Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

Otchakoff lies between the Bug and a smaller river called the Beresan, deep enough near its mouth for navigation by small vessels. It was strongly fortified and garrisoned by ten thousand men. While it remained in the hands of the Turks it menaced the Russian communications and rendered it difficult for them to hold the great peninsula of Taurida, now known as the Crimea, which Patiomkine had conquered previously, and from which he had taken the name of Taurichevsky, or Tauricien, or Taurida, with his dukedom. Patiomkine, therefore, decided to besiege and capture this place.

To prevent this, the Turks had re-enforced it by one hundred and twenty armed vessels, ranging from ships of the line to gunboats, under the command of one of the ablest of their admirals, a distinguished old sailor, who had been recalled from service in Egypt, which had been brilliantly successful, to conduct this operation. So long as they could keep open communication by sea with Otchakoff its power of resistance would be prolonged and its capture a matter of extreme difficulty. The object of Jones' campaign was to hold the Liman till Patiomkine could invest Otchakoff, then to defeat the Turkish naval forces in the bay, and to blockade the town. Incidentally he was required to cover the Russian towns on the Dnieper and prevent any descent upon them by the Turks; a hard task for any man with the force available and likely to be placed under his command.

Having stayed but one day at Elizabethgrad, Jones, accompanied by one of the staff officers of Patiomkine, set out for Kherson, which is located near the point where the Dnieper enters the Liman, and is the principal Russian naval depot in that section of the country. The two officers spent but one day at Kherson, but the time was sufficient to develop the fact, as Jones said, that he had entered "on a delicate and disagreeable service."

Mordwinoff, the Russian Chief of Admiralty, treated him with the utmost coolness and indifference, and, though he had been ordered by Patiomkine to give Jones full information as to the situation, he told him nothing of importance, and even failed to provide him with a rear admiral's flag, to which he was entitled. However, the day after his arrival at Kherson, Jones repaired to the town of Gluboca, off which, in one of the deeps of the river between the Dnieper and the mouth of the Bug called Schiroque Roads, his command was anchored. It comprised a single line of battle ship, the Wolodimer-which, on account of its great draught and the shoal water of the Liman, could only mount twenty-six guns-five frigates, five sloops of war, and four smaller vessels, making a total of fifteen sail.46 The ships were badly constructed, "drew too much water for the navigation of the Black Sea, were too crank to carry the heavy guns that were mounted on them, and sailed badly." They were makeshift craft constructed by people who since Rurik's advent have exhibited surprisingly little aptitude for the sea. I can imagine Jones' disgust and disappointment as he inspected his squadron with a seaman's quick and comprehensive glance. In addition to this force, there was a large flotilla of light-draught gunboats, each carrying a single heavy gun, and sometimes smaller pieces, manned by from thirty to forty men each, and propelled mainly by oars.

The command of the flotilla had been committed to the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, and, although Jones had been repeatedly assured that he was to have supreme charge of all naval operations in the Liman, he found that Nassau exercised an independent command, and instead of being subordinate to him, had only been requested to co-operate with him. Jones' command will be called the squadron, Nassau's the flotilla, hereafter in these pages, to prevent confusion. The squadron had been hitherto under the command of a cowardly Greek corsair named Alexiano, reputed a Turkish subject, who had attained the rank of captain commandant, or brigadier, equivalent to commodore. He was a man of little capacity, great timidity, and was tricky and unreliable in his disposition.

Jones immediately proceeded on board the Wolodimer and exhibited his orders. He found that Alexiano had assembled all the commanders of the ships, and endeavored to persuade them to rebel against his authority. The attempted cabal came to nothing, however, and on receiving a letter from Patiomkine Alexiano relinquished the command to Jones, and with a very ill grace consented to serve as his subordinate-he had to. On the same day in which he arrived, in order to ascertain the topography of the situation, Jones left the Wolodimer and rode over to Kinburn Point, opposite Otchakoff. After a careful examination of the water which he was to defend and the town he was to blockade, so far as he could make it from the shore, he returned to the Wolodimer, and finding, as he says, "all the officers contented," he hoisted his rear admiral's flag on that ship on the evening of the 6th of June, 1788.47 The Prince of Nassau-Siegen called upon him promptly, and apparently recognized his superiority in rank, if not his right to command. He had an immediate foretaste of the character of his new associates when the prince informed him that if they gained any advantage over the Turks it would be necessary to exaggerate it to the utmost! Jones replied that he had never adopted that method of heightening his personal merits. He might have added that a true recital of his exploits was sufficiently dazzling to need no embellishment by the wildest imagination.

