John Paul Jones
From an old print
The "sea dogs" of old England, though odd in their speech and dress, were intensely national in feeling. The same characteristic has marked their American successors. The ship, whether traveling thousands of miles away or lying snugly anchored in a home port, carries the flag with her. Officers and sailors have traditionally been quick to resent an insult to their country, and on mere suspicion have begun many a personal combat. Because of their wandering life men in the navy have at home given less than ordinary attention to politics and to social and economic questions; but abroad they have championed American principles and institutions with great tenacity, "Made in America" being the only trade-mark required. Underneath this seeming superficiality of judgment, however, there has often been a sound idealism. The Service, perhaps because of their ignorance of details and the separateness of their lives, have seen the greatness of America more truly than others in the thick of affairs. If the navy, then, is national in its feeling, naval tradition should be considered not merely by itself but in its relation to national traditions and national history.
The American Navy came into existence at the beginning of the War of Independence, and tradition had its origin with Barry, Wickes, Conyngham, and especially p8 with Jones. The navy was crude notwithstanding the greatness of certain men, but it was crude only as the whole government was crude.
Congress during the Revolution was not the legislative branch only but also the executive branch: it was everything of government that existed, beyond the governments of the individual states, yet during much of the time it governed in a hesitant and doubtful fashion. This was for two reasons: (1) it was not unified — no measures were passed except after much wrangling and by slender majorities; (2) it lacked the support of the thirteen states represented — usually it was without funds, and not infrequently delegates discovered that their constituencies would refuse to approve what they had voted. The revolutionary movement in its early stages was a radical movement (as most revolutions are), and the aristocracy of the learned professions and of culture and of wealth were opposed to it by a large majority. No single colony could hope for success, yet how could the colonies be brought together? They had different forms of government, different laws, different religious beliefs, and different manners. Franklin early commented on their jealousy, which he said was "so great that, however necessary a union of the colonies has long been for their common defense, . . . yet they have never been able to effect such a union among themselves." He concluded that they were more jealous of each other than they were of England. The Continental Congress had in its membership men of giant stature, and in spite of insuperable difficulties they adopted a bold tone and accomplished surprising results. It is important to note that they attempted to create and support a navy by establishing a Marine Committee, succeeded later by an Agent of p9 Marine, thus furnishing the prototypes of the Navy Department and the Secretary of the Navy.
The Continental Congress, which found the navy a difficult problem, was equally perplexed in the matter of the army. There was the dread of military despotism founded on a standing army, a dread which has existed throughout our national history. In the campaign against Howe in 1777, though Congress authorized an army of eighty thousand, Washington never had more than eleven thousand, and these were but militia called out for a short period, with little or no training. Washington pleaded in vain for a military force of some permanence: "To place any dependence upon militia is assuredly resting on a broken staff," he declared. In the retreat from Long Island he had seen evidence of the discouragement and disaffection of militiamen when they had deserted "almost by whole regiments, by half ones, and by companies at a time." He wrote that he had no way of getting proper officers, for Congress would not put them on a permanent basis with pay in keeping with their rank. The battle of Saratoga showed what the Continental forces could do in a crisis, but the lack of discipline and loyalty continued even up to Yorktown and after. It is not too much to assert that if Washington had possessed from the first the enthusiastic support of all men in the colonies capable of bearing arms, he could have ended the war as early as Saratoga, and that too without the aid of the French military forces.
It was not strange then that the young Scotchman, John Paul Jones, on accepting a lieutenancy in the navy as war began was not favorably impressed. He perceived at once the lack of organization and discipline in the fleet of Esek Hopkins, who had been made commander p10 in chief by Congress. He could appreciate the absence of these qualities as many officers of higher rank could not, for he had served several years in the British Navy as midshipman, having gained an appointment through the good offices of the duke of Queensberry. Later he had rapidly risen in the British merchant service and finally had commanded his own ship.
This lack of organization existed notwithstanding the fact that the colonists had shown themselves resolute and able seamen from the very first settlements in America. In the long period when there were no roads, they would have been without the inestimable advantage gained from neighborly coöperation had they not been fearless and efficient in sailing both small and large craft. At the very first word of hostilities in the revolution, O'Brien, taking a lumber sloop with a gang of woodsmen armed with axes and pitchforks, surprised and captured off Machias, Maine, a British armed schooner loaded with arms and munitions. Why should not men of such spirit, when a few ships had been equipped by Congress, quickly have produced an efficient navy? They did furnish privateers that swarmed the seas and preyed upon British commerce, but the men who sailed forth on the privateers were prompted not so much by the desire for liberty and the defense of their homes as by the prospect of immediate profits. It was largely the gambler's spirit; and the results, though often sensational, were disappointing from a national point of view. All the sailors in a seaport would sign up for a privateer; and when a regularly commissioned frigate or sloop of war sought a crew, there were no seamen to be found. Before the entrance of France into the war, American forces had p11 captured six hundred prizes; but meanwhile England had taken nine hundred American ships. This was because the privateers acted only as units and did not coöperate or follow any large plan. The "militia of the sea" was as futile as the militia of the land. Both undermined the spirit of the Service and made difficult any thoroughgoing organization and discipline.
