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John Paul Jones
Chapter X - 1778


PAUL JONES was once again at sea, with the salt spray stinging his lips; living, as he had lived for so many years, between sea and sky, with every sense on the alert for adventure. The seductions of the court were forgotten, the fair women who flattered and caressed, wraiths of his dreams, to fade vaguely into nothingness before the cold light of reality.

Jones sailed on the Ranger from Brest on April 10th, his course was shaped for the west coast of Ireland, but the terrific gales encountered the second day out forced him to change the plans of his cruise and run up St. George's Channel to the Irish Sea. His own letter is the best description of the cruise—

"I sailed from Brest on the 10th April; my plan was extensive, I therefore did not at the beginning wish to encumber myself with prisoners. On the 14th I took a brigantine between Scilly and Cape Clear, bound for Ostend, with a cargo of flax-seed for Ireland, sunk her, and proceeded into St. George's Channel.

"On the 17th I took the ship Lord Chatham, bound from London to Dublin, with a cargo consisting of porter, and a variety of merchandise, and almost within sight of her port; this ship I manned and ordered into Brest."

The following night he planned a descent on White- haven, which the wind obliged him to abandon. On the i8th in Glentinc Bay, on the south coast of Scotland, he "met with a revenue-wherry"; it being the common practice of these vessels to board merchant ships, the Ranger then having no external appearance of war, it was expected that this rover would have come alongside, "which, however, to his surprise, she did not, though the men were at their quarters"; but sailed away despite a severe cannonade.

"The next morning off the Mull of Galloway I found myself so near a Scotch coasting schooner loaded with barley that I could not avoid sinking her." The letter goes on with much similar detail; then, on the 21st, he saw the Dia/e of twenty guns, which he determined to attack in the night. "My plan was to overlay her cable, and to fall upon her bow, so as to have all her decks open and exposed to our musketry, etc.; at the same time it was my intention to have secured the enemy by grapplings, so that, had they cut their cables, they would not thereby have attained an advantage. The wind was high, and unfortunately the anchor was not let go as soon as the order was given, so that the Ranger was brought to upon the enemy's quarter at the distance of half a cable's length. We had made no warlike appearance, of course had given no alarm; this determined me to cut immediately, which might appear as if the cable had parted, and at the same time enable me, after making a tack out of the loch, to return to the same prospect of advantage which I had at the first." This he was unable to do, as the weather grew very stormy, and forced him "to shelter under the south shore of Scotland."

These gales, which first caused Jones to alter his cruise, equally upset the arrangements of his foes. When the first "provisional plan" had been made, Lee's secretary, Thornton, lost no time in sending all details to the Admiralty, and two heavy sloops of war and a thirty-two gun frigate were ordered to the west coast of Ireland. They left Plymouth on the 12th, two days after the Ranger sailed, but the same gale which affected Jones drove them into Falmouth for shelter. When the three ships arrived at their destination they could, naturally enough, find no trace of the Ranger. Until the news sent by Thornton reached the Admiralty, there was no idea of Jones being in the vicinity, much less cruising in home waters.

Paul Jones had planned this cruise with the hope of crippling English shipping. With this in view, he intended to make a descent on Whitehaven, a "considerable port," where he had the advantage of knowing every foot of the ground from his boyhood. He has been the victim of abuse from all sorts of writers for attacking a town where he had associations, perhaps even friends. But in war there is no sentiment, and it is open to question whether little Johnnie Paul was much spoiled or fêted when he returned from his voyages in his poor and unknown days. He intended on such destruction of life and property as King George's brutal Hessian soldiers inflicted on the Americans, and who had spared his plantation and slaves when Lord Dunmore made that devastating raid? The age was more rugged than the one we live in, and conflicting parties did not go to war for the sake of exchanging civilities.

On 22nd of April he again determined to attack Whitehaven. The hills were covered with snow and the wind so light that "the ship would not in proper time approach so near as I intended." So, nothing daunted, he left the Raizger at midnight with thirty-one volunteers and two boats. So long had all this taken that it was dawn when they reached the outer pier. "I would not abandon the enterprise," he continues, but despatched one boat under the direction of Mr. Hill and Lieut. Wallingford, with the necessary combustibles to set fire to the shipping on the north side of the harbour, while I went with the other party to attempt the south side. I was successful in scaling the walls and spiking all the cannons on the first fort; finding the sentinels shut up in the guard-house, they were secured without being hurt. Having fixed sentinels, I now took with me one man only (Mr. Green, midshipman,) and spiked up all the cannon on the southern fort, distant from the other a quarter of a mile."

Rather a daring exploit for one man and a boy to undertake single-handed in the daylight, when the whole town might swoop down on them at any moment; and how bitter the shock of disappointment on returning breathless "from this business I naturally expected to see the fire of the ships on the north side, as well as to find my own party with everything in readiness to set fire to the shipping on the south; instead of this, I found the boat under the direction of Mr. Hill and Mr. Wallingford and the party in some confusion, their light having burnt out at the instant when it became necessary.

By the strangest fatality my own party were in the same situation, the candles being all burnt out. The day came on apace, yet I would by no means retreat while any hopes of success remained. Having again placed sentinels, a light was obtained at a house disjoined from the town, and a fire was kindled in the steerage of a large ship, which was surrounded by at least a hundred and fifty others, chiefly from two to four hundred tons burthen, and lying side by side aground, unsurrounded by water.