The celebrated General Suvorof was in command of the strong fortress of Kinburn, which was supposed to command the entrance of the Liman, but it was too far inland to menace Otchakoff, or, indeed, to command anything effectively. It is an evidence of Jones' quick perception and fine military instinct that as soon as he inspected the position he discovered the advantage of placing a battery on Kinburn Point, opposite the shoal to which I have referred: and his first act upon assuming the command was to point out to Suvorof, who was perhaps the greatest of all Russian soldiers, the absolute necessity for a battery there. Realizing the fact, Suvorof immediately mounted a formidable battery on the point, and he magnanimously credited Jones with the idea, in spite of the fact that the previous neglect to fortify the point was a reflection on his military skill. Before the guns were in position the capitan pasha as the Turkish admiral was styled, with twenty-one frigates and sloops of war, and several smaller vessels, entered the Liman and anchored before Otchakoff. He was followed by a flotilla of gunboats about equal in number and individual efficiency to the Russian flotilla. The ships of the line and heavier frigates of the Turks, unable to approach near the town, remained at anchor in the open roads to the westward, and as they took no part in the subsequent actions they may be dismissed from further notice. Even as it was, however, the Turkish force greatly overmatched the Russian.

Jones had fifteen ships, the Turks twenty-one, and ship for ship the advantage was entirely in favor of the Turks. In number the two flotillas of gunboats were about the same, and there was not much choice in their quality. The poor quality of Nassau's leadership could hardly be surpassed by any Turk, however incompetent, but the capitan pasha in critical moments led his own flotilla, and, as Jones practically did the same for the Russian gunboats, Nassau's incompetency did not matter so much as it might.

On the 9th of June, having meanwhile received re-enforcements of soldiers to complete the crews, the squadron, followed by the flotilla, got under way and stood toward the entrance of the Liman. The combined force anchored in two lines, the squadron forming an obtuse angle in the channel with the opening toward Otchakoff, so as to be able to pour a cross fire upon any approaching ships. On the right and left flanks in the shallow water divisions of gunboats were stationed, with another division immediately in the rear of the squadron, and a reserve division at hand to re-enforce any threatened point of the line. The station was just in front of the mouth of the Bug, and commanded the entrance to that river and the Dnieper as well, thus protecting Kherson from any attack by the Turks, and affording Patiomkine's troops a free and unimpeded passage of the Bug when they marched to invest the town. The position was most advantageously chosen by Jones. His force was too weak to attack the Turks with any hope of success at present, and he had been ordered by Patiomkine not to enter upon any operation until the Russian army arrived. Absolutely no fault can be found either with his location or his dispositions.

The Turks made no movement to attack them, and Nassau, who was good at proposing aggressive movements when no dangers threatened, suggested that they abandon their position and move forward nearer the town. Nothing would be gained by this maneuver, and opportunities for a successful attack by the Turks would have been greater than in their present position. Jones realized that the Turks must of necessity attack them sooner or later; that no commander could afford to throw away such advantage in force as the Turks enjoyed, when any hour might bring re-enforcements to the Russians, and the battery which Suvorof had completed would prevent further re-enforcements being received by the Turks. So Jones grimly held to his position in spite of Nassau's remonstrances, which were seconded by those of Alexiano, and waited. To wait is sometimes braver than to advance.


