Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

Instead of doing any of these things, he let Landais and the Alliance go. For this he is distinctly censurable. It is, perhaps, not difficult to see why he permitted her to escape. I have no doubt he loathed the officers and men upon her. He was probably sick of the sight of her. He could contemplate with no satisfaction whatever a cruise upon her, especially with Arthur Lee as a passenger, and he was a gentleman whom it would have been difficult to dispose of.

There was, it has been surmised, still another and more pertinent reason. The Serapis was still in the harbor. She had just been purchased by the king. Jones' desire for her was as strong as ever-stronger, if anything. Upward of five hundred tons of public stores and munitions of war still remained to be taken to America. The Ariel could not begin to carry it all. His dream was to beg or borrow the Serapis, which, in conjunction with the Ariel, should transport the stores to the United States, and then be refitted for warlike cruising under his command. If he retained the Alliance this hope would vanish. When the Alliance was warped out of the harbor he promptly wrote to Franklin suggesting this plan. Meanwhile, he kept up a hot fire of orders and letters upon Landais, who, being now out of his power, treated his communications with silent contempt. When Jones directed that his personal baggage be sent off from the Alliance, Landais sent it to him in disgraceful condition, trunks broken open, papers scattered, and much of his private property missing.

On the 28th he wrote to Landais ordering him not to sail without his permission, and directing him to send eighty of his best seamen riggers to assist in equipping the Ariel. Landais sent him twenty-two people, of whom he wished to be rid, with an insolent note. When Jones wrote to him for the balance of the men he had ordered, Landais would not allow the officer carrying the order to come on board. A few days after this he sailed for America, with many of the men of the Bon Homme Richard, who still adhered to Jones, and who refused to assist him in getting the ship under way, in irons in the hold.

To close a troublesome subject, it may be stated that the Alliance reached Boston in August. The peculiar conduct of Landais on this cruise so alarmed the officers and jeopardized the safety of the ship, that by the advice of the meddlesome Lee-who was in this single instance justified in his suggestions-he was summarily deprived of the command of the ship on the plea of insanity, and kept closely confined till they reached Boston. No one was more incensed against him than his whilom upholder and defender, Lee. Landais was formally tried by court-martial when he arrived in the United States and dismissed the service. He got off lightly. He should have been hanged from the yardarm of his own ship as an example and a warning to mutinous traitors.


Early in the month of July Jones received the sword which had been bestowed upon him by the king. He commented enthusiastically upon its beauty and its value, saying that it had cost twenty-four hundred dollars-a large sum for that day. The month was passed in preparing the Ariel for departure, and in a vigorous correspondence with Franklin and his friends, feminine and otherwise. On the 2d of August, in a note to the Prime Minister, the Count de Vergennes, Jones informed him that he was nearly ready to sail. The last of July Franklin had sent him his final dispatches with the Count de Vauban, who expected to sail with him, but for unexplained reasons Jones did not take his departure until the 4th of September, when the Ariel was warped out to the open roads of Groix. From the 4th of September to the 7th of October he was detained, partly by contrary winds and partly by a rumor, to which, perhaps, he should not have given credence, that further dispatches were to be sent to him. On the 7th of October, at two o'clock in the afternoon, he weighed anchor and put to sea, convoying three merchant ships. The wind, being from the north-northwest, blew fair for their departure, and the weather was mild and pleasant.

The next morning the wind shifted and came in violent squalls from the southward. The ship was not yet clear of the land. The island of Groix lay about fifteen miles to the northeastward, and, as the weather became very thick and the wind increased until it was blowing a tremendous gale, they soon lost sight of the shore to the leeward. In spite of their efforts, they were unable to make any headway against the storm, and were accordingly carried down toward the Penmarque Rocks, a series of sharp, low reefs, jagged needles of the sea, terminating the southeastern extremity of the peninsula of Brittany, among the most dangerous in the world. The ship was in that position above all others dreaded by the mariner-drifting upon a lee shore in a gale of wind. The Ariel had been put under close-reefed fore and main sails, and her head laid to the northwest in the hope that she might stretch along and clear the reefs; but the wind, increasing to a perfect hurricane, in the language of Mackenzie, "smothered" the ship, at last obliging Jones to furl the courses and prevented him from showing even a storm staysail.

