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John Paul Jones
Chapter XII - 1778


ON the morning of April 24, 1778, the Ranger, after her attack on the shipping of Whitehaven and descent on St. Mary's Isle, was again off Carrickfergus, on the eve of that encounter which was to bring her captain fame in a night. Though there are many descriptions of the battle, the best is that given by Jones himself to Mr. Hewes. He begins—

"On the morning of the 24th I was again off Carrickfergus, and would have gone in, had I not seen the Drake preparing to come out; it was very moderate, and the Drake's boat was sent out to reconnoitre the Ranger. As the boat advanced I kept the ship's stern directly towards her, and, though they had a spy-glass in the boat, they came on within hail alongside. When the officer came on the quarterdeck he was greatly surprised to find himself a prisoner !—although an express had arrived from Whitehaven the night before. I now understood what I had before imagined, that the Drake came out in consequence of this information with volunteers against the Ranger. The officers told me also that they had taken up the Ranger's anchor.

"The Drake was attended by five small vessels full of people, who were led by motives of curiosity to see an engagement; but when they discovered the Drake's boat at the Ranger's stern they wisely put back."
It seems a curious piece of carelessness that an officer should come aboard an unknown ship in this casual manner, asking no questions, taking for granted that all the world was friendly, and this, when that "terrible pirate and sea wolf," Paul Jones, was at large! The astonishment of this confiding officer must have been worth recording in his memoirs, if he ever wrote any!

"Alarm smokes now appeared in great abundance, extending along both shores of the channel. The tide was unfavourable, so that the Drake worked out slowly. This obliged me to run down several times, and to lay with courses up, and main-topsails to the mast. At length the Drake weathered the point, and having led her out to about mid-channel, I suffered her to come within hail. The Drake hoisted English colours, and at the same instant the American Stars were displayed on hoard the Ranger. I expected that preface had been now at an end; but the enemy soon after hailed, demanding what the ship was. I directed the master to answer, the American Continental ship Ranger, that we waited for them, and desired they would come on. The sun was now a little more than an hour from setting, it was, therefore time to begin. The Drake being rather astern of the Ranger, I ordered the helm up, and gave her the first broadside. The action was warm, close and obstinate; it lasted an hour and five minutes, when the enemy called for quarter, her fore and main topsails both being cut away and down on the cap; the fore-topgallant yard and mizzen-gaff both hanging up and down along the mast; the second ensign, which they had hoisted, shot away and hanging over the quarter-gallery in the water; the jib shot away, and hanging in the water; her sails and rigging entirely cut to pieces, her main-masts and yards all wounded, and her hull also very much galled.

"I lost only Lieutenant Wallingford and one seaman (John Donegal) killed and six wounded, among whom are the gunner (Mr. Falls) and Mr. Powers, a midshipman, who lost his arm. One of the wounded (Nathaniel Wills) is since dead, and the rest will recover.

"At the time of going into action the Ranger had one hundred and twenty-six, all hands, at quarters, and eighteen guns. The Drake's battery is sixteen nine-pounders and four four-pounders; the Ranger's fourteen nine-pounders and four sixes.

"The result of the action was due entirely to the superior gunnery of my crew. There was no manuvring worth mention. As soon as the two ships got clear of the land, the Drake being astern and within hail, both standing to the eastward, the wind southerly and light., sea fairly smooth, they hailed us: 'What ship is that?' to which we replied, 'The American Continental ship Ranger; come on, we are waiting for you.'

"Both ships then wore almost together, laying their heads to the north, and going off nearly before the wind, which was no more than enough to make good steering way.

Our broadside was just an instant the first. The enemy's fire was spirited, hut, for a king's ship, very ineffective. This I can only attribute to the distress and confusion caused on board of her by the remarkable effect of our fire. The range was close, hardly more than a musket shot at any time. Her crew, as I can judge from the prisoners taken, was fully up to the British man-of-war standard yet in the hour of cannonading our loss was only two killed and six wounded—one mortally. The Ranger did not suffer in hull or spars or rigging enough to have prevented her from fighting again the next morning if necessary. But the Drake was almost wrecked, and she lost nineteen killed or died of wounds, including her captain and first lieutenant, and twenty-eight officers and men severely wounded, the only sea officer remaining to strike her flag being her second lieutenant.