Finally one of the reasons for Nassau's desire to advance transpired. He wished to remove from his position near the Turkish shore, upon which batteries were being erected in the absence of any Russian land force to prevent them, which would subject the right wing of his flotilla to a land fire; and he desired to take a position where he would be protected by the new fort at Kinburn Point and by the ships of the squadron. Suvorof had made Jones responsible for the safety of the fort on Kinburn Point, by the way, while awaiting the advance of the army. Having received no orders from Patiomkine, Jones assembled a council of war on the Wolodimer, at which Nassau was present. Jones' supremacy was fully recognized by Nassau. The council approved of the position in which Jones had placed his squadron, and commended his resolution to maintain that position, and in obedience to urgent pleadings from Jones the officers of the flotilla and squadron agreed to co-operate and work together for the common good in the event of being attacked. They did not have long to wait for the inevitable encounter.

On the afternoon of the 18th of June, the Turkish flotilla in two divisions made a dash at the Russian gunboats on the right flank, and a sharp engagement began. The Russians, greatly outnumbered, began to give ground, and, though the reserve was immediately sent to support the right wing, before the dashing attacks of the Turkish gunboats the retreat was not stayed. A battery of artillery which had been unmasked on the adjacent shore also seriously annoyed the extreme flank of the Russians. On account of the shoal water the ships of the squadron could not enter the engagement. Jones, therefore, with his instinctive desire to get into a fight, left the Wolodimer and embarked in Nassau's galley. That commander had entirely lost his head. He could think of nothing to do of value, but implored Jones to send him a frigate-which was impossible, for all the frigates drew too much water; failing this, he threatened to withdraw his right wing, in which case the Turkish gunboats probably would have taken the squadron in reverse, and might have inflicted serious damage. Jones convinced him that a return attack was not only necessary but inevitable, and, as Nassau made no objection, he assumed the direction of the vessels himself. Summoning the unengaged center and left divisions, he brought them up through the squadron to attack the approaching Turkish galleys on the flank. The diversion they caused so inspirited the broken right and reserve divisions that they made a determined stand and stopped their retreat. The capitan pasha, seeing himself in danger of being taken between two fires and his retreat cut off, withdrew precipitately before the center and the left fairly came into action. Had Jones been in command of the flotilla from the beginning, a most disastrous defeat would have been inflicted upon the Turks. As it was, they retreated in confusion, leaving two gunboats in the hands of the enemy.

As the affair had been conducted entirely between the different flotillas, Nassau claimed all the credit for the brilliant maneuvers of the Russians. Jones contemptuously allowed him to make any claims he pleased in his report to Patiomkine, and gave Nassau credit for at least having taken his advice. It would have been better for Nassau's fame if he had continued to take Jones' advice. Having obtained this slight success, Nassau, who knew how well his urgency would look in the reports, again proposed to Jones that they should advance and attack. The Russian army had not yet invested the place, and the success they had gained was so slight that circumstances had not changed. Jones still refused to be moved from the position he had assumed, which the experience of the 18th of June had justified, and calmly awaited the further pleasure of the enemy. It takes a high quality of moral courage for a stranger, who has a reputation for audacity and intrepidity, absolutely to refuse to do that thing to which a subordinate urges him, and which has the appearance of courage and daring; and I count this refusal, in the interests of sound strategic principles, not an unimportant manifestation of Jones' qualities as an officer.

Meanwhile, the Russian army, having passed the Bug, invested the city on the 28th of June, and the Turkish fleet was forced to attack or withdraw. The capitan pasha elected to do the former. Having re-enforced his crews by some two thousand picked men from the great fleet outside the Liman, he advanced down the bay to attack the Russians. The wind was free, and the Turkish fleet came on in grand style, the capitan pasha leading in the largest ship, with the flotilla of gunboats massed on his left flank, making a brilliant showing. Nassau's desire to advance suddenly vanished, and he clamored for a retreat. Jones paid no attention to him, but weighed anchor, and, as it was impossible for him to advance on account of the wind, he waited for the enemy. Fortunately for the Russians, at one o'clock in the afternoon the Turkish flagship, which had been headed for the Wolodimer, took ground on the shoals near the south shore of the Liman. The advance of the fleet was immediately stopped, and the Turkish vessels came to anchor about the flagship.

