Battle off Flamborough Head September 23rd 1779
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
On October 13th the United States Navy celebrated its 242nd Birthday. At Naval commands, stations, and aboard ships the Navy Birthday is marked by the cutting of a cake. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest sailors present make the first two cuts to the cake. This year, at the age of 58 I was the oldest, the youngest was a lad of just 20. Next year I will be retired.
The Navy Birthday is a time for Sailors to reflect on their heritage by remembering the lives and actions of those who came before them. One of those men, in fact the man who represents the heart and soul of that tradition was Captain John Paul Jones. As the commanding officer of the Sloop of War USS Ranger he received the first salute of the American flag by a foreign power, in this case our first ally, France. There had been an earlier salute to the USS Andrea Doria, a converted merchantman which was one of the first four ships of the new Navy by the Dutch governor of St. Eustasius in the West Indies. That occurred on November 16th, 1776. But the flag she flew was the red and white striped banner of the Continental Congress, not the Stars and Stripes.
That is a story told well by Barbara Tuchman in her book The First Salute: a View of the American Revolution. Tonight’s essay is about John Paul Jones.
Two hundred thirty nine years ago a small naval battle occurred off the coast of Yorkshire England. From a purely military perspective the battle was rather insignificant. A squadron of five American and French ships intercepted a convoy guarded by two British ships. However, the battle was one that had immense psychological significance for the Americans as a ramshackle converted French East India ship with an inferior main battery forced a materially superior British warship to strike her colors.
In fact the battle is so significant to the United States Navy that the body of the victor, Captain John Paul Jones was returned to the United States in 1905 from an abandoned site in northeastern Paris known as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants to be interred in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy.
Jones had an unusual career as a British merchant skipper accused of murdering a mutinous crewman at Tobago and escaped to Fredericksburg Virginia out of fear that he would be tried in a local versus and Admiralty Court.
Jones went to the United States and due to his friendship with Henry “Lighthorse” Lee and other friends in the Continental Congress including a man who became a lifelong friend, Benjamin Franklin obtained a commission in the Continental Navy as a First Lieutenant. At that time the “First Lieutenant” was the senior officer among the Lieutenants on a ship and often served as the First Officer or Executive Officer.
His first assignment was on the fleet flagship Alfred where he hoisted the first US Ensign aboard an American Naval vessel. He took part in the raid on Nassau and upon his return assumed command of the Sloop of War Providence where he captured 16 prizes of war and escaped capture by the a British Frigate. He then assumed command of Alfred for a brief time capturing a key supply vessel that had winter clothing for British troops commanded by General Burgoyne in New York. Following this he took command of the 18 gun Sloop of War Ranger in France received the first ever salute to an American man-of-war by a foreign power 8 days after the French had recognized the American Colonies as an independent nation.
Ranger receives the first salute rendered to an American warship by a foreign power
The nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship recognized this and the new Franco-American alliance. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.” After this sailed directly in harm’s way making an epic raid on the port of Whithaven, and then defeating and capturing and the British 20 gun Brig HMS Drake in an hour long fight.
Jones’ raid on Whithaven struck fear into the British populace and forced the British to allocate more resources to the defense of British seaports than had previously been the case. The capture of the Drake was of immense psychological importance and along with Jones’ other victories would ultimately lead to the formation of the United States Navy.
Jones’ exploits made him a celebrated figure. He gave up command of Ranger to take command of a powerful frigate under construction in Amsterdam, but the British pressured the Dutch into preventing the transfer of the ship. Instead, Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard a converted 42 gun former French East India ship. He named her after Benjamin Franklin’s book “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and he became commodore of a mixed squadron of American and French ships including the 36 gun American Frigate Alliance, the 32 gun French Frigate Pallas and two 12 gun warships the Vengeance and Le Cerf.
His orders were to provide a diversion for a combined French and Spanish fleet the squadron menaced Ireland and Scotland before moving into the North Sea. As they came into English waters the Americans intercepted a 50 ship convoy on September 22nd. The convoy was enroute to the Baltic was escorted by the 44 gun two-decker HMS Serapis. Serapis was brand new and more powerful than Bonhomme Richard. A second ship, the 20 gun privateer Countess of Scarborough accompanied Serapis.
Jones directing the battle from the Bonhomme Richard
The battle was joined about 1800 on the 23rd of September. Serapis which was more maneuverable than Jones’ flagship, pounded the Bonhomme Richard holing her below the waterline and seriously damaging her, suffering little damage to herself. Jones’ s problems were compounded when with the first broadside two of Bonhomme Richard’s elderly 18 pounders burst damaging the ship and killing most of the gun crews on the lower deck.
Jones attempted to close the range in order to grapple Serapis and make the battle a close aboard action. Eventually the bow of Bonhomme Richard ran into the stern of Serapis and Jones’s crew succeeded in grappling the British ship. With cannons blazing the two ships were locked in a struggle to the death. Firing at point blank range the ships tore great holes in one another, though the Serapis, built as a warship suffered less than Richard.
