Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

As he left the court of Denmark and entered upon his journey to Russia he carried in his pocket a patent for a pension issued to him by the Danish Government for the sum of fifteen hundred crowns a year, which was presented to him as an acknowledgment of the "respect he had shown to the Danish flag while he commanded in the North Sea," etc.! Curiously enough, the pension is dated the day it was decided to transfer to Paris the negotiations which he had come to further. The transaction is a most peculiar one. The coincidence of dates is, to say the least, unfortunate. The reasons assigned are inadequate, and the statement of cause is puerile. For a negotiator to accept pecuniary reward from the person against whom he presses a claim is a very remarkable thing to do.

It has been urged in justification of his acceptance: First, that he never received any money from it, for the pension was never paid; that, however, was a fact which, while it was potential, was not then actual, and has no bearing upon his acceptance. Second, it has also been claimed that the pension was given because the Danish Government supposed such an evidence of appreciation of the qualities of her appointee would be acceptable to the empress; but if a nice sense of honor would dictate a refusal of the pension, the bestowal could not be considered a compliment, therefore the acceptance could not enhance his reputation. Third, it has been ingeniously surmised that his acceptance of the pension was for the purpose of committing the Danish Government to the payment of the claim; but if that were true, he should have communicated his acceptance and his reasons to Jefferson at once. The fact that the government absolutely refused to conclude negotiations with him, and that he was of necessity obliged to permit the transfer of the negotiations to Paris, takes away some of the odium which attaches to his action, yet it does not completely clear him. As the Russian prospect had matured he was more and more desirous of quitting Denmark, and the transfer of the claim to Paris quite accorded with his wishes.

This is the most painful incident in his career, and I am extremely sorry that it occurred. I do not suppose that he realized the situation quite as it is presented in these pages, or that he imagined it would have so damaging an effect upon his reputation when it became known. His valuation of his own services was so high that it was not difficult to persuade him-or for him to persuade himself-that he was entitled to a pension, or at least that it was not out of keeping with his merits. Though how he had ever shown any particular respect for the Danish flag when he commanded the Bon Homme Richard is a question.

Two circumstances incline me to believe that he was ashamed of it, however, and that he had no primary intention of making use of it. His vanity might lead him to treasure it as an evidence of appreciation, where his sense of honor would restrain him from enjoying it. Of these two circumstances, the first is that he never mentioned it to anybody for three years, and he was never chary of letting the news of evidences of appreciation be disseminated; the second is that he made no attempt to draw anything on it until he was a sick, worn-out, broken man, some years after, when he looked at life under different circumstances and with different eyes. His letter to Jefferson, when he finally did communicate the news to him three years after, is as follows:

"The day before I left Copenhagen the Prince Royal had desired to speak with me in his apartment. His Royal Highness was extremely polite, and after saying many civil things remarked he hoped I was satisfied with the attention that had been shown to me since my arrival, and that the king would wish to give me some mark of his esteem. 'I have never had the happiness to render any service to his Majesty!' 'That is nothing; a man like you ought to be excepted from ordinary rules. You could not have shown yourself more delicate as regards our flag, and every person here loves you.' I took leave without further explanation. I have felt myself in an embarrassing situation with regard to the king's patent, and I have not yet made use of it, though three years have nearly elapsed since I received it."

It is all that he could say for himself. I am glad he had the grace at last to be ashamed. That is the best defense that I can make for him, and I can only close the reference to this unpleasant incident by saying again that I am very sorry indeed that it occurred.

About the middle of April, 1788, he set forth for Stockholm, where, on account of his desire to reach St. Petersburg without delay, he remained but a few hours, and then pressed on to Grislehamn (Gresholm), Sweden, the nearest port to the Aland Islands, via which he hoped to cross the Gulf of Bothnia and reach Russia. The ice, however, was so thick that he found it impossible to cross the gulf or even to reach the islands, so he determined to pass through the open Baltic Sea to the southward. He hired an open boat about thirty feet long, and, taking a smaller boat in tow, to be used in case of emergency, he started upon a journey which proved to be one of the most romantic and adventurous of his whole career. Realizing that in the severe winter weather prevailing it would be impossible to get boatmen to attempt the passage, he carefully concealed his destination from the men whom he had employed to ferry him over.

