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John Paul Jones
Chapter XVII - September 23, 1779


ON the afternoon of September 23rd, the Bonhomme Richard and Pallas, when off Flamborough Head, sighted a fleet of some forty merchantmen to which they gave chase, endeavouring to prevent them from reaching the harbour. This Jones was unable to do owing to the vigilance of the English frigates Se7apis and Countess of Scarborough, which convoyed the fleet. Had Commodore Jones been able to effect the capture of this fleet, laden with Norwegian pine, it would have dealt the government shipbuilding a crippling blow, as the supply of English pine was quite exhausted.

The Commodore writes that The two ships of war that protected the fleet at the same time steered from the land and made the disposition for battle. In approaching the enemy I crowded every possible sail, and made the signal for the line of battle, to which the Alliance showed no attention. Earnest as I was for the action, I could not reach the Commodore's ship until seven in the evening, being then within pistol shot when he hailed the Bonhomme Richard."

As the American and English frigates bore down on one another the Pallas engaged the Countess of Scarborough, while an exchange of broadsides between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis began the most celebrated naval duel in history. Captain Richard Pearson commanded the Serapis, and in him Commodore Jones found an adversary worthy of his steel. Nor were the gallant frigates badly matched in armament and crew: the Serapis carried forty-four guns, throwing a broadside of three hundred and fifteen pounds, compared with the Bonhomme Richard's forty-two guns and broadside of two hundred and fifty-eight pounds of metal. The crew of the former numbered 317 officers and men, against the American frigate's 397.

The first lieutenant of the Serapis, John Breton Wright, published an account of the combat in London, in the year 1781, which is quoted below.

As the stranger approached, Captain Pearson showed some impatience at his inability to make out her rate. From her height out of water and the size of her spars he thought she might be a French fifty of the time of the last war, but she had not yet showed a lower tier, and it was too dusk to make out clearly whether she had her lower ports closed, or if she had any at all. Finally, after ordering a hail, which was not answered, Captain Pearson took the night glasses from his eyes, and said, 'It is probably Paul Jones. If so, there is work ahead!

At this point we cannot do better than quote the first lieutenant of the Bonhomme Rickard, Richard Dale, familiarly known as "Dick." "At about eight, being within hail, the Serapis demanded, 'What ship is that? He was answered, 'I can't hear what you say.' immediately after the Serapis hailed again, What ship is that? Answer immediately, or I shall he under the necessity of firing into you.'

"At this moment I received orders from Commodore Jones to commence the action with a broadside, which indeed appeared to he simultaneous on board both ships. Our position being to windward of the Serapis we passed ahead of her, and the Serapis, coming up on our larboard quarter, the action commenced abreast of each other. The Serapis soon passed ahead of the Bonhomme Richard, and when he thought he had gained a distance sufficient to go down athwart the fore foot to rake us, found he had not enough distance, and that the Bonhomme Richard would he aboard him, put his helm a-lee, which brought the two ships on a line, and the Bonhomme Richard, having headway, ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis. We had remained in this situation but a few minutes when we were again hailed by the Serapis, ' Has your ship struck? ' to which Captain Jones answered, ' I have not yet begun to fight. As we were unable to bring a single gun to bear upon the Serapis, our topsails were hacked, while those of the Serapis being filled the ships separated.

As soon as the ships could bring their guns to bear again after separating, the fire of both was renewed; the enemy's as heavy as before, but ours much weaker," continues the first quarter gunner of the Richard.

In fact, but little of our starboard broadside was left. Of the fourteen twelve-pounders in it at the beginning, nine were either dismounted by their carriages and tackle being smashed by the eighteen-pound shot of the enemy's lower tier or else so jammed through wreckage of the port-openings from the same cause as to be unserviceable. . . . Of the hundred and forty odd officers and men stationed in the main gun-deck battery at the beginning, more than half—at least over eighty—were killed or wounded. The whole deck was slippery with blood and littered with fragments of heads, bodies, and limbs.

