Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

"I do not understand you."

The Richard was swinging still more now. The English caught a glimpse of a lighted port forward. From it a huge gun thrust its muzzle out into the night. Quick and sharp came the hail once more:

"What ship is that? Answer at once or I fire!"

With what breathless silence the two ships listened for the reply!

The helm was hard over now, the quartermasters holding it down with grim determination, sweat pouring from their foreheads, the ship swinging broadside in to, and a little forward of, the Englishman. Bending over toward the quarter-deck, in a clear voice heard throughout his ship, Jones called out a sharp word of command. Even as he spoke a line of fire lanced out into the night, followed by the roar of one of the 12-pounders. It was an answer not to be mistaken. Immediately the whole broadside of the Richard was let go. Simultaneously the iron throats on the Serapis belched forth their rain of hell and destruction, and the great battle was on! It was perhaps a quarter after seven. Side by side the two ships, covered with blinding smoke, sailed in the still night, broadside answering broadside, the roar of the great guns sounding in one horrible continuous note vibrating over the ocean. The thunderous diapason was punctuated by the sharp staccato rattle of the small arms.

The Richard, having more way on her, forged slightly ahead of the Serapis, which had so lately filled away that she had scarcely yet begun to move. Jones, watchful of his opportunity, swung the head of his ship in toward the English frigate, hoping to cross her bows and rake her; but the careful Pearson, presently feeling the wind, gathered way and with his superior speed easily regained his distance. The game was being played as he would have it, and the bolts from his long eighteens were making havoc of the Richard. Jones now determined to back his topsails, check the speed of his own ship, allow the Serapis to forge ahead, and then fill away again, and rush the Richard alongside the English frigate so that he could board and make use of his preponderant force of soldiery. Accordingly, the way of his frigate was checked and the Serapis drew slightly ahead, receiving the fire of the Richard's battery as she passed, and maintaining her own fire in the smoke and darkness for some moments, until Pearson discovered that he had passed ahead of the Richard. The way of his ship was immediately checked. The conflict had been maintained with incredible fierceness for more than three quarters of an hour.

As soon as Jones had gained sufficient distance, he smartly filled away again and headed the clumsy Richard at the Serapis; but the slow old vessel was not equal to the demands of her commander. The Richard only succeeded in striking the Serapis on the port quarter very far aft. To have attempted boarding from such a position would have been madness. There are only two positions from which a ship can be boarded advantageously. In one case, when two ships are laid side by side, by massing the crew at some point of the long line of defense necessitated by the relative position of the vessels, it may be possible to break through and effect a lodgment on the enemy's deck. The other case is when the ship desirous of boarding succeeds in crossing the bows of her enemy so that the latter vessel is subjected to a raking fire from the battery of the attacking ship, which beats down opposition and sweeps everything before it, thus affording a chance for favorable attack. Neither of these opportunities was presented at this time.

Jones, nevertheless, mustered his boarders on the forecastle at this moment, heading them himself, but the English appeared in such force at the point of contact that the attempt was of necessity abandoned. The two ships hung together a moment, then separated, and, the Serapis going ahead, the Richard backing off, they formed a line ahead, the bow of the Richard following the stern of the Serapis. There was not a single great gun which bore on either ship. The roar of the battle died away, and even the crackle of the small arms ceased for a space. At this moment Pearson hailed the Richard. Having been subjected to the battering of his superior force for so long a time, Pearson concluded that it was time for the Richard to surrender. He was right in theory-in practice it was different. His own ship had suffered severely in the yardarm to yardarm fight, and he realized that the loss upon the Richard must have been proportionately greater. Even the most unskilled seaman had learned by this time the difference in the power of the two vessels. Therefore, taking advantage of the momentary cessation of the battle, he sprang up on the rail of the Serapis in the moonlight and called out:

"Have you struck?"

And to this interrogation Paul Jones returned that heroic answer, which since his day has been the watchword of the American sailor:

"I have not yet begun to fight!" he cried with gay audacity.

The ringing tones of his voice carried his answer not only to the ears of the English captain, but threw it far up into the high tops where the eager seamen had so busily plied their small arms. The men on the gun deck heard it with joy. It even penetrated to the gloomy recesses of the gun room, which had been the scene of such misfortune and disaster as would have determined the career of any other ship. The wounded caught the splendid inspiration which was back of the glorious declaration, and under the influence of it stifled their groans, forgot their wounds, and strove to fight on. It told the dying that their lives were not to be given in vain. Nay, those mighty words had a carrying power which lifted them above the noise of the conflict, which sent them ringing over the narrow seas, until they reverberated in the Houses of Parliament on the one side and the Court of Versailles on the other. They had a force which threw them across the thousand leagues of ocean until they were heard in every patriot camp, and repeated from the deck of every American ship, until they became a part of the common heritage of the nation as eternal as are its Stripes and Stars! The dauntless phrase of that dauntless man:

"I have not yet begun to fight!"

