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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
by James Parton
Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.
It was in the spring of 1778 that the name of John Paul Jones became so terrible along the western coasts of Britain his native coasts, as familiar to him as to a Solway fisherman. This man was so intimately connected and associated with Dr. Franklin, and held him in such affectionate veneration, that I cannot but give a slight sketch of his brilliant career in the service of Congress.
And what a tough, valiant, indomitable, audacious hero he was, with his foppish ways and costume, his romantic, fantastic courtesy and enthusiasm! He had been a Nelson, if he had had Nelson's opportunities; for he was just such another soft-hearted, lady-loving, impetuous, imaginative Knight of the Quarter Deck. He was a little man, too, like Nelson, though compactly knit, and his voice was "soft and still, and small, and his eye had keenness, and wildness, and softness in it;" (1) and full as he was of the spirit of mastery, he was all gentleness, consideration, generosity to men who obeyed him. Mr. Adams mentions, also, that he was a sea-dandy, who would have his full share of gold lace and epaulette, and liked to see his officers, marines, men, boat, and ship all handsomely attired. Like all the greatest fighters, he performed his immortal exploits while he was young; he was but thirty-two when he did his greatest day's work.
On the southwestern coast of Scotland he was born; a natural son of a Mr. Craig, but brought up in the family of Mr. Craig's gardener, from whom he was named John Paul. (2) Nothing could keep him from the sea. At twelve, therefore, he was apprenticed to a merchant in the American trade, in whose ships he served seven years, as cabin boy, boy, and sailor before the mast. At the age of twenty-four we find him settled at Tobago, engaged in commerce, and possessing considerable property. In 1774, for a reason unknown, but which he himself styles an "accident," and "a very great misfortune," he was obliged suddenly to leave Tobago, and abandon all his property there, except fifty pounds. He came to the colonies, where he lived twenty months in great poverty, through the neglect or dishonesty of his agent at Tobago. The revolution breaking out, and his fifty pounds being exhausted, he made known his situation and his qualifications to persons of influence, through whom he obtained a lieutenant's commission in the forming navy of the United States. He acquired sudden and very great distinction. In one short cruise he took sixteen prizes, of which he burnt eight, and sent in eight. He had some sharp actions with king's ships, and captured one which had on board a company of British troops, and ten thousand suits of clothes a most precious acquisition in 1776. In a few months he made a fortune in prize money, and swept the northern seas of America clear of unconvoyed British vessels.
It was Paul Jones who first hoisted the Stars and Stripes upon a national vessel. On the very day (June 14th, 1777) on which Congress resolved "that the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, and that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation," they also resolved "that Captain John Paul Jones be appointed to command the ship Ranger." In the Ranger he was to go to France, and there take command of that fine frigate which the envoys had been building in Holland. As he had been the first to hoist the flag of the United States on a ship-of-war, so, on entering the harbor of Brest in February, 1778, seven days after the signing of the treaty of alliance, he was the first naval officer who had the pleasure of acknowledging a salute to that flag from a foreign power. (3)
Disappointment! The envoys had been obliged, as we have seen, to sell the fine Dutch frigate; it was then the property of the French Government. Dr. Franklin explained and consoled, as best he could. After two months of delay, caused by the discontent of his first lieutenant, who had expected to command the Ranger in Europe, Captain Jones sailed in the Ranger for the Scottish coast, on his first cruise in British waters.
With ports closed, and all other signs of armament carefully removed, the Ranger could have sent in a daily prize, but Captain Jones had other designs which obliged him to husband his men, and keep his ship clear of prisoners. One brigantine and one ship, however, he condescended to take on his way; sunk the brigantine, and sent the ship to Brest. On the seventh day he was between the Island of Man and Whitehaven; waters which he knew as familiarly as New Yorkers do the Narrows. Whitehaven was the town at which he had been apprenticed, and from which he had sailed for ten years. It was a town then of several thousands of inhabitants, and its harbor contained three or four hundred vessels, moored close together in large masses. Jones had formed the daring scheme of running in near the port, landing two parties, burning all these ships, and retiring before an armed force could be raised to repel him. At ten o'clock in the evening of April 18th he was off the harbor, with parties of volunteers ready for landing, when, suddenly, the wind veered so as to make the landing impossible, and even his own retreat difficult.