It was clear to every one that, at this rate, the end could not be far off; and besides, it was known that many of the enemy's eighteen-pound shot had pierced our hull between wind and water, and there was already at least three or four feet of water in the hold, and rapidly gaining. From the gun-deck itself, looking out-port, we could see that the port sills were much nearer the water's surface than at the beginning, showing that the ship had already sunk at least two feet from her natural trim. Yet, despite this wreck and carnage, I could not see that any of our remaining men were disposed to flinch, or that the five guns we had left were worked with any less will than at the start.

"Just at this moment the Commodore came down on the gun-deck and said to Mr. Dale, who was at the moment near me—

"Dick, his metal is too heavy for us at this business. He is hammering us all to pieces. We must close with him; we must get hold of him Be prepared at any moment to abandon this deck and bring what men you have left on the spar-deck, and give them the usual small arms for boarding when you come up.'

"The worst carnage of all was on number two gun of the forward starboard division. From the first broadside till the gun-deck was abandoned nineteen different men were on this gun, and at the end but one of her original crew remained. That was our little Indian, Anthony Jeremiah, or, as his messmates' nickname was, ' Red Jerry,' generally pronounced by the crew 'Red Cherry.' He was 'port-fire' throughout. When the gun-deck was abandoned and we went above Jerry joined Mayrant's boarding party and was among the first over the enemy's hammock netting in the final rush. . . . He seemed to bear a charmed life...."

Every possible method to gain an advantage known to naval warfare was practised by the ships. The Serapis was much easier to handle than the Richard, as the latter was slow in answering her helm, and had more guns available, as the eighteen pounders with which Jones had been so generously provided were utterly useless after they had fired eight shots in all, two bursting at the first charge and killing their crews. Jones had not known at the time he took them aboard that they were all condemned as unsafe!

The Commodore had intended to "lay the Bonhomme Richard athwart the enemy's bow; but as that operation required great dexterity in the management of both helm and sails, and some of our braces being shot away, it did not exactly succeed to my wish. The enemy's bowsprit, however, came over the Bonhomme Richard's poop by the mizzen-mast, and. I made both ships fast in that situation.

"While lashing the ships together Paul incidentally lost his hat overboard, and on regaining the quarterdeck found his 'aide-of-the-day,' Midshipman Lilithwaite, with another which he had fetched from the cabin. 'Never mind the hat, West,' Jones said laughing, 'put it back in the cabin. I'll fight this out in my scalp! I've a mind to peel my coat too! And if I could I'd fight in the buff like the gun-deck hearties!

"The wind kept the two ships so close that the muzzles of the guns touched. The ship was leaking fast, the battery of twelve-pounders silenced and abandoned, leaving only two pieces of cannon—ninepounders—on the quarter-deck which were fit for use. The purser, Mr. Mease, who commanded the guns on the quarter-deck, was dangerously wounded, and Jones with difficulty rallied a few men, and shifted over one of the lee-quarter deck-guns, so they afterwards could turn three nine-pounders on the enemy being seconded only by the fire from the tops. The Commodore directed the fire of one of the three cannon against the mainmast of the Serapis, with double- headed shot, while the other two were exceedingly well served with grape and canister shot, to silence the enemy's musketry and clear her decks, which was at last effected.

The plight of the Bonhomme Richard was critical. Riddled with shot, leaking so that the pumps could scarce keep pace with the rising water in her hold, flames breaking out in a dozen places at once, and spreading so rapidly that the greatest fears were felt for the safety of the magazine.