As the cannonade raged, the Marines of Bonhomme Richard swept the decks of Serapis killing and wounding many of her crew. A grenade thrown by one of her Marines sailed down an open hatch on the British ship and landed on a pile of powder charges. The explosion set off a chain reaction which disabled many of Serapis’s guns, killing and wounding many of the gunners.
In the confusion and carnage, thinking that Jones was dead, the Chief Gunner of the of Bonhomme Richard cried out for “quarter,” meaning surrender. Hearing this, Jones threw a pistol felling the man. Likewise, Richard’s colors were shot away giving the impression that she make have struck her colors.
The Captain of Serapis Captain Richard Pearson hailed Jones to ask if he had struck his colors (surrendered.) The First Lieutenant of Bonhomme Richard Richard Dale recorded Jones’ response for posterity “I have not yet begun to fight!” Another account recorded Jones as replying “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike.”
The battle continued and the Alliance under the command of a Frenchman with an American commission, Pierre Landais, having been absent for most of the action came up and delivered a devastating broadside much of which hit Bonhomme Richard, holing her again below the waterline and causing her to settle rapidly. At the same time she caused additional damage to Serapis. Jones loaded and fired one of the 9 pounders whose crew was killed or wounded, striking the mainmast of Serapis twice and causing it to fall over the side.
Alliance opens fire on Serapis and Bonhomme Richard
Bonhomme Richard had taken a severe beating with most of her guns knocked out, taking water and burning from fires ignited by the British onslaught and Alliance’s devastating broadside. With his ship badly damaged and Alliance threatening Pearson stuck his colors in person at 2230 hours. Pallas forced the surrender of the Countess of Scarborough, but the convoy escaped.
Jones took possession of Serapis, but the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard sank the on September 25th despite her crew’s best efforts to save her. Jones made temporary repairs to Serapis and sought refuge in the Netherlands.
The battle was militarily insignificant but again a major psychological victory as Jones had for the second time defeated a British warship in British waters within sight of the local population. Even though Jones had taken Serapis the British warships completed their mission of protecting the convoy.
Jones’s post war career left him embittered. His opportunity to command the first US Navy Ship of the Line, the 74 gun America disappeared when that ship was given to France after the war. He was made a Chevalier of France by Louis the XVI and awarded a gold medal by Congress, but the U.S. Navy was disbanded. Unable to serve his adopted country, Jones found employment in the Imperial Russian Navy of Catherine the Great. Though he was successful against the Turks, jealous Russian commanders conspired against him and had him removed from command of the Black Sea Fleet. He retired to France where he lived on his Russian pension. He was appointed to serve as Counsel to the Dey of Algiers to negotiate the freedom of captive American merchant mariners in June 1792. Before he could take up that position he died in his Paris apartment of interstitial nephritis of on July 18th 1792.
Frenchman Pierrot Francois Simmoneau donated over 460 francs to mummify the body. It was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin “in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified.” He was buried in the St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants which was owned by the French King. After the French Revolution the cemetery was abandoned and forgotten.
General Horace Porter, the United States Counsel to France spent six years and his own money to locate and identify Jones’s body in 1905. His coffin was transported aboard the USS Brooklyn in 1906 and his body was interred at the United States Naval Academy. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the internment. He noted something of profound importance for anyone sworn to defend this nation and its Constitution:
We have met to-day to do honor to the mighty dead. Remember that our words of admiration are but as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals if we do not by steady preparation and by the cultivation of soul and mind and body fit ourselves so that in time of need we shall be prepared to emulate their deeds. Let every midshipman who passes through this institution remember, as he looks upon the tomb of John Paul Jones, that while no courage can atone for the lack of that efficiency which comes only through careful preparation in advance, through careful training of the men, and careful fitting out of the engines of war, yet that none of these things can avail unless in the moment of crisis the heart rises level with the crisis. The navy whose captains will not surrender is sure in the long run to whip the navy whose captains will surrender, unless the inequality of skill or force is prodigious. The courage which never yields can not take the place of the possession of good ships and good weapons and the ability skillfully to use these ships and these weapons.
In the years since that victory the United States Navy went from a militarily insignificant force to the most powerful Navy in the world. Jones and the ships that he captained would not be forgotten. Two Aircraft Carriers were named after Jones’ Sloop of war Ranger, while several destroyers have born his name.
The odds against Jones in his battle with Serapis were heavily weighted against him. Jones’s victory over Serapis was another demonstration that the Americans should not be taken lightly by the great powers of Europe. It helped begin a tradition of valiant service for the Navy that has endured throughout the centuries. The victory off Flamborough Head reaches into the present as American sailors and their ships ply the world’s oceans keeping the sea lanes open and protecting American interests abroad.