John Paul Jones

For all its troubles, the United States Navy produced a number of heroes in the Revolutionary War. Captains like John Barry and Nicholas Biddle distinguished themselves on numerous occasions, but the fame of John Paul Jones has overshadowed the memory of their exploits. Jones captured the imagination of his contemporaries. His dramatic career laid the foundation of a proud naval tradition.

John Barry was one of the first to recognize the need for a United States Navy and was instrumental in its creation. He participated in the Trenton campaign and was involved in several skirmishes with British ships over the course of the war. Nicholas Biddle participated in Hopkins' Bahamian raid in 1776. In 1778, Biddle was in command of the Randolph when it encountered the HMS Yarmouth. Heavily outgunned, the Randolph held her ground for about twenty minutes until an explosion decimated the ship and killed all but four of the 310-man crew, including Biddle.

The First Voyages

John Paul was born in Scotland, the son of a gardener. He went to sea at the age of thirteen and worked his way up to ship master. In 1773 he killed a man in self-defense and fled to Virginia. He added “Jones” to his name as a way of camouflaging his identity. Jones strongly identified with the Patriot cause. When war broke out and a navy was created, he volunteered his services. Commissioned a first lieutenant, he served aboard Hopkins' flagship on the raid of the Bahamas. Given his own command at last, he displayed his abilities in a series of successful cruises. On one voyage he captured sixteen ships. Sailing off Nova Scotia, he disrupted the fisheries and took nine more ships. A notable prize was a British transport carrying a load of uniforms. These helped clothe Continental troops.

Why is John Paul Jones considered the “Father of the United States Navy?”

Jones is honored as the “Father of the United States Navy” because of his courage and aggressiveness as a commander and his efforts to encourage professionalism in the service. Early in the twentieth century, his remains were formally interred at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.

In 1777, Jones was sent to France. The American commissioners there hoped to bring the war closer to home for the British. Aboard the Ranger, Jones cruised through the Irish Sea in April 1778, capturing two ships. On April 23 he raided the port of Whitehaven in Scotland. He and a party of sailors rowed ashore, spiked the guns guarding the port, and set fire to the ships anchored in the harbor. Later that day, Jones went ashore again, hoping to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk and exchange him for captive American seamen. The Earl was not at home, and Jones had to settle for the family's silver before sailing for Ireland. Off Carrickfergus, he captured the twenty-gun sloop HMS Drake after an hour-long battle. Jones received a hero's welcome when he returned with his prizes to Brest. He had humiliated the British in their home waters.

Jones had to wait the better part of a year for another ship. He occupied his time enjoying his celebrity, cutting a swath through the ladies in Paris, and bombarding the American authorities with plans to strike at the British. Jones wanted to lead a squadron of ships in an attack on the port of Liverpool, followed by an attempt to intercept the annual Baltic convoy that transported raw materials vital to the maintenance of the Royal Navy.

The Bon Homme Richard

The ship that Jones eventually received did not inspire confidence. It was an old East Indiaman that was slow and difficult to maneuver. Jones named it the Bon Homme Richard. In addition to the Bon Homme Richard, Jones commanded a squadron that included the Continental frigate Alliance and three smaller French vessels. Alliance was commanded by Pierre Landais, a Frenchman who had entered the American service. Landais was a mercurial — perhaps even unbalanced — man who quarreled with the hot-tempered Jones and became increasingly insubordinate.

Jones was sponsored by Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Franklin shared Jones's desire to strike British targets. To honor his patron, the Bon Homme Richard was named after the character “Poor Richard” in Benjamin Franklin's famous almanacs.

Jones set sail with his small squadron on August 14. He sailed past Ireland and around Scotland but accomplished little, capturing only two small prizes. The opposition of his captains prevented Jones from raiding the Scottish port of Leith. On September 23, cruising off the east coast of England near Flamborough Head, Jones spotted the sails of the Baltic convoy. HMS Serapis (fifty guns) and HMS Countess of Scarborough (twenty guns) were escorting thirty-nine merchantmen.

The British warships bravely made for Jones's squadron while the transports escaped to safety. Countess of Scarborough engaged the French warship Pallas while Serapis challenged Bon Homme Richard. The two ships circled each other, hoping to be able to rake the other with a broadside across the stern or bow. Serapis was much more agile than Jones's ship. He could not gain an advantage as the two ships maneuvered. The British ship was more heavily gunned and the weight of its fire began to tell. Two of Jones's guns burst, wiping out their crews. Jones's only hope of victory lay in boarding Serapis. His opportunity came when a change in the wind forced the ships together.

Jones led the way in grappling lines to Serapis. Sharpshooters posted in the rigging of Bon Homme Richard cleared the deck of the British ship with musket fire and grenades. Below decks Serapis's gunners kept blasting into Bon Homme Richard at point-blank range. The American flag was shot away. Wondering if it had been lowered as a sign of surrender, the British commander asked if the Americans had struck their flag. Jones is famously reported to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Captain Landais and Alliance now made an appearance. Instead of attacking Serapis, he fired three broadsides into Bon Homme Richard, killing twenty men and adding to the grievous damage the ship had already suffered. In the end, the fighting qualities of Jones and his sailors won the day. Their small arms fire galled the enemy. When a grenade tossed down the main hatch of Serapis set off an explosion on the gun deck that killed twenty men and undermined the mainmast, Captain Richard Pearson surrendered. Half of Jones's crew of 237 men had become casualties and his ship was aflame. He transferred his men to Serapis. Bon Homme Richard sank the next day. Pallas had compelled the surrender of Countess of Scarborough while Jones fought.

“Either Captain Landais or myself is highly criminal, and one or the other must be punished,” Jones wrote to Benjamin Franklin after the battle. Landais was stripped of his command of the Alliance, but he wrested control of the ship from Jones in June 1780. Unfortunately for Landais, the crew mutinied in August, and his reputation and career were ruined by the subsequent court-martial.

Jones sailed his prizes to the Netherlands and acclaim. He had won the most celebrated ship-to-ship duel of the war and had set a standard for skill, courage, and tenacity for the United States Navy. The rest of his career would prove anticlimactic. Never a good politician, his quarrels with other officers would keep him from promotion and another command in the rapidly shrinking American navy. Jones would die alone and penniless in Paris in 1792.

  1. Home
  2. American Revolution
  3. An International War
  4. John Paul Jones
Visit other About.com sites: