersed in the extraordinary detail extracted from the historical record by the indefatigable Packwoods (a word characterizing both the authors and their seafaring forebears), readers can look forward to some lively time-travel, with cameo appearances along the way by such notables as Alexander Hamilton, Nathan Hale, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold. A welcome addition to the bibliography of New London's maritime history.

---Brian Rogers, Librarian, Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library, New London, Connecticut

Bobbi King

Here is the Revolutionary War as experienced by two brothers, Ship Captains William and Joseph Packwood, patriots who commandeered their sailing ships across trade routes running out from the American Colonies to the centers of commerce on the Caribbean Islands. Their ships carried goods including arms and gunpowder, war materiel that was distributed into the armies of George Washington in support of the cause of rebellion.

The authors accessed and read an extensive archive of original letters written by the Packwood captains that give account of their businesses, daily activities, events of the day, and their families. The authors transcribed the letters in their original style, then wrote transliterations. There are numerous maps, illustrations, and photos accompanying the texts, and a glossary and index.

The book begins with background information about the American Revolution and the private citizens whose pirating naval activities, as commissioned and authorized by the Second Continental Congress, harassed the British Navy in aid to the patriotic cause. As British commercial shipping was effectively disrupted, the privateers recovered fortunes that helped finance the revolution.

The Packwood brothers lived and sailed out of New London, Connecticut, a deep-water port situated near enough to New York City to attack British headquarters. Beginning chapters outline the genealogies of Captains William and Joseph Packwood and offer brief biographies of key individuals.

The authors intersperse the letter examples with descriptions of contemporary events making it easy to understand the Packwood events within the broader picture of New England history

It’s an interesting, well-written book, flawless in its documentation, and certainly of interest to a New England history buff. And especially of interest to the Packwoods, to hear the voices of their ancestors coming through the letters.

---Bobbi King, book reviewer for Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter (https://eogn.com), a newsletter that goes to 30,000 people worldwide.

Joseph M.

What a lovely addition to my personal library! William and Virginia Packwood have done an excellent job in researching and writing this book. As a research-historian myself of many years, I appreciate their attention to detail, their following up on seemingly minor details that yield important bits of information, and their presentation. What’s more is that our perception of important persons from the period of the American Revolution has been narrowed to a comparatively select few with an army of faceless people to act as extras to bolster the hero of whatever narrative we’re used to… Here, two brothers get their due. Although replete with sources and document details, they have presented this book in such the manner that you can skip over the finer details and simply enjoy the narrative itself. I even have learned of a few possible sources for my own work from theirs. My recommendation to all my fellow historians interested in the period would be to invest wisely and to add a copy to their own libraries.

Jeanne Markell

Even for those of us who don’t typically read this genre, Two Revolutionary War Privateers is a treat. The authors managed to deliver reverence and authenticity to the tenants of good genealogy writing, but at the same time they tell an engaging story of a familiar time in history that most of us know just superficially. Celebrities are included of course (George Washington, Benedict Arnold, etc). But the real delight is meeting the likes of William and Joseph Packwood, following the brothers’ adventures, and discovering how ordinary people made a difference in the forming of our nation. Through their eyes we see so much more than history books told us about the Revolutionary War.
—- Jeanne Markell, U of MN Assoc. Dean Emerita