It was no new message. The British had heard it as they tramped again and again up the bullet-swept slopes of Bunker Hill; Washington rang it in the ears of the Hessians on the snowy Christmas morning at Trenton; the hoof beats of Arnold's horse kept time to it in the wild charge at Saratoga; it cracked with the whip of the old wagoner Morgan at the Cowpens; the Maryland troops drove it home in the hearts of their enemies with Greene at Guilford Courthouse, and the drums of France and England beat it into Cornwallis' ears when the end came at Yorktown. There, that night in that darkness, in that still moment of battle, Paul Jones declared the determination of a great people. His was the expression of an inspiration on the part of a new nation. From this man came a statement of an unshakable determination at whatever cost to be free! A new Declaration of Independence, this famous word of warning to the British king. Give up the contest now, O monarch! A greater majesty than thine is there!

I imagine a roar of wild exultation quivering from truck to keelson, a gigantic Homeric laugh rising from the dry throats of the rough men as yet unharmed on the Richard as they caught the significance of their captain's reply. "It was a joke, the character of which those blood-stained ruffians could well appreciate; but the captain was in no mood for joking. He was serious, and in the simplicity of the answer lay its greatness. Strike! Not now, nor never! Beaten! The fighting is but just begun! The preposterous possibility of surrender can not even be considered. What manner of man this, with whom you battle in the moonlight, brave Pearson! An unfamiliar kind to you and to most; such as hath not been before, nor shall be again. Yet all the world shall see and understand at this time.

"'I have not yet begun to fight!'

"Surprising answer! On a ship shattered beyond repair, her best guns exploded and useless, her crew decimated, ringed about with dead and dying, the captain had not yet begun to fight! But there was no delay after the answer, no philosophizing, no heroics. The man of action was there. He meant business. Every moment when the guns were silent wasted one."13

The Richard was in a dreadful condition, especially below. At the first fire two of the 18-pounders in the gun room had exploded, killing most of the officers and men of their crews, blowing out the side of the ship, shattering the stanchions, blowing up the deck above them, and inflicting injuries of so serious a character that they virtually settled the fate of the ship. The other guns there were immediately abandoned, and the men left alive in the division, who were not required to guard the prisoners, were sent to the gun deck to report to Dale and de Weibert. The battery which had been the main dependence of Jones had proved worse than useless. Indeed, it had done more harm than had the guns of the Serapis. I know of no action between two ships in which a similar, or even a less frightful, happening did not cause the ship suffering it to surrender at once.

The two ships hung in line for a moment, then Jones put his helm hard a-starboard again and swung off to port, perhaps hoping to rake the Serapis; but the English captain, anticipating his maneuver, backed his own topsails, and the two ships passed by each other once more, the batteries reopening their fire at close range. The combat at once recommenced with the most heroic determination. Fortunately, however, the captain of the Serapis miscalculated either the speed at which his own ship backed or the speed with which the Richard drew ahead, for, before Pearson filled away again, Jones had drawn so far ahead that by consummate seamanship and quick, desperate work he managed to swing the Richard across the path of the Serapis, an astonishing feat for the slower and more unwieldy American frigate. It was his one opportunity and he embraced it-one was enough for Jones. Pearson had just succeeded in checking the stern board of his own ship, and was going ahead slowly, when the bow of his frigate ran aboard the starboard quarter of the American, thrusting her jib boom through the mizzen rigging far across the quarter-deck of the Richard. Pouring a raking fire upon the English frigate from his starboard battery, Jones, with his own hand, sprang to lash the two ships together. The sailing master, Mr. Stacy, leaped to assist him. As the officer strove to overhaul the gear lying in a tangled mass upon the deck, he broke into the natural oath of a sailor at the delay.


"Don't swear, Mr. Stacy," Jones is reported to have said quietly, although he was working with feverish energy to the same end-"in another moment we may all be in the presence of our Maker-but let us do our duty."

