Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones


"They have struck their flag!" cried Jones, who had witnessed the action. "Cease firing!" His powerful voice rang through the two ships with such a note of triumph as has rarely been heard in the fought-over confines of the narrow seas.

As the little scene transpired above, from the decks beneath them came the roar of the Serapis' guns. She had resumed her fire. Her men, too, were of heroic breed! A British ship captain among the English prisoners, recovering from his panic and noting the desperate condition of the Richard, had slipped away from the pumps, and, eluding the observation of Dale and his men, had crawled through the gaping openings in the sides of the Richard and the Serapis at the risk of his life-for the first Englishman who saw him moved to cut him down-and had announced the dreadful plight of the Richard to the first lieutenant of the Serapis, who had succeeded in rallying his men and forcing them once more back to the guns.

But the cry of the American was taken up by the men on the different ships until Dale came bounding up the hatchway, when Jones ordered him to board the English frigate and take possession. Followed by Midshipman Mayrant and a party of boarders with drawn swords, Dale leaped up on the rail of the Richard, seized the end of the main brace pennant, swung himself to the lower Serapis, and jumped down upon her quarter-deck. As Mayrant followed he was met by an English seaman coming from the waist, pike in hand. The sailor, ignorant of or disbelieving the surrender, thrust violently at Mayrant, inflicting a serious wound in the thigh before he could be stopped.

Aft upon the lee side of the deck, Pearson was standing alone with bowed head, leaning against the rail, the flag in one hand, his face being covered by the other. As the Americans clambered over the rail he raised his head-his hand fell to the breast of his coat. There was the look of defeat, the saddest aspect humanity can bear, upon his face. As Dale approached him, the English first lieutenant, not believing that the ship had struck, also came bounding from below.

"Have you struck?" cried Dale, stepping before the English captain.

"Yes, sir," was the reply. The anguish of the broken-hearted sailor was apparent in his face and in his voice.

"Sir, I have orders to send you on board the ship alongside," replied the American.

"Very good, sir," answered Pearson, reaching for his sword and dropping the flag. Just at this moment his subordinate interrupted them.

"Has the enemy struck to you, sir?" he asked.

"No, sir; on the contrary, he has struck to us," interposed Dale. But the English lieutenant refused to believe him.

"A few more broadsides, sir, and they are ours," he persisted. "Their prisoners have escaped. They are sinking!"

"The ship has struck, sir," Dale burst out hurriedly, scarcely giving the miserable Pearson an opportunity of replying, "and you are my prisoner!" Very properly, however, the English officer would take such news from no one but his own captain.

"Sir!" he cried in astonishment to Pearson, "have you struck?"

"Yes, sir," at last answered Pearson reluctantly.

There was a deadly little pause.

"I have nothing more to say, sir," replied the officer at last, turning to go below. As Dale interposed, he added, "If you will permit me to go below I will silence the firing of the lower deck guns."

"No, sir," answered Dale, "you will accompany your captain on board our ship at once, by the orders of Commodore Jones. Pass the word to cease firing. Your ship has surrendered!"

Dale was fearful lest the lieutenant should go below and, refusing to accept the captain's decision, attempt to resume the conflict. So, with his usual presence of mind, he sternly insisted upon both officers proceeding on board the Richard at once. In the face of the swarming crowd of the Richard's men on the Serapis' quarter-deck they had, of course, no option but to obey. By the aid of the dangling ropes they climbed up to the rail of the Indiaman and thence dropped to the quarter-deck of the American ship. They found themselves in the presence of a little man in a blue uniform which was rent and torn from the labors he had undergone during the action. He was hatless, and his dark face was grimed with the smoke and soil of battle. Blood spattering from a slight wound upon his forehead was coagulated upon his cheek. In the lurid illumination of the fire roaring fiercely forward, which, with the moon's pallid irradiation, threw a ghastly light over the scene of horror, he looked a hideous spectacle-a picture of demoniac war. Nothing but the fierce black eyes still burning with the awful passions of the past few hours and gleaming out of the darkness, with the exultant light of the present conquest proclaimed the high humanity of the man. In his hand he held a drawn sword. As the English officers stepped upon the deck he advanced toward them and bowed gracefully.

