American Essence

How a Sea Captain Won a Dramatic Battle in the Revolutionary War and Became the Father of the American Navy

How the Colonial sea captain beat the odds and the British
BY Dustin Bass TIMESeptember 16, 2022 PRINT

Four ships of the Continental Navy slowly coasted along the eastern seaboard of England. Led by John Paul Jones’s Bonhomme Richard, the Alliance, Pallas, and Vengeance moved with the slight south-westerly wind.

Jones and his small squadron had been hunting British ships for months with middling success, capturing a few prizes, including the sloop HMS Drake. But he had made enough of a disturbance to put the English citizens in an uproar about their coast’s vulnerability. His crew inflicted this fear when it invaded Whitehaven, a small port town on the west coast of Scotland (where he had grown up and began his maritime career).

It was September 23, 1779, precisely 17 months after that invasion and capture of the Drake. Jones was eyeing for something bigger: a real prize and chance at glory. He was awaiting the return of Britain’s Baltic Fleet, dozens of merchant ships carrying large holds of supplies. As the afternoon wore on, a yell came down to the quarter deck—the fleet had been spotted. Before Jones could give the command of “General Chase,” the other captains had set off toward the prizes.

A Worthy Adversary

Among the Baltic Fleet, Capt. Richard Pearson of the HMS Serapis, a 44-gun warship, received word that “Pirate Paul Jones,” as he was now known among the British, had been spotted in the area. Pearson commanded his ship along with the sloop, Countess of Scarborough, to place themselves between the defenseless merchant ships and the four incoming ships. Pearson, a decorated 30-year veteran of the high seas, had plenty of experience in maritime warfare. It would fall to him to dispense with this American pest of the Royal Navy, by sending him either to the bottom of the North Sea or to the gallows in London.

Epoch Times Photo
“Captain John Paul Jones” by Wehl after Charles Wilson Peale, 1872. (Public domain)

The ships of the Continental Navy moved incrementally against the current and toward their targets, the nearly negligible wind hardly helping. Jones watched in frustration as the merchant ships headed closer toward land and the cover of guns at Scarborough Castle. His plan had been to cut them off and seize their assets. He quickly shook off his frustration when he noticed a ship with yellow topsides moving in his direction. It was the Serapis, with the Countess of Scarborough tailing closely. Glory was not waiting. It was heading right toward him.

Just as evening broke, “Beat to Quarters” was called out from the Continental quarter deck. Drums began tapping in a rhythm symphonically offset by the sailors yelling and running along the decks. Commanding officers and their men hustled toward the 40 guns assembled in the gun room, gun deck, and quarter deck. Marines were stationed and armed along the gun deck as well. Jones instituted a common ploy, and something that would delay Pearson’s attack―a British flag had been raised at the mast.

Slightly undergunned and armed with old French cannons, the slower Bonhomme Richard would be the underdog in this fight. Luckily for Jones, he enjoyed a 2-to-1 ratio with his four ships to the Royal Navy’s two. Perhaps this fight would tighten the camaraderie that had been missing between him and his subordinate captains. The thick of battle always bonded men in ways nothing else could. He would prove that he was a captain worth listening to and worth following into battle. As he neared the enemy, and as day turned to dusk, however, he noticed his other three ships had disappeared. Whether they lost sight of the Bonhomme Richard, took off after the dozens of merchant ships, or chose to abandon Jones, no one knows for certain. Regardless, his advantageous ratio had just been flipped.

Jones gave the command to “Form Line of Battle.” He would never conceive of running, and even if he had, his old refurbished merchant ship wouldn’t stand a chance of outpacing the British man-o’-war. He looked west at Flamborough Head where its white cliffs jutted 400 feet above the sea. As the sun lowered behind the cliffs, a Harvest Moon began to tower over the Atlantic.

Epoch Times Photo
In 1778, Jones led his crew into the town of Whitehaven in Scotland to hunt British ships. The town is depicted in a painting by Matthias Read, 1730–1735. (Public domain)

The two ships were close enough for the opposing captains to hail each other. According to Nathan Fanning, a midshipman aboard the Bonhomme Richard, the sea was “perfectly smooth.” The climate was opportune for conversation. “What ship is that?” Pearson called. The sailing master followed Jones’s command and yelled back, “Princess Royal.” “Where from?” The long hesitation confirmed Pearson’s suspicions: “Tell me instantly from whence you came, or I’ll fire a broadside into you!”

The Battle Begins

At approximately 7:15 p.m. and 25 yards distance, the two captains could delay no further and fired nearly simultaneously, cannonballs ripping through the ships. The Battle of Flamborough Head had begun.

Upon firing the second round, one (perhaps two) of the 18-pounder cannons in the gun room exploded, leaving soldiers dead and mangled, along with a gaping hole on the starboard side of the Bonhomme Richard. Jones had six 18-pounders altogether, but now they had proven too dangerous to use. He would be forced to fight a faster, more heavily armed ship without his largest cannons.