Cruising northward, he was near the harbor of Carrickfergus on the 21st. An unsuspecting fisherman coming alongside, Jones learned from the crew, that in the roads lay at anchor the British ship-of-war, Drake, of twenty guns. He sent the fishermen below as prisoners, their boat towing astern. He had determined to grapple with the Drake that very night, as she lay at anchor, and take her out from the harbor, a prize. His plan was to run in close to the very bow of the ship, cast anchor, rake her fore and aft with great guns and musketry, and force her quickly to surrender. Before a stiff breeze, the Ranger swept in upon her prey in the darkness of the evening, having all the appearance of a common merchant ship returning from a voyage. Unluckily, the anchor of the Ranger, upon which the success of the dashing maneuver depended, was let go a few seconds too late, which brought her to at half a cable's length from the Drake. Then it was that Captain Jones displayed his genius for command. Perceiving that his chance was lost, he instantly ordered his cable to be cut. The Drake's men supposing the cable had parted from the strain caused by the gale, saw nothing extraordinary in the circumstance, and the Ranger soon tacked out of sight and range, without having excited the slightest alarm.
The next afternoon he was again nearing Whitehaven England, Ireland, and Scotland all in sight at once, and all white with snow. At midnight, with two boats and thirty-one men, provided with combustibles and dark lanterns, he left his ship and made for Whitehaven pier. Day was dawning when he reached it, for the light wind had made him hours too late in starting. He would not abandon the enterprise, however, unpromising as it seemed. Sending one boat to the north side of the harbor to fire the vessels collected there, he went himself to do the same office to the stranded fleet on the south side. Familiar with every foot of the ground he had to traverse, he boldly landed under the guns of the two forts that protected the harbor, and he himself climbed the wall of one of them, and spiked every gun without giving alarm. All the sentinels, he found, had gone to the guard-house; and there he secured and disarmed every one of them without giving or receiving a scratch. Then, accompanied by one man, he scaled the other fort and spiked its guns. Returning to the pier to begin the conflagration, he found there the other boat, which had come back for a light, the candles in the lanterns having burnt out. Jones now discovered that all his own candles were consumed, and there was not in either boat a spark of fire, or the means of kindling one. The day, too, had dawned, and every second was precious. Nevertheless, he sent one of his men to a house near by for a light, who soon returned successful, and the boats again separated for the work of destruction.
Ten minutes later a barrel of tar, ignited in the steerage of a ship that lay surrounded by a hundred and fifty others, all left high and dry by the receded tide, shot a bolt of roaring flame through the hatchway. The people of the town, in hundreds, were soon running to the pier. Captain Jones stood by the side of the burning vessel, pistol in hand, and ordered the crowd to keep their distance, which they did. Not till the flames had caught the rigging and wreathed about the mainmast not till the sun was an hour high not till the whole town was rushing amazed to the scene did Jones give the order to embark. His men entered the boats without opposition, the captain releasing, at the last moment, all his prisoners but three, who were all he had room for. He stood on the pier till his men were seated in the boats, and for some little time after, then stepping gracefully into his place, he gave the word, the oars splashed into the water, and they moved towards the ship; while from every eminence in the vicinity hundreds and thousands of silent, astounded spectators gazed upon the incredible scene.
To the forts! was the cry on shore, as soon as the spell of the enemy's presence was removed. "Their disappointment," says Jones, "may easily be imagined, when they found at least thirty heavy cannon, the instruments of their vengeance, rendered useless. At length, however, they began to fire; having, as I apprehend, either brought down ship guns, or used one or two cannon which lay on the beach at the foot of the walls dismounted, and which had not been spiked. They fired with no direction; and the shot falling short of the boats, instead of doing us any damage, afforded some diversion, which my people could not help showing, by discharging their pistols, in return of the salute." (4) He had the mortification, however, to perceive that the people of the town succeeded in confining the ravages of the fire to two or three ships. Had it been possible, he remarks, to have landed a few hours sooner, he could have burnt three hundred vessels.
On regaining his ship he stood over to the Scottish coast. At noon, with a single boat and a small crew, he landed near the place of his birth, where stood the seat of the Earl of Selkirk, the great man of the neighborhood. He meant to take the earl prisoner, convey him to France, and hold him as a hostage for the better treatment and fair exchange of the American prisoners in England and America. "I wished," wrote Jones to the Countess of Selkirk, some time after, "to make him the happy instrument of alleviating the horrors of hopeless captivity, when the brave are overpowered and made prisoners of war." The earl was absent from home. On learning this, near the landing-place, the chivalric captain gave the order to return to the boat. The crew grumbled at this, alleging that when English parties landed on the coasts of America they never left them empty-handed, but plundered, destroyed, and burnt, without let or hindrance. "That party," as Jones explained to the countess, "had been with me the same morning, at Whitehaven; some complaisance therefore was their due. I had but a moment to think how I might gratify them, and at the same time do your ladyship the least injury. I charged the two officers to permit none of the seamen to enter the house, or to hurt any thing about it, to treat you, Madam, with the utmost respect, to accept of the plate which was offered, and to come away without making a search, or demanding any thing else. I am induced to believe that I was punctually obeyed; since I am informed that the plate which they brought away is far short of the quantity expressed in the inventory which accompanied it. I have gratified my men; and when the plate is sold I shall become the purchaser, and will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you by such conveyance as you shall please to direct."