Having first attempted once more to reach the Aland Islands, and thence proceed to the Gulf of Finland, and being balked as before by heavy masses of drifting ice, he started to the southward between the Swedish shore and the ice floes, which, being driven toward Sweden by a strong east wind, scarcely left him a sufficient channel to pass in safety. By nightfall he was nearly opposite Stockholm, and the water seemed clear enough to seaward for him to attempt to cross. The men, by this time alarmed for their safety, determined, in defiance of his orders, to put into Stockholm; but Jones, seizing the helm himself and drawing his pistols, resolutely commanded them to beat out to sea and obey his orders under pain of instant death. He was not a man to be trifled with by a few Swedish boatmen, and by his directions the terrified men headed the boat offshore. The wind fortunately shifted to the westward, and during the whole of the long night, in the midst of a driving snowstorm, they threaded their way through the floating ice, steering for the Gulf of Finland.

Jones had a pocket compass, and the lantern from his traveling carriage enabled him to choose the course. He naturally took command of the boats himself. The next day, baffled again by the ice in an attempt to land on the north shore of the Gulf of Finland, they continued to the westward and southward under circumstances of extreme danger and hardship. The second night was worse than the first. The wind came in violent squalls, and the cold was intense. The second boat was crushed in the ice floes, and the men in it rescued with great difficulty. Their own boat narrowly escaped being crushed between the huge pieces of ice or swamped in the squalls on several occasions. Only by Jones' seamanship and rare skill did they avoid one or the other danger. The men were so terrified as to be helpless between the storm, the cold, and the thought of the incarnate little demon who sat grimly in the stern sheets, pistol in hand, and neither slept nor took rest apparently, and who handled the boat with as much dexterity as if it had been a toy. One thinks instinctively of the little bark which could not sink because it carried Cæsar and his fortunes.

At any rate, after four days of incredible difficulties the passage was made, and the boat landed at Reval, a Russian port on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. They had sailed in one way and another about five hundred miles. Those who had known of his departure from Sweden had no thought but that he and all with him had perished in the attempt. He was, as he stated to Jefferson, in wretched health, and the exposure alone might have killed him. That he went on is highly characteristic of him, and exhibits his entire indifference to personal hardships. The passage presents a fine evidence of his audacity. When he determined to do a thing, he never allowed anything to stop him. Having paid the boatmen for the loss of their boat, and remunerated them handsomely for their labors, he dismissed them to return at their leisure, and proceeded to the Russian court, where he arrived on the fourth day of May. His great reputation, his adventurous passage, his strange and attractive personality, and the fact that he stood high in the good graces and enjoyed the favor of the empress, rendered him an object of universal interest and attraction.

On the 6th of May he was presented to the empress, who immediately conferred upon him the rank he coveted, of rear admiral. Catherine treated him with such distinction that he states in his journal that "I was overcome by her courtesies (je me laissai seduire), and put myself into her hands without making any stipulation for my personal advantage. I demanded but one favor, that I should never be condemned unheard." Poor fellow! It was the one right-not favor, but rights went by favor then in Russia-which was not accorded him. He little knew what the future that looked so promising had in store for him, but for the present everything was most delightful. He remained, recuperating and preparing for his command, for two weeks, during which period he was magnificently entertained by the highest nobility of Russia and the distinguished foreigners in attendance at the court. Among his papers the cards of many of them are still preserved. There was one exception to his welcome. The English officers in the service of Catherine, and they were many in number and high in quality, affected to describe him as a pirate and a smuggler, and are said to have threatened to resign in a body rather than serve under his command. While I have no doubt as to their feelings, I think it improbable that the threat was ever seriously meant, or that it reached the ears of the empress, for two reasons: first, it was apparently never contemplated that Jones should command the Cronstadt fleet, in which those Englishmen who were highest in rank and reputation were stationed-he had been designated for the Black Sea fleet, and specifically called into service to war against the Turks; and second, it is extremely unlikely that they should have carried such a threat to the throne, for Catherine was not one whom it was safe to threaten for a moment. Such an action in all probability would have resulted in an apology and retraction, or a call for a resignation. It is most improbable that the English protesters would have relinquished the honorable and lucrative positions to which they had attained in the Russian service, with the great opportunities of advancement and pecuniary reward presented, for such a cause. As a matter of fact, Englishmen did serve with credit under Jones' command in the Black Sea, and we hear of no resignations from his squadron there. The story may have gained currency by the gossipy repetition of indiscreet remarks about the court, and from the fact that thirty of the English-Russian officers signed a memorial addressed to Admiral Grieg, their senior in rank, threatening various things if they were associated with Jones. It is hardly possible, however, that Catherine ever saw or heard the petition. At any rate, nothing came of it. Jones enjoyed the anger of the English-he would not have been human if he had not-but as for the rest, he snapped his fingers at them. He could afford to defy them at that hour. He was then in the "high topgallant of his fortunes." In a letter to Lafayette he writes, apropos of this feeling:


"The empress received me with a distinction the most flattering that perhaps any stranger can boast of. On entering into the Russian service her Majesty conferred on me immediately the grade of rear admiral. I was detained against my will a fortnight, and continually feasted at court, and in the first society. This was a cruel grief to the English, and I own that their vexation, which I believe was general in and about St. Petersburg, gave me no pain."

As I have said, I have no doubt as to the feelings of the English officers.

On the 18th of May the admiral left St. Petersburg for Elizabethgrad, the headquarters of Patiomkine. In addition to the sum recently received from Krudner, he was provided with an other purse of two thousand ducats for the expenses of his journey, and his salary was fixed at eighteen hundred roubles a year.44 As he started for the Black Sea, Catherine handed him this letter:

"Sir: A courier from Paris has just brought from my envoy in France, M. de Simolin, the inclosed letter to Count Besborodko. As I believe that this letter may help to confirm to you what I have already told you verbally, I have sent it, and beg you to return it, as I have not even had it copied, so anxious am I that you should see it. I hope that it will efface all doubts from your mind, and prove to you that you are to be connected only with those who are most favorably disposed toward you. I have no doubt that, on your side, you will fully justify the opinion which we have formed of you, and apply yourself with zeal to support the reputation you have acquired, for valor and skill, on the element on which you are to serve.

"Adieu! I wish you happiness and health.


The letter to Besborodko referred to by Catherine was a request from Patiomkine that Jones might be induced to come immediately to his headquarters, that his talents might be employed in the approaching campaign. Patiomkine promised to to do all in his power to give him an opportunity for displaying his ability and courage,45 Jones had protested against being under anybody; Catherine refused to consider his protest, hence the reason for her farewell epistle and her inclosure of Patiomkine's promise to be all that he should be to Jones. He arrived at Elizabethgrad on the 30th of May and was most kindly received. But before entering upon the story of his campaign it will be well to consider the situation of the country in which he found himself, and the characters of those with whom he was to be associated in service.

Note with reference to the Danish pension

The most recent biographer of Paul Jones, whose book was issued simultaneously with this one, makes no mention of the Danish pension, and states that his reasons for omitting any reference to it were "because it was never accepted, never paid, and never was intended to be paid." I am forced to disagree with this statement. Certainly, it never was paid, though what the Danish government may have intended it is impossible to say. Probably if Jones had continued in favor in Russia the pension would have been paid. Certainly the commodore accepted the pension, and he endeavored to procure its payment, and estimated it as an asset in the schedule of property which accompanied his will. See Appendix V, page 473.