The behaviour of my men in this engagement more than justifies the representations I have so often made to you of what American sailors would do if given a chance at the enemy in his own waters. We have seen that they fight with courage on our own coasts. But no one has ever seen them fight on our coast as they fought here, almost in hail of the enemy's shore. Every shot told, and they gave the Drake three broadsides for two right along at that. Of course, I had lost no opportunity of training them in great gun exercise, both at sea and in port. But my supply of ammunition would never admit of actual target practice, so the precision of their fire was simply natural aptitude."

Would that much restrained and harassed commander have obtained greater results if he had the ample facilities of other navies to draw upon? It is open to question, for, with his poor little ship, half- equipped and wholly untried, he won his battles, and that, after all, is the aim and end of warfare, despite the "pelagic conditions and ulterior objects" so learnedly discoursed of by Napoleon's admirals, much to that imperious autocrat's disgust when he demanded action, not theory.

Paul was jubilant over the aptitude shown by his crew: "I have never seen men handle guns as they handled the Ranger's nine-pounders," he declared, with honest pride in the success of his training. As the two ships were going off the wind, which was light, they both rolled considerably and together; that is, when the Ranger went down to port the Drake came up to starboard. Quite early in the action I noticed that my quarter gunners had caught the Drake's period of roll and were timing to fire as their muzzles went down and the enemy's came up. By this practice they were hulling the Drake prodigiously below the water-line and everywhere below the plank- sheer, though damaging her but little aloft. Being near Quarter-Gunner Owen Starbuck of Nantucket at the moment, I asked him why they fired that way, and he replied, 'To sink the English b----s, sir.'

"I then told Starbuck and the others that it was not my policy to sink the Drake, but that I wished to take her alive instead of destroying her; explaining that it would be much more to our advantage to carry her as a visible prize into a French port. The alert fellows instantly took this hint, and began firing as their muzzles rose, by which practice they soon crippled the Drake's spars and rigging, and made her an unmanageable log on the water. I am persuaded that if I had not advised them to this effect, my gunners would have sunk the Drake in an hour! As it was, we had to put spare sails over the sides after she struck to keep her afloat, and careen her as much as we could the next day to plug the holes they had already made between wind and water. While I am telling you about the behaviour of my men, I must not forget to mention that at the moment when the Drake's fore and main topsail yards came 'down on the caps, and she fell off, giving us the chance to luff under her stern and rake her, I was in the forward division, in consequence of Lieutenant Wallingford being killed, and at once started to run aft to the wheel to order the helm down for the manoeuvre. But before I got to the mainmast the fore and main top- sails were already shivering, because Chief Quarter- Master Nathan Sergeant of Portsmouth, N.H., who had the wheel, had already seen our chance and had taken upon himself the important responsibility of luffing ship without orders: thus anticipating my intention, and leaving me nothing to do but order the starboard tacks on board to keep her full and shift the broadside for raking, when, luckily, the enemy, realising his helpless situation, called for quarter and spared further bloodshed. The unfortunate loss of Lieutenant Wallingford in the action enabled me to advance Mr. Sergeant to the post of Acting Master. But I regret to say that since our return here he has found it to his advantage to leave me, being offered command of a large French privateer of twenty-six guns, belonging to Al. de Chaumont and Al. He Marcereau, now fitting out at St. Malo. As Mr. Sergeant is master of the French language, this command will enable him to better his fortunes, and in view of the sorry hopes of recompence in the Continental service I could not withhold my consent to his going, or to his taking with him eight others of my New Hampshire men, whom he will make officers in his new ship, the Marseille. Our seamen who can speak French are in great request here for officers in privateers."

The period of enlistment on the Ranger had been originally for one year only, and expired October 1st, 1778. There were many disadvantages in these short enlistments, but the terms offered by Congress were not advantageous enough to hold the seamen for long terms, and though Jones disliked parting from his trained officers or crew, his sense of justice would not allow him to hinder their advancement in life.

In this letter he enclosed the carpenter's very technical estimate for repairs, which amounted to some three thousand louis d'or, or twenty-seven hundred guineas. The Drake had been all knocked to pieces, having "one hundred and twenty-seven shot in her hull, below the plank-sheer, thirty-six of which were below her water-line, some of which, in consequence of the close range, went clean through the hull," but being a new ship, only three years off the stocks, she was considered well worth repairing.