He kept his word, and, though the earl at first haughtily refused to receive the plate, Jones persisted in his resolve to return it, and did return it, after eleven years of effort and negotiation. The Earl then handsomely acknowledged the courtesy of Captain Jones, and paid a just tribute to the excellent behavior of his officers and boat's crew. "Your officers and men," wrote the Earl, "did exactly as ordered, and not one man offered to stir from his post on the outside of the house, nor entered the doors, nor said an uncivil word; the two officers staid not a quarter of an hour in the parlor and butler's pantry, while the butler got the plate together, behaved politely, and asked for nothing but the plate, and instantly marched their men off in regular order, and both officers and men behaved in all respects so well that it would have done credit to the best disciplined troops." (5)
Now for the Drake again! The audacious captain was determined to have that ship if he was obliged to enter the harbor of Carrickfergus and fight her in broad daylight, in full view of the town and garrison. He was off the harbor the next morning, and was about to enter, when he perceived the Drake coming out. At the same moment the Drake saw him, and, the wind being extremely light, sent a boat ahead to reconnoiter, and ascertain whether the stranger knew any thing of the terrible vessel that had been ravaging sea and land the last ten days. Jones, guessing the object of the boat, kept the Ranger's unrecognizable stern towards it, and the boat hailed and came alongside. The officer coming on deck was astounded to find himself sent below, a prisoner. Jones learned from him that the Drake was coming out in search of the Ranger, of whose exploits at Whitehaven an account had arrived the night before. Five small vessels filled with people were following in the wake of the British ship, to witness the expected engagement; "but," remarks Captain Jones, "when they saw the Drake's boat at the Ranger's stern they wisely put back. Alarm-smokes," he adds, "now appeared in great abundance on both sides of the Channel." The country was thoroughly roused.
All day the Drake was working out of the harbor before the light breeze, and against the tide; the Ranger tacking up and down, waiting for her. On approaching the Ranger, at length, she hoisted British colors, and her antagonist flung out the stars and stripes, unseen till then in the waters of Britain. The Drake hailed:
"What ship is that?"
Jones ordered his master to reply: "The American Continental ship Ranger. We are waiting for you. Come on. The sun will set in an hour, and it is time to begin."
The Drake, being at the moment astern of the Ranger, Jones put up his helm, and gave him the first broadside, which was gallantly returned. "The action," reported our captain, "was warm, close, and obstinate. It lasted an hour and four minutes, when the enemy called for quarters; her fore and main-top-sail yards being both cut away, and down on the cap; the top-gallant yard and mizzen-gaff both hanging up and down along the mast; the second ensign which they had hoisted shot away, and hanging on the quarter-gallery in the water; the jib shot away, and hanging in the water; her sails and rigging entirely cut to pieces; her masts and yards all wounded, and her hull also very much galled." A minute before the Drake struck her colors, her commander fell mortally wounded, her first lieutenant having, just before, received his mortal wound. The Drake's loss, in killed and wounded, was forty-two; the Ranger's, nine.
In his letter to the Countess of Selkirk, Captain Jones discourses of this victory in his lofty, fantastic style. "Had the Earl," he comically observes, "been on board the Ranger, he would have seen the awful pomp and dreadful carnage of a sea engagement; both affording ample subject for the pencil, as well as melancholy reflection to the contemplative mind. Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror, and cannot sufficiently execrate the vile promoters of this detestable war.
"'For they, 'twas they unsheathed the ruthless blade,
And Heaven shall ask the havoc it has made.'
"The ships met, and the advantage was disputed with great fortitude on each side for an hour and four minutes, when the gallant commander of the Drake fell, and victory declared in favor of the Ranger. The amiable lieutenant lay mortally wounded, besides near forty of the inferior officers and crew killed and wounded. A melancholy demonstration of the uncertainty of human prospects, and of the sad reverse of fortune which an hour can produce. I buried them in a spacious grave, with the honors due to the memory of the brave. As the feelings of your gentle bosom cannot but be congenial with mine, let me entreat you, Madam, to use your persuasive art with your husband's to endeavor to stop this cruel and destructive war, in which Britain never can succeed."