A council of war was at once convened on the Wolodimer, and Jones at last persuaded the Russians, although inferior in force, to attack the Turks as soon as the wind permitted. During the night the wind fortunately shifted to the north-northeast, and at daylight on the 29th the squadron stood for the Turkish fleet. The Wolodimer led the advance. By hard work the Turkish admiral had succeeded in floating his flagship, but his ships were huddled together without order. Jones immediately dashed at him, opening fire from his bow guns as he came within range. The squadron was formed in echelon by bringing the van forward on the center, making another obtuse angle, with the opening toward the crowd of Turkish ships-in fact, Jones was attempting with his smaller force to surround them. In the confusion caused by the bold attack, the Turks, who seem to have been taken completely by surprise, again permitted the ships of the admiral and of his second in command to take ground. Jones' prompt approach and the heavy fire poured upon them made it impossible to float the stranded ships. They both of them keeled over on the shoal and could make no defense. Their flags were struck, and they were abandoned by their crews. The other Turkish ships were so discouraged by this mishap that they withdrew toward Otchakoff, their flight being accelerated by the tremendous fire poured upon them by the Wolodimer and the other Russian ships. Just as the Wolodimer reached the stranded ship of the capitan pasha, Alexiano, who found himself sufficiently near to the enemy, ordered the anchor of the Wolodimer to be let go without informing Jones. As the order was given in Russian, Jones knew nothing about it until the motion of the ship was stopped.

There was plenty of fight in the Turkish admiral, who seems to have been a very gallant old fellow, for after the loss of the flagship he hoisted his flag on one of the gunboats and brought up the flotilla, which poured a furious fire from its heavy guns upon the right division of Jones' squadron, to which the lighter guns of the ships could make but little reply. The situation became dangerous for the squadron. One of the Russian frigates, the Little Alexander, was set on fire and blown up by the Turkish shot, and the fortune of the day trembled in the balance.

The light-draught gunboats each carried a large gun, heavier, and therefore of greater range, than any on the ships. The shallow water would not permit the ships to draw near enough to the flotilla to make effective use of their greater number of guns. Hence, under the circumstances, the squadron was always at the mercy of the flotilla unless by some means they could get into close action, in which case the ships would have made short work of the gunboats. Jones' position was therefore one of extreme peril-untenable, in fact, without the help of his own flotilla. The Russian flotilla had followed the squadron in a very leisurely and disorderly manner, so slowly that Jones had twice checked the way of his ships to allow them to come within hailing distance. He now dispatched a request to Nassau to bring up his gunboats on the right flank and drive off the Turkish gunboats, thus enabling him to take possession of the two frigates, which had been abandoned by their crews, and continue the pursuit of the flying Turkish ships.

No attention was paid to this and repeated requests, and Jones finally took his boat and went himself in search of Nassau's galley to entreat him to attack the Turkish flotilla. He found Nassau in the rear of the left flank, far from the scene of action, and bent only upon attacking the two ships which were incapable of defense. Unable to persuade him to act, Jones at last appealed to Nassau's second, Brigadier Corsacoff, who finally moved against the Turks and drove them off with great loss after a hard fight. Jones meanwhile returned to the Wolodimer-both journeys having been made under a furious fire, in the midst of a general action, in which upward of thirty-six ships of considerable size and possibly a hundred gunboats were participating-but before he could get under way Nassau, with some of his flotilla, surrounded the two abandoned ships and set fire to them by means of a peculiar kind of a bomb shell called brandkugels (hollow spheres, filled with combustibles and perforated with holes, which were fired from a piece called a licorne). The Turkish fleet and flotilla, very much shattered, retreated to a safe position under the walls of Otchakoff, thus ending the fighting for that day. Nassau's action was inexcusable. The two ships he so wantonly destroyed would have been a valuable addition to the Russian navy, and, as they were commanded by the Wolodimer and the rest of the squadron, they could not have been recaptured, and could easily have been removed from the shoals.

