Common Sense Commentary: This year is the 237th anniversary of one of the most famous sea battles ever fought. John Paul Jones and his 140 Marines lashed their smaller ship to the much larger British ship and, like a pitbull, they sank their teeth into it's throat and never turned loose until their victim simply ceased to struggle. It was America's first real victory at sea and an inspiration/motivation be be and do our very best and never, never, never quit. RB
John Paul Jones, the famous Scottish sea captain, who fought on our side during the Revolution that bought our freedom , had 140 Marine sharpshooters aboard his ship, the Bon Homme Richard, when he tangled with the larger, British Serapis on 23 Sept. 1779. Maybe that's why he felt confident enough to yell, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!" when asked during the height of battle if he would surrender his ship.
Jones probably didn't use those exact words that busy night at sea 236+ years ago. Tradition has a way of tidying up slogans. Whatever Jones said about not quitting, and he never quit, chances are he threw in a few well chosen phrases that could blister paint.
History records no famous sayings by the 140 Marines aboard the Bon Homme Richard with Paul Jones. They were too busy fighting. Without those Marines and their marksmanship, Jones and his immortal quip might have been forgotten long ago. "I have not yet begun to fight" would sound pretty hollow if he had lost.
He didn't lose. American and French Marines helped a gritty sea captain reach down the throat of defeat and pull out a victory. The refusal of Jones to surrender and the Marines' deadly fire gave special backbone to the greatest sea encounter that occurred in the age when ships had wooden sides. Marines then carried muskets primed with powder from cowhorns and fired with flints.
The American Navy had few ships during that first war with Britain. The only vessels that seemed aggressively interested in fighting the enemy were those captained by John Paul Jones. Other captains and crews typically preferred safe merchantman targets and rich prizes to divide. Jones, however, was a fighting officer, not a sea merchant. Even when the crews on his ships were mutinous and eager for prize money, not British cannon, Jones had other ideas. "I propose to go in the way of danger," he said, and it wasn't rhetoric.
When Jones sighted a British man-of-war, he didn't fill sails and run. He attacked. To crews that were usually assortments of many nationalities, this tendency of Jones was highly unorthodox and unpopular. Jones behaved as if war imposed the duty to fight rather than an opportunity for profit. It made him the greatest of sea captains to Continental Marines who shared his enthusiasm for the Colonial cause.
Marines regularly sailed with Jones on his voyages. They became an essential ingredient in his personal formula for winning a sea battle. In fact, Jones' career as an American naval officer and the Marines began about the same time. On December 3, 1775, the flag was hoisted on his first navy ship, the Alfred. Less than a month earlier, on November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress had authorized the first two Marine battalions.
Recruiting of Marines took place initially at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, with tavern keeper Robert Mullan as a recruiting officer. Complements of Marines were assigned to naval vessels; and they began earning their reputation as seagoing fighters, especially when under way with John Paul Jones.
A year before the meeting between Bon Homme Richard and Serapis, Marines sided Jones in one of the boldest exploits of the Revolution.
Spring 1778: Jones took the 18-gun sloop Ranger into the Irish Sea to harass British shipping and commit any other mischief he could dream up. One scheme particularly seemed mad even for John Paul Jones. He proposed to do what no one had managed for centuries: invade England.
The target was Whitehaven seaport where Jones decided to give the British a dose of what they had been dishing out in New England. Most of his officers and men looked on the venture with complete disfavor. Two ships officers even feigned illness to avoid leading a shore party.
"Don't volunteer" wasn't the slogan of the Marines on the Ranger. Lieutenant Samuel Wallingford, USMC, volunteered to lead one of the two boat crews. Jones took the other in this historic invasion.
Actually it was more of a hit-and-run Commando raid than invasion, but it was a towering insult to the British that brutally sabotaged morale. The landing was made near dawn, April 23, 1778. Ships were burned in the harbor and Whitehaven citizens shaken up by this sudden blow from the sea. Where were the vaunted "wooden walls" of the British Navy? Where was their protection?
One group of men from the Ranger shortly after landing headed for a British pub and "made very free with the liquor." It was some beach party. By 0600 all hands were back aboard the Ranger. They took no loot, so by business standards then foremost with many crewmen, the raid was a failure.
But the strategic payoff for the American cause was that the British suddenly had less affection for the American war adventure than ever before. To the British, civilized warfare was something to fight at a distance. Now Jones and Wallingford shoved it into their own front yard.
The British newspaper, Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, May 5, 1778, showed how ill-prepared people were even for a small taste of the real thing. "The people of Whitehaven," it announced, "can never recover from their fright; two thirds of the people are bordering on insanity; the remainder on idiotism."
Coastal residents moved inland. Mothers scared children into obedience with the name "Jones." Soon even false rumors that Jones was coming could start panic. Perhaps worst of all, Jones' work struck the British in the pocketbook. "Such a damp on commerce has the American privateer called the Ranger made," declared the Gazetteer, that insurance rates on merchant shipping quadrupled.