In an attempt for better maneuverability, Jones, being windward, stole the wind from the Serapis and moved quickly ahead of her, an aggressive move typical of British officers. Jones’s maneuver turned into a tactical opportunity for Pearson. “Ware ship!” the British captain yelled. The helmsman of the Serapis spun the wheel as its port side raked across the stern of the Bonhomme Richard, cannon blasting away into the glass and artwork on the rear of the American ship. Within the first 20 minutes of the battle, 22 of the 25 marines on the poop deck of the Bonhomme Richard were dead.

“[The Serapis] made a havoc of our crew. Men were falling in all parts of the ship by the scores,” Fanning would later write.

As Pearson sailed past Jones, his cannons continued firing, doing much damage, including below the waterline. Now being windward, he decided to move his faster ship around the Bonhomme Richard. He would do to the enemy’s bow what he had done to its stern. The wind, however, stopped, leaving the Serapis in a precarious position and Jones with the advantage. His bow slowly closed upon the Serapis’s mizzenmast near the ship’s stern. Continental sailors armed with pikes and pistols began tossing grappling hooks to begin boarding the enemy ship. Using the bowsprit as a bridge proved fruitless as the British fired at those attempting to board, while cutting the ropes of the hooks. Jones immediately called off the attack.

Epoch Times Photo
Engineering plan for the Bonhomme Richard, 1765. (Public domain)
Epoch Times Photo
(Public domain)

A Favorable Lack of Wind

The Serapis fired away again with deadly force. The Bonhomme Richard was now taking on more water than the pumps could keep up with. Every deck of the ship was awash with blood and carnage. If Jones did not strike his colors or employ an immediate and overwhelming maneuver, he and his men would be doomed to the depths of the ocean. While both captains hoped to conduct a final maneuver to end the battle, the wind abandoned the sea, leaving the two ships on a slow collision course. The timing could not have been better.

The bowsprit of the Serapis lodged into the mizzen rigging of the Bonhomme Richard. Jones knew a miracle when he saw it. He rushed up the ladder to the poop deck, made fast the line to the mizzenmast, and called to the sailing master for a larger rope. He would tie the two ships together by lashing a rope around the enemy’s jibboom, the extended piece of the bowsprit, and his mast. The sailing master began swearing, due to either the brilliance or the insanity of the idea. Jones, experiencing the height of adrenaline, casually joked, “It’s no time to be swearing now. You may by the next moment be in eternity, but let us do our duty.”

Pearson countered by dropping anchor in hopes of pulling the two ships apart and allowing his cannon to finish the job. The anchor secured into the ocean floor, but the two ships remained together. By the time the jibboom snapped under the pressure, the sailors had secured their grappling hooks. The single advantage the Bonhomme Richard had over the Serapis was its height, and the marines played to the advantage, picking off British sailors who ventured to attempt axing the ropes. While the two ships faced each other in opposite directions and marines continued their sniper fire, below decks the cannonade raged on.

A Most Memorable Response

Word from the merchant sailors had obviously spread to the locals that the “Pirate Jones” had been cornered. Atop Flamborough Head, British citizens gathered under the spotlight of a full moon to watch this maritime dance.

As the two ships struggled against each other and sailors and marines shot across the bows, scrambled to put out fires, and worked to keep their ships from sinking, another ship joined the fray. To the chagrin of not only the British, but to Jones and his entire crew, the Alliance, captained by Frenchman Pierre Landais, finally arrived. Jones and Landais had fallen out with each other a month prior, with Landais actually challenging Jones to a duel. For some perplexing reason, perhaps because of his disdain for Jones, Landais ordered grapeshot into both ships, and the second round into the Bonhomme Richard. The friendly fire, or perhaps not so friendly, resulted in casualties aboard the American ship. Almost as soon as Landais had arrived, he was gone, leaving the Americans worse off than before his arrival.

Epoch Times Photo
The Bonhomme Richard (center) closely engages with HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head, England. Painting by Thomas Mitchell, 1780. (Public domain)

The damage to the American ship was overwhelming. She was in such poor condition that the British prisoners, approximately 100, were released to help stave off her sinking. John Gunnison, the ship’s carpenter, and Henry Gardner, the gunner’s mate, agreed that the Bonhomme Richard was lost. Rushing above deck, they could not find Jones and saw the ensign missing on the taffrail. Jones must be dead. Gardner, not able to locate the first lieutenant, cried quarter.

Captains Jones and Pearson heard the cry, but with very different responses. Jones, in a rage at Gardner’s gall, tried to shoot him, but had spent his last ball, so he threw his pistol at Gardner’s head, knocking him out. Pearson yelled out, “Have you struck?”

