Little known is the history of an officer of the infant Continental Navy who took the War of Independence all the way to British soil to carry out surprise raids. Responding to Britain's looting and burning of Colonial America, this early naval hero damaged or destroyed strongholds and absconded with needed supplies. And while he initially met little resistance, that soon changed.
In the early fall of 1779, the daring sea rover was again sailing the frigid waters off England's coast, looking for British supply ships to seize. But Britain had had its fill of this rogue sailor who was audaciously challenging Britain on her own turf, while successfully preventing large amounts of British supplies from reaching the colonies. The rogue had to be stopped. The hunt was on.
It was September 23rd. While still within sight of the English coast, the Continental Navy commander was secure in his ship, the French-built Bonhomme Richard. A crew member spotted a large convoy of merchant ships protected by two English warships, the H.M.S. Serapis and the H.M.S. Countess of Scarborough. The seasoned skipper of the Serapis, Richard Pearson, knew his American enemy was close and was on the lookout. Just after 6:30 p.m., the American commander, who had displayed a British Union Jack to cause confusion, suddenly took it down and sent up the Stars and Stripes before engaging the Serapis. Soon the two ships were locked in point-blank combat in what became known as the Battle of Flamborough Head.
Hundreds of people gathered on the chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head to watch the battle, which lasted for nearly four hours with unremitting fury and was later regarded as one of the most desperate and sanguinary fights in naval history. Most onlookers undoubtedly hoped they would witness the Bonhomme Richard's destruction. Many British citizens regarded its captain as a "pirate" whose skullduggery rivaled that of Blackbeard. British chapbooks, the entertainment "magazines" of that time, even carried caricatures of the Richard's captain to drive home this unsavory image.
Cannon fire boomed in both directions, ripping the ships apart piece by piece. As the citizens looked on, the two frigates became entangled together so tightly that the muzzles of the cannons from both ships at times were touching each other. Jones purposely positioned the Richard close to the swifter, copper-bottomed Serapis to deny the larger ship the advantage of its larger and more numerous cannons. Meanwhile, the Alliance, which was sailing with Jones and commanded by a Frenchman, engaged the Countess of Scarborough.
After considerable rifle and cannon fire exchange, the Richard had lost virtually all its cannons, although its captain dragged a nine-pounder across the deck to fire at the enemy himself. Many of the Richard's crew members had been killed or wounded. Although the Serapis was also badly damaged with heavy casualties, Pearson seemed to have the upper hand. Assuming victory was near, Pearson followed protocol by grabbing his megaphone and asking the opposing American captain if he wanted quarter.
"I have not yet begun to fight!" was the unwavering reply.
As the Richard took on water, some of its French marines, buoyed by their leader's ferocious determination, climbed the ropes. When a resourceful crew member lobbed a black powder grenade squarely into the hatch of the Serapis, some stored powder caused a massive explosion -- which quickly put the Americans firmly in control. The Richard's remaining crew, including its leader, boarded the Serapis and forced a surrender.
With urgent matters to be handled aboard the Serapis, efforts to save the sinking Richard were suspended. Such matters included a reading of Christian funeral passages by Pearson and his captor during the burial of the dead at sea. Pearson and his opponent even had wine together in the remains of the former's quarters. Little did Pearson know that his unbendable foe, Captain John Paul Jones, had once entertained the idea of eschewing a mariner's life altogether, hoping to take a wife and settle down as a gentleman landowner in Virginia. But that was not to be. He seemed destined from a young age for a rigorous life at sea. Indeed, his resolute bravery and unequaled navigational skills would play a unique role in turning the tide of the war in the colonists' favor.
John Paul Jones was born John Paul on July 6, 1747. He was the fourth of five children sired by John Paul the elder in Kirkcudbright (Kirk-Coo-Bray), Scotland, where his father was head gardener of the Arbigland estate. Young John Paul would take a break from chores and watch majestic ships sail in and out of Solway Firth, a waterway jutting inland between England and Scotland. John Paul and his friends would float toy ships on the River Nith, which flowed into Solway Firth. Fittingly, John Paul would play the role of captain, shouting commands to the toy fleet.
At the nearby port town of Carsethorn, John Paul would visit docked ships and listen to sailors' tales of adventure. They taught him words in foreign languages, how to tie knots, and other skills. So when John was old enough to become an apprentice and learn a trade, he chose navigation. But he lacked the connections to make his plans a reality.