The battle over, Captain Jones thought it time to release the poor fishermen, through whom he had learned the whereabouts of the Drake, a few days before. "As the poor fellows," he says, "had lost their boat, she having sunk in the late stormy weather, I was happy in having it in my power to give them the necessary sum to purchase every thing new which they had lost. I gave them also a good boat to transport themselves ashore; and sent with them two infirm men, on whom I bestowed the last guinea in my possession, to defray their traveling expenses to their proper home in Dublin. The grateful fishermen were in raptures; and expressed their joy in three huzzas as they passed the Ranger's quarter."
And so the Ranger and her glorious prize sailed away without molestation for Brest, leaving terror in every town, in every mansion, in every cottage, on the coasts of the Three Kingdoms. (6) The victory electrified France; France whose fondest dream was to see the naval power of Britain humbled. Nothing else was talked of in the drawing-rooms of Paris. The name of the victorious captain was extolled to the skies; and Franklin was overwhelmed with congratulations. It was, indeed, a most timely and splendid inauguration of the alliance.
It was only Arthur Lee and his faction who gave a cold welcome to the young hero. Through Lee's machinations, a bill drawn by Captain Jones on the envoys for five thousand dollars, for the support and solace of his crew, his wounded, and his two hundred prisoners, was refused payment, and a letter was written him on the subject, in which he was damned with faintest praise, and severely snubbed for petty or imaginary omissions. The caitiff Lee had taken it into his preposterous head that Captain Jones had not treated him with the profound respect due to his high mightiness, and being now joined by an ally, John Adams, did all that was possible to hinder and annoy the gallant man who had done such signal honor to his country's flag. Captain Jones, fiery and audacious as he was in the presence of a foe, had all a sailors respect for lawful superiors, and properly constituted authorities. He defended himself against Lee's charges of disrespect and irregularity with patience, dignity, and completeness, proving that the money for which he had drawn was necessary for the maintenance of his men, as well as authorized by Act of Congress. But Lee remained his enemy to the last, and tormented his susceptible soul to the last.
In Franklin, however, he had a hearty and a powerful friend. A few weeks after his return to Brest, he had the delight of receiving from Dr. Franklin a notification, that the king had asked the loan of him to the French navy for a while, and offered him that very frigate which Congress had sent him to Europe to command. "She is at present," wrote Franklin, "the property of the king; but, as there is no war yet declared, you will have the commission and flag of the United States, and act under their orders and laws . The other Commissioners are not acquainted with this proposition as yet, and you see, by the nature of it, that it is necessary to be kept a secret till we have got the vessel here, for fear of difficulties in Holland, and interruption. You will therefore direct your answer to me alone, it being desired that, at present, the affair rest between you and me. Perhaps it may be best for you to take a trip up here to concert matters, if in general you approve the idea."
He did approve the idea. He came to Paris, to Passy, to Versailles; conferred with ministers, dined with princes, supped familiarly with the most distinguished ladies, and played, for some weeks, the role of first lion. Between Franklin and himself a warm friendship sprang up, which never grew cold. He returned to Brest to await the coming of his ship, in which he hoped to surpass all his previous exploits; for he was as covetous of honor as the men generally are who know that they are able to win it.
But there's many a slip 'twixt a man and his ship, as naval officers well know. The Holland ship was not half ready. Then, cabals arose among the French naval officers against the interloper who was going to retard their promotion. Month after month passed away, and still this ardent spirit was unemployed. Plans were formed, changed, postponed, abandoned. Chafing under this miserable inactivity, his soul in arms and eager for the fray, Captain Jones besought, implored, complained; wrote to the minister, wrote to Franklin, wrote to members of the Royal Family, and, at last, wrote to the King himself. Franklin did all that he could to assuage his irritation and promote his interests; obtained for him an abundance of most positive promises, and duly transmitted them by post.
One day the wretched Jones chanced to light on a copy of one of Poor Richard's Almanacs, in which he read this sentence: "If you would have your business done, go; if not, send." He took the hint, went to Versailles, and soon obtained an order for the purchase of that famous ship, which, in honor of the source of his inspiration, he named Bon Homme Richard. She was a large but very old vessel, and was furnished with forty guns, and a most miscellaneous crew of three hundred and eighty men Americans, Irish, English, Scotch, French, Portuguese, Maltese, and Malays. To her were added the Congress ship Alliance, thirty-six, Captain Landais; the Pallas, thirty-two; the Cerf, eighteen; and the Vengeance, twelve; the whole under the command of Commodore John Paul Jones, and bound on a cruise in the waters of Great Britain. He sailed under the orders of Dr. Franklin, who directed him not to imitate the barbarism of the British in America, who burned defenseless towns without giving the old, the sick, the women and children, time enough to escape. He ordered him not to burn a town at all unless its inhabitants should refuse to pay a proper ransom. August 14th, 1779, at daybreak, this little fleet weighed anchor and stood out to sea.