"You are-" began Pearson interrogatively.

"Commodore John Paul Jones, of the American Continental squadron, and the ship Bon Homme Richard, at your service, gentlemen; and you are-"

"Captain Richard Pearson, of His Britannic Majesty's ship Serapis," responded the other, bowing haughtily, as he tendered his sword.

Pearson is reputed to have said on this occasion, "I regret at being compelled to strike to a man who has fought with a halter around his neck," or words to that effect. He did not utter the remark at that time, according to Jones' specific statement made long afterward. The substance of the statement was used, however, in Pearson's testimony before a court martial subsequently for the loss of his ship. And the story probably arose from that circumstance. Jones retained the sword, which was customary at that period, though different customs obtained later.

As he received the proffered sword the American replied, with a magnanimity as great as his valor:

"Sir, you have fought like a hero, and I make no doubt that your sovereign will reward you in the most ample manner."

His countrymen have ever loved Paul Jones for the chivalrous nobility of this gracious answer. But he wasted no further time in discussion. There was too much to be done; not a moment could be lost. It was half after ten o'clock at night; the battle was over, but their tasks were not yet completed. Both ships were burning furiously. Their decks were filled with desperately wounded men, whose agonies demanded immediate attention. Their screams and groans rose above the sound of the crackling, roaring flames. With but half a single crew Jones had to man both ships, put out the fires, force the escaped English prisoners back into the hold, secure the additional prisoners, and care for the wounded on the Serapis. From the actions of the Alliance, too, there was no telling what Landais might take it into his head to do. He had fired twice upon them; he might do it again, and possibly it might be necessary for Jones to defend the flagship and her prize from a more determined attack by Landais than any to which they had yet been subjected.

He turned over the command of the Serapis to Dale, sending him, as usual, a generous contingent for a prize crew, and then, as a preliminary to further work, the lashings which had held the two vessels in their death grapple were cut asunder. The Richard slowly began to draw past her beaten antagonist. Dale immediately filled his head sail and shifted his helm to wear ship and carry out his orders. He was much surprised to find that the Serapis lay still and did not obey the helm. Fearing that the wheel ropes had been shot away, he sent a quartermaster to examine them, who reported that they were intact. At this moment the master of the Serapis, coming aft and observing Dale's surprise, informed him that the English ship was anchored, which was the first intimation of that fact the Americans had received. Dale ordered the cable cut, whereupon the ship paid off and began to shove through the water, which fortunately still continued calm. As he spoke, he rose from the binnacle upon which he had been seated, and immediately fell prone to the deck. He discovered at that moment, by his inability to stand, that he had been severely wounded in the leg by a splinter, a thing which he had not noticed in the heat of the action. As he lay upon the deck, Mr. Henry Lunt, the second lieutenant of the Richard, came on board the Serapis at this juncture. This officer had been dispatched in the afternoon to pursue the brigantine, and had caused his boat's crew to lay on their oars at a safe distance from the two ships during the whole of the desperate battle, because, as he states, he "thought it not prudent to go alongside in time of action." Mr. Lunt no doubt lived to regret the pusillanimous "prudence" of his conduct on this occasion, although, if that conduct be an index to his character, his services would not be of great value in the battle. Dale turned over the command of the Serapis to Lunt, and was assisted on board the Richard.

As the Richard cleared the Serapis, the tottering mainmast of that ship, which had been subjected to a continual battering from the 9-pounders and which had only been sustained by the interlocking yards, came crashing down, just above the deck, carrying with it the mizzen topmast, doing much damage as it fell, and adding an element of shipwreck to the other evidence of disaster. The frigate was also on fire, and the flames, unchecked in the confusion of the surrender, were gaining great headway. Moved by a sense of their common peril and necessity, the English crew joined with the Americans in clearing away the wreck and subduing the fire. They did not effect this without a hard struggle, but they finally succeeded in saving the ship and following the Richard.