If Congress and the Marine Committee could have recognized and promoted those officers who proved themselves worthy, the first step toward sound organization would have been taken.
For instance, there was Captain John Barry, whose mettle was well known. As commander of the frigate Alliance, returning from France, whither he had carried Franklin, he engaged two British ships of war. In the midst of the battle he was struck in the shoulder by grapeshot and carried below. One of his officers, hurrying to him with an appalling story of the shattered condition of the ship and the numbers killed and wounded, asked if he should not strike the colors.
"No," said the captain, in agony, but never more determined; "if you cannot fight the enemy, carry me to the deck and I will."
His words, pointed to his men, inspired them to renew their efforts, and they captured both ships.
And there was Benedict Arnold, a brilliant young officer who might have been saved from his later course of shame had he been treated differently by his countrymen. In 1776 he carried on a vigorous campaign against the greatly superior force of Sir Guy Carleton; and though eventually he lost control of Lake Champlain, he delayed the British invasion of New York until the next summer, when the victory of Saratoga had become possible. And there were also Nicholas Biddle, p12 Gustavus Conyngham, Lambert Wickes, and Jones, all of whom showed great courage and ability. But none of them ever had more than a small command.
In the case of the army it was the rare good fortune of the young nation that upon the beginning of hostilities the great Virginian was made commander in chief, and that he was retained in this position to the end. If only the navy might have had like guidance! It is true Congress early assigned an officer to this post; but Esek Hopkins, who was chosen for it, though not without experience as a merchant captain, proved utterly unfit. The brother of Governor Hopkins of Rhode Island, he had the backing of the New England faction and was an influence for bad long after the Marine Committee had recognized his inefficiency. On appointment he was given a squadron of five ships. The command of one of these, the sloop of war Providence, and later that of the tiny ship Fly, was offered to Lieutenant John Paul Jones; but he refused each, preferring the billet of lieutenant on the flagship Alfred. He realized, as he modestly stated, that he was "imperfect in the duties of a Lieutenant." He thought that on the flagship, where he was associated with the highest officers, he should rapidly increase his professional knowledge. In this he was quickly undeceived.
It was Jones who, in the absence of his captain, directed the arming and manning of the flagship; and when the squadron had sailed to the Bahamas to capture military supplies at the capital, New Providence, it was the lieutenant again who made the expedition a success. Jones knew all the islands in the West Indies, and it was he who piloted the little fleet to a safe anchorage within the key and suggested the road by which the marines could march to the town and surprise the fort.
p13 The rest of the cruise was inglorious, and a storm of criticism greeted the commander in chief on his return. When, a month later, the commanding officer of the Providence was convicted of cowardice and broken, Jones was not averse to accepting the sloop which was offered him. He was at this time commissioned captain. While Hopkins continued at anchor in the harbor of New London during the following months, Jones scoured the seas in the little Providence. First he convoyed some of Washington's troops from Rhode Island to New York. In the latter part of the summer of 1776 he sailed on a six weeks' cruise, harrying the commerce bound for the St. Lawrence and for Nova Scotia. It was a game not without excitement, for some of the British ships were strongly convoyed, and on more than one occasion Jones was chased by a frigate of twice his strength; but on his return to Rhode Island he had to his credit sixteen prizes, eight of which he manned and sent in, while the other eight he found it wiser to destroy. This was vastly more than all the rest of Hopkins's fleet had accomplished. Next he sailed in command of the frigate Alfred, accompanied by Captain Hacker in the Providence; and though handicapped by the inefficiency and cowardice of Captain Hacker, who slipped away from him in a fog and ran back to Newport, he captured, with other prizes, a large armed vessel with one thousand complete uniforms, intended for the forces of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne but destined instead to prove of great value to Washington's destitute army.
The Marine Committee, the leading spirit of which was Robert Morris, now convinced of Jones's ability, issued orders which virtually gave him command of the fleet, though Hopkins, in the harbor of New London, p14 still retained the position earlier assigned him. Unfortunately for Jones, he had already aroused Hopkins's jealousy. In consequence, when the orders came, Hopkins instantly sent out on extended cruises the only three ships available, and then when Jones appeared informed him that it was impossible to comply with the instructions of Congress. Communications were slow, and the Marine Committee was never prompt in enforcing its will. Though eventually Hopkins was relieved of his command and disgraced, Jones never received the ships promised. Shortly after this affair Washington was invested with the powers of a military dictator, for it was a time of great stress; but Jones, who had made such a brilliant beginning, was never given anything like a corresponding naval authority.
Instead Jones had the mortification of seeing officers who were his juniors and who had done practically nothing advanced above him. It was just such unfairness that demoralized the brilliant but ill‑balanced Benedict Arnold. Jones, however, overcame feelings of disappointment and bitterness. Going to Philadelphia, where Congress was sitting, he appeared before the Marine Committee and placed his services unreservedly at their disposal.