"Everything now depended on the musketry of our ship; of the sailors in the fore, main and mizzen tops with muskets and hand grenades, and the French marines who were mostly stationed on the quarterdeck, poop-deck, and top of the roundhouse, and but few of them were left. Our gun-deck battery was all silenced by this time, and the few men of these serving in it not killed or disabled had abandoned that deck. Most of our twelve-pounders were dismounted or so cluttered with wreckage that we could not work them. The eighteen-pounders of the enemy's lower tier were driving in beams, knees, and planking of the deck under our feet, and his upper tier of nine-pounders were splintering everything overhead, in consequence of the height of our one gun-deck being a little more than that of his lower tier and less than that of his upper tier, until our gun-deck battery was wholly out of action, untenable fore and aft, and our only cannon still serviceable were three of our quarter-deck nine-pounders, and these were being worked with a will.

"The lower deck of the Serapis was, of course, all decked over, so our musketry could not reach the English on that deck. But the upper tier of the Serapis was uncovered through the waist of that ship, which was rather long, both her quarter-deck and forecastle being short.

In face of these facts it became the Commodore's tactics to give his whole attention to clearing the exposed decks of the enemy. He therefore assumed, and held for the rest of the action, direct command of his French marines in person. Before it was over the Commodore had every Frenchman, who was not killed, stark crazy. At first it was all he could do to get them to stand. Toward the last he had trouble to keep them from boarding the enemy before he was ready. It took them several days to cool off!

The most dramatic version of this incident was written in a Mémoire du Combat, by Jones's orderly, Pierre Gerard, and published in 1781. It is more to the point in the original French, with its untranslatable idioms.

"I have seen all this. I have been part of it. Being orderly of the day to the Commodore I could not leave him. I must see all he did and hear all he said. I have seen Captain de Chamillard leave his post of commandant of the marines. He had suffered a contusion of the knee, but I do not know that it was enough to make a brave man quit his post. Many of the crew, both French and American, stayed to the finish with much worse wounds. But it is not for me to reflect on the behaviour of my superior officer.

"When he was gone Commodore Jones sprang among the shaking marines on the quarter-deck like a tiger among calves. They responded instantly to him. In an instant they were filled with courage! The bravery without end of the Commodore perpetrated every soul, and every one who saw his example or heard his voice became as much a hero as himself.

At that moment the fate of the combat was decided. Every man whose wounds permitted him to stand up pressed forward to the front of danger, and the Commodore had but to look at a man to make him brave. Such was the power of one heart that knew no fear! Such the influence of one soul that knew the meaning of no other word than conquest!

"When the ships ranged alongside, close aboard, the Commodore watched until he saw that the fluke of the enemy's anchor would hook in our mizzen foot shrouds close to the channels. They soon engaged and before the way could be stopped the anchor-fluke of the enemy had ripped through two of the foot- stays and strained heavily at the third. But this one did not give way, and then the Commodore, calling me to follow and pass lashings, leaped through the quarter-deck port into the channels and quickly made the fluke of the anchor fast to our stays, passing the line clear round the latter and doubling it again over the fluke, so that when the ships tended they would not drift clear.

"But I could distinctly hear, amid the crashing of the musketry, the great voice of the Commodore, cheering the French marines in their own tongue, uttering such imprecations on the enemy as I never before or since heard in French or any other language, exhorting them to take good aim, pointing out objects for their fire, and frequently giving them direct example by taking their loaded muskets from their hands into his and firing himself. In fact, toward the very last, he had about him a group of half-a-dozen marines who did nothing but load their firelocks and hand them to the Commodore, who fired them from his own shoulder, standing on the quarter-deck rail by the main topmast backstay."

At this intense moment the carpenter, gunner and master-at-arms, deciding the Bonhomme Rickard was sinking, released the two hundred prisoners confined below, who swarmed up through the orlop hatch, adding to the indescribable confusion. One of them managed to ('limb through the ports on to the Serapis, where he rushed to inform Captain Pearson that the Richard was sinking fast, and could not hold out for more than a few minutes. One of the petty officers, Arthur Randall, had called for quarter, crying that the Bonhomme Richard was sinking, and Captain Pearson, not seeing the Richard's flag, for the halyards had been shot away, hailed to know if they yielded?