Far to the north is Russia. Extending through no less than one hundred and seventy-three degrees of longitude, and covering forty parallels of latitude, from the Baltic to the Pacific, and from the Black Sea to the Arctic Ocean, with an area of eight and a half million square miles, lies this great lone land. This gigantic empire, touching on the one hand the ice-bound shores of Nova Zembla, and on the other the caravan trails of Bokhara, stretches from the Gulf of Finland in the west to Kamtchatka on the east. Within its boundaries are comprised bleak deserts and fertile plains. Verdant valleys, unscalable mountains, and vast steppes break the monotony of the landscape, and diversify a surface watered by great rivers from the arctic Yenisei to the Oriental Oxus. Great among the powers is this mysterious Colossus, her head white with the snows of eternal winter and her feet laved in the sunlight of tropic streams. The land of the seafarers-so its name indicates-developing enormously and steadily in power, wealth, and civilization, in the nine hundred years which have elapsed since Rurik the Viking first stepped upon its shores, has not yet reached its zenith. It is to-day the home of more diverse nationalities than any other existent country, and foreshadowings of unlimited predominance are apparent. Its sway extends over more races and peoples than any other power has governed since the days of Augustus Cæsar, and the end is not yet. Well do its rulers arrogate to themselves the imperial title of the ancient head of the Roman Empire. Holy Russia, the home of the Orthodox Church, the country of the White Czar, the land of the once despised Slav, yet contains within its borders, in Lithuania, the focal point of that Aryan race which has filled Europe with its splendor. This Russia, the land of the Tartar, the Mongol, the Samoyede, the Cossack, the Finn, and the Pole; this Russia, the land of Ivan the Terrible, of Peter the Great, was now in the hands of a woman-of Catherine II.

The little maiden, born on the 2d of May, 1729, in the quaint old town of Stettin, and of the insignificant house of Anhalt-Zerbst, christened Sophia, was received into the Greek Church on her marriage with Peter of Holstein, grandson of the Romanoff Peter the Great, under the name of Catherine. She had assumed the reins of government after the murder of her wretched impotent husband, against whom she had conspired in conjunction with the Orloffs. When she had deposed and imprisoned him, unable to strike a blow for himself, he had stipulated that in his confinement he might have the undisputed enjoyment of his mistress, his monkey, and his violin! Even these kingly pleasures were soon of little use to him, for on the 18th of July, 1762, but a few days after the revolution which had hurled him from his throne, Peter lay dead in the palace with some ominous and ineffaceable black marks around his throat, telling of the manner of his death from the giant hands of the terrible Orloffs-and his wife was privy to the murder and consenting to it! That her husband had been a knave and a fool-almost a madman-does not excuse her. Catherine was then immediately proclaimed empress in her own right. As the Neapolitan Caraccioli said, the Russian throne was neither hereditary nor elective, but occupative! Catherine occupied it, and as long as she lived Russia knew no other master. The world marveled at her audacity, and trembled for the consequences of her usurpation, but men soon found that, gigantic as had been her assurance, and tremendous as was her task, she was entirely equal to the undertaking. She had a genius for reigning as great as had been exhibited by Elizabeth Tudor-good Queen Bess! In spite of her bad qualities and evil beginning, Russia never progressed more than while under her sway. She fairly divides honor as a sovereign, in Slavonic history, with Peter the Great. True it is that Catherine had "woven out of the bloody vestments of Peter III the most magnificent imperial mantle that a woman had ever worn."

Some one wrote to Madame Vigée le Brun, who essayed to paint her picture:

"Take the map of the empire of Russia for canvas, the darkness of ignorance for background, the spoils of Poland for drapery, human blood for coloring, the monuments of her reign for the cartoon, and for the shadow six months of her son's reign."