The Turkish defeat had been a severe one, but the only trophy which remained in the hands of the Russians was the flag of the capitan pasha. A shot from one of the gunboats having carried it away, it fell into the water, whence it was picked up by some Zaporojian boatmen, who brought it to the Prince of Nassau's boat. Jones happened to be on board of it at the time. The flag certainly belonged to him, but he magnanimously yielded it to Nassau in the hope of pacifying that worthless individual. It was by this time late in the afternoon, but Jones gave orders to get under way toward Otchakoff. Now was the proper time to advance and deliver a return blow upon the broken enemy, but now Nassau desired to remain where he was. Jones was inflexible as usual, and determined to finish the job so auspiciously begun. Accordingly, the anchor of the Wolodimer was lifted and she got under way, followed by the remaining ships of the squadron. Having approached as near to Otchakoff as the shoal water permitted, Jones anchored his vessels across the channel in such a position as to cover the passage to the sea. If the Turkish vessels attempted to escape, they would have to pass under the guns of the squadron, and would find themselves within easy range of the formidable battery at Kinburn Point. Nassau's flotilla at last following, the squadron was massed on the right flank.

Map of the Russian Campaign on the Liman.

The Turkish fleet and flotilla were drawn up in line parallel to the Russians, under cover of the Otchakoff batteries; they still presented a threatening appearance, but the severe handling they had received during the day had taken much of the fight out of them. Having disposed his squadron and flotilla to the best advantage, and being unable to proceed further without coming under the fire of the heavy Otchakoff batteries, there was nothing left for Jones but to hold his position and wait another attack.

In order, however, to familiarize himself with the field of future operations, and see if he had properly placed his force, just before sunset he took soundings in a small boat all along the Turkish line within range of case shot from the Otchakoff batteries, and from the Turkish ships as well. His action was a part of his impudent hardihood. His dashing attack had so discouraged the Turks, and his success of the morning had so disheartened them, that not a single gun was fired upon him. Having completed his investigations to his satisfaction, he returned to the flagship.


That night the Turkish admiral attempted to escape with his remaining ships and rejoin his main fleet on the Black Sea outside of Kinburn Point. In an endeavor to avoid Jones' squadron on the one hand, and the battery on the point on the other, nine of his largest ships ran on a shoal. The attempt to escape was made under the fire of the fort and ships, in which the flotillas and Fort Hassan joined. A few of the ships succeeded in getting to sea; the rest were forced to return to their position of safety under the walls of Otchakoff.

When morning came, the plight of the nine ships aground was plainly visible. Suvorof, who had commanded the Kinburn battery in person that night, immediately signaled Jones to send vessels to take possession of the Turkish ships. Jones decided to send the light frigates of his squadron, but it being represented to him by Brigadier Alexiano that the place where the Turks had grounded was dangerous and the current running like a mill stream with the ebb tide, upon the advice of his captains he turned over the duty of taking possession of the Turkish ships to the flotilla. Alexiano, having received permission, went with the Prince of Nassau.

The boats of the flotilla soon reached the Turkish ships. When they came within range of them they opened a furious fire, to which the latter made no reply. In their helpless position, heeling every way upon the shoal, it was impossible for them to make any defense. They struck their flags and surrendered their ships. The Russian gunboats paid no attention whatever to this circumstance, but continued to fire upon them, drawing nearer and nearer as they realized the helplessness of the Turks. Resorting to brandkugels again, they at last set the ships on fire. The hapless Turks in vain implored mercy, kneeling upon the decks and even making the sign of the cross in the hope of touching the hearts of their ruthless and bloodthirsty antagonists. Seven frigates and corvettes were burned to the water's edge with all their crews. It is estimated that about three thousand Turks perished in this brutal and frightful butchery. Nassau and Alexiano enjoyed the situation from a galley at a safe distance in the rear of the attacking force. By chance two of the vessels were not consumed, and were hauled off later and added to the squadron.

Jones viewed the dreadful slaughter of the Turks with unmitigated horror and surprise. A man of merciful disposition and kindly heart, who never inflicted unnecessary suffering, he was shocked and revolted at the ferocity of his new associates. He protested against their action with all his energy, and laid the foundation thereby of an utter breakdown of the relations between Nassau and himself. Besides being horribly cruel, the whole performance was unnecessary. Like the two ships burned the day before, it was possible to have saved them, and they could have been added to Jones' command and would have doubled his effective force. After the destruction of the Turkish vessels Nassau and Alexiano immediately dispatched a report of the operations to Patiomkine. They claimed that the flotilla had captured two and burned nine ships of the line!

