Colonial Hero of the High Seas: Against Seemingly Insurmountable Odds, John Paul Jones Sailed to Military Victory Time after Time, Becoming One of America's Greatest Naval Commanders. (History - Struggle for Freedom)

By Anderson, Mark Samuel | The New American, January 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Colonial Hero of the High Seas: Against Seemingly Insurmountable Odds, John Paul Jones Sailed to Military Victory Time after Time, Becoming One of America's Greatest Naval Commanders. (History - Struggle for Freedom)


Anderson, Mark Samuel, The New American


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. …

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