The lashing was soon passed, and passed well. The American boarders were called away again, but they could do nothing in the face of the sharp fire of the English repelling force. Meanwhile, the pressure of the wind upon the after-sails of the Serapis had broken off her bowsprit and forced her stern around until she lay broadside to the American ship. A spare anchor on the Serapis caught in the mizzen chains of the Richard, and with it and the grapnels which were hastily flung the two ships were firmly bound together, the bow of one ship by the stern of the other, heading in different ways, their starboard sides touching. Pearson at once dropped his port anchor, hoping that, his ship being anchored and the Richard under way, the American would drag clear, when his superiority in gun power would enable him to continue the process of knocking her to pieces at long range; but, fortunately for the Richard, the wind had gradually decreased until it was now nearly killed, or so light that it did not prevent the ships from swinging to the Serapis' anchor with the tidal current then setting strongly to the northward.

Plan: Showing maneuvers of Bon Homme Richard and Serapis, September 23, 1779; showing also course and conduct of Alliance. After a drawing by Captain A. T. Mahan, U. S. N., by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons.

It was some time after eight o'clock now, and the battle at once recommenced with the utmost fury. As the Serapis had not hitherto been engaged on the starboard side,14 it was necessary for her men to blow off the port lids of their own ship at the first discharge of her battery. They were so close together that the conflict resolved itself into a hand-to-hand encounter with great guns. As Dale said, the sponges and rammers had to be extended through the ports of the enemy in order to serve the guns. Though the American batteries were fought with the utmost resolution, they were, of course, no match whatever for those of the English ship, which had two tiers of heavier guns to oppose to one of the American. Below decks, therefore, the Americans were at a fearful disadvantage. Above, however, the number of soldiers and marines, constantly re-enforced by a stream of men sent from below as their guns were put out of action, gave them a compensating factor, and by degrees the concentrated fire of the Americans cleared the deck of the Serapis. The two ships lying side by side, slowly grinding together in the gentle sea, the yardarms were interlaced and the American topmen, again outnumbering their English antagonists, ran along the yards, and a dizzy fight in midair ensued, as the result of which, after suffering severe loss, the Americans gained possession of the British maintop. Turning their fire forward and aft, aided by attacking parties from the fore and crossjack yards, they finally cleared the English entirely out of the upper works of their ship. From this lofty point of vantage they poured such a rain of fire upon the Serapis that Pearson was left practically alone on the quarter-deck. To a chivalrous admiration for his courage he is said to owe his immunity. He, too, should have his meed of praise for the undaunted heroism with which he stood alone on the bullet-swept, blood-stained planks, maintained his position, and fought his ship.

Now, to go back a little. Shortly after the two ships were lashed together, the Alliance, apparently having recovered from her hesitation, came sweeping toward the combatants, and deliberately poured a broadside into the Richard, which did not a little damage and killed several men. In spite of all signals, Landais repeated his treacherous performance, but before the Richard's men could fairly realize the astonishing situation he sailed away from them and ran over before the wind toward the Pallas, which had been for some time hotly engaged with the Countess of Scarborough, where he is said to have done the same thing.15 This strange action of the Alliance had but little effect upon the battle at this time, which was continued with unremitting fury.

One by one the small guns on the main deck of the Richard were silenced. The crews were swept away, guns were dismounted, carriages broken and shattered, and finally the whole side of the Richard from the mainmast aft was beaten in; so much so, that during the latter part of the action the shot of the Serapis passed completely through the Richard, and, meeting no opposition, fell harmlessly into the sea far on the other side. In the excitement the English never thought of depressing their guns and tearing the bottom out of the Richard. As it was, transoms were beaten out, stern frames were cut to pieces, and a few stanchions alone supported the decks above. Why they did not collapse and fall into the hull beneath it, with the guns and men on them, is a mystery. In addition to all this, the ship was on fire repeatedly, and men were continually called away from their stations to fight the flames.

Dale and de Weibert had just fired their last shots from the remaining guns of the main battery which were serviceable when a new complication was added to the scene. The men guarding the prisoners had been gradually picked off by the shot of the enemy. The Richard was leaking rapidly, and when the carpenter sounded the well a little after nine o'clock, late in the action, he discovered several feet of water in it. In great alarm he shrieked out that they were sinking. The few remaining men in the gun room ran for the hatchways. The master at arms, thinking that all was over, unlocked the hatches and released the prisoners, crying out at the same time, "On deck, everybody; the ship is sinking!" The Englishmen in panic terror scrambled up through the narrow hatchways, and fought desperately with each other in their wild hurry to reach the deck, where the carpenter had preceded them, still shouting that the ship was sinking, and now crying loudly, "Quarter! Quarter!"