In the existing chaos the navy required, first of all, organization; and Jones, recognizing the need, formulated some essential principles. Organization was his first great contribution to the Service. How clear was his vision is shown by a few extracts:
To Robert Morris (chairman of the Marine Committee), 10 February, 1777:
It would give me much more pleasure could I Join with the other Commanders in Pointing out hints for Useful Rules and Regulations. . . . There are no Officers more immediately p15 wanted in the marine department than Commissioners of Dock Yards to Superintend the Building and Outfit of all Ships of war. . . . The Navy is in a wretched Condition. It wants a man of Abilities at its head who could bring on a Purgation and Distinguish between the Abilities of a Gentleman and those of a mere Sailor and Boatswain's Mate. . . . Unless some happy expedient can be fallen upon to induce the Seamen to enter into the Service for a longer term than Twelve Months it will never be possible to bring them under proper Subordination.
To John Hancock (in "A Plan for the Regulation and Equipment of the Navy Drawn up at the Request of the Honorable the President of Congress"), April, 1777:
As the extent of the Continent is so great that the most advantageous Enterprise may be lost before Orders can arrive within the Eastern and Southern districts from the Board of Admiralty it will perhaps be expedient to appoint deputies for executing the office of High Admiral within these extreme districts, to continue in office only during Pleasure and at all times accountable to the Board of Admiralty. . . . It may also be expedient to establish an Academy at each Dockyard under proper Masters, who'es duty it should be to instruct the officers of the Fleet when in Port in the Principles and application of the mathematicks, Drawing, Fencing and other manly Arts and Accomplishments. It will be requisite that young Men serve a certain term in Quality of Midshipmen, or Masters mate before they are examined for promotion.
In one sense these recommendations, sound as they seem today, were useless; for the War of Independence was fought on to its conclusion in the same desultory, uncertain fashion, so far as the American Navy was concerned, during most of the six years. The struggling Congress established no rules and regulations p16 for the government of the navy, appointed no commissioners of dockyards nor admirals, and created no naval academy. However, within approximately three quarters of a century all these were to be adopted.
Robert Morris, having formed a high opinion of Jones's abilities, strengthened by personal friendship, determined to give him in Europe such an opportunity as had been denied him in America. There was a fine frigate building in Amsterdam under the direction of Silas Deane, American commissioner at Paris. This, it was proposed, Jones should command; and he was ordered to assemble his officers and men and sail to France. Again the jealousy and hostility of the Hopkins faction in New England, where he had to look for his complement, seriously embarrassed him; and the outcome was that he was compelled to delay departure for France until the Ranger, building at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, could be completed.
A thrill was to pass through Europe as well as America when Jones met the English, with odds against him, and won; but the desperate character of his struggle was occasioned not so much by the well-equipped and manned Royal Navy as by the jealousy of Hopkins and other officers, the absence of moral fiber in a large part of the crews he was forced to accept, the lack of support from Congress, and later the jealousy of the French admiralty and officers. The marvel is that he accomplished anything at all.
The complement that Jones secured for the Ranger were not of his own selection and were by no means the equals of those he had had on the Providence and the Alfred. Neither Simpson, his first lieutenant, nor Elijah Hall, his second lieutenant, had ever sailed before in a ship of war; and, much worse, when they arrived p17 in France, Simpson and others refused to obey orders when they learned that their cruise was to be more than a short one directed against merchant ships. Further, there was no fine new frigate waiting for Jones. The British ambassador at the Hague had heard of the plan for the frigate at Amsterdam; and his influence in Holland, then neutral, was so strong that Silas Deane sold the ship to France to prevent its confiscation.
But Jones did not yield to disappointment. On going to Paris he conceived an ardent admiration for the great Franklin, who more than any other individual was respectable for the alliance France was about to make with America; and Jones's feeling was returned. Also he made lasting friends of some of the highest French naval officers at Brest, Paris, and elsewhere. Undoubtedly stimulated by these men and ambitious to show himself deserving of their support, he determined on making in the little Ranger a cruise in British waters that should rival and surpass the exploits of Wickes and Conyngham. He reached his decision notwithstanding the fact that many of his men confessed "they had no turn for enterprise." In truth, on this cruise Jones was so constantly in danger of mutiny that, as he afterwards related, he allowed himself only short and irregular snatches of sleep until his return.
He sailed from Brest on 10 April, 1778, and, taking a prize between the Scilly Islands and Cape Clear, proceeded boldly north through St. George's Channel. A week later he was in Solway Firth, the same waters which he had gazed upon as a boy and which later he had sailed when commanding a merchant ship. Here he conceived the bold idea of raiding the harbor of Whitehaven and destroying its shipping. His men had so little liking for the project that he had great difficulty p18 in making up a party of thirty‑one for the descent. At midnight they set out with two boats. Day was about to break when they reached the pier, but Jones fearlessly took upon himself the dangerous part of the task. As the shipping was commanded by a fort, he decided first to remove this obstacle and, climbing up on one of the men's shoulders, led the way through an embrasure. All was silent, for the sentinels were soundly asleep in the guardhouse. Having spiked the guns, Jones next made equally harmless the other fort in the vicinity. Then he rejoined the officers and men whose duty it was to set fire to the two hundred and more ships crowded in the harbor. This other force stupidly had done nothing at all, and in the end the only fire set was one which Jones lighted with his own hands. "The inhabitants now began to appear in thousands," Jones wrote. He held them back for a few minutes by the threat of his pistol, and then made good his retreat. A few hours later that same day, Jones sailed into Kirkcudbright Bay to St. Mary's Isle and attempted to capture the earl of Selkirk in his castle, thinking that he would be a hostage valuable for stimulating negotiations in the exchange of prisoners. This, like the previous enterprise, was without immediate results. At Whitehaven the people rushed in the moment Jones withdrew and so saved their ships, and at St. Mary's Isle the earl happened to be absent. But these raids alarmed the British and compelled them to give greater attention to the defense of their coasts.