The situation on that ship was precarious in the extreme. She was very low in the water and leaking like a sieve. She was still on fire in several places, and the flames were blazing more furiously than ever. There was not a minute's respite allowed her crew. Having conquered the English, they turned to fight the fire and water. The prisoners were forced to continue their exhausting toil at the pumps. Pressing every man of the crew into service, including the English officers, except those so badly wounded as to be incapable of anything, Jones and his men turned their attention to the fire. They had a hard struggle to get it under control. At one time the flames approached so near to the magazine that, fearful lest they should be blown up, Jones caused the powder to be removed and stowed upon the deck preparatory to throwing it overboard. For some time they despaired of saving the ship. Toward daybreak, however, they managed to extinguish the flames and were saved that danger. In the morning a careful inspection of the ship was made. A fearful situation was revealed. She had been torn to pieces. It was hardly safe for the officers and men to remain on the after part of the ship. Everything that supported the upper deck except a few stanchions had been torn away. Her rotten timbers had offered no resistance to the Serapis' searching shot. Jones writes:

"With respect to the situation of the Bon Homme Richard, the rudder was cut entirely off, the stern frame and the transoms were almost entirely cut away; the timbers, by the lower deck especially, from the mainmast to the stern, being greatly decayed with age, were mangled beyond my power of description, and a person must have been an eyewitness to form a just idea of the tremendous scene of carnage, wreck, and ruin that everywhere appeared. Humanity can not but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and lament that war should produce such fatal consequences."

It was evident that nothing less than a miracle could keep her afloat even in the calmest weather. With a perfectly natural feeling Jones determined to try it.

A large detail from the Pallas was set to work pumping her out. Every effort, meanwhile, was made to patch her up so that she could be brought into the harbor. The efforts were in vain. Owing to the decayed condition of her timbers, even the poor remnants of her frames that were left standing aft could not bear the slightest repairing. She settled lower and lower in the water, until, having been surveyed by the carpenters and various men of experience, including Captain de Cottineau, about five o'clock in the evening it was determined to abandon her. It was time. She threatened to sink at any moment-would surely have sunk, indeed, if the pumps had stopped. She was filled with helpless wounded and prisoners. They had to be taken off before she went down.

During the night everybody worked desperately transferring the wounded to the other ships, further details of men from the Pallas being told off to man the frigate and keep her afloat. Such was the haste with which they worked that they barely succeeded in trans-shipping the last of the wounded just before daybreak on the 25th. Although the sea fortunately continued smooth, the poor wounded suffered frightfully from the rough handling necessitated by the rapid transfer.

The removal of the prisoners from the Richard was now begun; naturally, these men, expecting the ship to sink at any moment, were frantic with terror. They had only been kept down by the most rigorous measures. As day broke, the light revealed to them the nearness of the approaching end of the ship. They also realized that they greatly outnumbered the Americans remaining on the Richard. There was a hurried consultation among them: a quick rush, and they made a desperate attempt to take the ship. Some endeavored to overpower the Americans, others ran to the braces and wheel and got the head of the ship toward the land. A brief struggle ensued. The Americans were all heavily armed, the English had few weapons, and after two of them had been shot dead, many wounded, and others thrown overboard, they were subdued once more and the ship regained. In the confusion some thirteen of them got possession of a boat and escaped in the gray of the morning to the shore. By close, quick work during the early morning all the men alive, prisoners and crew, were embarked in the boats of the squadron before the Richard finally disappeared.18 At ten o'clock in the morning of the 25th she plunged forward and went down bow foremost. The great battle flag under which she had been fought, which had been shot away during the action, had been picked up and reset. It fluttered above her as she slowly sank beneath the sea.19