In the report of the officers it is stated that the storm had become so violent that "the lee fore yardarm was frequently under water; the lee gangway was laid entirely under water, and the lee side of the waist was full." The water in the hold flowed into the cockpit, notwithstanding the utmost efforts of the chain pumps. The ship was very heavy laden, and lay deep in the water, dipping her yardarms with every roll. As the tempest rose in violence it became impossible to tell just where they were, as the murky darkness of the storm hid every landmark. It was evident, however, from an inspection of the compass that they were still drifting toward the shore. This fact was confirmed by the rapid shoaling of the water, a fact Jones established by personally taking successive casts with the hand lead. There was no room to veer and get the ship headed the other way. If there had been, the result would probably have been no different. In the face of such a storm she would have continued to drift toward the reef. Their progress to leeward was frightfully rapid. The ship was leaking badly, and one of the chain pumps had become choked and refused to work. Destruction seemed inevitable. In all his varied experiences Jones had seen nothing like the storm. In his report he says that never before did he fully conceive the awful majesty of a shipwreck. In their distress, as a last resort, he determined to anchor.

A hasty consultation was had among the officers on the quarter-deck, and this desperate resort was agreed upon. At eleven o'clock in the morning the best bower anchor was let go with thirty fathoms of cable. The effect was not perceptible. The ship was not brought to, and continued to drift broadside on toward the land in the trough of the sea. She dragged her anchor as if it had been a straw. Two other cables were spliced on and veered out. Still she drove on. The pressure of the gale upon the bare spars was tremendous. The wind roared through the top-hamper with amazing velocity. The masts quivered and buckled under the awful strain to which they were subjected; the standing rigging to windward stood out as taut and rigid as if it had been cut from bars of steel. As the frigate lay in the trough of the sea the mighty waves tossed her about like a cockboat. Broad sheets of foam swept over the deck, washing away everything not tightly secured. To relieve the pressure and get the ship to ride to her anchor, Jones now ordered the weather shrouds of the foremast to be cut, and the wind instantly snapped off the mast above the deck; with all its weight of spars and rigging it fell to leeward and carried away the other bower anchor and a kedge anchor, and smashed up the head badly.

This afforded some relief, for immediately after the anchor took hold and the ship gradually swung head to the wind at last. Her drift toward the rocks was not entirely checked, but while they were hesitating as to what to do next, the mainmast, the heel of which had been jerked out of its step by the violent motion of the ship, so that it had been vibrating to and fro like a smitten reed, parted just where it entered the main deck. The wind hurled the immense mass of timber and cordage aft, where it fell across the decks, carrying with it the mizzenmast, smashing the lee quarter gallery, and generally wrecking the after part of the vessel. The ship was thus stripped of her spars except the bowsprit, and they could do no more. If she did not bring to her anchor and cease her drag toward the rocks, over which the breakers could now be seen crashing with terrible force, and with a roar heard above the mad noises of the tempest, they were lost. They hastily cleared the wreck as they were able, letting it drift to leeward, and waited with still hearts and bated breaths for the next happening. No mere seamanship, no human skill could save them now. They were in God's hands. Since their other anchor had been lost by the fall of the foremast, if their present anchor gave way they were helpless. Fortunately the stripped ship, relieved of the tremendous pressure of the wind upon her top-hamper, at last rode to her anchor, and her drift on the rocks was stopped. For the present they were saved. They could do nothing now but wait and trust to the strength of the iron fluke and the hempen cable. Fortunately, both held.

For two days and three nights the Ariel swung to that single anchor, and passively endured the tremendous buffeting of wind and waves within a short distance of the mighty reefs upon which, if she had struck, every soul on board must have perished. For the greater part of this time the motion of the mastless ship was so violent that the most experienced seaman could not keep his legs upon the deck. On the 12th the gale had sufficiently moderated to permit the crew to erect jury masts under which they could regain the harbor. The cable was hove short, but the anchor could not be weighed, as it was probably caught upon a rock. Indeed, nothing but a rock hold would have saved them; so the cable was cut, and the battered Ariel limped back to L'Orient, which she reached on the 13th of October. The gale was one of the most severe with which that storm-bound coast had ever been visited within the memory of man. The whole shore was strewed with wrecks and the bodies of drowned men. The merchant ships of the convoy were lost, with hundreds of other vessels. That the Ariel, in the most dangerous position which could possibly have been imagined even, escaped without loss of life was due to the Providence of God and the brilliant seamanship of her captain. Long afterward Richard Dale wrote thus of his commander's conduct in these trying circumstances:


"Never saw I such coolness and readiness in such frightful circumstances as Paul Jones showed in the nights and days when we lay off the Penmarques, expecting every moment to be our last; and the danger was greater even than we were in when the Bon Homme Richard fought the Serapis."