A cautious man would now have sailed away in haste, for the country was aroused, and expresses were sent out in every direction. Jones, however, conceived the idea of capturing a sloop of war at Carrickfergus, on the Irish coast opposite, of which he had caught a p19 glimpse some days earlier when passing. He was planning to sail in to engage her when he learned that the sloop, which was the Drake, was coming out. "Alarm smokes now appeared in great abundance, extending along on both sides of the channel," Jones observed in his report. He let the Drake come up astern and within hail. Suddenly, and before the enemy realized his intention, he brought the Ranger about almost across the bows of the Drake, raking her decks with destructive broadsides, to which she could reply only with the few guns that bore. Jones wrote:
The action was warm, close, and obstinate. It lasted an hour and four minutes, when the enemy called for quarter; her fore and main topsail yards being both cut away and down on the cap; the topgallant yard and mizzen gaff both hanging up and down along the mast; the second ensign, which they had hoisted, shot away and hanging in the water; the sails and rigging entirely cut to pieces, her masts and yards all wounded, and her hull very much galled.
Jones lost two killed and six wounded; the English, forty‑two killed and wounded, and among their wounded were the captain and lieutenant, who both died a little later.
The Drake, though of about the same strength as the Ranger, had new officers and an inexperienced crew and was otherwise unprepared for battle. Jones, on the other hand, was handicapped by the miserable spirit of his command. In his own words, "Plunder rather than honor was the object of the Ranger's officers and crew." As he headed toward the Drake to give battle, his men were so near to open mutiny that, as he declared, "I ran every chance of being killed or thrown overboard." This statement was confirmed by Lieutenant p20 Meyer, a Swedish officer, who, having been granted a leave of absence, had entered the service of the United States and was detailed to the Ranger. It was plainly Jones who was responsible for the victory.
We have already noted organization as one of Jones's great contributions to the navy. The exploits just mentioned bring out his second contribution of daring and enterprise. These are doubtful virtues except as they are based on sound strategy and tactics. That Jones gave them this high character is yet clearer after considering his victory over the Serapis.
England at once recognized in Jones her most formidable enemy on the sea. Insurance rates went up; and terror spread throughout the land, resulting in the establishment of camps for militia everywhere. English newspapers commonly spoke of Jones as a pirate. Nevertheless, American prisoners, who previously had been closely confined as felons, were now given a new status, and soon were subject to exchange.
Enthusiastic praise from the French greeted Jones on his return, but the embarrassments which ever beset him in his naval career by no means came to an end. Two of the three American commissioners in Paris, Arthur Lee and John Adams, strangely enough were indifferent and at times hostile. Jones's draft on them for money to feed his crew and prisoners was not honored, and in his emergency he had to borrow on his personal credit. It was only the hearty commendation and never-failing sympathy of the other commissioner, Franklin, which saved Jones in the immediate irritation and the long disappointment that followed.
France had now openly allied herself with the United States in war upon England. And Jones, who was flattered by every French officer he met, not excluding p21 M. de Sartine, Minister of Marine, was promised a large ship. Thereupon he sent home the Ranger with the insubordinate Lieutenant Simpson.
For nine months he waited for the oft‑promised new command; and when he had received the wretched old tub finally given him, he spent another six months in securing her equipment. Such delay was scarcely less than agony for this Harry Hotspur of the sea. Morbidly sensitive, he was cut to the quick by the strange attitude of the American commissioners and found it impossible to understand the double dealing of the French court.
The story goes that it was "Poor Richard's Almanac" that gained him a ship; for when he had written letter after letter while waiting in Brest and L'Orient, put off by one promise after another, he was impressed by one of Franklin's maxims, "If you would have your business done, go yourself." Acting upon this suggestion, he went to Paris and was given a most favorable reception by M. de Sartine, as well as by Franklin and other Americans. He secured as his command the East India merchantman, the Duras. She was not new and never designed as a ship of war; but she was so much better than no ship at all that in gratitude to Franklin and the famous character of the "Almanac," Jones rechristened her the Bonhomme Richard.