So filled had been the busy hours, and so many had been the demands made upon him in every direction, that Jones, ever careless of himself in others' needs, lost all of his personal wardrobe, papers, and other property. They went down with the ship. From the deck of the Serapis, Jones, with longing eyes and mingled feelings, watched the great old Indiaman, which had earned everlasting immortality because for three brief hours he and his men had battled upon her worn-out decks, sink beneath the sea. Most of those who had given their lives in defense of her in the battle lay still and silent upon her decks. There had been no time to spare to the dead. Like the Vikings of old, they found their coffin in her riven sides, and sleep to-day in the quiet of the great deep on the scene of their glory. During the interval after the action, a jury rig had been improvised on the Serapis, which had not been severely cut up below by the light guns of the Richard, and was therefore entirely seaworthy, and the squadron bore away by Jones' orders for Dunkirk, France.

Before we pass to a consideration of the subsequent movements of the squadron, a further comparison between the Richard and the Serapis, with some statement of the losses sustained and the various factors which were calculated to bring about the end, will be in order, and will reveal much that is interesting. The accounts of the losses upon the two ships widely differ. Jones reported for the Richard forty-nine killed and sixty-seven wounded; total, one hundred and sixteen out of three hundred; but the number is confessedly incomplete. Pearson, for the Serapis, reported the same number of killed and sixty-eight wounded, out of a crew of three hundred and twenty; but it is highly probable that the loss in both cases was much greater. The records, as we have seen, were badly kept on the Richard, and most of them were lost when the ship went down. The books of the Serapis seemed to have fared equally ill in the confusion. The crews of both ships were scattered throughout the several ships of the American squadron, and accurate information was practically unobtainable. Jones, who was in a better position than Pearson for ascertaining the facts, reports the loss of the Serapis as over two hundred men, which is probably nearly correct, and the loss of the Richard was probably not far from one hundred and fifty men. The Countess of Scarborough lost four killed and twenty wounded. The loss of the Pallas was slight, and that of the Alliance and Vengeance nothing.

However this may be, the battle was one of the most sanguinary and desperate ever fought upon the sea. It was unique in that the beaten ship, which was finally sunk by the guns of her antagonist, actually compelled that antagonist to surrender. It was remarkable for the heroism manifested by both crews. It is invidious, perhaps, to make a comparison on that score, yet, if the contrast can be legitimately drawn, the result is decidedly in favor of the Richard's men, for they had not only the enemy to occupy their attention, but they sustained and did not succumb to the treacherous attack of the Alliance in the rear. The men of the Serapis were, of course, disheartened and their nerves shattered by the explosion which occurred at the close of the action, but a similar and equally dreadful misfortune had occurred at the commencement of the engagement on the Richard, in the blowing up of the two 18-pounders. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred either of these two terrible incidents would have caused a prompt surrender of the ship on which they occurred; but the Richard's men rallied from the former, and it must not be forgotten that the Serapis' men did the like from the latter, for they had recommenced the fire of their guns just as Pearson hauled down his flag.

The officers on the two ships appear to have done their whole duty, and the difference, as I have said, lay in the relative qualities of the two captains. Jones could not be beaten, Pearson could. When humanity enters into a conflict with a man like Jones, it must make up its mind to eventually discontinue the fight or else remove the man. Fortunately, Jones, though slightly wounded, was not removed; therefore Pearson had to surrender. Next to Jones, the most unique personality which was produced by the action was Richard Dale. I do not refer to his personal courage-he was no braver than Pearson; neither was Jones, for that matter; in fact, the bravery of all three was of the highest order-but to his astonishing presence of mind and resource at that crucial moment which was the third principal incident of the battle, when the English prisoners were released. The more one thinks of the prompt, ready way in which he cajoled, commanded, and coerced these prisoners into manning the pumps so that his own men could continue the battle, the result of which, if they succeeded would be to retain the English still as prisoners, the more one marvels at it. The fame of Dale has been somewhat obscured in the greater fame of Jones, but he deserves the very highest praise for his astonishing action. And in every possible public way Jones freely accorded the greatest credit to him.

