This extraordinary petition has probably lost nothing by being handed down. At any rate, just as that moment, a squall which had been brewing broke violently over the ship, and Jones was compelled to bear up and run before it. The honest people of Kirkaldy always attributed their relief to the direct interposition of Providence as the result of the prayer of their minister. He accepted the honors for his Lord and himself by remarking, whenever the subject was mentioned to him, that he had prayed but the Lord had sent the wind!
It is an interesting tale, but its effect is somewhat marred when we consider that Jones had no intention of ever landing at Kirkaldy or of doing the town any harm. He was after bigger game, and in his official account he states that he finally succeeded in getting nearly within gunshot distance of Leith, and had made every preparation to land there, when a gale which had been threatening blew so strongly offshore that, after making a desperate attempt to reach an anchorage and wait until it blew itself out, he was obliged to run before it and get to sea. When the gale abated in the evening he was far from the port, which had now become thoroughly alarmed. Heavy batteries were thrown up and troops concentrated for its protection, so that he concluded to abandon the attempt. His conception had been bold and brilliant, and his success would have been commensurate if, when the opportunity had presented itself, he had been seconded by men on the other ships with but a tithe of his own resolution.
The squadron continued its cruise to the southward and captured several coasting brigs, schooners, and sloops, mostly laden with coal and lumber. Baffled in the Forth, Jones next determined upon a similar project in the Tyne or the Humber, and on the 19th of the month endeavored to enlist the support of his captains for a descent on Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as it was one of his favorite ideas to cut off the London coal supply by destroying the shipping there; but Cottineau, of the Pallas, refused to consent. The ships had been on the coast now for nearly a week, and there was no telling when a pursuing English squadron would make its appearance. Cottineau told de Chamillard that unless Jones left the coast the next day the Richard would be abandoned by the two remaining ships. Jones, therefore, swallowing his disappointment as best be might, made sail for the Humber and the important shipping town of Hull.
It was growing late in September, and the time set for the return to the Texel was approaching. As a matter of fact, however, though Jones remained on the coast cruising up and down and capturing everything he came in sight of, in spite of his anxiety Cottineau did not actually desert his commodore. Cottineau was the best of the French officers. Without the contagion of the others he might have shown himself a faithful subordinate at all times. Having learned the English private signals from a captured vessel, Jones, leaving the Pallas, boldly sailed into the mouth of the Humber, just as a heavy convoy under the protection of a frigate and a small sloop of war was getting under way to come out of it. Though he set the English flag and the private signals in the hope of decoying the whole force out to sea and under his guns, to his great disappointment the ships, including the war vessels, put back into the harbor. The Richard thereupon turned to the northward and slowly sailed along the coast, followed by the Vengeance.
Early in the morning of September 23d, while it was yet dark, the Richard chased two ships, which the daylight revealed to be the Pallas and the long-missing Alliance, which at last rejoined. The wind was blowing fresh from the southwest, and the two ships under easy canvas slowly rolled along toward Flamborough Head. Late in the morning the Richard discovered a large brigantine inshore and to windward. Jones immediately gave chase to her, when the brigantine changed her course and headed for Bridlington Bay, where she came to anchor.
Bridlington Bay lies just south of Flamborough Head, which is a bold promontory bearing a lighthouse and jutting far out into the North Sea. Vessels from the north bound for Hull or London generally pass close to the shore at that point, in order to make as little of a detour as possible. For this reason Jones had selected it as a particularly good cruising ground. Sheltered from observation from one side or the other, he waited for opportunities, naturally abundant, to pounce upon unsuspecting merchant ships. The Baltic fleet had not yet appeared off the coast, though it was about due. Unless warned of his presence, it would inevitably pass the bold headland and afford brilliant opportunity for attack. If his unruly consorts would only remain with him a little longer something might yet be effected. To go back now would be to confess to a partial failure, and Jones was determined to continue the cruise even alone, until he had demonstrated his fitness for higher things. Fate had his opportunity ready for him, and he made good use of it.