The weak point of the expedition was the incompetency and bad temper of Captain Landais, the second in command; who was a kind of French Arthur Lee, suspicious, jealous, conceited, insubordinate, sentimental.
I pass over the first five weeks of this immortal cruise. Suffice it to say, that the fleet took a prodigious number of prizes, and that the grand object of Captain Jones, which was to lay the town of Leith (the port of Edinburgh) under a contribution of two hundred thousand pounds, failed through Captain Landais' want of sense and spirit. It is merely the events of a single day of the cruise which I wish briefly to relate.
It was the 23d of September, and the fortieth day of the voyage; the Bon Homme Richard having then four hundred and fifty prisoners on board. At one in the afternoon, when the Commodore was about to close with a large ship, which he had been chasing off the coast of Yorkshire, a fleet of forty-one merchantmen hove in sight, convoyed by two men-of-war. The signal for a general chase was displayed from the Bon Homme Richard, and the merchantmen were soon observed to crowd all sail for the coast, like a flock of frightened geese; while the two men-of-war stood out from the shore, and having got between their convoy and the enemy, awaited his approach. They proved to be the Serapis, forty-four, and the Countess of Scarborough, twenty; the Serapis being a new ship of the best model and construction then known, and manned by a picked crew of three hundred and seventy-five men. As the breeze was light, it was seven o'clock in the evening before the Bon Homme Richard came within hail of the Serapis, and even then the Alliance was several miles astern. The sun was near setting, but the moon was rising, and the evening promised to be clear. The ships were within two or three miles of the Yorkshire coast, and the two headlands of Scarborough and Flamborough were crowded with spectators.
A short conversation took place between the two vessels:
Serapis. "What ship is that?"
Bon Homme Richard. (not quite ready, perhaps). "The Princess Royal."
Serapis. "Where from?"
Bon Homme Richard. "Can't hear you."
Serapis. "Answer immediately, or I shall fire into you."
The Bon Homme Richard obeyed this order by firing a broadside into the Serapis, which the Serapis instantly returned, and so the battle was begun. About the same time the Pallas engaged the Countess of Scarborough; Captain Landais and the Alliance being still far from the scene of strife. It was a battle, therefore, of a forty-gun old ship against a forty-four-gun new ship, and of the Pallas, thirty-two, against the Countess of Scarborough, twenty. The smaller vessels of the American fleet, the Cerf and the Vengeance, had parted company, and took no part in either fight.
First Hour. Commodore Jones, finding that he had an enemy of superior force on his hands, used all his art to gain an advantage over the Serapis in point of position, so as to rake her. But Captain Pearson of the Serapis being as good a sailor as himself, and having a better ship and a better-trained crew, not only balked this design, but gave the Bon Homme Richard some raking fires. Jones soon saw that his only chance for an equal fight was to close with his adversary, and fight it out, muzzle to muzzle, and hand to hand. His first attempt to close failed, from the defective training of his crew his Malays understanding neither English nor navigation. He ran his bowsprit on board the Serapis, but in such a manner that he could not bring a gun to bear.
"Have you struck?" shouted an officer on board the English ship.
"I have not begun to fight," replied Commodore Jones.
He backed off; but the Serapis, wearing round "upon her heel," ran her jibboom into the mizzen rigging of the Bon Homme Richard. Jones instantly lashed the bowsprit of the enemy to his own mizzen-mast; and, in another minute or two, the two vessels swung round alongside of each other, the stern of one to the bow of the other, the yards and rigging all entangled, the muzzles of the one touching the side of the other, the end of the main-yard of the American ship being directly over the main hatchway of the Serapis.
Not a moment too soon had Commodore Jones closed with his powerful adversary. It was eight o'clock when the ships came together, and the action had lasted just an hour. By that time, I though the Serapis had suffered no very serious damage, the Bon Homme Richard had received eighteen shots below the water; had four feet of water in her hold; was leaking as fast as her pumps could clear her; had had four guns burst; had every gun on the side next the enemy silenced, except two nine-pounders on the quarter-deck; and had lost a hundred men in killed and wounded. Some officers had abandoned their posts, many more wore disabled, and all fighting on the decks seemed at an end. The ship, in fact, was beaten; it was the indomitable heart of John Paul Jones, supported by a few gallant spirits below and aloft, that was not conquered. In the tops he received efficient aid, particularly in the main-top, where Lieutenant Stack commanded a most expert, vigilant, and daring body of sailors and marines.