There is one other fact in connection with the battle which must be mentioned. The English have always claimed that the presence of the Alliance decided Pearson to surrender. In justice, I have no doubt that it did exercise a moral influence upon the English captain. In the confusion of the fight, what damage, whether little or great, had been done to the Serapis by the fire of the Alliance could not be definitely ascertained. Again, it would never enter the head of an ordinary commander that the Alliance was deliberately firing into her consort. So far as can be determined now, no damage worthy of account had been done to the English ship by the Alliance; but Pearson knew she was there, and he had a right to believe that she would return at any time. When she returned, if she should take position on the starboard side of the Serapis, the unengaged side, he would have to strike at once.

Something of this sort may have been in his mind, and it would undoubtedly contribute to decide him to surrender; but, admitting all this, he should have delayed the formal surrender until the possible contingency had developed into a reality, until he actually saw the Alliance alongside of him again. As a matter of fact, he did not strike until about thirty minutes after the Alliance had fired the last broadside and sailed away. The American frigate was out of gunshot when he surrendered, and going farther from him with every minute.

Imagine what Jones would have done under similar circumstances! Indeed, we do not have to imagine what he would have done, for as it happened the Alliance had on two occasions fired full upon him, and he was actually in the dilemma which Pearson imagined he might fall into, and yet it only re-enforced his already resolute determination to continue the fight more fiercely than ever. A nice point this: with Pearson the Alliance was an imaginary danger, with Jones a real one! While the presence of the Alliance, therefore, explains in a measure Pearson's surrender, it does not enhance his reputation for dogged determination. The unheard-of resistance which he had met from the Richard, the persistence with which the attack was carried on, the apparently utterly unconquerable nature of his antagonist-of whose difficulties on the Richard he was not aware, for there was no evidence of faltering in the battle-the frightful attack he had received, and his isolation upon the deck filled with dead and dying men, broke his own power of resistance. There were two things beaten on that day-the Richard and Pearson; one might almost say three things: both ships and the captain of one. It is generally admitted, even by the English, that the result would have been the same if the Alliance had never appeared on the scene. No, it was a fair and square stand-up fight, and a fair and square defeat.20


The conduct of Landais has presented a problem difficult of solution. It has been surmised, and upon the warrant of his own statement, that he would have thought it no harm if the Richard had struck to the Serapis, and he could have had the glory of recapturing her and then forcing the surrender of the English frigate; but whether he really meant by his dastardly conduct to compel this situation from which he trusted he could reap so much honor, is another story. Most of the historians have been unable to see anything in his actions but jealousy and treachery. The most eminent critic, however, who has treated of the battle21 has thought his actions arose from an incapacity, coupled with a timidity amounting to cowardice, which utterly blinded his judgment; that he was desirous of doing something, and felt it incumbent upon him to take some part in the action and that his firing into the Richard was due to incompetency rather than to anything else. With all deference, it is difficult to agree with this proposition. The officers of the squadron, in a paper which was prepared less than a month after the action, bore conclusive testimony that while it is true that he was an incapable coward, he was, in addition, either a jealous traitor, or-and this is the only other supposition which will account for his action-that he was irresponsible, in short, insane. This is a conclusion to which his own officers afterward arrived, and which his subsequent career seems to bear out. At any rate, this is the most charitable explanation of his conduct which can be adopted. If he had been simply cowardly, he could have done some service by attacking the unprotected convoy, which was entirely at his mercy, and among which he could have easily taken some valuable prizes. It is stated to their credit that some of the officers of the Alliance remonstrated with Landais, and pointed out to him that he was attacking the wrong ship, and that some of his men refused to obey his orders to fire.