As the carpenter ran aft, shouting his message of fear and alarm, he was followed by some of the forward officers, who, catching the contagion of his terror, repeated his words. Reaching the poop deck, the carpenter fumbled in the darkness for the halliards to haul down the flag, calling out to Jones that all was lost, the ship sinking, and that he must surrender. Other officers and men joined in the cry. It was another critical moment. Pearson, hearing the commotion, again hailed, asking if the Richard had struck. Jones, unable to stop the outcry of the terrified carpenter, smashed his skull with the butt of his pistol, and answered the second request of Pearson with, as he says, a most determined negative. We can imagine it. By his presence of mind in silencing the carpenter, and a supreme exertion of his indomitable will power, Jones soon succeeded in checking the incipient panic on the spar deck. At this period of the fight some accounts say that Pearson called his boarders from below and attempted to board. The advance was met by Jones at the head of a few men, pike in hand, with such firmness that it was not pressed home, and the men returned to their stations at the guns and resumed the fight.

Meanwhile, Richard Dale, seconded by his midshipmen, with rare and never-to-be-undervalued presence of mind, had stopped the oncoming rush of frightened English prisoners, who now greatly outnumbered the broken crew of the Richard. He sprang among them, beating them down, driving them back, menacing them with the point of the sword, at the same time telling them that the English ship was sinking, and that they were in the same condition, and unless they went to the pumps immediately all hands would be inevitably lost. The audacity of this statement was worthy of Jones himself. It was a rare action on the part of a boy of twenty-three years of age. Such a young man under present conditions in the United States Navy probably would be filling the responsible station of a naval cadet afloat!16 Instantly divining this new peril, the commodore himself sprang to the hatchway and seconded Dale's effort. Incredible as it seems, the two men actually forced the panic-stricken, bewildered, and terrified English prisoners to man the pumps, thus relieving a number of the crew of the Richard; and the singular spectacle was presented of an American ship kept afloat by the efforts of Englishmen, and thus enabled to continue an almost hopeless combat. Dale, with imperturbable audacity, remained below in command of them.

The Richard was a wreck. She had been fought to a standstill. Her battery was silenced, her decks were filled with released prisoners, she was making water fast, she was on fire in two or three places; numbers of her crew had been killed and wounded, the water had overflowed the cockpit, and the frightened surgeon had been driven to the deck, where, in conjunction with some of the French officers, he counseled surrender.

"What!" cried Paul Jones, smiling at the surgeon, "What, doctor! Would you have me strike to a drop of water? Help me to get this gun over!"

But the doctor, liking the looks of things on deck even less than below, ran down the hatchway, and, his station untenable, wandered to and fro and ministered to the wounded on every side as best he could. Meanwhile Jones had taken the place of the purser, Mr. Mease, commanding the upper battery, who had been severely wounded and forced to leave his station. The commodore was personally directing the fire of the upper deck guns left serviceable on the Richard, the two 9-pounders on the quarter-deck. With great exertion another gun was dragged over from the port side, Jones lending a hand with the rest, and the fire of the three was concentrated upon the mainmast of the Serapis.

About this time, between half after nine and ten o'clock, a huge black shadow came darting between the moonlight and the two frigates grinding against each other. It was the Alliance once more entering the fray. After running away from the Richard toward the Scarborough and the Pallas, she hovered about until she found that the former had capitulated after a gallant defense against the overwhelming superiority of the French ship. Then Landais headed once more for the Richard and the Serapis. To reach them, he was forced to make two tacks. As he approached, a burning anxiety filled the minds of Jones and the officers who were left on deck with him, as to what Landais would do. They were soon enlightened.


Sailing across the bow of the Serapis, the Alliance drew past the stern of the Richard, and when she had reached a position slightly on the quarter of the latter ship, she poured in a broadside. There could be no misapprehension on the part of Landais as to which ship he was firing into. The Richard was a black ship with a high poop, and the Serapis was painted a creamy white with much lower stern. The moon was filling the sky with brilliant light. Things were as plain as if it were daytime. In addition to all this, Jones had caused the private night signals to be hung upon the port side of the Richard. Shouts and cries warned the Alliance that she was firing upon her own people. These were disregarded. It was the opinion of the Americans that the English had taken the ship and were endeavoring to compass the destruction of the Richard. They could not otherwise explain the astonishing action. Sailing slowly along the starboard side of the Richard, the Alliance poured in another broadside. Then she circled the bows of the American ship, and from some distance away raked her with a discharge of grape which killed and wounded many, including Midshipman Caswell, in charge of the forecastle. It was just before ten o'clock when this happened. Some of the shot from these several broadsides may have reached the Serapis and possibly have done some damage, but the brunt of the severe attack fell upon the Richard. Her men, in the face of this awful stab in the back from a friend, naturally flinched from their guns and ran from their stations.

