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Captain John Paul Jones

I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way.
Captain John Paul Jones
16 November 1778
in a letter to le Ray de Chaumont.

John Paul Jones American Naval Commander in the Bonhomme Richard Attacks the Serapis

Bonhomme Richard

The Naval Historical Center (NHC) announced in October it is joining the Ocean Technology Foundation (OTF) in spearheading an expedition in the summer of 2006 to search for the remains of American Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones' ship Bonhomme Richard. After taking control of Serapis 36 hours later Jones watched his Bonhomme Richard sink into the North Sea. Finding Jones' ship will vividly bring to life an inspiring chapter in America's past using ocean technologies that are vital to America's future.

A part of the Continental navy - the regular navy - also raided commerce, and one commander did more - struck fear into the British in the home islands that their coastal towns and cities would be destroyed. The commander was John Paul Jones, a Scot with remarkable courage and daring.

Jones was born John Paul at Arbigland in Kirkbean, a parish of the Lordship of Galloway - he added Jones after he came to America. Born in 1747, he left his birthplace when he was thirteen years old. In 1761 he was apprenticed to a merchant-shipowner of Whitehaven, an English port across the Solway. There he began his great career on the sea - as a ship's boy on the Friendship, which over the next three years made her way back and forth between England and Virginia, usually with a stop in the West Indies, where rum and sugar were taken aboard, carried to Virginia, where tobacco and occasionally lumber and pig iron were picked up for the return to Whitehaven.

John Paul's merchant-master went broke in 1764 and released his apprentice from service. Paul spent most of the next three years on slave ships. The slave trade was a brutal business, and Paul apparently left it with relief, obtaining his discharge in Kingston, Jamaica, and sailing for home in 1768 on a Scottish ship. On this voyage both master and mate died. No one on board, except John Paul, could navigate. He took over and brought her safely home.

Pleased by this demonstration of seamanship and command, the owner put Paul aboard another ship as master. He was only twenty-one years old, but he had none of the softness of youth. Outward bound in 1769, he had the ship's carpenter, Mungo Maxwell, whipped with the cat-o'-ninetails. Maxwell left the ship after she arrived at Tobago and lodged a complaint against Paul. When the case was dismissed, the disappointed Maxwell, apparently in good health, sailed for home; but he took sick and died. When Paul returned home the sheriff arrested him on Maxwell's father's charge of murder. Paul did not contpletely clear himself until he returned to Tobago and was able to obtain a statement from the judge that the lash had not contributed to Mungo Maxwell's death.

An incident in 1773 proved even more serious. Paul, in command of a merchant ship, arrived at Tobago only to be faced with a mutiny. He ran the ringleader through with his sword and then fled the ship and the island and headed for the North American mainland. By summer 1775 he was in Philadelphia, a city in rebellion but a place he found to be a good deal more hospitable than Tobago.

Joseph Hewes, a delegate to the Continental Congress from North Carolina, eased John Paul Jones's way in Philadelphia. Jones, the name he added to conceal his identity, had met Hewes while on the run from Tobago. A sailor in search of a billet, preferably a command in the Continental navy, could choose no better friend than Joseph Hewes, chairman of the Marine Committee, which selected the officers for the Continental navy.

Jones wanted a command. He wanted to fight in the cause of the united colonies. He began to espouse the principles of liberty in these months - and he never really stopped. Early in December 1775 he received a conmission as first lieutenant in the Continental navy assigned to the Alfred.

The Alfred saw considerable action in the next few months, and Jones performed well. In May 1776 he was given the sloop Providence to command, with a temporary rank of captain. He drove the Providence hard, took many prizes, fought the ship well when opportunity showed itself, and gradually began to impress Congress with his ability.

Congress proved its regard in June 1777, giving Jones command of the sloop of war Ranger and ordering him to France where he was expected to pick up another ship and to raid enemy commerce around the British Isles. Jones sailed later in the summer and anchored at Paimboeff, the deepwater port of Nantes. It soon became clear that John Paul Jones did not fancy himself to be just another raider of British merchantmen. He aimed for bigger targets: He would raid British ports and tie up the Royal Navy. By April of the next year, with the Ranger refitted and now at Brest, he was ready. Sailing into the Irish Sea, he decided to strike Whitehaven, familiar ground to him and surrounded by familiar waters. Early on April 23 he entered the port and found it crowded with ships. He put ashore a small landing party and set afire a collier. The blaze failed to spread, and the town was soon aroused and excited. There was no way to deal effectively with the crowds that gathered and apparently little chance of doing more physical damage even though there was no armed opposition present.