There is but one other circumstance to which it is necessary to refer. All the plans of the battle which are extant, and all the descriptions which have been made, from Cooper to Maclay and Spears, show that the Richard passed ahead of the Serapis and was raked; and that the Serapis then ranged alongside to windward of the American and presently succeeded in crossing the Richard's bow and raking her a second time. Richard Dale's account, in Sherburne's Life of Paul Jones, written some forty-six years after the action, seems to bear out this idea. Jones himself, whose report is condensed and unfortunately wanting in detail, says: "Every method was practiced on both sides to gain an advantage and rake each other, and I must confess that the enemy's ship, being much more manageable than the Bon Homme Richard, gained thereby several times an advantageous situation, in spite of my best endeavors to prevent it." Nathaniel Fanning, midshipman of the maintop in the action, stated in his narrative, published in 1806, twenty-seven years later, that the Serapis raked the Richard several times.

Notwithstanding this weight of apparent testimony, I must agree with Captain Mahan in his conclusion that the Serapis, until the ships were lashed together, engaged the Richard with her port battery only, and that the plan as given above is correct. In the first place, Jones' statement is too indefinite to base a conclusion upon unless clearly corroborated by other evidence. Dale, being in the batteries, where he could hardly see the maneuvers, and writing from memory after a lapse of many years, may well have been mistaken. Fanning's narrative is contradicted by the articles which he signed concerning the conduct of Landais, in October, 1779, in the Texel, so that his earliest statement is at variance with his final recollection, and Fanning is not very reliable at best.

However, we might accept the statements of these men as decisive were it not for the fact that Pearson, whose report is very explicit indeed, makes no claim whatever to having succeeded in raking the Richard, though it would be so greatly to his credit if he had done so that it is hardly probable he would fail to state it. His account of the battle accords with the plan of the present work. Again, when the Serapis engaged the Richard in the final grapple, she had to blow off her starboard port shutters, which were therefore tightly closed. If she had been engaged to starboard (which would necessarily follow if she had been on the port side of the Richard at any time), the ports would have been opened.22 This is not absolutely conclusive, because, of course, it would be possible that the ports might have been closed when the men were shifted to the other battery, but in the heat of the action such a measure would be so improbable as to be worthy of little consideration. But the most conclusive testimony to the fact that the Serapis was not on the port side of the Richard at any time is found in the charges which were signed by the officers concerning the conduct of Landais. Article 19 reads: "As the most dangerous shot which the Bon Homme Richard received under the water were under the larboard bow and quarter, they must have come from the Alliance, for the Serapis was on the other side."23

Captain Mahan well sums it up: "As Landais' honor, if not his life, was at stake in these charges, it is not to be supposed that six officers (besides two French marine officers), four of whom were specially well situated for seeing, would have made this statement if the Serapis had at any time been in position to fire those shots."

This consideration, therefore, seems to settle the question. Again, the maneuvers as they have been described in this volume are the simple and natural evolutions which, under the existing conditions of wind and weather and the relative positions of the two ships, would have been in all human probability carried out. The attempt to put the ships in the different positions of the commonly accepted plans involves a series of highly complicated and unnecessary evolutions (scarcely possible, in fact, in the very light breeze), which no commander would be apt to attempt in the heat of action unless most serious contingencies rendered them inevitable.

18It has been incorrectly stated that many wounded and prisoners were carried down with the ship. Jones, who was in a position to know, asserts the contrary.
19See Appendix No. III.
20Thackeray told an American friend that the account of the amazing capture of the Serapis by Paul Jones was one of the most extraordinary stories in naval annals, and Mrs. Ritchie, writing of her father's last days, says"Sometimes we found him in great spirits, as when he had been reading about the famous fight of the Serapis, a stirring thing indeed." – Editor.
21Captain A. T. Mahan, U. S. N. (retired). The greatest authority, living or dead, on warfare on the sea, especially from the philosophical standpoint.
22She could only have engaged to starboard by crossing the path of the Richard, in which event she would have raked her, of course, with her port battery, and then have brought her starboard battery in play when she got alongside again.
23Italics mine.
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