About noon on the 23d of September, 1779, the lookouts on the Richard became aware of the sails of a large ship which suddenly shot into view around the headland. Before any action could be taken the first vessel was followed by a second, a third, and others to the number of six, all close hauled on the starboard tack, evidently intent upon weathering the point. The English flags fluttering from their gaff ends proclaimed a nationality, of which, indeed, there could be no doubt. The course of the Richard was instantly changed. Dispatching a boat under the command of Lieutenant Henry Lunt to capture the brigantine, Jones, in high anticipation, headed the Richard for the strangers, at the same time signaling the Alliance, the Pallas, and the Vengeance to form line ahead on his ship-that is, get into the wake of the Richard and follow in single file. The Alliance seems to have been ahead and to windward of the Richard, the Pallas to windward and abreast, and the Vengeance in the rear of the flagship.
It had not yet been developed whether the six ships, which, even as they gazed upon them, were followed by others until forty sail were counted, were vessels of war or a merchant fleet under convoy; but with characteristic audacity Jones determined to approach them sufficiently near to settle the question. He had expressed his intention of going in harm's way, and for that purpose had asked a swift ship. He could hardly have had a slower, more unwieldy, unmanageable vessel under him than the Richard, but the fact had not altered his intention in the slightest degree, so the course of the Richard was laid for the ships sighted.
Captain Landais, however, was not actuated by the same motives as his commander. He paid no attention, as usual, to the signal, but instead ran off to the Pallas, to whose commander he communicated in a measure some of his own indecision. In the hearing of the crews of both vessels Landais called out to his fellow captain that if the fleet in view were convoyed by a vessel of more than fifty guns they would have nothing to do but run away, well knowing that in such a case the Pallas, being the slowest sailer of the lot-slower even than the Richard-would inevitably be taken. Therefore, with his two other large vessels beating to and fro in a state of frightened uncertainty, Jones with the Richard bore down alone upon the enemy. The Vengeance remained far enough in the rear of the Richard to be safe out of harm's way, and may be dismissed from our further consideration, as she took no part whatever in the subsequent events.
Closer scrutiny had satisfied the American that the vessels in sight were the longed-for Baltic merchant fleet which was convoyed by two vessels of war, one of which appeared to be a small ship of the line or a heavy frigate. In spite, therefore, of the suspicious maneuvers of his consorts, Jones flung out a signal for a general chase, crossed his light yards and swept toward the enemy. Meanwhile all was consternation in the English fleet off the headland. A shore boat which had been noticed pulling hard toward the English convoying frigate now dashed alongside, and a man ascended to her deck. Immediately thereafter signals were broken out at the masthead of the frigate, attention being called to them by a gun fired to windward. All the ships but one responded by tacking or wearing in different directions in great apparent confusion, but all finally headed for the harbor of Scarborough, where, under the guns of the castle, they hoped to find a secure refuge. As they put about they let fly their topgallant sheets and fired guns to spread the alarm.
Meanwhile the English ship, which proved to be the frigate Serapis, also tacked and headed westward, taking a position between her convoy and the approaching ships. Some distance to leeward of the frigate, and farther out to sea, to the eastward, a smaller war vessel, in obedience to orders, also assumed a similar position, and both waited for the advancing foe. Early that morning Richard Pearson, the captain of the Serapis, had been informed that Paul Jones was off the coast, and he had been instructed to look out for him. The information had been at once communicated to the convoy, to which cautionary orders had been given, which had been in the main disregarded, as was the invariable custom with convoys. The shore boat which the men on the Richard had just observed speaking the Serapis contained the bailiff of Scarborough Castle, who confirmed the previous rumors and undoubtedly pointed out the approaching ships as Jones' squadron.