All seemed hopeless; but Jones was still left, and while he was alive he would fight. He and his officers drove the men back to their guns, and as the Alliance sailed away, for the time being, they forgot her. The fight went on!

It is greatly to the credit of the men that under such circumstances they could be induced to continue the contest. But the men had actually grown reckless of consequences: filled with the lust of battle, the brute in them was uppermost. They fought where they stood, with what they had. When the American guns were silenced, the seamen struck at their British foes over their silent muzzles with ramrods and sponges. Some endeavored to subdue the flames which broke out on every side. Others joined the English prisoners at the pumps. Many ran to the upper deck to replace the decimated crews of the 9-pounders. Some seized the muskets of the dead French soldiers and poured in a small-arm fire. They had grown careless of the fire, indifferent to the progress of the battle, ignorant of the results of the action. There was but one spirit among them, one idea possessed them-to fight and to fight on. Both crews had done their best; both had fought as men rarely had fought before; the battle was still undecided. The issue lay between Jones and Pearson. What was it to be?

Things on the Richard were hopeless, but things on the Serapis had not gone much better. She, too, was on fire-in no less than twelve places at once. The fearful musketry fire from the quarter-deck and forecastle of the Richard, and from the tops, had practically cleared her decks of all but Pearson. By Jones' orders the men in the American tops had made a free use of their hand grenades. A daring sailor, sent by Midshipman Fanning from the maintop, ran out upon the main yardarm, which hung over the after hatch of the Serapis, and began to throw grenades down the hatchway. On the lower deck of that ship a large pile of powder cartridges had been allowed to accumulate, for which, on account of the silencing of a large number of guns, there had been no demand. With reckless improvidence, in their haste, the powder boys continued to pile up these unused charges on the deck of the ship between the batteries. Nobody cautioned them, perhaps nobody noticed them in the heat of the action. At last a hand grenade struck the hatch combing, bounded aft, and fell into the midst of the pile of cartridges. There was a detonating crash, a terrific explosion, which absolutely silenced the roar of the battle for a moment. The two ships rolled and rocked from the shock of it. When the smoke cleared away, the decks were filled with dead and dying. Some twenty-eight men were killed or desperately wounded by the discharge; many others on the decks were stunned, blinded, and thrown in every direction by the concussion. Clothes were ripped from them, and many of them were severely burned. Lieutenant Stanhope, in charge of that gun division, his clothing on fire, actually leaped into the sea to get relief from his agony. Afterward, though frightfully burned, he regained his station and fought on.

It was this last shock that determined Pearson to surrender. He had beaten his antagonist a half dozen times, but his antagonist did not seem to realize it. In the face of such implacable determination his own nerve gave way. He was surrounded by dead and dying, no human soul apparently fit for duty on his decks but himself, the roar of his own guns silenced by this terrific explosion. He had fought through many desperate battles-never one like this. The other American frigate might come back. His consort had been captured. His nerve was broken. He turned and walked aft to the flagstaff raking from the taffrail. To this staff, with his own hand before the action, he had nailed the English flag.17 With the same hand he seized the drooping folds of bunting, and with a breaking heart tore it from the staff.

13From the author's novel, The Grip of Honor.
14See remarks on page 226.
16Possibly he might be an ensign.
17Some authorities imply that the flag had been nailed to the masthead, and that it was necessary for Pearson to go aloft in default of any one else in order to strike his colors. Nailing a flag to the masthead is a figure of speech, and I doubt the actuality of the performance. On the other hand, it would be easy and natural for Pearson to have nailed the ensign to a staff, which contemporary prints show that ships sometimes carried for the purpose of flying the colors. In the latter case it would be easy for Pearson to tear it down; in that hypothesis his whole action then and subsequently is understandable. If the flag had been nailed to the masthead it is extremely unlikely that he would have taken the time, trouble, and risk of going aloft to tear it down when by a simple word or two he could have surrendered his ship.
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