The Pallas, meanwhile, was gaining on the Countess of Scarborough; but the Alliance was still an hour and a half distant, unless the breeze should freshen.
Second Hour. Brilliant moonlight. The commodore being now the only officer left on the quarter-deck, rallied the men that still had fight in them, and shifted over one of the nine-pounders on the other side of the deck, to the side next the Serapis. The rest of the action was fought with the three nine-pounders and the musketry in the tops; not a gun below, nor a gun forward of the quarter-deck was fired after the ships closed. Jones himself handled the nine-pounders. One of them he charged with round shot, and pointed it continually at the main-mast of the Serapis; the others, filled with grape and canister, swept the enemy's decks with most destructive effect; while from the tops rained a murderous fire of musketry. The commander of the Serapis relied chiefly upon his lower-deck guns, and poured broadside after broadside into the battered old hulk of tbe Bon Homme Richard, hoping to sink her. Both ships repeatedly caught fire; and "the scene," as Captain Jones observes, "was dreadful, beyond the reach of language." But the terror on board the Bon Homme Richard was water, not fire; for it soon began to be doubtful if she could be kept afloat long enough to fight the action fairly out. Towards nine, one of her pumps being shot away, and the carpenter crying out the ship must go down, a panic arose among the group near the pumps, and the gunner ran aft to strike the flag. "Fortunately for me," says Jones, "a cannon-ball had done that before;" which the gunner perceiving, he shouted, "Quarters! Quarters!" in the tone of a man who thinks his ship is sinking.
"Do you call for quarters ?" shouted Captain Pearson.
"No!" replied Jones, with savage emphasis.
The answer was unheard in the noise of the battle, and Captain Pearson ordered a party to board. On mounting the bulwarks of the Bon Homme Richard, the boarders were met by a vigorous charge of pikemen, who had been stationed along the deck for the purpose, under cover of the bulwarks. The boarders returned to their guns, and the battle was renewed with redoubled fury. At the moment of the panic on board the American ship, a petty officer had set at liberty the four hundred and fifty prisoners confined below, meaning to give them a chance for their lives; and, before they could be again secured, one of them, the captain of a twenty-gun ship taken a day or two before, leaped into a port-hole of the Serapis, and told Captain Pearson, that if he could but hold out a few minutes longer, the enemy's ship must sink. This news, equal to a re-enforcement of two hundred men, gave new heart to the brave commander of the Serapis.
And so the battle raged another hour, Jones being well seconded by the best of his crew, and efficiently aided by some of the volunteers. Even his purser, Mr. Matthew Mease, most nobly fought on the quarter-deck; and when, at last, he was wounded in the head so seriously that it was afterwards trepanned in six places, he only remained below long enough to have it bound with a handkerchief, and then returned to his gun. A young Parisian, named Baptiste Travallier, a friend of the Chaumonts, amused the band of fighting men on the quarter-deck. One of the sailors calling for wadding, young Travallier took off his coat and thrust it into the muzzle of the gun. Soon after, the ship catching fire, he took off his shirt, and dipping it into water, used it "with great dexterity" to extinguish the flames; and fought the rest of the action in a cool undress of trowsers and shoes.
Third Hour. The sharpshooters in the tops of the Bon Homme Richard, aided by the commodore's grape and canister, had, by the end of the second hour of the battle, killed, wounded, or driven below, most of the men on the deck of the Serapis, and every man above the deck. Emboldened by this, the sailors in the main-top of the American formed a line along the main-yard, the end of which hung directly over the enemy's main hatchway. A cool and daring sailor, seated at the end of the yard, dropped hand-grenades into the hatchway. One of these exploding in a heap of cartridges, they blew up with appalling effect. Twenty men were instantly blown to pieces; forty more were disabled, and, as some report, forty more were slightly wounded. The ship was set on fire in half a dozen places at once, nor was the fire extinguished until the next day. Thus, while one ship was threatened with one element, the other had to contend with another; and the question was, which was likely to gain the faster, the water in the hold of the Richard, or the fire between the decks of the Serapis. At this crisis of the fight, to the boundless relief and joy of Commodore Jones, the tardy Alliance hove in sight.