Paul family neighbors, however, knew shipowner James Younger in Whitehaven, across Solway Firth. John Paul, deciding to head out to sea at the age of 13, signed up as Younger's apprentice. His first voyage was as a cabin boy on the brig Friendship, where he scrubbed decks, cleaned living quarters, and emptied garbage. The ship would land in Barbados to unload wool and butter before picking up rum and sugar to take to Virginia. The Friendship would then load up tobacco, pig iron, and other items to take back to Britain. John Paul made four such trips, earning little money but becoming a worthy seaman.
In 1756, when John Paul was nine, his older brother William sailed to America and opened a tailor shop in Fredericksburg. William would write home about ideas of American freedom and the unrest growing among colonists. During John Paul's trips to Virginia aboard the Friendship, he would, in addition to spending much of his free time reading books, visit his brother, who introduced young John Paul to George Washington's sister Betty and her husband Fielding Lewis, among other notables.
By 1764, Younger's shipping company went out of business and John Paul was released from his apprenticeship. The quickest way to make a living at sea in those days was to serve on a slave-hauling ship. John Paul soon was third mate on the King George, which picked up slaves in West Africa and sold them in the West Indies. John Paul observed that the tragic victims of this inhumane trade were tightly packed into the ship's hold under appalling conditions, causing many to die in transit.
John Paul endured life aboard the King George for two years and then became chief officer on the Two Friends, a smaller slave-hauler that could hold 77 slaves per trip. But when the ship docked in Kingston, John Paul could no longer assuage his conscience. He described the slave trade as "abominable" and never worked in the slave business again.
John Paul would not be stranded and unemployed in Kingston for long, however. On his 21st birthday in 1768, a Scottish skipper by the name of McAdam offered John Paul free passage home aboard the brig John. But soon after setting sail to the British Isles, McAdam and his first mate both died of fever, leaving John Paul as the only one aboard capable of navigating the ship. He took over and safely brought the vessel to its destination.
The brig's owners were so impressed that they appointed the young sailor as the Ship's new master. So by age 21, John Paul was captain of his own vessel. While other men as young or younger than John Paul commanded seagoing vessels, they were usually captain's sons or the sons of ship owners. To compensate for his youth and his uncommanding height of only 5'6", the new captain dressed more like a naval officer than a merchant seaman, which helped him earn his crew members' respect. By sheer grit and determination, John Paul soon established an enduring presence on the seas.
Trials at Sea
Young Captain Paul mastered the many intricacies associated with loading, rigging, and piloting an ocean-going sailing vessel. But he also acquired the ability to navigate the ocean virtually by dead reckoning, assisted by the noon latitudes of the sun. He even established a lucrative commercial niche, in which he transported wine, foods, firearms, and other items. And he began to view seafaring, not as an end in itself, but as a temporary journey en route to settling down in Virginia.
But it was not all smooth sailing; even before the war the young ship captain had to circumnavigate plenty of turbulence. While still captain of the John, John Paul, whose temper sometimes got the best of him, was unnerved by crew member Mungo Maxwell, whose father was of some repute. Maxwell was triced up in the rigging and lashed with cat-o'-nine tails for insubordination. Upon arriving in Tobago in May 1770, Maxwell lodged a complaint against his superior in the vice admiralty court, showing his scarred shoulders as evidence. (While it was true that Captain Paul was strict with crew members, he also made considerable effort to make sure their needs were met.) Paul replied that Maxwell had been both disobedient and incompetent. The complaint was dismissed as frivolous, but the matter was not over. Maxwell headed home in another ship and was taken with yellow fever and died.
The ship that Maxwell died on arrived in London before John Paul reached Kirkcudbright. The elder Maxwell had already decided that the flogging had caused his son's death. So when Captain Paul steered his brig into the dock, he was arrested and sent to a local jail. Within a few days, Paul obtained bail and convinced local judges to allow him to go to the West Indies so he could procure evidence in his favor. Upon arriving at his destination, he was able to secure favorable testimony, including that of James Eastment, who headed the ship Maxwell died on and testified that Maxwell seemed in perfect health when he boarded the ship. The charges were dropped.
Around October 1773 in Tobago, Captain Paul, while commanding the Betsy, was selling various provisions and obtaining a return cargo. At that time, an incident occurred that Paul later called "the greatest misfortune of my life." His description was apt, since it caused him to abandon his plans, his possessions, and even his name.
The terrible ordeal began when Captain Paul declined to pay advance wages to his crew. He had planned to invest all cash-in-hand in the return cargo and pay the men upon returning to Britain. A number of his seamen were Tobago natives who wanted spending money when they went ashore. Some crew members hinted at mutiny. When one seaman, whom John Paul called "the ringleader," advanced menacingly swinging a bludgeon, the captain ran him through with a sword in self-defense. The ringleader died on the deck.