The French Government allowed Jones to have the repairs made at the Brest dockyard at its expense.

In the action he lost only one officer and two men killed, two severely wounded, Mr. Powers losing his right arm, and three able seamen wounded, but "doing well." The Drake was less fortunate, her captain was killed, also her first lieutenant. The second lieutenant who surrendered the Drake was wounded, being kept prisoner for over a year, and did not, in consequence, have the usual court-martial until eighteen months after the action. There was some controversy over his statements, as he testified that the Ranger outclassed the Drake in "weight of metal," declaring the latter had twenty guns, all four-pounders, while official papers in the French archives describe her as "seize piece de neuf livres de balle et quatre pièce de quatre," and it is unlikely her guns were changed before she was sold at Brest as a prize.

With great reluctance Jones relinquished his intention of cruising around Scotland, but, short-handed as he was, it would have been impossible to think of anything but getting into port with his prizes, for a heavy sea might send the crippled Drake to the bottom, robbing him of the tangible proofs of his victory.

He put thirty-two officers and men aboard the Drake to man her and guard the prisoners, and, after taking a prize off Maim Head, shaped his course to the south and west, till clear of the mouth of the English Channel, when he ran for Brest. "This prize was of some value, being laden with naval stores," Jones reports. On the whole I was out of port twenty- eight days, took six merchant prizes, of which I destroyed three and the other three are safe in French ports; besides taking and bringing in a regular man- of-war of the enemy, slightly superior in force to my ship."

And now came that long dreamed-of and hoped-for hour, when he entered a French port bringing a ship "slightly superior" to his own, belonging to the finest navy afloat, a feat which had never before happened in the history of naval warfare. So unsettled had been the political situation when he sailed in April, that he was unaware if England and France were at war, or if that declaration still hung in the balance. He knew nothing of importance that had happened since he left France, and a month counted a long time in the critical relations between the two countries. He prayed nothing would go wrong before he reached a friendly port, and his usual luck befriended him, as he arrived off Brest on the evening of May 8th.

Before sailing, d'Orvillers had paid Jones the unprecedented compliment of giving him the book of private signals used by the French navy, enabling him to enter any port when he wished. As lie sailed through the outer roads of Brest, his trained eye told him that the French Fleet lay there, ready for war, and four guard frigates patrolled between the mainland and Ushant. Thanks to d'Orvillers, he used the private signals to pass the forts of La Rochelle, l'Orient, Rochfort and Brest without delay. As the frigate La Belle Poule displayed her signal and number, Jones answered, giving the special number allotted to the Ranger by d'Orvillers before sailing. After this signalling he communicated by the ordinary code the fact that he had two prizes under his lee, which news La Belle Poule passed on to the Licorn astern, and the two bore down upon Jones and his ships. Once within hailing distance La Belle Poule demanded formally—

"Who are you and what is your prize " to which Jones replied, leaning over the Ranger's taifrail, "The American Continental ship Ranger, of eighteen guns, Captain Paul Jones, and the man-of-war prize is his Britannic Majesty's late ship the Drake, of twenty guns. The other prize a-lee is a merchant ship, not armed!

After this unexpected reply La Belle Poule escorted Captain Jones and his prizes to their anchorage inside the Point St. Mathieu. All this cautiousness and formality told Jones that the French Fleet was prepared for action, as it had not been when he left Brest a month ago.

It was past midnight when the Ranger let go anchor and everything seemed quiet, but like wildfire the news of the daring captain's return, with such a prize, spread over the town. When daylight broke and there was light enough to see, the quays swarmed with people, and the harbour was black with boats filled with passengers, eager to catch a glimpse of the Drake and her conqueror. They could not believe the astounding fact, those who had fought against the ships of their old and invulnerable enemy, that a free-lance, with a cockle-shell of a boat, could have accomplished what for centuries they had believed impossible. Still, the ships were there, battered and shot-marked, an incontestable fact. Paul Jones had done the impossible, and he lived to tell the tale. From that moment he was regarded as something out of the common, something to be mentioned with bated breath; his fame was unassailable; he had earned for himself a permanent place in the history of France and of the world.


 


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