Jones wanted to make his position as clear as possible. The glory of this battle would not end with such a whimper, and Jones would not see himself finished before a British court and the end of a rope. Jones announced to Pearson, as well as to his own men and prisoners: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Shortly after, the Alliance came by again to fire grapeshot across the bows of both ships. The American sailors screamed and cursed at the French captain as he again sailed away. In the distance, however, one of Jones’s ships was performing her duty. The Pallas, captained by Frenchman Denis Cottineau, defeated the Countess of Scarborough.

The Decisive Blow

The rifle and cannon fire continued as sailors and marines improved their positions on the riggings of the mast. One sailor, William Hamilton, climbed across one of the mainyards carrying a match and a bag of grenades. It didn’t take long for his aim to strike true. He tossed a grenade into an open hatch of the gun deck. The grenade blast created a chain reaction of explosions. Hamilton’s perfect toss had destroyed cannons, killed soldiers, and provided the final straw. Pearson climbed to the quarterdeck, identified Jones, who was hunched over a nine-pounder, and yelled out: “Sir, I have struck! I ask for quarter!”

Epoch Times Photo
Portrait of Jones standing on board the Bonhomme Richard, reaching for one of several pistols at his waist and holding a sword in his right hand. Engraving by Carl Guttenberg after a drawing by C.J. Notté, 1779. (Public domain)

Astonished and relieved, Jones required he pull down his ensign first. Before the fighting had begun, Pearson had actually nailed a red Royal Navy flag in place of the white flag bearing the St. George cross. It had been a statement of no surrender. With perfect and rather symbolic timing, the 150-foot mast of the Serapis could bear its weight no longer, and it toppled, crashing into the ocean.

The Bonhomme Richard Lost

As battered as the Serapis was, the Bonhomme Richard was in worse condition. Jones had hoped to save her, but the attempts to keep her afloat and lead the Serapis to port would prove impossible. Throughout the night and following day, both crews worked to make the British warship somewhat seaworthy. On the evening of the 24th, the Americans boarded the Serapis and watched the next morning as the Bonhomme Richard sank to the ocean floor.

Before the Americans left the Bonhomme Richard, however, Jones finally got the chance to relish what he had sought for so long: an official surrender ceremony. Pearson surrendered his sword to Jones. “Sir, you have fought like a hero,” Jones told the British captain, “and I make no doubt that your sovereign will reward you in a most ample manner for it.”

Jones would be correct on both accounts: Pearson had fought like a hero, and King George III would knight him for that fight.

Jones would be presented with a gold sword by Louis XVI and given the title of Chevalier. Jones’s lore would live on in America, though for a very short time. Congress formally thanked him, along with five generals, in a 1781 resolution for his contributions to the Revolution and had a gold medal struck bearing his likeness.

At war’s end, he would venture back and forth from the new nation to old Europe, particularly Paris. After the Revolution, the Continental Navy was scrapped. America would not establish a navy until 1794. Jones was a sea captain looking for work. He became a rear admiral for Catherine the Great of Russia, but his time with the Russians did not go well.

Resurrecting Jones’s Memory

Jones’s health began to fail him from the massive tolls it took during his captaining years. On June 5, 1794, the first officers were appointed to the U.S. Navy, one of them being Richard Dale, Jones’s first lieutenant aboard the Bonhomme Richard. Jones would not be on the list, for on July 18, 1792, at the age of 45, alone in his Paris apartment, he would succumb to his poor health. He was buried in the great French city and was all but forgotten by his adopted country.

More than a century later in 1905, the American ambassador to France, Horace Porter, a retired Civil War general, found Jones’s grave after seeking it for four years. Congress then approved $35,000 to exhume the body and bring it back home.

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Bronze statue of Jones at the John Paul Jones Memorial in West Potomac Park, Washington, D.C. (OPIS Zagreb/Shutterstock)

“I felt a deep sense of humiliation as an American citizen in realizing that our first and most fascinating naval hero had been lying for more than a century in an unknown and forgotten grave,” Porter stated.

Under the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt, Jones would be buried in a specially built chapel at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

During that occasion, Roosevelt gave a speech and stated, “Every officer in our Navy should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones. Every officer in our Navy should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.”

Sadly, it took more than a century to honor Jones in the way respectable of one considered to be the Father of the American Navy and one who has inspired countless naval officers and seamen. But it was finally done, and it did not end with the reinterment of his body.

In 1909, Congress approved $50,000 for a memorial to Jones on the National Mall. It would be dedicated three years later by President William Howard Taft and unveiled by Admiral George Dewey, a hero of the Spanish American War. Jones is remembered perfectly by being in repose at the home of the nation’s finest naval academy, surrounded by future naval heroes. The inscription on that tomb could not better express his impact on America’s Navy and the importance of the Battle of Flamborough Head: “He gave our Navy its earliest traditions of Heroism and Victory.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

Dustin Bass
Dustin Bass is the host of EpochTV's "About the Book," a show about new books with the authors who wrote them. He is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast.
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