Jones next took the Ranger across Solway Firth to St. Mary's Isle - it was now mid-morning - with the intention of abducting the Earl of Selkirk. As things turned out, he was not at home, and the landing party carried off nothing more valuable than the family silver. But the next day the Ranger did capture something of importance - the sloop of war Drake, a well-armed vessel encountered off Belfast Lough. The Drake fought effectively for two hours - her captain died with a bullet in his brain, and her executive officer was seriously wounded - but the Ranger fought more effectively.

By May 8, Jones had the Ranger safely back at Brest. Her voyage, though it did no great damage either to British ports or commerce, had been a sensational success. The psychological damage - the blow she struck to British pride and spirit - was extensive, though there is no evidence that her raid produced a change in the deployment of royal warships. British newspapers gave the raid a great play with shouts of outrage - at Paul Jones - and grunts of scorn - at the navy's inability to run him down.

The shouts soon after in Paris were in a lighter tone. The Ranger's voyage had made Jones the lion of French society, the delight of the French government, and the ecstasy of French ladies. Jones got a larger ship, the Duras, to command, which he renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin.

John Paul Jones could he patient, and he could be crafty, but he preferred to exercise other qualities. He was always an ambitious man. John Adams, who saw something of him at this time, said that he was "the most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American navy. Jones has Art, and Secrecy, and aspires very high." Adams expected the unexpected from him. "Excentricities and Irregularities are to be expected from him - they are in his Character, they are visible in his Eyes. His Voice is soft and still and small, his Eye has keenness, and Wildness and Softness in it." Adams saw, and heard, Jones in polite society - never aboard a ship in battle, which accounts for his impression that Jones spoke in a "soft and still and small" voice. But he was right about the eyes. They were sharp and could blaze with wildness, as the bust by Houdon and the portrait by Charles Willson Peale suggest. The eyes stared out from a strong face with a firm, prominent nose and a well-proportioned jaw. The eyes were important to a commander of rough and sometimes rebellious men, for Jones was not large, probably no taller than five feet, five inches, but he was lean and hard. The look of ferocity that he could throw out cowed weaker men.

This tough and resourceful commander sailed with seven vessels on August 14, 1779, from Groix Roadstead, intending to create as much havoc as possible in the British Isles. His ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was the largest ship - probably around 900 tons - he had commanded. She was getting old, and with all of her sails piled on, was still slow, but after he armed her she could throw out heavy fire in battle. She mounted 6 eighteen-pounders, 28 twelve- pounders (16 of them new models), mid 6 nine- pounders. Of the remaining ships of his command, two were frigates, one was a corvette, one a cutter, and two were privateers. These last two took off on their own shortly after the squadron hit the open sea. Jones was not surprised; he had guessed that they would resist his orders in favor of free-lancing. Nor could he really depend on all the others for instant obedience to his orders. Their skippers were French and, perhaps, were a little jealous of their American commander. One, Pierre Laridais, captain of the frigate Alliance, hated Jones. Landais has been described as being half-mad; on this voyage he was destined to behave as a full-fledged lunatic or as a traitor.

The squadron made its way at a leisurely pace to the southwest Irish coast and then turned north. On August 24, Landais came aboard the Richard and told Jones he intended to operate just as he pleased. Within the next few days the cutter Cerf disappeared. Jones had sent her off to find several small boats he had dispatched to reconnoiter the coast. The Cerf got lost and eventually made her way back to France.

Not everything went sour: the squadron captured prizes as it proceeded up the coast, and on September 3, just north of the Orkney Islands turned to the south. Off the Firth of Forth, on the east coast of Scotland, Jones decided to put a landing party ashore at Leith, Edinburgh's seaport. His purpose was to threaten Leith with fire and collect a large ransom. The city fathers were terrified by the appearance of his ships, but a gale, which forced Jones's ships out of the firth, saved them from having to buy him off. If nothing more had occurred, the cruise would have been reckoned a success. It had yielded prizes, it had produced fear in the home islands, and it had forced the British Admiralty to send ships of the Royal Navy in fruitless pursuit of John Paul Jones.

