Fighting Sailors: John Paul Jones

Commonly known as the "Father of the U.S. Navy", John Paul Jones, Captain of the United States warship Bonhomme Richard, entered the annals of American naval history with his immortal words "I have not yet begun to fight!"

A Fighting Sailor

Born John Paul (he added "Jones" in 1773) on 6 July 1747 in Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, he went to sea at 13 as an apprentice, and by 21 was a merchant shipmaster on a slave ship. Disgusted by slaving, he quit that ship and returned home.

An Uncompromising Captain

Sailing from Scotland in 1768, Jones's career advanced suddenly. After both the captain and ranking mate died of yellow fever, he safely returned the ship and cargo to port where the thankful owners made him the captain. His first voyage into the West Indies was successful; not so the second, in 1770.

Jones flogged one of his sailors, leading to accusations that he was "unnecessarily cruel." While these claims were initially dismissed, Jones was arrested after the sailor died. Leaving Scotland again, he commanded another merchantman; however he fled to Virginia after killing another crewman in a dispute over wages.

The Continental Navy

The U.S. Navy was established in October 1775 and Jones joined in December. With his prior command experience, he was appointed a 1st Lieutenant on the Alfred. The Alfred sailed from Philadelphia in February 1776 -the Continental Navy's maiden cruise- and Jones had the honor of hoisting the first U.S. ensign over a naval vessel.

Jones next assignment was command of the sloop Providence, and during his initial voyage, he proved his command ability by capturing sixteen British ships and inflicting significant damage along the Nova Scotia coast. Jones was soon offered command of Alfred, and in November 1776 was sent to Nova Scotia where he captured a vessel carrying a vital supply of winter clothing intended for the British troops in Canada.

Jones was again reassigned, and in June 1777 accepted command of the USS Ranger. He was given a unique mission; to operate from France and assist the American cause from abroad.

In February 1778, France and the United States signed the Treaty of Alliance, which recognized America's independence Eight days later, Jones's Ranger became the first American naval vessel to be formally saluted by a foreign power, and in April, Jones sailed from France to take the fight to the British.

Deploying from France

After early successes against British merchant shipping in the Irish Sea, Jones learned that the Royal Navy man o' war HMS Drake was anchored off Ireland and he planned an attack. However a crewmen's error foiled the attempt, so Jones withdrew and instead invaded the British mainland at Whitehaven.

Jones led the night attack. He hoped to sink or fire all the ships in Whitehaven's harbor (some 200-400 merchant ships and coal barges), while terrorizing the townspeople by destroying the town. Unfortunately a strong tide and shifting winds slowed their approach, so Jones's biggest success was spiking the British coastal guns. With dawn approaching, Jones concentrated his efforts on destroying a coal ship in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels. However one of the crew escaped to sound the alarm, and the townspeople came running, forcing Jones's force to retreat.

Jones immediately led Ranger back across the Irish Sea in order to again attack the Drake and captured her in a hour-long battle.

Although Jones's coastal attack caused minimal damage, the effect on British morale and re-allocation of forces to defend against future attacks was significant. Additionally, Jones's audacious strategy was well-received by the anti-British French. Jones's capture of Drake was one of the Continental Navy's few military victories and was a huge morale builder in demonstrating that the Royal Navy could be beaten. The French then gave him a ship, which Jones renamed BonHomme Richard, and Jones soon led a joint American-French squadron into British waters and captured 16 merchant vessels.

The Battle of Flamborough Head

On 23 September 1779, Jones encountered a convoy escorted by HMS Serapis, and Bonhomme Richard and Serapis began to fight. British victory seemed inevitable as the Serapis used its superior firepower to rake Jones's ship with devastating effect. Her commander, Capt Richard Pearson, called on Jones to surrender, who replied, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!"

Jones eventually succeeded in lashing the two ships together, nullifying the Serapis's greater firepower and allowing Jones to take advantage of his larger crew. An attempt by the Americans to board Serapis was repulsed, as was the British attempt to board Bonhomme Richard. Finally, after another ship from Jones's squadron joined the fight, Pearson surrendered. The Bonhomme Richard, shattered, burning, and leaking, sank the next day. Nearly half of each crew had been killed in the 4-hour fight.

Jones died in 1792 and was buried in Paris, France His body was moved in 1906 to the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., where he was reburied beneath the Naval Academy Chapel. President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the ceremony.

Jones is remembered for his aggressive command style in which he declared "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."

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