In Jones's account he says: "I having answered him in the most determined negative, they resumed the battle with double fury," but Pierre Gerard is more colloquial:-

In the midst of this tumult Jones had time to realise the danger to be apprehended by the release of so many prisoners, and, furious at such an unheard-of breach of discipline, snapped his pistol in the face of the master, John Burhand, "but it missed fire, and he then felled the master-at-arms to the deck by striking him on the head with the pistol. . . ." The Commodore told the prisoners that the Serapis was sinking, to which one of them, the master of a merchant ship taken a few days before, retorted, "It is this ship that sinks ! " Jones ordered them to the pumps, but this man cried out to his fellow prisoners, "Let the d d Yankee pirate sink!" Upon which Pierre says, " I presented my pistol at his head, and said to him in English, 'Obey the Commodore! ' Instead of heeding my words he grasped at my pistol, whereupon I fired and he fell to the deck lifeless. There was no more resistance on the part of the prisoners, and Mr. Dale, the first lieutenant, without difficulty mustered them at the pumps."

Jones now called for volunteers for the exceedingly dangerous work of climbing into the top and throwing hand grenades through the hatch of the Serapis. There was no lack of volunteers. The men who surrounded the Commodore were thirsting for such a daring action by which they could gamble with the chances of life and death and work off the battle madness which drove them to frenzy.

Gardner describes what followed In obedience to this, I had a couple of buckets of grenades whipt into the top, and, with Midshipman Fanning and two seamen—Jerry Evans of Nantucket, and Peter Nolte, a Swede, brave as all Northmen are—lay out on the yardarm, Fanning overboard, I next, with a slow match, and the two seamen carrying a bucket of grenades.

"Fanning lay out to the earrings. The hatch was not entirely open, the cover only having been slewed round, probably by one of our shot earlier in the action, leaving a triangular opening about two feet at the widest part. As the ships were rocking slightly in the swell, it took a pretty good aim to throw a grenade through so small an opening. Still, Fanning did it at the third trial, when a terrible explosion occurred in the enemy's lower tier, by which the whole hatch was blown open and so much noise, flame, and smoke made that we first thought it was the magazine."

In this appalling disaster on the Serapis, over twenty of the crew were blown to pieces, numbers frightfully scorched, and "many stood with only the collars of their shirts upon their bodies," so stupendous had been the concussion. It was caused by the hand grenades falling among some broken cartridges which the powder monkeys had left scattered along the deck, as they brought them up faster than they were needed. The crew of the Serapis, when prisoners on the Bonhomme Richard, said later, that with the utmost difficulty were the men rallied to the guns again, for this devastating explosion took all the heart out of them. Just at this critical moment the Alliance appeared, and those on the Bonhomme Richard, hard pressed as they were, thought aid was at hand, it Jones says, "to my utter astonishment, he discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Richard.

"We called to him for God's sake to forbear firing into the Bonhomme. Richard, yet they passed along the off-side of the ship and continued firing. . . "

Every tongue cried that he was firing into the wrong ship, but nothing availed; he passed round, firing into the Bonhomme Richard's head, stern and broadside and by one of his volleys killing several of my best men, and mortally wounded a good officer on the forecastle."

Captain Landais's extraordinary behaviour has never been satisfactorily explained. The Bonhomme Richard had shown her signal of reconnaissance, there was no chance that he had mistaken her for the Serapis, as the latter was painted a bright yellow, and the Bonhomme Richard black, both being clearly distinguishable in the clear harvest moonlight. It can only be ascribed to his jealousy and hatred of Jones, whom he had so frequently made the object of his spite.