Captain Paul immediately went ashore to turn himself in, but was persuaded to flee the island as word of the encounter stirred up local sentiment. (Years later, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, John Paul recalled that William Young, the Lt. Governor of Tobago who had a vice-admiralty commission, was one of those who advised him to flee in the interest of personal safety.)
With no admiralty court in session to hear his case, John Paul went to the other side of the island via horseback to board a departing ship, leaving behind all his affairs and property, other than the 50 pounds he took with him. He would end up in Virginia under the name "John Jones," acting on the advice of friends who said he should try to remain incognito until the escalating troubles between Britain and the 13 colonies were over.
The War Years
Experiencing one disappointment after another, John Jones arrived in Virginia in 1774 and learned that his brother William had died and hadn't left him any money or property. Jones entered into a brief engagement with Dorothea Dandridge. She had become enchanted with this dashing "poet-buccaneer" who would have no part of British officers badmouthing the honor of women. However, Dandridge's father turned down Jones' request to marry his daughter. And, in an ironic twist, attorney Patrick Henry, an acquaintance of Jones, won Dandridge's hand.
Jones' prospects brightened when he met businessman Joseph Hewes, who apparently secured the naval commission Jones received on December 7, 1775. The Continental Navy had been formed that very year, and Jones subsequently engaged in a series of naval exploits that greatly aided America in winning her independence.
John Paul Jones, as he came to be widely known, raised the first "American" flag (the Grand Union Flag, a prelude to the stars and stripes) as a lieutenant aboard the Alfred and proved himself a capable military strategist. On November 12, 1776 in American waters, the Alfred captured the H.M.S. Mellish, a 350-ton armed ship that was carrying a cargo of winter uniforms and other British supplies, along with 60 British soldiers, to Quebec for His Majesty's army. Jones was elated to later learn that some of the clothing reached General George Washington's army before the Battle of Trenton.
A few months earlier in 1776, Jones, commanding the sloop Providence, was assigned to escort merchant ships sailing between Rhode Island and Long Island Sound ports. Upon receiving orders to sink, seize, burn, or destroy British ships and supplies, Jones sailed for the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland and proceeded to capture more than a dozen British vessels, burning some while sending eight into port as prizes.
Despite Jones' crucial contributions, however, the Continental Congress was slow to fully recognize his accomplishments during his military career. In fact, the Congress placed Jones near the bottom on their list of maritime commanders (one account says he was placed 18th out of 24). Jones reportedly had no stomach for any trace of favoritism in promotions and issued complaints about what he perceived as skewed priorities among his colonial superiors. Yet he was the only man without local backing to receive command of a new ship, which shows that the Congress did place some trust in him. Despite his disagreement with how he was rated, he pressed on in the service of the colonial cause.
On June 14, 1777, the new stars and stripes was adopted; on the same day, the Continental Congress appointed Captain John Paul Jones to command the Ranger, a new frigate, which set the stage for the most dramatic phase of Jones' career.
Benjamin Franklin, at great personal risk, had been taken to France by Captain Lambert Wickes so Franklin could serve as America's first foreign diplomat to seek desperately needed help from France. Wickes, upon leaving France, captured a number of British ships. In a letter to Wickes, members of the Continental Congress wrote: "Let Old England see how they like to have an active enemy at their door, they have sent fire and sword to ours." This set the stage for Jones, who planned to roam the coastal waters of the British Isles and disable, capture, or sink British ships. While proclaiming, "I intend to go in harm's way," Jones wintered in France and made repairs to the Ranger. He met with Franklin and began a fruitful relationship with the diplomat, who had been impressed with Jones' exploits aboard the Providence.
Jones became the first American to attack a British port, although a number of his restless crew members, not all of whom were trustworthy, preferred to attack merchant ships for the loot and avoid attacking settlements or strongholds on shore. The Ranger brought the war to Whitehaven, the very place Jones had been when he first went to sea. Jones ordered some of his men to go ashore to burn dozens of ships in the harbor while taking guns and destroying warehouses. But some of these men became insubordinate by helping themselves to distilled spirits in a nearby pub. One of them even warned people of the Americans' arrival. The raid left only one ship ablaze and some of the seaward cannons "spiked" so they could not be fired. Still, this was the first surprise attack on a British seaport since 1667. Jones had sent a clear message to the British authorities: the Americans fighting for independence were not to be trifled with and were willing to bring the battle to Britain.