Pearson, as we have seen, had signaled his convoy, and the latter, now apprised of their danger beyond all reasonable doubt by the sight of the approaching ships, had at last obeyed his orders. Then he had cleverly placed his two ships between the oncoming American squadron to cover the retreat of his charges and to prevent the enemy from swooping down upon them. His position was not only proper and seamanlike, but it was in effect a bold challenge to his approaching antagonist-a challenge he had no wish to disregard, which he eagerly welcomed, in fact. In obedience to Jones' signal for a general chase, the Richard and the Pallas were headed for their two enemies. As they drew nearer the Pallas changed her course in accordance with Jones' directions, and headed for the smaller English ship, the Countess of Scarborough, a twenty-four gun, 6-pounder sloop of war, by no means an equal match for the Pallas. The Vengeance followed at a safe distance in the rear of the commodore, while Landais disregarded all signals and pursued an erratic course of his own devising. Sometimes it appeared that he was about to follow the Richard, sometimes the Pallas, sometimes the flying merchantmen attracted his attention. It was evident that the one thing he would not do would be to fight.
In utter disgust, Jones withdrew his attention from him and concentrated his mind upon the task before him. He was about to engage with his worn-out old hulk, filled with condemned guns, a splendid English frigate of the first class. A comparison of force is interesting. Counting the main battery of the Richard as composed of twelves and the spar-deck guns as nines, and including the six 18-pounders in the gun room as being all fought on one side, we get a total of forty guns throwing three hundred and three pounds of shot to the broadside; this is the extreme estimate. Counting one half of the main battery as 9-pounders, we get two hundred and eighty-two pounds to the broadside, and, considering the 18-pounders as being fought only three on a side, we reduce the weight of the broadside to two hundred and twenty-eight pounds. As it happened, as we shall see, the 18-pounders were abandoned after the first fire, so that the effective weight of broadside during the action amounted to either one hundred and ninety-five or one hundred and seventy-four pounds, depending on the composition of the main battery. Even the maximum amount is small enough by comparison.
The crew of the Richard had been reduced to about three hundred officers and men, as near as can be ascertained. The desertion of the barge, the loss of the boat under Cutting Lunt off the Irish coast, the various details by which the several prizes had been manned, and the absence of the boat sent that morning under the charge of Henry Lunt, which had not, and did not come back until after the action, had reduced the original number to these figures. A most serious feature of the situation was the lack of capable sea officers. There were so few of the latter on board the Richard originally that the absence of the two mentioned seriously hampered her work. Dale himself was a host. Those that remained, who, with the exception of the purser, sailing master, and the officers of the French contingent, were young and inexperienced, mostly midshipmen-boys, in fact-made up for their deficiencies by their zeal and courage. The officers of the French contingent proved themselves to be men of a high class, who could be depended upon in desperate emergencies.
The Serapis was a brand-new, double-banked frigate, of about eight hundred tons burden-that is, she carried guns on two covered and one uncovered decks. This was an unusual arrangement, not subsequently considered advantageous or desirable, but it certainly enabled her to present a formidable battery within a rather short length; her shortness, it was believed, would greatly enhance her handiness and mobility, qualities highly desirable in a war vessel, especially in the narrow seas. On the lower or main deck twenty 18-pounders were mounted; on the gun deck proper, twenty 9-pounders; and on the spar deck, ten 6-pounders, making a total of fifty guns, twenty-five in broadside, throwing three hundred pounds' weight of shot at each discharge as against the Richard's one hundred and seventy-four. She was manned by about three hundred trained and disciplined English seamen, forming a homogeneous, efficient crew, and well they proved their quality. Richard Pearson, her captain, was a brave, competent, and successful officer, who had enjoyed a distinguished career, winning his rank by gallant and daring enterprises; no ordinary man, indeed, but one from whom much was to be expected.