A singular and complex character was that of this famous despot, this "Semiramis of the North." Never more than a half-educated woman-and in that she corresponded with her empire-she learned her politics from Montesquieu, drew her philosophy of life from Voltaire, and shaped her morals after Brantôme! A creature of singular contradictions, she loved liberty, favored the struggle of the United States, and ruled an absolute despot; she wrote charming fairy tales for children and rode horseback astride like a man; she was one of the greatest sticklers for morals-in other people-the world has ever known, and yet was herself one of the most colossal examples of unblushing and shameless professional sensuality that ever sat upon a throne. Other rulers and sovereigns have had their favorites, she alone made favoritism a state institution. "What has ruined the country," she naïvely writes, "is that the people fall into vice and drunkenness, and the comic opera has corrupted the whole nation!" As a corrupter by example she surpassed all the comic operas ever written. The morals of Russia, in her day, were rotten from the head downward. Yet in spite of all this she was a great princess. She was allowed to occupy that throne because she made Russia greater with each successive year; not alone by force of arms either, and the Russian destiny makers loved her. Education, the arts, and sciences, all felt the stimulus of her interest and responded to her efforts. Progress was the word of this imperious woman. She had a faculty for ruling as remarkable as her exploitation of favoritism. Yet she governed her empire with a sublime indifference to public opinion, and squandered its revenues in a shameless prostitution of her own person, which ceased only with her death, in 1794, at the age of sixty-five! The fact that Catherine made an official business out of favoritism, and that she was so utterly oblivious to the moral inconsistency of it-for she was a faithful member of the Holy Orthodox Church-seems to lift it upon a plane of its own, so simple and brazen was it.

Upon the chief of her favorites alone she had bestowed more than fifty million roubles, vast estates carrying with them nearly one hundred thousand serfs, and in addition orders, titles, privileges, and decorations innumerable. The name of this favorite was Gregory Alexandrovitch Patiomkine, commonly called Potemkin. He was the second of the great Vremienchtchick, as the favorites were called, the word meaning "men of the moment!" He succeeded the gigantic Orloff, whose term as the favorite was longer than that of any successor, for he had enjoyed a tenure of almost ten years-the usual period being about two. Patiomkine's personal association with the empress was only for that short time, when he was supplanted by another object of royal regard. Unlike all the other favorites, Patiomkine was not relegated to prompt obscurity, and he continued to be the power behind the throne for practically the remainder of his life. He was greater than all the others-too great to be done away with, in fact. If he could not be the favorite, he would, like Warwick the kingmaker, make the favorite, and for fifteen years he continued to do so. During this period he swayed the destinies of the empire as a sort of mayor of the palace.


The analogy is not altogether accurate, for Catherine was no supine Merovingian to commit the administration of the state to others while she passed hours of dalliance in the secret chambers of the palace; she was too strong and too great for that, and she always retained her grasp upon the helm; but it is certain that none of her favorites had ever enjoyed such power and wielded it so openly as this princely pander.

As to Patiomkine himself, the world did not know whether he was a genius or a madman. At times he seems to have passed over that slender line which divides these two antitheses of character, and appears now on one side, now on the other. Personally he was a man of huge bulk and great strength, with the natural instincts of an animal and a veneer, more or less strong on occasion, of refinement. He, too, typified Russia, a giant rising through barbarism into the civilization of the century-and not yet arrived, either-now inclining to the one side or the other. Catherine usually chose her favorites among men of great physical vigor. Patiomkine was a giant in size. His vast frame was capable of sustaining the most tremendous hardships. He was a black-haired, swarthy, hot-tempered man, not pleasant to look upon, for he had lost an eye in a fist fight after a drunken revel with the Orloffs. He squinted with the other, and even had not a figure to redeem him, for he was markedly knock-kneed. He, like his mistress and his country, was a creature of contradictions. In his palace in St. Petersburg we find him trifling with the most delicate creations of the most skilled chef, and on his journeys eating rapaciously of anything that came to hand. He sent his adjutants thousands of miles for perfumes which caught his fancy, and galloped madly himself across half Europe without rest or sleep for days in pursuance of duty, and then spent weeks in dalliance with his harem.

With the one hand he wrote poetic letters that quiver and thrill with tenderness and beauty, pathos and passion, and with the other he calmly consigned thousands of people to death. One day we find him raging because his soldiers are not better cared for, and on the next day remarking cynically, when the absence of ambulances was brought to his notice, that so much the better-they would not have to bother with the wounded! Sometimes cowardly, sometimes bold to the point of recklessness; atheist and devotee, debauchee and ascetic, coarse and refined, imperious and cringing, brutal and gentle, king and slave, Christian and pagan-his life remains a mystery.