That in-and-out raid at Whitehaven proved a brilliant demonstration of psychological warfare long before it had a name. Inevitably Jones was described as a "formidable and desperate pirate." And Whitehaven wasn't the end of the Ranger's work during that voyage.
The very next day, April 24th, Jones ordered an attack on the 21-gun Drake. The odds were not good. Drake was the superior ship with a disciplined British crew, and Jones had a mutinous crew behind him when the attack began. This was another instance of Jones fighting the war as if it were war rather than a chance for booty. But Jones stationed his Marines, committed the Ranger, and then his men had to fight or be killed. They fought. "The action was warm, close and obstinate," Jones later reported.
The battle lasted slightly over an hour. It followed Jones' classic pattern for sea engagements. He concentrated his cannon, 9-pounders, on the Drake's rigging. Object: Slow her down. And he used his Marines to make the deck of the Drake dead man's country.
One of those killed by a Marine musket was Captain Burden, commander of the Drake. With sails and rigging battered, captain lost, and withering musket fire raking the weather deck, the Drake's colors were struck. She was thoroughly beaten by a sailor named Jones and a group of sharpshooting Marines.
Three were killed on the Ranger. One was the young Marine officer who volunteered at Whitehaven, Lieutenant Wallingford. He commanded the Marines aboard the Ranger and directed their fire in the battle. He was one of the earliest Marine Corps officers to die in battle at sea, performing his duty.
During the Revolution, what Jones won at sea, he often lost ashore. He didn't lose the Ranger to an enemy vessel with more guns, but he lost her when he returned to port. The Revolution was another war in which politics often meant more than victory. The Ranger was assigned to a second captain, and Jones was ashore in France without a ship.
Benjamin Franklin, the American Commissioner in France and a friend of John Paul Jones, thought fighting captains should be encouraged to fight. Among other things, Franklin was a genius at scrounging. With his help, a ship was located for Jones. It was a tired French veteran of many voyages around Africa to the Orient, the Duc de Duras.
Jones in his usual meticulous fashion outfitted her for sea, including borrowed and doubtfully safe cannon. He renamed her Bon Homme Richard, the French name for Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard." Then he assembled a motley crew from the ports and prisons of Europe. Some sailors were English, signed on from French jails. Of the 227 seamen, only 79 were Americans.
The Richard also carried 137 Marines, mostly French volunteers in the American cause, and three Marine officers, Lieutenants James J. O'Kelly, Eugene McCarthy, and Edward Stack.
When the Richard put to sea in the summer of 1779, it was accompanied by French privateers and an American frigate, Alliance, led by another politically appointed captain, Pierre Landais.
Comes that fateful moonlight night of 23 September and the meeting with Serapis, in the North Sea a few miles off Flamborough Head, England. The news that Jones was afloat in British waters spread, and nearly 1,500 climbed the chalk heights of Flamborough to watch. What they witnessed on the shadowy waters below was one of the greatest sea battles in history.
Earlier Jones had sighted the 44-gun Serapis and the 22-gun Countess of Scarborough convoying a large merchant fleet. The merchant ships hurried for cover, and the other ships with Jones wanted to take after them, ignoring the British warships. Why ask for trouble with easy profit for the grabbing?
The Serapis, under Captain Richard Pearson, was superior to the Richard by any measure used. It was new, had protective copper sheathing, and a main battery of twenty 18-pounders versus the Richard's six 18's that Jones feared were, like the ship, past their prime.
Serapis was also the faster and more maneuverable ship. It could turn quicker and bludgeon Richard with its heavy guns. So Jones did more than ask for trouble. He grabbed it. He attacked the Serapis, ordering the same tactics that had worked before against the stronger Drake. Whenever they were close enough the Marines on deck and in the tops should turn the deck of Serapis into a rehearsal for hell. His cannon should foul the enemy's rigging, cut her speed.
The encounter began a little after 1900 and lasted about three hours. Jones' fears for the 18's proved warranted. Two exploded on first firing, killing their crews, and putting the other 18's out of action. Serapis proceeded to pound the Richard with broadside after broadside. Jones had only his smaller deck cannon and his Marine sharpshooters with which to counter.
He also had his own skills at shiphandling during battle. Since the Richard was being shot to pieces by the British big guns, Jones maneuvered to grapple. At first the Serapis easily avoided the sluggish Richard. But Jones' persistence and seamanship eventually worked. The Serapis was slowed. Marines kept sailors from handling sails properly. Jones seized his chance to attach lines and make fast.
Pearson sent men to cut the lines, but Marines loading and firing with swift efficiency made it impossible for an English sailor to get close. Jones is supposed to have borrowed a musket from a Marine and personally taken care of one British volunteer. Fourteen sailors on the Serapis bravely tried to reach the connecting lines. None made it.