In making this comparison between the two ships it must not be forgotten that while the difference in the number of guns-ten-was not great, yet in their caliber and the consequent weight of broadside the Richard was completely outclassed. Then, too, the penetrative power of an 18-pound gun is vastly greater than that of a 12-pound gun, a thing well understood by naval men, though scarcely appearing of much moment on paper. Indeed, it was a maxim that a 12-pound frigate could not successfully engage an 18-pounder, or an 18-pound frigate cope with a 24-pound ship.12
In addition to this vast preponderance in actual fighting force, there was another great advantage to the Serapis in the original composition of her crew as compared with the heterogeneous crowd which Jones had been compelled to hammer into shape. Worthily, indeed, did both bodies of men demonstrate their courage and show the effect of their training. There was a further superiority in the English ship in that she was built for warlike purposes, and was not a converted and hastily adapted merchant vessel. She was of much heavier construction, with more massive frames, stouter sides, and heavier scantling. The last advantage Pearson's ship possessed was in her superior mobility and speed. She should have been able to choose and maintain her distance, so that with her longer and heavier guns she could batter the Richard to pieces at pleasure, herself being immune from the latter's feebler attack.
In but one consideration was the Richard superior to the Serapis, and that was in the personality of the man behind the men behind the guns! Pearson was a very gallant officer. There was no blemish upon his record, no question as to his capacity. In personal bravery he was not inferior to any one. As a seaman he worthily upheld the high reputation of the great navy to which he belonged; but as a man, as a personality, he was not to be mentioned in the same breath with Jones.
This is no discredit to that particular Englishman, for the same disadvantageous comparison to Jones would have to be made in the case of almost any other man that sailed the sea. There was about the little American such Homeric audacity, such cool-headed heroism, such unbreakable determination, such unshakable resolution, that so long as he lived it was impossible to conquer him. They might knock mast after mast out of the Richard; they might silence gun after gun in her batteries; man after man might be killed upon her decks; they might smash the ship to pieces and sink her beneath his feet, but there was no power on earth which could compel him to strike her flag.
Jones was the very incarnation of the indomitable Ego: a soul that laughed at odds, that despised opposition, that knew but one thing after the battle was joined-to strike and strike hard, until opposition was battered down or the soul of the striker had fled. In action he would be master-or dead. But his fighting was no baresark fury; no blind, wild rage of struggle; no ungovernable lust for battle; it was the apotheosis of cool-blooded calculation. He fought with his head as well as with his heart, and he knew perfectly well what he was about all the time. Pearson was highly trained matter of first-rate composition; Jones was mind, and his superiority over matter was inevitable. The hot-tempered spirit of the man which involved him in so many difficulties, which made him quarrelsome, contrary, and captious, gave place to a coolness and calmness as great as his courage in the presence of danger, in the moment of action. By his skill, his ability, his address, his persistence, his staying power, his hardihood, Jones deserved that victory which his determination absolutely wrested from overwhelming odds, disaster, and defeat. The chief players in the grim game, therefore, were but ill matched, and not all the superiority in the pawns upon the chessboard could overcome the fearful odds under which the unconscious Pearson labored. We pity Pearson; in Jones' hands he was as helpless as Pontius Pilate.
The crew of the Richard, having had supper and grog, had long since gone to their stations to the music of the same grim call of the beat to quarters which had rolled upon the decks of every warship of every nation which had joined battle for perhaps two hundred years. Jones was a great believer in drill and gun practice. His experience on his first cruise in the Alfred, if nothing else, had taught him that, and upon this ill-found ship with its motley crew probably a more thorough regimen of control and discipline existed than could be found in any other ship afloat. Frequent target practice was had, too, and the result proved the value of the exercise. Had this not been the case the approaching battle might have had a different termination.
