One of the most famous naval battles of the American Revolutionary War took place on September 23, 1779. The battle resulted in the American captain, John Paul Jones, becoming the first naval war hero,
In 1779, three years after joining the American Navy, Commodore John Paul Jones assumed command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard. A French shipping magnate had given the Bonhomme Richard, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, to America.
On August 14, 1779, Jones was to provide a diversion for a French and Spanish fleet that was going to invade England. Jones had four other ships with him when they sailed for Ireland. A few days into their voyage, one of the ships, the Alliance, broke away following an argument between its captain and Jones. Thereafter, the Alliance would periodically rejoin the fleet, only to break away again.
The British Navy sent several ships to Ireland to find Jones, but he had sailed around Scotland and into the North Sea. This caused great alarm along the east coast of Britain.
In the early morning hours of September 23, 1779, the Alliance rejoined Jones’ fleet. By mid-afternoon, Jones and his fleet encountered a large fleet of merchant ships near Yorkshire, England, off the coast of Flamborough Head, being guarded by the HMS Serapis and the HMS Countess of Scarborough. As Jones and his ships gave chase, the British ships maneuvered between Jones’s fleet and the merchant ships so the merchant ships could flee.
Due to a wind factor, it took several hours for the Bonhomme Richard to get close enough to engage the Serapis. Despite ordering a battle line to be formed by his ships, Jones watched as the Alliance broke formation and sailed away, but the Countess of Scarborough followed her. After exchanging words with the captain of the Serapis, Jones opened fire on the Serapiswith his starboard guns. The captain of the Alliance then fired on the Countess of Scarborough. The Alliance quickly broke off the attack which allowed the Countess of Scarborough to return to the Serapis.
The Pallas, one of the ships in Jones’s fleet, was able to cut off the Countess of Scarborough and prevent her from returning to the Serapis. This enabled the Bonhomme Richard to continue engaging the Serapis.
The Bonhomme Richard fired one of its big guns at the Serapis, but it unexpectedly exploded, killing crewmen, damaging the ship, and causing the crew to not use the other big guns for fear the same thing would happen with them. The Serapis then used its heavier guns to pound the Bonhomme Richard. At one point, the bow of the Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of the Serapis, resulting in the Bonhomme Richard‘s flag falling. When he noticed the flag was down, a universal sign of surrender, the captain of the Serapis asked Jones, “Has your ship struck?” which meant was Jones surrendering. According to a crewman, Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Later, Jones himself reported saying something like, “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.” The flag of the Serapis had been nailed to the ship, which meant they would never surrender.
Jones quickly realized his only chance was to ram the Serapis and pull along side. Using grappling hooks, the crew of the Bonhomme Richard quickly brought the two ships together. Both ships were able to repel boarding attempts. Incredibly, several times during the battle, the Alliance returned and haphazardly fired on the Serapis, which inflicted damage as well as killing crewmen on both the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard.
After several hours of fighting, a midshipman from the Bonhomme Richard was able to successfully board the Serapis with a boarding party. They were able to force the crew of the Serapis to retreat from their positions. This resulted in the captain of the Serapis ultimately surrendering to Jones. The captain of the Serapis had to rip the flag from his ship because it had earlier been nailed on. No other crewman would remove the flag.
The Pallas was able to capture the Countess of Scarborough, after a lengthy battle.
After the battle was over, Jones and his crew tried to repair the Bonhomme Richard. They began attempting to pump the water out of the badly damaged ship. At about 4:00 a.m. on September 25, 1779, they ceased pumping because the water level had only continued to rise. At approximately 10:00 a.m., the order was given to abandon ship, and Jones transferred to theSerapis. Approximately one hour later, the Bonhomme Richard sank. After several days of repairing the Serapis, Jones was able to sail to the Netherlands with his fleet.
Who Was John Paul Jones?
Occasionally referred to as the “Father of the American Navy,” as were others, John Paul Jones was born in Scotland, but was named John Paul. He is one of the most well-known Naval officers of the American Revolutionary War.
Jones began his maritime career in 1760, at the age of 13. He served on several ships until he got his big break in 1768. After safely navigating the ship he was on back to a port following the sudden deaths of the captain and a ranking mate from yellow fever, the owners of the ship made him master of the ship and crew.
While on his second voyage as master, Jones flogged a sailor in an “unnecessarily cruel” manner, according to accusations. At first the complaints were dismissed. When the sailor died several weeks later, however, Jones was arrested and jailed. The actual cause of the sailor’s death was attributed to other causes.
Jones was released on bail, and later left Scotland. He ended up on a vessel in Tobago where he worked in commercial speculation for approximately a year and a half. Trouble again found Jones when he killed a crewmember that had mutinied. Jones again fled and ended up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. His brother had recently died and left no relatives, so Jones went there to settle his brother’s estate. At approximately the same time, he added “Jones” to his name and became known as John Paul Junes, apparently in an effort to avoid the authorities.
Referring to America as “the country of his fond election,” to friends, he soon joined the American navy.
Jones was onboard the Alfred when the Continental Navy made its maiden cruise in Feburary 1776, ten months after the American Revolutionary War began.
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