After the Whitehaven raid, Jones -- who by all accounts never intentionally harmed noncombatants -- headed toward his birthplace of Kirkcudbright to locate Selkirk Castle, the home of the Earl of Selkirk. Jones believed that the earl was of some value to British authorities, which turned out to be erroneous. Jones thought that by capturing the earl he could use him as a bargaining chip to gain release of American prisoners. Jones and some of his men boarded a small cutter and went ashore, only to find that the earl was away. Though Jones was anxious to get back to the Ranger, he appeased his restless crew by reluctantly agreeing with their request to loot the castle. However, upon meeting the dignified Lady Selkirk, Jones disallowed any violence and permitted his men to take only the family silver.
Some time later, Jones wrote Lady Selkirk a long letter of apology, promising to buy back the silver and return it. After the war Jones did indeed return the silver as promised at considerable personal expense, which the earl announced in Edinburgh newspapers.
Aboard the Ranger, Jones proceeded to take on the British sloop the Drake, which he had spotted en route to Whitehaven. Approaching without flying his colors, he tricked the captain into approaching the Ranger in a small boat and captured him. Raising the stars and stripes, he lured the Drake into deeper waters and bested her in a one-hour battle. The captured British ship, with its flag flying upside down beneath an American flag, was sailed into Brest, France, with 200 British prisoners aboard.
Having long sought to command a fleet of ships, Jones pursued the matter in a number of letters to French commissioners and even King Louis XVI himself. He made progress when France bought a ship for his use -- the Duc de Duras -- a merchant ship that Jones upgraded and renamed the Bonhomme Richard, which was Jones' way of honoring Franklin and his famous Poor Richard's Almanac.
The battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis was to become among the most famous sea battles of all time. Jones won that battle even though the other ships in his fleet were only marginally helpful. In fact, The Alliance, commanded by Frenchman Pierre Landais, even attacked Jones' ship during the battle, attempting, some say, to deny Jones the glory. During the battle, Jones wisely ordered the release of all British prisoners in the Richard's hold so they could man the pumps. This tactic freed his men to return to battle, where they emerged triumphant in a seemingly hopeless situation. This was the first time an American vessel had taken so powerful a British warship.
Jones went back to France and was showered with honors. He courted some of Paris' beautiful ladies while enjoying the goings-on of high society. King Louis presented him with an inscribed sword that credited him for defending "The Freedom of the Seas." Jones also was invested with the Order of Military Merit, allowing him to use the title "Chevalier." King Louis even requested that a noted French sculptor cast a beautiful marble bust of Jones.
Anchored in America
Jones returned to America in 1781, where he accounted for his actions at sea. His answers were so thorough that Congress approved a formal resolution thanking him for service to the cause. He was also cleared of any charges from his pre-war days in Tobago. Although Congress awarded him command of a new ship, the America, the war was ending and enthusiasm for an American navy was beginning to wane. The Continental Congress ended up giving the America to France, profoundly disappointing Jones. But, even with the war over and the America out of his reach, Jones strongly urged Congress to establish a formal navy and create schools where junior officers could be taught. The principles he established provided the basis for today's U.S. Naval Academy.
Jones said that a naval school student must not only be a capable mariner but "a gentleman of liberal education, with a fine manner, punctilious courtesy and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, firmness, justice and charity.... When a commander has properly exercised these qualities, he has only to await the appearance of the enemy. His ship and his men will be ready."
Much more could be said of this intrepid seaman, who grew up as a commoner, became one of the most famous and skilled naval tacticians of all time, and, like George Washington, fought countless battles without suffering so much as a scratch. After his release from American military duty, he briefly fought for Catherine the Great, helping the Russian Navy fight the Turks in the Black Sea, an assignment with mixed results that he lived to regret. John Paul Jones succumbed to the elements and died at age 45 of respiratory disease on July 18, 1792, with no fanfare.
Finally, in 1905, Captain John Paul Jones received some much-deserved recognition from the American government. President Theodore Roosevelt had the sailor's remarkably well-preserved remains brought from France to America for an elaborate ceremony including a parade of 500 American Bluejackets, French cavalry and infantry, and high officials. And Congress authorized money for an ornate tomb at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland, where Jones was finally laid to permanent rest. The sword presented to him by France was placed near the tomb, where it remains.
Ironically, Albert Alexander, the British First Lord of the Admiralty, in a broadcast beamed to America, recalled that Jones' famous battle cry expressed exactly what England felt while fighting the Nazis during the Battle for Britain. Indeed, John Paul Jones' legendary bravery should be an inspiration to us all. No matter how hopeless the odds may seem, the words, "We have not yet begun to fight," should be the battle cry of every generation of freedom fighters.
Mr. Mark Samuel Anderson is a newspaper editor and columnist in Michigan.…