Patiomkine, who was at this time extremely fond of Nassau, forwarded this preposterous statement to the empress, with strong expressions of approbation of Nassau's conduct. He gave him the whole credit of the victory, which was entirely due to Jones, and suppressed the fact of his ruthless and reckless destruction of the surrendered ships, which would have been so valuable a re-enforcement to the government. In this report Patiomkine also spoke favorably of the rear admiral, saying that he had done his duty, but that the particular glory of and credit for the success was due to the princeling who had hung on the outskirts and lagged behind when there was any real fighting to be done.

For some ten days the naval force remained inactive, waiting for Patiomkine to complete his investment of the town. On the night of the 8th of July the marshal sent orders to Nassau to advance with his flotilla and destroy the Turkish flotilla under the walls of Otchakoff. Jones was commanded to give him every assistance possible. The weather prevented the carrying out of the orders for a few days. On the night of the 12th of July, however, at one o'clock in the morning, the advance began. The plan of attack had been arranged by the marshal himself, but circumstances prevented its being followed. But that did not matter; Patiomkine was not a military genius, and Jones knew very much better than he what could or should be done in a naval engagement. As it was impossible to use the ships of the squadron, Jones manned all his boats, and led them to tow the gunboats.

As day broke on the 12th of July, the flotilla, having advanced within gunshot distance of the walls, began firing upon the Turkish boats and on Otchakoff itself. After assisting in placing the Russian gunboats in an advantageous position, Jones, with the boats of the Wolodimer, made for five of the enemy's galleys which lay within easy range of the heavy guns of Fort Hassan. These galleys were subjected to a cross fire from the Russian flotilla on one side and Fort Hassan on the other. They were also covered by the guns of the Turkish flotilla and the citadel of Otchakoff. Their position made the attack a most hazardous one. Jones was far in advance of the gunboats, which, under the supine leadership of Nassau, did not manifest a burning anxiety to get into close action. In spite of a furious fire which was poured upon them, Jones dashed gallantly at the nearest galley. It was taken by boarding after a fierce hand-to-hand fight. Turning the command of the galley over to Lieutenant Fabricien with instructions for him to tow her out of action, Jones then assaulted the next galley, which happened to be that of the capitan pasha. This boat lay nearer the fort and was much better defended, but the Russians, under the inspiring leadership of their admiral, would not be denied, and the galley was presently his prize. The cable of this boat was cut without order, and she immediately drifted toward the shore and took ground near Fort Hassan, where she was subjected to a smashing fire from the Turkish batteries close at hand. Jones was determined to bring out the boat as a prize if possible. He caused the galley to be lightened by throwing everything movable overboard, and meanwhile dispatched Lieutenant Fox to the Wolodimer to fetch a kedge and line, by which he could warp her into the channel.

While waiting for the return of this officer he again manned his boats and endeavored to bring up the Russian flotilla. He was partially successful in this attempt, for they succeeded in compelling the three other galleys of the group with which he had been engaged to strike their flags and in forcing the other gunboats to retreat with severe loss. When Fox returned from the Wolodimer a line was run from the galley to the burned wreck of a Turkish ship, but, before the galley could be moved, Jones, who had re-entered his barge, was intensely surprised and annoyed to see fire break out on the two vessels he had captured. They had been deliberately set on fire by the orders of Alexiano. The other three Turkish galleys were also burned by the use of the deadly brandkugels. It was brutal cruelty again. Not one was saved from the five galleys except fifty-two prisoners whom Jones personally brought off in his boats from the two which he had captured by hard hand-to-hand fighting. These galleys appear to have been propelled by oars which were driven by slaves on benches, in the well-known manner of the middle ages. As they were Turkish galleys, the slaves were probably captive Christians. They perished with the Turks left on board. Two more ships belonging to the squadron which had endeavored to escape the week previous, were set on fire and burned under the walls of Fort Hassan. The rest of the flotilla effected nothing, and under the orders of Nassau withdrew to their former position.

46Some authorities say fourteen; the difference is immaterial.
47All dates given, except in letters, are new style, eleven days in advance of Russian dates.
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