What happened next made everything else seem unimportant. On September 23, off Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire coast, the Bonhomme Richard fought one of the great battles in American naval history. At mid-afternoon of that day, the squadron sighted a large convoy escorted by the frigate Serapis (rated at 44 guns but carrying 50) and sloop of war Countess of Scarborough (20 guns). The Serapis, a new copper-bottomed frigate was commanded by Captain Richard Pearson, RN, a brave and competent officer.

Jones soon realized that he would have to defeat these escorts before he could attack the merchantmen. The wind was light, and it was sunset before he closed to firing range. The Alliance ignored Jones's signal to "form line of battle," as did the corvette Vengeance, a small lightly armed vessel. Frigate Pallas threatened to follow their example, sailing away rather than toward the enemy, but then put about and engaged the Countess of Scarborough. The Richard faced the Serapis, a more heavily armed ship, alone.

The battle opened with both ships on the same course, the Serapis off the Richard's starboard bow. Early in the fight two of the Richard's old eighteen-pounders burst with terrible effect on the crew serving them and on the entire heavy battery. This event convinced Jones that in order to win the battle, he would have to grapple with the Serapis and board her. The Bonhomme Richard was outgunned even before her eighteen-pounders exploded and, since it was unsafe to use the four that remained, could not win by trading salvos with her enemy. Had she been nimbler, Jones, a resourceful seaman, might have used her quickness to escape a heavy battering while punching the Serapis with the 28 twelve-pounders. But the Richard was anything but quick, and a heavy slugging match could only send her to the bottom. Captain Pearson, in contrast, attempted to maneuver in such a way as to bring his superior firepower to bear while keeping the Richard away.

Just after the eighteen-pounders burst, Jones tried to board Serapis on her starboard quarter. By skillful ship-handling he brought the Richard close, but the boarders were driven off by the Fnglish sailors. Pearson then tried to bring Serapis across the bow of the Richard, only to have Jones put his vessel's bowsprit into the stern of the Serapis. It was apparently at this moment that Pearson called to Jones asking if he wanted to surrender, and received Jones's magnificent reply, "I have not yet begun to fight."

More intricate sailing followed by both ships with topsails backed and filled, vessels falling back, darting ahead (in the case of the Serapis), or lumbering in either direction (in the case of the Richard). At a crucial juncture, the Serapis ran her bowsprit into the Richard's rigging and a fluke of her starboard anchor caught on the Richard's starboard quarter. The two vessels were now locked together, starboard to starboard, with their guns pounding away. Below decks the advantage belonged to the Serapis; her batteries did terrible damage to the Richard. But on the open deck and in the topsails the Richard clearly had the upper hand. Jones's French marines used their muskets to deadly effect, and the American sailors hanging above them poured fire and grenades down onto the Serapis. Before long only her dead remained above deck, and her crew serving the batteries below gradually gave way to the bullets and grenades that came from overhead, as the Americans worked their way onto the English topsails.

Several times, both ships caught fire and the shooting fell off as their crews attempted to put them out. Serapis took a frightfill blow when William Hamilton, one of the bravest of the Richard's sailors, dropped a grenade through one of her hatches into loose powder cartridges. The explosion that followed killed at least twenty men and wounded many others . This blast may have shattered Captain Pearson's resolve; if it did not, the prospect of losing his mainmast shook him to the point of yielding. Jones had directed the fire of Iris nine-pounders against the mainmast - and had helped serve one of the guns himself.

It was now 10:30 P.M. The Richard was filling with water; her crew had suffered heavy losses; but her captain would not strike his flag, though several of his men begged him to give up. On the Serapis the condition of the crew was no better though the ship was in no danger of sinking. Pearson's courage, however, trickled away with the blood of his men, and he himself tore down his ensign.

John Paul Jones had carried the fight to his enemy and had won through courage, spirit, and luck. Grappling with the Serapis had, in fact, been accidental though of course he had badly wanted to close with her. On the other hand, luck had also served the Serapis, for Captain Pierre Landais of the Alliance had decided to enter the fight early in the evening - against his own commander. The result was the delivery of three broadsides at close range into the Bonhonmme Richard. Somehow Jones shook off these blows and everything that the Serapis could hit him with.

The casualties were dreadful on both sides - 150 killed and wounded out of a crew of 322 on the Richard, and about 100 killed and 68 wounded out of 325 on the Serapis. Two days after the battle Jones abandoned the Richard. She was a gallant old vessel, but she could not be saved. Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis, and joined by the Pallas, which had taken the Countess of Scarborough, sailed for friendly waters.

Robert Middlekauff. . Oxford University Press New York (1985), New York, 1985.


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