The ship was twelve years old, and plainly her service had worn severely on her; her timbers, which lacked the thickness and strength required for a frigate, were described as "half rotten." Jones traveled over much of France to secure a proper armament for his converted frigate, and finally had to accept many cannon which had been condemned by the French government. He had equal difficulty in obtaining officers and crew. p22 Of her complement of three hundred and fifty, only about one fifth were American, largely exchanged prisoners, among them his one efficient officer, Richard Dale; there were one hundred and thirty-seven French marines with two officers provided by the French government; and the rest were Portuguese, Swedes, Malays, and even some English prisoners — not a crowd that took kindly to the discipline and exact obedience required for a ship of war. On this cruise Jones was to have associated with the Richard four other ships — the Alliance, the Pallas, the Cerf, and the Vengeance. The Alliance was a new American frigate and, though not so large as the Bonhomme Richard, was, as appeared later, of greater strength. This squadron would have given Jones a force of no mean size if only he could have commanded it. In the first place, Pierre Landais, the captain of the Alliance, was a former French officer who had been cashiered in his own service; Congress had given him the command out of regard for America's ally without looking into his record. He was jealous of Jones and, being thoroughly erratic (his best friends later doubted his sanity), was insubordinate and troublesome at every turn. In the second place, just as the squadron was about to sail, M. de Chaumont, the personal representative of the Minister of Marine, a well-intending though blundering friend of Jones, appeared with a "concordat" to govern the squadron. This virtually took from Jones his position as commander in chief; for according to the agreement which he was compelled to make with the other captains unless he was to delay sailing, each was left free to obey or not obey Jones's orders according to his discretion. Earlier Jones had hoped that Lafayette would accompany him with a land p23 force. Lafayette had become a warm friend of Jones's and had enthusiastically volunteered for the expedition with a plan no less bold than that of laying the great port of Liverpool under contribution. But one of the French officers had talked indiscreetly, and the government blocked the scheme on the ground that Lafayette must be reserved for other service. Even more of a loss than the strong armed force Lafayette would have brought was the moral support he would have lent.
At sunrise, on 14 August, 1779, Jones sailed from L'Orient with his motley force. To Franklin he wrote characteristically, "I look forward with flattering expectation and an ardent desire to merit your friendship and that of America." His course was to southern Ireland, then north along the west coast of Ireland and Scotland to the Orkneys, in the end completely encircling the British Isles. Off Cape Clear, Ireland, nine days out, Jones lost his barge, which was taken by deserters, who made for land. He also lost his third lieutenant, who, in his zeal to capture the deserts, acted without orders and set out with a boat and twenty American sailors. They got lost in a fog and eventually were captured by the British. To cap the climax, the Cerf, sent to find and rescue the third lieutenant's boat, showed that she had no liking for the adventurous cruise by using the opportunity to return to France. As has already been suggested, Landais in the Alliance constantly made trouble, openly insulting the commodore; indeed, the only course of action that could safely be predicted of him was that he would oppose any plan of Jones's which required coöperation. Twice during the cruise he sailed away and was not seen by the other ships for days. Nevertheless Jones p24 persevered and took many prizes. Even with his reduced force he entered the Firth of Forth, planning to lay Leith and Edinburgh under contribution; but the wind changed and became so violent that he had to withdraw. Following this, the commanding officers of the Pallas and the Vengeance, the only ships still with the Bonhomme Richard, fearful lest the French should bring an overwhelming force against them, declared to Jones that they were going to end the cruise by sailing to the Texel. In his perplexity Jones thought of continuing the cruise unsupported. He hated to end it without striking a blow at the rich Baltic fleet, a plan which months previously he had discussed with Franklin.
This fleet, consisting of forty‑one sail, he sighted off Flamborough Head on the 23d of September, 1779, about one o'clock. They were convoyed and preceded by the frigate Serapis and the sloop of war Countess of Scarborough. Jones, who now had the Alliance with him again, promptly signaled to his squadron to form in line of battle and engage the enemy. The Pallas and the Vengeance obeyed, taking a position in the lee of the Richard, which in time brought them up with the Countess of Scarborough; but Landais, in the Alliance, sailed off to windward to await developments.
The wind was light; and so slow was the old Richard that it was not until seven o'clock, when daylight was ended, that she came within hail of the Serapis. Both ships at this time were sailing in a northwesterly direction, the Richard slightly in advance. Jones, to bring the ships as near together as possible, delayed to the last minute beginning the action, even using the ruse of pretending that he did not understand the hail. He had seen that the Serapis could sail two feet to the p25 Richard's one, and recognized that his chance for victory lay in fighting at close quarters where there would be no maneuvering. The period of waiting terminated with an exchange of broadsides, both ships firing at the same moment. This first discharge on the Richard, delivered by her 18‑pounders, her heaviest guns, mounted on the gun deck, came near to deciding the issue right then and there. Two of these old condemned cannon burst, killing nearly every man of their crews, besides blowing a hole in the side of the ship and wrecking that part of the main deck which was above them. The odds, which had previously been fifty guns of the Serapis to forty‑two on the Richard, were now greatly increased; the crew of the Serapis, made up entirely of Englishmen, contrasted sharply with the Richard's polyglot aggregation; and the Serapis, a strongly built frigate, new and on her first commission, in every feature surpassed the slow, worn‑out East Indiaman.