Two months were required to put the Ariel in shape for sea once more. All the arms which she was carrying out for the use of the army had been so damaged by water as to be useless. They were left behind and their place supplied by other cargo. During this interval, when not occupied in superintending the repairs to the ship, Jones amused himself with his usual prolific correspondence. He had also a spirited encounter with one Thomas Truxtun, afterward the distinguished naval officer, at that time master of a privateer called the Independence. Truxtun entered the harbor of L'Orient flying a pennant, the use of which was restricted by act of Congress to regularly commissioned vessels of war, except in the case of privateers cruising alone. A sharp correspondence was carried on between Jones and Truxtun, who was a mere boy at the time. Truxtun at first refused to haul down the offending pennant, but was finally induced to do so by Richard Dale and two heavily armed boats' crews from the Ariel. Jones was not to be trifled with, and Truxtun received a good lesson in subordination and obedience to law-always of value to a privateer.36

While the Ariel was being refitted, Jones, with his usual longing for a first-class ship of war-a thing he never enjoyed during the whole course of his life-through some influential friends made an attempt to get the French Government to lend him the new and handsome frigate Terpsichore, but his request, as usual, was not complied with. Just before the Ariel sailed, Jones gave a grand entertainment on board of her, to which he invited all his friends, which closed with an exercise at general quarters, followed by a representation of battle, which greatly alarmed his fair visitors.

On the 18th of December he took his departure once more. His last letters to Madame d'Ormoy are very characteristic of Jones in his capacity as a squire of dames, and well indicate his feelings at this time:

"I can not leave France without expressing how much I feel myself honoured and obliged by the generous attention that you have shown to my reputation in your journal. I will ever have the most ardent desire to merit the spontaneous praise of beauty and her pen; and it is impossible to be more grateful than I am for the very polite attentions I received at Paris and Versailles. My particular thanks are due to you, madam, for the personal proofs I have received of your esteem and friendship, and for the happiness you procured me in the society of the charming countess, and other ladies and gentlemen of your circle. But I have a favour to ask of you, madam, which I hope you will grant me. You tell me in your letter that the inkstand I had the honour to present to you, as a small token of my esteem, shall be reserved for the purpose of writing what concerns me; now I wish you to see my idea in a more expanded light, and would have you make use of that inkstand to instruct mankind, and support the dignity and rights of human nature."

In another letter to the same lady he says:

"It is impossible to be more sensible than I am of the obligation conferred on me by your attentions and kind remembrance, joined to that of the belle comtesse, your fair daughters, and the amiable ladies and gentlemen of your society. I have returned without laurels and, what is worse, without having been able to render service to the glorious cause of liberty. I know not why Neptune was in such anger, unless he thought it was an affront in me to repair on his ocean with so insignificant a force. It is certain that till the night of the 8th I did not fully conceive the awful majesty of tempest and shipwreck. I can give you no just idea of the tremendous scene that Nature then presented, which surpassed the reach even of poetic fancy and the pencil. I believe no ship was ever before saved from an equal danger off the point of the Penmarque rocks. I am extremely sorry that the young English lady you mention should have imbibed the national hatred against me. I have had proofs that many of the first and finest ladies of that nation are my friends. Indeed, I can not imagine why any fair lady should be my enemy, since, upon the large scale of universal philanthropy, I feel, acknowledge, and bend before the sovereign power of beauty. The English may hate me, but I will force them to esteem me too."37

The voyage was uneventful. Jones chose the southern passage, which was less frequented by ships than the more direct route; the value of his cargo being so great and the force of his vessel so small, he did not wish to run any risk of being captured on this cruise. When they had reached a point about twelve hundred miles east of Florida and nine hundred miles north of Barbadoes, in latitude 26° N., longitude 60° W., they were chased by a sail, which appeared to be a large frigate. Jones, for the reasons mentioned, endeavored by crowding sail on the Ariel to escape-his reputation for courage and intrepidity was sufficiently high to allow him to run away without any imputation being warranted by this action-but the stranger had the heels of the Ariel, and gradually overhauled her. Night came on before she came within range, and Jones hoped to run away from her in the darkness; but his efforts to elude his pursuer were unavailing, and when day dawned she was still close at hand.