Both ships were in dire distress. For the third time the Alliance raked the Richard with a death-dealing broadside after which she made off and took no further part in the action. Desperate indeed was the courage of the man, who with sinking ship, with flames raging and relentlessly creeping nearer the magazine each second, with the pumps useless against the great tide of water pouring into the riddled hull, with nearly all his guns silenced, refused to listen to the word surrender, though urged by those of "whose courage and good sense he entertained a high opinion." A party of men who had lost years rotting in English prisons waiting exchange, strained like hounds at the leash for the word of command to throw themselves over the side of the Serapis: they would never be taken alive!

Pearson, brave as he was, fought against an opponent who would have blown up his ship rather than surrender: a man whose last chance to win renown hung on this battle. For when Jones wrote: "If I fail or fall," he wrote with the unalterable intention of falling—if fortune failed him--but to fail, never. Surrender was a word unknown in his vocabulary, and like a demon he pervaded the ship, flogging the weary spirits with heartening words, urging them to hold out for a few moments and victory would be theirs. Through lazy, hanging smoke, which there was not wind enough to clear away; over the blood-stained decks, where wounded groaned, and the increasing flames lighted a scene like Dante's Inferno; above the thunder of battle and the rattle of musketry, rose that "great voice," cheering his men to victory. He raged everywhere, like the spirit incarnate of battle. His eager eye caught a swaying of the enemy's main-mast, there was an ominous crackling; those on board the Serapis paused involuntarily—was this the precursor of another explosion? . . The voice of Paul Jones roared out over the din, "Now is your time, John! Go in!"

With a "hoarse shout, 'Remember Portsea gaol!' Mayrant, his fierce Huguenot blood boiling, led his band of Yankee sailors over the hammock-netting and down into the waist of the Serapis, encountering little resistance, though he was himself ruin through the fleshy part of the thigh by a pike in the hands of an English sailor. Mayrant instantly killed this sailor with a pistol shot, which was the last casuality of the action."

At this moment (ten thirty-five), after an heroic resistance of two hours and thirty-five minutes, Captain Pearson "found it vain and impracticable from the situation we were in to stand out any longer with the least prospect of success. I therefore struck (our mainmast at the same time went by the board). The first lieutenant and myself were immediately escorted into the ship alongside." The Countess of Scarborough had some time before this surrendered to the Pallas.

This is the simple event, shorn of dramatic detail. According to Dick Dale, who was so excited he never noticed one of his legs was pretty well shot to pieces by a splinter from a gun, the "flag of the Se7ais was struck by Captain Pearson's own liana', as none of his people would venture aloft on this duty"; and Gardner says that Pearson "Seized the halyards of the Serapis and struck the flag himself." There was, however, so much smoke from the fires raging on the ships and such confusion aboard both that the situation was not perceived; and the English gunners on the Serapis's lower gun-deck kept up their cannonade, while the French marines on the Richard's poop-deck and the American sailors in the tops of the latter continued their musketry, until Mayrant, seeing Dale standing on the Richard's rail holding on to the main- topmast backstay, called out to him, "He has struck; stop the firing. Come on board and take possession."

Pearson was a gallant enemy, and, if he must surrender, there was no shame in yielding to the indomitable Paul Jones. Yet there is a pathos, a regret for a brave enemy : "when the first lieutenant of the SeTais now came up from below, and noticing Dale's uniform, he asked Captain Pearson, 'Has the enemy struck. sir? ' 'No, sir, I have struck,' was the laconic reply."

It was a bitter moment, and stirred the feelings of the conqueror who described it. "Captain Pearson now confronted me, the image of chagrin and despair. He offered me his sword with a slight how, but was silent. His first lieutenant followed suit. I was sorry for both of them, for they had fought their ship better and braver than any English ship was ever fought before, and this fortune of war came hard to them. I wanted to speak, but they were so sad and dignified in their silence 1 hardly knew what to say. Finally I mustered courage and said, as I took the swords and handed them to Midshipman Potter at my elbow: 'Captain Pearson, you have fought heroically. You have worn this sword to your own credit and to the honour of your service. I hope your sovereign will suitably reward you.' He bowed again, but made no reply; whereupon I requested him and his lieutenant to accompany Mr. Potter to my cabin."