Jones then attempted, by backing his topsails, to drop astern of the enemy, where he might get the advantage of a raking position, which commonly more than doubled the effect of a broadside, besides denying the enemy the opportunity of replying with any except the stern chasers. But Captain Richard Pearson, who commanded the Serapis, took advantage of his speed to gain for himself the coveted position, and inflicted heavy losses. Pearson then ran ahead, with the idea of crossing the bows of the Richard and raking her again; but, miscalculating his distance, he came near to being fouled by her and prevented this only by putting his helm hard alee, a maneuver that brought the Serapis just ahead of the Richard. At this point Jones showed his superior seamanship and quick-wittedness. p26 As Pearson, reducing his speed, was attempting to come alongside his enemy, Jones forged ahead, blanketing the sails of the Serapis, which was to leeward and enveloped in smoke. When the latter again felt the breeze and followed hard after, Jones put his helm quickly over; and before his opponent had detected the sudden change of course, according to Jones's report, "The enemy's bowsprit . . . came over the Bonhomme Richard's poop by the mizzenmast." This was just what Jones had wanted, and he exclaimed, "Well done, my brave lads, we have got her now." Calling for a hawser, he sprang like a tiger on his prey; and when the officer with him, attempting to tie a knot, fumbled, he himself took the line and made fast the enemy's jib stay to the mizzenmast of the Richard. The bowsprit of the Serapis broke short as the wind struck her after-sails and swung her about; but the lashing held fast, and the remainder of the battle was fought with the starboard bow of the Serapis against the starboard quarter of the Richard, the two lying so close alongside that muzzles of the guns touched their enemy's side and yards interlocked.
The battle had been in progress one hour. Just before the fouling, the Richard must have seemed a beaten ship even to Jones. The hole in her starboard quarter, caused by the explosion of her own guns and made larger by the heavy bombardment of the Serapis, was so huge that the captain's barge — if he had not lost it — could easily have been hauled through. On the main deck the 12‑pounders and 9‑pounders had been silenced, and on the high poop the French marines had suffered so many losses that the French officer in command took the sad remnants down to the quarter-deck. Yet Jones now believed he was going to win.
p27 The purser, in charge of the few guns on the quarter-deck, being wounded, Jones took his place and himself directed their fire. They consisted of two 9‑pounders, made three by bringing over a gun from the unengaged side. These were the only guns the Richard had still in action. At this point Lieutenant Dale brought up the force of Americans and French marines who had been serving the guns below. Jones then bent every effort to secure control above. Marksmen in the Richard's tops, being heavily reënforced, were now silencing the enemy's musket men and driving the British from the guns on the quarter-deck and forecastle. Nor did they stop until they had entirely cleared the enemy's decks. Before this advantage had been gained, the contest was all but lost by the carpenter, who, seeing a pump of the Richard disabled, spread the report that the American frigate was sinking. With the master at arms and the gunner, he rushed up to surrender. "What scoundrels are those?" cried the indomitable Jones. Suiting his action to the words, he threw both pistols at the head of the gunner, who had attempted to haul down the flag, felling him as he fled down the gangway. Pearson, however, had heard their colony for quarter and, calling out to Jones, asked if he had struck.
"I have not yet begun to fight," Jones thundered back, in a flash voicing the unconquerable spirit that has characterized the American Navy ever since.
Pearson thereupon assembled a party with the intention of boarding the Richard. His men could easily have swarmed through the open side of their enemy and, overpowering the force below, have set fire to or sunk the ship. But this was not the conventional mode of boarding, and it seems never to have occurred to Pearson. As, instead, the British made their rush p28 above, they were subject to the fire of the French and American marksmen and were met by a picked force led by Jones in person. They retreated in disorder.
Five hundred frenzied English prisoners on the Richard, released by the master at arms, who had told them that the ship was sinking, came rushing up. But Jones assured them that it was the Serapis which was sinking, and that their safety depended on keeping the Richard afloat. With this he not only forced them back but induced them to man the pumps. All quietly returned except one, the captain of a merchantman earlier made a prize by the Richard. This individual, climbing through a gun port and on to the Serapis, told Pearson of the desperate plight of his enemy. Whereupon Pearson ordered all his men below decks, and, with the expectation that the Richard must soon surrender, urged on the crews stationed at the large guns. Their shot, however, were absolutely wasted; for as the relative position of the ships had not changed since the time of fouling, the missiles fired by the Serapis passed clear through the Richard's hull, encountering no resistance. Both ships were now burning in many places.
The British on the Serapis not only were menaced by fire but were shown by a Yankee sailor that their strong hull did not afford the full protection they had supposed. This daring fellow climbed from the rigging of the Richard to the main yard of the Serapis and, dropping a hand grenade down an open hatchway, set fire to some loose powder and a line of cartridges on the main deck. In the terrific flash and explosion that followed, twenty of the officers and crew of the Serapis were blown to pieces.