The Serapis' helm was also rendered unmanageable by the Marine crack shots. Eleven helmsmen attempted to control the wheel and failed. Lieutenant Stack and Marines in the maintop were especially effective in keeping the deck of Serapis a haven only for dead heroes. Soon no one on the British vessel could or would venture topside or away from cover.
Trying to break the Richard's death grip, Pearson let go his port anchor. He hoped the shock would free Serapis, but the maneuver had a reverse effect. The two ships were jolted together, starboard to starboard. The smashed and leaking Richard had the Serapis, snug and close, for a life preserver.
The two ships were tightly linked in a weird dance by the light of the moon. Serapis with 18-pounders on its gun deck could blast away unopposed at the helpless Richard. Jones, down to three small deck cannon, fired at the mainmast of Serapis as Marines kept the British decks cleared.
What were the other ships doing while the main contestants were fighting to the death? Early in the battle, the Countess of Scarborough approached to help her sister ship. That was too much for one of the French privateers. While the other French ships cautiously avoided trouble, Captain Cottineau took the Pallas into action against the Countess.
And that second American warship, the Alliance? During most of the battle her strange captain kept his ship well out of range. Finally when it seemed the Richard was in extremis and hadn't a chance, the Alliance came on.
Even then, efficient broadsides from Alliance against the British ship would help Jones immensely. The second American ship, under her captain's orders, fired several broadsides-at the Bon Homme Richard!
Landais' traitorous strategy came out later. He wanted the Richard to sink and Jones to die. Then he could seize the wounded Serapis, have all the glory and profit for himself. At sea, it was that kind of war.
With traitors to port and the enemy to starboard, each dealing death, there is no wonder that members of Jones' crew were heard crying for quarter. Captain Pearson called across by voice trumpet to ask if the Richard had struck.
"No, sir, I haven't as yet thought of it. I'm determined to make you strike," was Jones" reply. Afterward Jones said, "I was determined to conquer or die in the attempt."
At that point in the battle, dying seemed his inevitable fate. He had no defense. His offense was three small cannon firing at the Serapis' mast and muskets in the hands of Marines.
A large number of released British prisoners rushed on deck, certain the Richard was sinking. With any kind of leadership, they could have seized Jones and his ship. But Jones faced them, ordered them to man the pumps or drown. They pumped.
When Pearson demanded again if Jones was through, the captain who wouldn't quit is supposed to have said, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight."
Whether he said it or not, Jones, his musket-firing Marines, and the seamen who held fast lived it. By objective and reasonable standards of war, Jones lost that battle several times. But he had learned the secret of not losing: Don't quit.
A Scottish sailor with Jones named William Hamilton landed a grenade through an open hatch. It exploded with devastating effect on the gun deck of the Serapis. Captain Pearson was afraid his mainmast was about to go, and the Marine musket fire was incessant. Those facts and the grenade killed his zest to carry on. Pearson caved in before Jones and struck his colors.
During the three-hour battle, 67 Marines on the Richard were killed or wounded. Without their musket fire, the results would have been different. It would have been Jones, not Pearson, who handed over his sword. Or more probably, Jones would have been dead, and the crew of the Richard would have surrendered with their indomitable captain gone.
But the Marines were there and did their job.
The old Bon Homme Richard also did its job. The ship stayed afloat until the victory was won. Two days later, 25 September 1779, the Richard sank in the North Sea. She went down bow first. Then she came up permanently in the history and drama of the sea.
John Paul Jones, in command of the Serapis, repaired what damage he could at sea and sailed for a Dutch port. The Countess of Scarborough was present as a second prize. Pallas, the French ship that fought, and the others that didn't, sailed in company. The Alliance, with Pierre Landais still commanding, was part of the victory squadron too.
Was Landais hanged for his cowardly or traitorous acts off Flamborough Head? No, he wasn't even punished. Jones seized the Alliance from him, but that was later reversed. Landais was captain of the Alliance when she got under way for America. He went insane during the voyage, and one of his officers had to assume command.
As for Jones, he was ashore and shipless once again in France. He had only one more American command and fought no more battles at sea for the cause of freedom under the American flag. He was simply too good at his job and too professional to please suspicious politicians and ambitious-for-profit seamen.
It was 126 years before something like justice was achieved for John Paul Jones. In 1905 his remains were removed from an unmarked grave in Paris and escorted by an honor guard of four American cruisers home to the country he served that September night in the North Sea. He was placed in a marble shrine at Annapolis with these words nearby: HE GAVE OUR NAVY ITS EARLIEST TRADITIONS OF HEROISM AND VICTORY.
We remember John Paul Jones and his victory 236 years ago. We should also remember Wallingford on the Ranger and those other Marines who sailed with Jones. When the going was roughest, they stood to the challenge and helped Jones teach us once and for all how not to lose.