"There were, besides, from seventy to a hundred large ships in the north arm of the harbour, aground, clear of the water, and divided from the rest only by a stone pier of a ship's height. I should have kindled fires in other places if the time had permitted; as it 'did not, our care was to prevent the one kindled from being easily extinguished. After some search a barrel of tar was found, and poured into the flames, which now ascended from all the hatchways. The inhabitants began to appear in thousands, and individuals ran hastily towards us. I stood between them and the ship on fire, with a pistol in my hand, and ordered them to retire, which they did with precipitation. The flames had already caught the rigging, and began to ascend the main—mast; the sun was a full hour's march above the horizon, and as sleep no longer ruled the world it was time to retire. We re-embarked, having released a number of prisoners, as our boats could not carry them. After all my people had embarked I stood on the pier for a considerable space, yet no person advanced; I saw all the eminences around the town covered with amazed inhabitants."

His contemporaries considered this an unparalleled feat of hardiness, that a handful of men dared, in broad daylight, land in a large town, spike guns, lock sentries in the guard-house, and unconcernedly set fire to the shipping, while the dazed inhabitants stood by in masses, gaping with surprise. There was a rush to the cannon, as soon as the boats rowed out of range, to find them spiked and harmless. The thirty guns, intended to defend the fort were mere masses of useless metal. After a little the townspeople found some ships' guns that had not been disabled, and fired one or two dismounted cannon that laid on the beach and had not been spiked, but their aim was affected by excitement, and Jones wrote: "Afforded some diversion, which my people could not help showing, by discharging their pistols, etc., in return of the salute."

The non-success of this raid was one of the captain's greatest disappointments, and it was long before he became reconciled to its failure. He reported to Congress—

"My first object was to secure an exchange of prisoners in Europe, and my second to put an end by one good fire in England of shipping to all the burnings in America. I succeeded in the first even by means far more glorious than my most flattering ideas had expected when I left France. In the second I endeavoured to deserve success; but a wise officer of mine observed, "that it was a rash thing, and that nothing could be got by burning poor people's property." I must, however, do him the justice to mention his acknowledgment that he had no turn for the enterprise, and I must also do equal justice to my former officers in the Providence and Alfred by declaring that had they been with me in the Range two hundred and fifty, or three hundred sail of large ships at Whitehaven would have been left in ashes."

All this must have been maddening to the high- tempered Paul, who had so long and carefully planned his raid, especially as one of his crew turned traitor, and went from house to house, rousing up the inhabitants with the tidings "that fire had been set to a ship." There were no casualties, and only one man was left behind, Jonathan Wells, who lingered too long feeding the tar-kindled flames. He was not lacking in his share of "Yankee wit," made every one believe him a deserter, and shipped on a transport taking troops to America. Once there he deserted, enlisting on a privateer, then in some manner came to be in the crew of the Alliance when she took Lafayette home in 1779, and when he got to l'Orient at once reported to his old captain, who had him transferred to the Bonhomme Richard, fitting out for a cruise at that port. Wells is the man who, under the name of "Freeman," supplied the information from which the contemporary Cumberland Packet published a much quoted article.

If the attempt had been an hour earlier it is impossible to estimate the damage Jones's forces might have done, but dawn saved the town of Whitehaven. The growing daylight showed the townspeople the smallness of his forces and they began to rally in great numbers, but without system or order. Jones decided it was time to retreat, as the landing parties having become separated he feared Wallingford might he cut off before they could reach the waiting boats. With a command to "Come on! " he and his twelve men rushed the hundred militia, who were trying to regain possession of the lower fort with the spiked guns, enabling his men, after some lively but harmless skirmishing, to retreat to the boats in good order.

So ended the famous raid on Whitehaven, a town of from forty to fifty thousand inhabitants, which, "with thirty men only he surprised; taking two strong forts with thirty pieces of cannon; setting fire to the shipping where they lay, 300 or upward in the dry pier. That both shipping and town were not burned is due to the backwardness of some persons under my command," Jones concluded his report.

"Few naval enterprises exhibit a character of greater daring and originality than this descent on Whitehaven," is the comment of Mackenzie, always reluctant to praise Paul Jones, but such a dare-devil foray won praise even from his pen. "Its actual results were of little moment, for the intended destruction of the shipping was limited to one vessel. But the moral effects of it were very great, as it taught the English that the fancied security of their coasts was a myth, and thereby compelled their government to take expensive measures for the defence of numerous ports hitherto relying for protection wholly on the vigilance and supposed omnipotence of their navy. It also doubled or more the rates of insurance, which, in the long run, proved the most grievous damage of all."

The excitement along the coast was intense. The stout burghers, thoroughly aroused at the thoughts of being seized and carried off by pirates and desperadoes as they sat in the—once--safe shelter of their homes, formed themselves into companies of militia, to defend the household gods from the ruthless invader. Never in the memory of man had they been so shocked and surprised out of their after-dinner meditations; but, most terrible warning of what might happen to them, was that alarming fact: that it doubled or more the rates of insurance, which, as Jones wrote, "in the long run proved the most grievous damage of all."


 


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