Landais, in the Alliance, had joined the fray once before, but had deliberately fired a broadside into the p29 stern of the Richard. The bright moon gave little possibility of his mistaking the high poop and other peculiar marks of the East Indiaman. Further, her identity was indicated by three lanterns hung as agreed upon; and men from the Richard, hailing, called out that the gunners of the Alliance were killing their own countrymen. The crazy Landais, however, continued to fire other volleys into the Richard's side and bow and then sailed away. Later — it was after the explosion of the cartridges in the Serapis — the Alliance again appeared. This time she sailed about the exhausted but still struggling combatants, firing grapeshot indiscriminately into both. The British had no knowledge of the harm that the Alliance was doing to their enemy and were seized by a panic. Jones, sensitive to everything, instantly noted that the British fire was lessening and urged his men to increase their own. This led to the end. At half-past ten, after an engagement lasting three hours and a half, the British surrendered. It was Pearson himself who hauled down the colors. No one else would venture on deck.
It was reported by Fanning, a midshipman on the Richard, that after surrender Captain Pearson asked Jones what nationality his crew chiefly consisted of. Jones, thinking of strength and reliability rather than numbers, replied "American." "Very well," said Pearson, with the fine sportsmanship characteristic of the English; "it has been diamond cut diamond."
Meanwhile Cottineau in the Pallas had engaged the Countess of Scarborough and, after a spirited resistance lasting an hour, had captured her. He was planning to turn his prize over to Landais and to sail to the support of Jones, when Landais sailed away, supposedly to help the Richard.
p30 The next day Jones transferred his men and prisoners to the Serapis; for, as the wind freshened, the poor old battered Richard, in spite of every effort to keep her afloat, was slowly settling. The day following it became necessary to abandon her, but Jones stood by till the last. "I saw with inexpressible grief," he wrote, "the last glimpse of the Bonhomme Richard."
The much-chagrined British Admiralty now bent its energies to capture Jones and sent out several squadrons to scour the sea; but under cover of fog he slipped past and took his force into the Texel, Holland.
The effect of this brilliant victory was not without important international significance. It elated the enthusiastic French people as much as it disturbed the English, and aroused them to render greater assistance to America. Holland, which had heretofore been neutral, was so influenced by it, as well as by Jones' bearing during the twelve weeks he remained at the Texel, — while the British ambassador vainly blustered, — that she weakened in her neutrality and joined the coalition. England had now against her the three most formidable sea powers of the Continent, and not a single friend. This was soon to prove a telling argument for admitting that the war in the colonies was a failure and granting them independence.
After the American Revolution Jones made a further important contribution to the American Navy in his sound ideas of preparedness by education. We have already quoted his scheme for the establishment of academies affording officers the opportunity for general studies at the dockyards. Later he went much further, and his recommendations were based on his own experience. Though he had known the sea since infancy and had a mind that worked with lightning rapidity in a p31 crisis, he depended as little on chance for his victories as did Nelson. We have mentioned his declining the command of the Providence when he thought he might learn more as first lieutenant on Hopkins's flagship. When he went to France he quickly formed strong friendships with the leading French naval officers, who had no equal in the theory of warfare. In the periods of idleness so often forced upon him Jones made a close study of their strategy and tactics. He carefully observed also their organization of personnel, the structural features of their ships, the equipment of their yards, and the like. Of this self-education he wrote to Robert Morris in 1783:
If midnight study and the instructions of the greatest and most learned sea officers can have given me advantages, I am not without them. I confess, however, I have yet to learn. . . . While I was at Brest, as well as while I was inspecting the building of the America, as I had furnished myself with good authors, I applied much of my leisure time to the study of naval architecture and other matters that related to the establishment and policy of dockyards etc.
Further, in this same communication he makes observations and lays down principles that are so sound and modern that they might have been uttered almost yesterday:
It is the work of many years' study and experience to acquire the high degree of science necessary for a great sea officer. . . . A captain of the line at this day must be a tactician. A captain of a cruising frigate may make shift without ever having heard of naval tactics. Until I arrived in France, and became acquainted with that great tactician, Count D'Orvilliers, and his judicious assistant, the Chevalier du Pavilliou, who, each of them honoured me with instructions respecting the science of governing the operations, etc. p32 of a fleet, I confess I was not sensible how ignorant I had been before that time, of naval tactics. . . . My plan for forming a proper corps of sea officers is, by teaching them the naval tactics in a fleet of evolution. . . . We cannot, like the ancients, build a fleet in a month, and we ought to take example from what has lately befallen Holland. In time of peace it is necessary to prepare, and be always prepared, for war at sea.1
Jones here expressed the underlying idea of the War College, to be established a century later at Newport. When Rear Admiral Luce and Captain Mahan, against constant opposition, had to battle for the War College on its establishment and almost up to the Spanish-American War, it is no wonder that Jones, in the earlier age, should find reason to lament to a friend, "My voice has been like a cry in the Desert; I know no remedy but patience."