The wind fell during the morning, and the two ships maintained their relative positions all day. Toward evening the breeze became stronger again, and the stranger began to draw up on the Ariel. As she came nearer, Jones discovered that she was not so formidable a vessel as he had imagined, and he determined to effect her capture. Making a great show of endeavoring to escape, therefore, he cleared ship for action, sent his men to quarters, and permitted his pursuer to overhaul him. She ranged alongside the lee beam just at nightfall. Both ships were flying the English flag. Jones was ready for action, the other ship was not. The quartermaster of the Ariel, whose duty it was to hoist the flags, had unfortunately allowed one end of the halliards to escape him. Jones had intended, as the stranger ranged alongside, to haul down the English flag and substitute the American colors, then, crossing the enemy's bows, pour in a broadside and capture her by boarding; but this petty neglect, or trifling accident, on the part of the quartermaster made it impossible to haul down the flag at the appointed time, so the opportunity was lost and the project had to be given over. Vessels of war, when maneuvering for position, frequently sail under strange colors, but it is a point of honor, invariably observed, which, so far as my knowledge goes, has not been disregarded in civilized warfare-if that phrase be permissible-to fight under one's own flag.

Having lost his opportunity from this unfortunate mischance, Jones necessarily entered into a conversation with the other ship, while he made preparations for further maneuvering. What is known in sea parlance as "a regular gam" ensued. The conversation lasted for some time, during which he discovered that their pursuer was the Triumph, an American-built ship of twenty guns, Captain John Pindar, an equal match for the Ariel. She was a British privateer, though Jones and his men considered her a man-of-war. Pindar probably told them so to increase his prestige. After learning all that he could about English affairs in America from the garrulous captain of the privateer, who must have been extraordinarily stupid, Jones directed him to lower a boat and come on board with his commission to prove that he was really an Englishman. Pindar refused to do this, and Jones, watch in hand, said he would allow him just five minutes for reflection as to the disastrous consequences of a refusal to comply with this request. During this interval the Englishman endeavored to clear ship for action, his men not having gone to quarters before-a great piece of carelessness and neglect.

At the expiration of the appointed time, Pindar still proving obdurate, Jones backed his ship on the weather quarter of the Triumph, put his helm up, crossed her stern, and poured in a broadside which raked her at short range and naturally did much execution. He then ranged alongside the lee beam of the privateer, and for ten minutes poured in a vigorous fire. The resistance of the enemy, at first spirited, had grown more feeble, until at the end of that time Pindar hauled down his flag and begged for quarter, saying when he surrendered that half his crew were killed or wounded. The Ariel's men left their stations and gave three cheers, but the erstwhile stupid Pindar proved to be a more wily antagonist than they imagined. His ship had gradually moved ahead of the Ariel during the contest, and now, suddenly putting up his helm and throwing out his studding sails, he ran off dead before the wind, with all his killed and wounded. The unsuspecting and astonished Americans on the Ariel endeavored to follow the man who had so cleverly eluded them, but their overloaded ship was no match in sailing for the swift privateer, which soon made good her escape in the night.

Jones was naturally much disgusted at the outcome of this engagement, and in his journal he properly comments upon Pindar's action as follows:

"The English captain may properly be called a knave, because, after he surrendered his ship, begged for and obtained quarter, he basely ran away, contrary to the laws of naval war and the practice of civilized nations."

Jones stated that he never had seen a ship better fought by a crew than the Ariel had been in this instance. However, the usual conspiracy to rise and take the ship was discovered among the English members of the crew later on. It was thwarted by his vigorous measures, and on the 17th of February, 1781, the Ariel dropped anchor in the harbor of Philadelphia, just three years, three months, and sixteen days from the departure of the Ranger at Portsmouth.

36Evidently Truxtun learned the lesson well, for in the war with France he became one of the sternest and most severe disciplinarians in the naval service, in spite of which his crews adored him. See my books, Reuben James, A Hero of the Forecastle; and American Fights and Fighters.
37That was beyond his power. They never did and to this day do not "esteem" him other than a pirate. His courage and ability are, however, alike unquestioned by friends and foes.
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