The great guns had been cast loose and provided; having been run in and loaded, they were run out and a turn taken with the training tackles to hold them steady. The magazines had been opened, and the gunner and his mates stationed inside the wetted woolen screen, which minimized the danger of fire, to hand out charges of powder to the lads called powder boys, or powder "monkeys," who, with their canvas carrying boxes, were clustered about the hatches. The gun captains saw that the guns were properly primed, and they looked carefully after the slow matches used to discharge the pieces, keeping them lighted and freely burning. In the iron racks provided were laid rows of round shot, with here and there a stand of grape. Arm chests were opened and cutlasses and pistols distributed, and the racks filled with boarding pikes. Many of the officers discarded their hats and put on round steel boarding caps with dropped cheek pieces. Swords were buckled on and the priming of pistols carefully looked to. The men in many cases stripped off their shirts and jackets, laid aside caps and shoes, and slipped into their stations half naked, with only a pair of trousers and their arms upon them. Division tubs filled with water were placed conveniently at hand, and the decks were well sanded to prevent them from becoming slippery with blood when the action began. The pumps were overhauled and put in good condition, and hose led along the decks in case of fire. The carpenter and his mates, well provided with shot plugs to stop up possible holes, were stationed in the more vulnerable parts of the ship. The boats were wrapped with canvas to prevent splintering under heavy shot, and heavy nettings triced up fore and aft as a protection against boarders. Preventer braces were rove from the more important yardarms, the heavier yards were slung with chains, and the principal rigging, including the backstays, stoppered to minimize the danger in case they should be carried away by shot. Grapnels, strong iron hooks securely fastened to the ends of stout ropes or slender iron chains, were swung from every yardarm, and laid along the bulwarks in case it became possible or desirable to lash the ships together. Everything which would impede the working of the guns or hinder the fighting of the men was either stowed below or thrown overboard. Around the masts and at the braces the sail trimmers were clustered, some of them armed with boarding axes or hatchets, handy for cutting away wreckage. Aft on the quarter-deck and forward on the forecastle large bodies of French marines were drawn up, musket in hand.
The broad, old-fashioned tops of the Richard were filled with seamen and marines, armed with muskets and having buckets full of small grenades close at hand. Among these seamen were many of the more agile and daring among the topmen-who from their stations in making and taking in sail were designated as "light yardmen" – while the marines stationed in the tops were selected for their skill as marksmen. The main body of the crew was distributed at the battery of great guns on the main deck, which were in charge of Richard Dale and a French lieutenant colonel of infantry, named de Weibert. In the gloomy recesses of the gun room, close to the water line, a little group of men was told off to fight the heavy 18-pounders. Around the hatches leading to the hold was stationed another body of seamen and marines with the master at arms, all armed to the teeth, to guard the English prisoners, whose number is variously stated from two to three hundred. The relieving tackles to use in steering the ship in case the wheel was carried away occupied the attention of another group.
Far below the water line in the dark depths of the ship-a bloody place familiarly known as the cockpit-the surgeon and his mates unconcernedly spread out the foreboding array of ghastly instruments and appliances of the rude surgery of the rude period, in anticipation of the demands certain to be made upon them. At the break of the poop a veteran quartermaster and several assistants stood grasping the great wheel of the ship with sturdy fingers. Little groups of men were congregated on the quarter-deck and forecastle and in the gangways to man the 9-pounders, which were to play so important a part in the action. Jones himself, a quiet, composed little figure of slender proportions, paced steadily to and fro athwart the ship, now eagerly peering ahead as the shades of night descended, now casting a solemn glance aloft at the swelling canvas softly rounded out into huge curves in the gentle breeze. Ever and anon he threw a keen glance back toward the Alliance. When his gaze fell upon her, the compression of his lips and the fierceness of his look boded ill for Landais when he had time to deal with him.
What must have been his thoughts in this momentous hour! One likes to dwell upon him there and then; so alone and so undaunted on that old deck in that gray twilight, resolutely proceeding to battle with a ship which, now that it was in plain view, his practised eye easily determined surpassed his own in every particular. At such a moment, when every faculty of his mind naturally would be needed to fight his own vessel, suggestions of treachery and disobedience and an utter inability to tell what his cowardly and soon-to-be-proved traitorous subordinate would do, made his situation indeed unbearable. But he dismissed all these things from his mind. Confident in the justice of his cause-in the approval of Heaven for that cause-and full of trust in his own ability and personality, he put these things out of his head and swept on. He was a figure to inspire confidence on the deck of any ship. The men, who had perhaps as vivid an appreciation of their situation and all its dangers as he had himself, looked to their captain and took confidence in the quiet poise of the lithe figure at the break of the poop, balancing itself so easily to the lumbering roll of the great ship. The young midshipmen, his personal aides, slightly withdrawn from close contact with him, respected his silence as he paced to and fro.