"I now," says Jones, "thought the battle at an end; but to my utter astonishment, Captain Landais discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Bon Homme Richard. We called to him for God's sake to forbear firing into the Bon Homme Richard; yet he passed along the off side of the ship, and continued firing. There was no possibility of his mistaking the enemy's ship for the Bon Homme Richard, there being the most essential difference in their appearance and construction; besides, it was then full moonlight, and the sides of the Bon Homme Richard were all black, while the sides of the prizes were yellow; yet, for the greater security, I showed the signal of our reconnoissance. Every tongue cried that he was firing into the wrong ship, but nothing availed, he passed round, firing into the Bon Homme Richard's head, stern, and broadside, and by one of his volleys killed several of my best men, and mortally wounded a good officer on the forecastle. My situation was really deplorable. The Bon Homme Richard received various shots under water from the Alliance; the leak gained on the pumps; and the fire increased much on board both ships. Some officers persuaded me to strike, of whose courage and good sense I entertain a high opinion."
But, no! "I would not," he adds, "give up the point. The enemy's main-mast began to shake, their firing decreased, ours rather increased." So the battle still went on. The Alliance, at last, discovered her almost fatal mistake (for a mistake it doubtless was) and gave the Serapis a few ineffective shots; ineffective but discouraging. By this time (ten o'clock) the Countess of Scarborough had struck to the Pallas, but the victor was unable to come to the assistance of the Bon Homme Richard.
The End of it. Scottish grit carried the day on this occasion, against English pluck. At half-past ten, when the combat had lasted three hours and a half, Captain Pearson ordered his flag to be struck. As not a man offered to obey a command which involved so much peril, he went himself into the rigging, and with his own hand hauled down his flag. At the same moment his main-mast fell. Mr. Richard Dale, the first lieutenant of the Bon Homme Richard, immediately informed his captain, and asked permission to board, which was granted. He swung himself over to the quarter[-]deck of the Serapis. "I found Captain Pearson," he wrote long after, "standing on the leeward side of the quarter-deck, and, addressing myself to him, said 'Sir, I have orders to send you on board the ship alongside.' The first lieutenant of the Serapis coming up at this moment, inquired of Captain Pearson whether the ship alongside had struck to him? To which I replied, 'No, sir, the contrary; he has struck to us.' The lieutenant renewing his inquiry, have you struck, sir? was answered, 'Yes, I have.' The lieutenant replied,' I have nothing more to say;' and was about to return below, when I informed him he must accompany Captain Pearson on board the ship alongside. He said, 'If you will permit me to go below, I will silence the firing of the lower-deck guns.' This request was refused, and with Captain Pearson [he] was passed over to the deck of the Bou Homme Richard. Orders being sent below to cease firing, the engagement terminated." (7) The excitement of the action over, Mr. Dale discovered, to his great astonishment, that he was badly wounded.
All night the fire raged on board the Serapis and the water gained in the hold of her antagonist. It was ten the next morning before the fire was subdued; but no exertions availed to keep afloat the Bon Homme Richard's battered hulk. Her rigging and spars were cut to pieces, her rudder was shot away, and "her timbers," as Captain Jones reports, "from the main-mast to the stern, being greatly decayed with age, were mangled beyond my power of description; and a person must have been an eye-witness to form a just idea of the tremendous scene of carnage, wreck, and ruin that everywhere appeared. Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and lament that war should produce such fatal consequences." He adds, "I was determined to keep the Bon Homme Richard afloat, and, if possible, to bring her into port. For that purpose the first lieutenant of the Pallas continued on hoard with a party of men to attend the pumps, with boats in waiting, ready to take them onboard, in case the water should gain on them too fast. The wind augmented in the night and the next day, so that it was impossible to prevent the good old ship from sinking. They did not abandon her till after 9 o'clock; the water was then up to the lower deck, and a little after ten I saw with inexpressible grief the last glimpse of the Bon Homme Richard."
The American fleet, with its prizes and more than a thousand prisoners, made the best of its way to Holland, where the Commodore, after great difficulty, found a temporary shelter for his four hundred wounded men. Half his own crew and half the crew of the Serapis had fallen in the battle, either killed or hurt.