After he died of a frightful attack of indigestion, brought on by gorging himself with coarse food, Catherine's son, upon succeeding to the throne, treated his body with great indignity; and it was not until seventy years later that his remains were discovered and interred in the Cathedral of Kherson. Prince of Taurida, the conqueror of the Crimea, and under Catherine the originator of that tremendous and irresistible Russian policy which will some day replace the Greek cross upon the temple of Justinian in Constantinople, Patiomkine is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the world.

In the service of the first of these two personages, and under the specific orders of the last, Paul Jones was to make a campaign. It was foredoomed to failure. Jones was not a good subordinate to any one. His temper, his lack of self-control, his pride, and his vanity rendered any ultimate successful association with a man like Patiomkine impossible. Patiomkine had all Jones' faults and a thousand more. They harmonized like flint and steel. To further complicate matters, Jones was to be associated in his command, with the limits of authority not clearly defined between them-always a prolific source of trouble, and certain to cause failure-with Prince Otto of Nassau-Siegen, of whom we have heard before. He had asked to serve under Jones in the Indien, and when that project fell through he had failed to answer Jones' letters, and had treated him with discourtesy and indifference. In Catherine's army and navy thousands of soldiers of fortune found a congenial atmosphere and a golden opportunity. They were all made welcome, and, with anything like success to warrant them, they generally achieved a handsome reward in her generous service. The most noted among them, and one of the most worthless, is this man, whom Waliszewski calls "the last notable condottierre of Europe; a soldier without country, without home, and almost without family, his very name is the first of his conquests." His father was the illegitimate son of a princeling, but the Parliament of Paris, in 1756, gave the young Otto, then eleven years of age, the right, so far as they had the power, to bear the name of his ancestors, to which he had no legitimate claim. They could not, however, do anything for his patrimony. He had been a lieutenant of infantry, a captain of dragoons, and finally a sailor under Bougainville when he made his famous voyage around the world. Later he appears as an unsuccessful explorer in Africa. In fact, he was not successful at anything. Unlike Crichton, he did everything equally ill.

In 1779, as a colonel of French infantry, he made an unsuccessful attempt upon the island of Jersey. The next year, in the Spanish service, he commanded, unsuccessfully as usual, some floating batteries before Gibraltar. Among other exploits-and it was his one triumph-he seduced the Queen of Tahiti, so he said, and the reputation of the unfortunate lady found no defenders in Europe. He married a homely Polish countess with a great fortune, and after meddling (unsuccessfully) with all sorts of things got himself appointed to the command of a flotilla of Russian gunboats operating against the Turks.

But to return to the story; the long distance-seven hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies and probably twice that by road-between St. Petersburg and Elizabethgrad, was covered by Jones in twelve days. He was in a hurry, as always, to get to sea. The object of the Prince Marshal's attack was the fortified town of Otchakoff, commonly spelled in contemporary manuscripts Oczakow. This important place was situated on the Russo-Turkish frontier of that day, on the Black Sea, not far from the present city of Odessa, and occupied a commanding position at the confluence of the great river Dnieper and the smaller river Bug. Southward of the mainland the peninsula of Kinburn, a narrow, indented point of land, projects for perhaps twenty miles to the westward, forming a narrow estuary of the Black Sea about fifty miles long and from five to ten miles wide, into which the two rivers pour their vast floods. This estuary is sometimes called the Dnieper Bay, but more commonly the Liman, and the undertaking hereafter described is referred to as the campaign in the Liman. The bay or inlet is very shallow. Sand banks and shoals leave but a narrow, tortuous channel, which is of no great depth at best. The end of the peninsula of Kinburn terminates in a long and very narrow strip of land, a point which reaches up toward the northward and almost closes the opening of the estuary; the distance between the point and Fort Hassan, the southernmost fortification of Otchakoff, is possibly two miles. This narrow entrance is further diminished by a long shoal which extends south from Fort Hassan toward the point, so that, except for one contracted channel, the passage is practicable for vessels of very light draught only.

44The rouble was then worth about one dollar, and, as has been mentioned, a dollar was greater then than now.
45In after years Jones indorsed upon this letter a grim comment"Has he kept his word?"
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26