Presently another graceful active figure, belonging to the first lieutenant of the ship, came running from below, walked rapidly along the deck, sprang up the ladder, and stopped before the little captain, whom he overtowered to a degree. He saluted gravely, and announced that the Richard was clear, the men at quarters, and the ship was ready for action. After a few moments of conversation Jones and Dale descended to the lower deck and walked through the ship. A hearty word of appreciation and encouragement here and there, as occasion suggested, heartened and stimulated the reckless crew, until they had almost risen to the captain's level. Presently he returned to the deck alone. A few final directions, one last glance of approval at the Pallas closing in on the Scarborough, one last regret, one last flush of indignation as he looked toward the Alliance-a moment, and the battle would be joined.
It was about seven o'clock in the evening. The harvest moon had long since risen in the eastern sky, and was flooding the pallid sea with its glorious radiance. On the western horizon the broad, bright beacon of Flamborough Head was sending out its bright ray of yellow light over the trembling water. With a night glass, clusters of people could be seen upon the shore and upon the ships anchored under the guns of Scarborough Castle, towering grim and black against the horizon. Ahead was the white Serapis, calmly confident, lying broadside on, port shutters triced up, lights streaming from every opening. She lay with her topsails to the mast, gallantly waiting. Upon her, too, like preparations for combat had been made. Along her decks the same beating call to battle had rolled. Men who spake the same language, who read the same Bible, who but a few years since had loved the same flag, who had vied with each other in loyalty to a common king, now made ready to hurl death and destruction at each other. Presently sharp words of command rang out; there was a sudden bustle on the deck of the English ship. The braces were manned, the yards swung, and the Serapis slowly gathered way and gently forged ahead. Then all was still once more on the serene English ship.
As the Richard drew nearer to the Serapis a deep silence settled over the American ship. Even over the roughest and rudest among her crew crept a feeling of awe at the terrible possibilities of the next few moments. The magnitude of their task as they came nearer became more apparent. Forced laughter died away; coarse words remained unspoken; lips foreign to prayer formed words of belated and broken petition. Thoughts went back to home: to sunny fields and vine-clad cottages in France; to frontier huts in verdant clearings in America; to rude houses in seaboard towns where the surf of the western ocean broke in wild thunder upon the rocky shore. Pictures of wives, of children, of mothers, of sweethearts, rose before the misted vision. Here and there a younger man choked down a sob. The rude jests with which men sometimes strive to disguise emotion fell unnoticed, or were sternly reprehended by the older and more thoughtful. The fitful conversation died away, and the silence was broken only by the soft sigh of the wind through the top hamper, the gentle flap of the lighter sails as the pitch of the ship threw the canvas back and forth, the soft splash of the bluff bows through the water, the straining of the timbers, the creak of the cordage through the blocks. Candle-filled battle lanterns in long rows throughout the ship shed a dim radiance over the bodies of the stalwart, half-naked, barefooted men. Here and there a brighter flash told of moonlight reflected from some gleaming sword.
And the ships drew nearer-nearer. In a moment the dogs of war would be loose. Presently a sound broke the silence, a hail from the English ship. A man leaped up on her rail and a cry came faintly up through a hollowed hand against the gentle breeze:
"What ship is that?"
The Richard had been kept skillfully end on to the Serapis, and the commander of the latter ship had still some lingering doubts as to her nationality. Measuring the distance between the two ships, Jones quickly motioned to the watchful quartermaster beneath him. With eager hands the men began, spoke by spoke, to shift the helm to starboard. As the American ship began to swing to port it would be but a moment before her broadside would be revealed and concealment at an end. That precious moment, however, Jones would have. He sprang on the taffrail to starboard, and, catching hold of the backstay, leaned far out and called loudly: