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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p39  Chapter 10

Independence II and John Paul Jones

The Independence crossed the North Atlantic in the late summer of 1780. The passage took six or seven weeks — disagreeable weeks for the crew and trying weeks for the Captain. His crew had complained about rotten meat that was being served to them even before the ship left the Delaware; and with good reason. Tom admitted that the provisions were the worst he had ever gone to sea with. "We have not a barrel of beef or pork but what smells," he had told his owners, "which I am verryº sorry is the case." But there was nothing better to be had.1

There had been a shortage of meat all spring and summer. Prices were unconscionably high and quality had dropped to a new low. While Tom had been able to keep peace in his ship by promising his crew that they should have, as soon as they reached France, the very best provisions that money could buy, General Washington's armies were virtually without meat, and their faith in promises had long since vanished. When the government could find a few cattle to be killed, salt for preserving the meat was lacking because, as the President of Pennsylvania complained, "we cannot get a Bushel [of salt] as we have neither Specie nor Continental Money & our Merchants will not touch State Money."2

Near the end of September, the Independence arrived in L'Orient, a seaport on the Brittany coast of France. This port was built to serve the French East India Company and was named for the source of its wealth; its principal trade was in the treasure of the Indies. Great vaulted stone warehouses lined attractive streets and quays. Sailors from the far corners of the earth congregated here, swapping money and exotic goods for the pleasures of the beach.3

In the roadstead, under the Ile de Groix, ships from many oceans lay at anchor, waiting to discharge their cargoes or to take others on  p40 board. When Tom's ship came into these roads he saw Captain John Paul Jones's Ariel, a ship of the Continental Navy, lying at anchor. Tom was flying at the main truck of the Independence a long pennant, the signal of command. When he passed close under the stern of the Ariel, he showed no mark of respect for this Navy ship nor for her captain. In the face of a resolution of the Continental Congress that no American privateer or merchant vessel be permitted to wear pennants when in company with vessels of the Continental Navy, Tom continued to fly his command pennant. He sailed on, according to Captain Jones, "with a long Pendant Flying and without lowering any Sail or Colour or even shewing any mark of Politeness."​4 Reflecting widespread opinion of the moment, Tom had little but contempt for the Continental Navy. It was an exalted service only in its own eyes. Tom no doubt agreed with others that the privateers had done a better job of commerce raiding than had the Navy; and the Navy had done little else.

Captain Jones was not the sort of officer to command the respect of a merchant captain who was developing some awareness of his own importance. Jones was lionized by the natives on this Brittany shore; many people called him "king of Brittany" because of his great influence with the officialdom of L'Orient; the King of France had sent him an elegant sword; all of this tickled his vanity.​5 He was forever jealous of his good name and fame. One of his officers said, "Jones has a wonder­ful notion of his name being handed down to posterity."​6 But his inordinate vanity was tightly bound up with a consuming patriotic zeal; he was as jealous of the good name and fame of the Continental Navy as of his own. He countenanced no action that might be construed as an insult to its dignity.

While Tom was arranging for a cargo for his ship, the Ariel departed, bound out for America. The master of the Independence affected nonchalance and unconcern when, five days later, the Ariel, dismasted and wrecked, crept back into a berth near his ship.7

Captain Jones had sailed out into a gale that threatened to drive his ship onto an angry lee shore. The men in the Ariel spent a terrible night, expecting each moment to hear the grinding of hull on rocks, expecting each hour to be their last. In the middle of this blackest of nights, with his ship standing almost on her beam ends, Captain Jones called his officers together on the quarter-deck to consult about whether to cut away the foremast and to let go the sheet  p41 anchor. This was agreed to; before the night was over the main and mizzenmasts had followed the foremast over the side.8

Tom could sympathize with Jones; he had lived through a storm in which his ship had been dismasted; but apparently he paid scant notice to the arrival of the Ariel. From the masthead of the Independence flew a broad pennant now, flaunting Tom's disdain for the Continental Navy as here represented by John Paul Jones. It is small wonder that Tom's insolence rankled in Jones's mind. His patience reached its limit when the Independence, still wearing the broad pennant, weighed anchor and dropped down the river, again steering close to the Ariel. Jones sent a boat with an officer to remind Tom of the resolution of Congress. This mission was rebuffed; the mate on deck told Jones's officer that he had orders to "treat with contempt and disobey any order" Jones might send regarding the pennant. In addition, the hands in the boat were menaced by Tom's men.