So many writers have put into Captain Pearson's mouth the sentence, " Sir, it is with reluctance that I hand this sword to a man who fights with a halter around his neck," that a few words of explanation are not out of place. Captain Pearson was an officer trained in the nice courtesies of his profession, and such a remark could only be attributed to him by writers totally ignorant of the etiquette customary on such occasions. His loss was the fortune of war, and he accepted it as such. But the story kept on growing, being copied from the London to American papers, until Jones, when in New York in 1787, saw it printed in the Couranl, to whose editor he wrote.

"New York, September 7, 1787.

"SIR,
"I have read in your esteemed journal, with much regret, a statement copied from a paper printed elsewhere to the effect that Captain Richard Pearson, when tendering his sword to me about eleven o'clock p.m., September 23, 1779, observed : 'It is with reluctance that I yield this sword to a man who fights with a halter around his neck

Permit me to assure you, sir, upon my honour, that nothing of the kind occurred. It could not, in the nature of things, have occurred. The statement ascribes to Captain Pearson language most grossly unofficer-like and most painfully ungentleman-like at a moment and on an occasion rigorously demanding the most delicate courtesy of intercourse.

"Whatever may have been the adversity of fate to Captain Pearson in the fortunes of war, he was and is an officer of the first grade in personal courage and professional skill, and a gentleman without reproach. Therefore, the relation I at one time held with him makes it my duty to defend his reputation as an officer and gentleman when assailed in his absence.

"The truth is this: When Captain Pearson tendered his sword to me he simply bowed and did not speak. Deeming it the part of politeness to say something that might assuage the bitterness of his feelings, I said: 'Sir, you have defended your ship with credit to yourself and honour to your service. Allow me, sir, to express the hope that your sovereign may suitably reward you.'

"When I had said this Captain Pearson bowed profoundly, but spoke no word. I then requested Mr. Thomas Potter, of Baltimore, one of my midshipmen, to escort Captain Pearson and one of his lieutenants, who was with him, to my cabin. During the whole ceremony Captain Pearson was mute. He did not utter one word or audible sound.

"Now permit me, sir, to explain the possible origin of the story: When Captain Pearson was exchanged and returned to England he underwent the formal court-martial usual in such cases. I obtained a copy of the record of his court-martial as printed in the Official Chronicle. In his statement to the court, Captain Pearson said: 'The extraordinary and unheard-of desperate stubbornness of my adversary had so depressed the spirits of my people that, when more than two hundred had been slain or disabled out of three hundred and seventeen all told, I could not urge the remnant to further resistance.'

"Then the judge-advocate asked:' To what, Captain Pearson, do you attribute this extraordinary and unheard-of desperate stubbornness?'

"Captain Pearson's reply was: 'I do not know, sir, unless it was because our government, in its inscrutable wisdom, had allowed, if it did not cause, the impression to he spread abroad that Captain Jones and his crew would be held pirates, or, at least, not entitled to the usages of civilised war.'

To that the judge-advocate replied: 'In other words, Captain Pearson, you mean they fought like men fighting with ropes round their necks?'

'That might be a way to state what I mean,' said Captain Pearson.

"There was no impropriety in this language when and where it was uttered. On the contrary, Captain Pearson unquestionably intended to convey, in a diplomatic manner, his disapproval of the policy of his government to which he had reference. In that view it was creditable to him. The record of the court-martial soon found its way into the English newspapers, gossip of coffee-houses and the like, and ultimately became distorted into the absurd shape now being considered.

Trusting you will enable me to have the satisfaction of seeing the above true statement in the print of your esteemed columns, and also have the pleasure of forwarding a copy of it to Captain Pearson,

"I remain,
"Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
"PAUL JONES. (Commodore U.S. Navy)."


 


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