The effect of this wonderful cruise, crowned by a victory so brilliant, can scarcely be conceived. Every town on the coast of England had its association for defense, its system of signals, its lookouts by night and day. Twenty men-of-war were kept cruising in the British waters, in search of this terrible rover of the seas. Continental Europe and all America were filled with the just renown of these splendid exploits, which reflected glory, also, upon the cause and name of America. Franklin, Lafayette, De Chaumont, Dumas, De Sartines, and many fair ladies of the court, sent letters of congratulation to the victors. The King of France gave Lieutenant Stack, who commanded in the main-top, a captain's commission in the French navy, and a pension of four hundred francs a year. It was the king of England who paid Commodore Jones the most striking compliment, when he conferred upon Captain Pearson the honor of Knighthood, and appointed him to the command of a new forty-four gun frigate. Jones gayly remarked, when this was told him: "He deserved it; and should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I will make a Lord of him."
Splendid as his success was deemed, the Commodore himself was extremely dissatisfied with it, being persuaded that if he had been well seconded by Captain Landais, he could have brought into port the greater part of the fleet of merchantmen that were convoyed by the Serapis and Scarborough. Determined to have no more to do with mixed expeditions, of which he could not be the sole and absolute commander, he prepared to return to America, and seek future employment from Congress alone.
Both Dr. Franklin and the French ministry shared the resentment of Captain Jones against the insubordinate and bungling Landais. At the request of M. de Sartines, Franklin ordered Landais to come to Paris and explain his conduct. Upon receiving this order he threw up his command, and said to officers on board the Alliance, and to Franklin at Paris, that he should return no more to that ship. After investigating his conduct and receiving the written testimony of all the leading officers of the Bon Homme Richard, Franklin transmitted the whole of the evidence to Congress; himself pronouncing no judgment, not conceiving that he was authorized to cashier or otherwise punish an officer holding a commission from Congress itself. Landais was dissatisfied with his silence, and desiring to be restored to the command of the Alliance, asked Franklin his opinion of him, and made known his wish for a command. Dr. Franklin gave him a most candid and forcible reply: "I think you," he wrote, "so imprudent, so litigious, and quarrelsome a man, even with your best friends, that peace and good order, and consequently the quiet and regular subordination so necessary to success, are, where you preside, impossible; these are within my observation and apprehension; your military operations I leave to more capable judges. If, therefore, I had twenty ships of war in my disposition, I should not give one of them to Captain Landais."
In Arthur Lee, who took naturally to every man who did his country harm, and who inevitably quarreled with all who had served his country well, Captain Landais found a patron and a friend as shall be shown in a moment.
Besides the exploits of Commodore Jones, some privateers commissioned by the American envoys did great execution upon British commerce. In the summer of 1779, for example, a little schooner called the Black Prince, with a motley crew of all nations, and a sprinkling of Americans among them, sailed round the British Islands, and, in the course of a three months' cruise, took thirty-seven prizes.
1. John Adams, iii., 202.
2. Encyclopedia Britannica, xiii., 2.
3. Sherburne's Life and Character of John Paul Jones, p. 43.
4. Sherburne's Paul Jones, p. 48.
5. Sherburne's Paul Jones, p. 5.
6. "Paul Jones," says Henderson, was the dread of all, old and young (and pamphlets of his depredations were as common in every house as almanacs). He was looked upon as a sea-monster, that swallowed up all that came in his power. The people all flocked to the shore to watch his movements, expecting the worst consequences. There was an old Presbyterian minister in the place, a very pious and good old man, but of a most singular and eccentric turn, especially in addressing the Deity, to whom he would speak with as much familiarity as he would to an old farmer, and seemingly without respect, as will appear from the following. He was soon seen making his way through the people with an old black oak arm-chair, which he lugged down to low-water mark (the tide flowing), and sat down in it. Almost out of breath, and rather in a passion, he then began to address the Deity in the following singular way:
"'Now deed Lord, dinna ye think it's a shame for ye to send this vile pireet to rub our folk o Kirkaldy; for ye ken they're a puir enough already, and hae naething to spare. They are a' gaily guid, and it wad be a peety to serve them in sic in a wa. The wa the wun blaws, he'll be here in jiffie, and wha kens what he may do. He's nane too guid for ony thing. Meickle's the mischief he has dune already. On pecket gear they hae gathered thegither he will gang wi' the heal o't; may burn their hoose, tak their vary claes, and tirl them to the sark; and waes me! wha kens but the bluidy villain might tak their lives. The puir weemen ere maist freightened out o' their wuts, and the bairns skirling after them. I canna' tho'lt! I canna, tho'lt! I hae been lang a faithfu' servant to ye, Laird; but gin ye dinna turn the wun about, and blaw the scoundrel out of our gate, I'll na stur a fit, but will juist sit here, until the tide comes and drouns me. Sae tak yere wull o't.
7. Sherburne's Paul Jones, p. 123.
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