In conclusion is it not indeed remarkable that Jones, born and reared in America, should have been, nevertheless, so essentially American? He was strongly stamped by two qualities which are peculiarly characteristic of our country — open-mindedness and idealism. Since he began going to sea when he reached the age of twelve, the schools of Scotland could have done little for him. Instead, it was the rough life of the sea and the stimulating p33 friends he made in America that early molded him. His powers of rapid assimilation were unusual. This was shown during the period of his longest stay in America, from his twenty-fifth to his twenty-eighth year. It began with a peculiar crisis in his life, when he was in need of almost everything — sympathy more than all else. In answer to this need he made some real friends, including certain of the best people of North Carolina and Virginia. And it is amazing how quickly he absorbed their speech, manners, and ideas. The two or three years in North Carolina and Virginia gave him characteristics which he never lost. It was then that he became surcharged with idealism, fired with ideas of liberty and the rights of man, as well as with ambition for personal achievement and fame. He was, like many eager idealists, often so impatient and hot‑tempered that he risked the loss of all he strove for. Yet strong and sympathetic friends, like Hewes and Morris of the Marine Committee or the peerless Franklin, could ever calm him and make him docile as a child. His relentless ambition was responsible for a strain of tragedy that pervaded his life, and few were the years that can be described as contented or happy. During the period of action he was absolutely unsparing of self and would sacrifice comfort, rest, and money for success; then, when praise and ample recognition were slow in rewarding what he in strict candor knew was no ordinary service, he became morbidly sensitive and brooded over the injustice.
As he threw himself heart and soul into the American cause at the beginning of the Revolution, he had visions of returning with fame and fortune to seek the hand of a brilliant young woman whom he had met in 1775 while visiting his friend Dr. Read of Goochland County, p34 Virginia, south of Fredericksburg. Here he had made the acquaintance of Jefferson and Patrick Henry also, for Dr. Read counted among his friends the best of Virginia. It was the spring of the year, and for Jones the spring of life too, as for the first time he met women of high culture and charming manners. The beautiful Dorothea Spotswood Dandridge, nineteen years old, granddaughter of Governor Spotswood and cousin of Martha Washington, completely fascinated him, and his ardent admiration seems to have been returned. What followed is not altogether clear. The aristocratic Dandridges may not have looked with full approval upon the stranger of uncertain origin. And it was quite characteristic of this young naval Hotspur that when he went to war he would have become wholly engrossed in military affairs. During the next three years he did not visit her and, so far as is known, did not write; yet that he continued to cherish her image in his heart is evidenced by his assuring his confidant, Dr. Read, of his "expectation of purchasing a Virginia estate," which, as the kindly doctor knew, was inseparably linked with another expectation. But the latter was not to be realized. As Jones learned in a communication from Dr. Read written sometime during 1778, Miss Dorothea had wedded the celebrated Patrick Henry, a widower, father of six children, and twice her age.
Thus faded away the bright vision of an estate and a happy home in Virginia; Jones had lost his best anchor to windward.
In spite of our just pride in the remarkable service of the leaders in the American Revolution, the total performance of the navy was disappointing, largely because of the lack of organization, discipline, moral, p35 and tradition. And it was a blot upon our government that Jones, who had rendered such distinguished service and who continued a loyal American citizen to the end, should have been granted no national honors on his death in 1792. He died in Paris; and but for the generous respect of a French official who contributed 392 francs out of his own funds for an indestructible lead casket and a proper burial, he would have been consigned to a pauper's grave. Nor was this neglect because of his obscurity, for the American minister, Gouverneur Morris, saw him on the day of his death and subsequently attended to his affairs. Thus Jones perished; and in like manner the navy, which he had zealously striven to establish on a broad and lasting foundation, came to naught. At the close of the Revolution the few ships remaining were promptly sold. History, however, often reverses its judgments. The country discovered, even before the few years remaining in the eighteenth century were completed, that a navy is not an idle ornament or a menace. When it was organized, Jones's ideas more and more were adopted, and now, within our time, the highest place has been awarded him. This was given visible evidence one hundred and thirteen years after his death when the American ambassador at Paris, General Horace Porter, after careful search found and positively identified his remains. France and America then vied in the honors paid him; and a strong American squadron, such as was denied him in life, was his at the end as he returned to the land of his adoption. Further, that his memory might prove a lasting inspiration to the navy his final resting-place was fixed at the great institution of which he had caught the first vision, the United States Naval Academy.
p36 We cannot close the discussion of the Revolution without noting that in spite of all its shortcomings the infant navy left an influence of some power. On the sea as well as on the land, men from a widely scattered area had toiled and bled for a common end. The exploits of greater and lesser heroes were related and awakened growing enthusiasm. For the first time leaders of the thirteen colonies had acted together, and the limited support granted them had, at critical moments, grown to proportions of real strength. The first steps toward national unity had been taken.
1 This quotation is from the original draft of the letter, indorsed in Jones's own handwriting with the address of the Honorable Robert Morris. In an early biography, however, it is an abridged form of this letter that appears, with no reference to the fleet of evolution etc.; but there is added this sentence: "I have many things to offer respecting the formation of our navy, but shall reserve my observation on that head until you have leisure to attend them and require them of me." The presumption is that although Jones had carefully formulated these ideas and discussed them with fellow officers, he felt that it would be unwise to send them in a general communication to the Agent of Marine, especially as at this time virtually nothing remained of the Continental navy.
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