Jones then sent his first lieutenant, Richard Dale, at twenty-four a "clever, good natured sea officer," with two boat loads of armed men to remove the offending pennant.​9 As the boats approached the Independence the pennant was hauled down, and the Continental Navy once more reigned supreme in the harbor of L'Orient; but the issue was not quite put down.​10 During ten two days, the broad pennant flew again aboard Tom's ship.​11 No doubt he was enjoying the intense rage that was revealed in the letters he received from Jones.

Captain Jones finally had the last word when the Independence was preparing to sail for home. He wrote to the Board of Admiralty and reviewed Tom's conduct. "Is not this," he asked, "bidding defiance to Congress and the Continental Flag? Congress will Judge was punishment is equal to such a Crime when committed in Sight of the Flag and Forts of our Illustrious Ally."​12 Then he sent his letter off to Philadelphia in Tom's care.​13 The Board of Admiralty treated this letter from Jones as it treated many of his letters. No record survives to show that the Board did any more than politely ignore it. Tom was headstrong and his judgment had not matured, but the cause would not be furthered by depriving him of his command. He was still an able shipmaster.

The incident of the pennant was closed; but it had its effect on Tom Truxtun, even though it was many years before the effect became evident. Perhaps, in the long monotony of night watches on deck, he turned Captain Jones's carefully chosen words over and over  p42 in his mind. At length he came to the realization that a cause or a nation needs passionate men like Jones to set the standards and to guard their inviolability. Some of Jones's ideas he put away in a corner of his mind. Many years later, when he commanded an American ship of war, he echoed the words that the ardent patriot had written to him: "It is not me you have offended. You have offended the United States of America."14

He arrived home in December, 1780, after an expeditious passage of less than five weeks from France. Mary was expecting her second baby; but Tom was off to the West Indies before the baby arrived. The sea came first.

When the Independence dropped down the Delaware with the tide, the old year of 1780 was ebbing fast. On the last day of the year, his new daughter was born in Philadelphia, even as he sailed between the Delaware capes and once more stood out to sea.15

This was to be his last voyage as master of the Independence. The Caldwell brothers were having built a new and larger ship for Tom to command. He hoped to be able to take her out for France in the spring.

"Hurry," he wrote to the Caldwells before he dismissed his pilot, "with the ship."16

The Author's Notes:

1 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, July 27, 1780.

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2 Anne Bezanson, Prices and Inflation during the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1951), pp135‑37; Quotation is from John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom (Boston, 1948), p481.

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3 Miss Betham-Edwards, ed., Arthur Young's Travels in France, 1787‑1789 (London, 1900), p129.

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4 LC: John Paul Jones Papers, Jones to Truxtun, October 24, 1780.

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5 John S. Barnes, ed., Fanning's Narrative (New York, 1912), p86.

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6 Ibid., p78n.

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7 U. S. Library of Congress, A Calendar of John Paul Jones Manuscripts in the Library of Congress (Washington, D. C., 1903), p170, October 13, 1780. In Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, L'Orient, September 28, 1780, Tom mentioned the expected departure of the French fleet that made the Yorktown victory possible. The fleet, eventually commanded by de Grasse, was scheduled to sail from Brest (70 miles from L'Orient) on October 8, 1780. Actually, it got under way in January, 1781. Tom listed by name eight ships of the line, as well as the number of transports and troops. This points up the ease with which intelligence might be obtained by the enemy.

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8 Barnes, op. cit., pp87‑89.

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9 Ibid., p124.

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10 LC: John Paul Jones Papers, Jones to Truxtun, October 24, 1780.

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11 LC: Continental Congress Papers, vol. 193, fol. 311.

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12 Ibid.

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13 HSPa: Etting Collection, John Paul Jones to Robert Morris, October 26, November 8, 1780.

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14 LC: John Paul Jones Papers, Jones to Truxtun, October 24, 1780. For example, see Quasi‑War, III, 74 — Truxtun to Secretary of the Navy, Basseterre, St. Kitts, April 20, 1799. After discussing proper use of command pennants in naval ships, he concluded, "Some Instructions should all be given respecting Merchantmen, hoisting Pendants, and fancy Colours, instead of the regular Ensign of the United States."

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15 Truxtun Family Bible.

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16 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, December 29, 1780.

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