Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

Many of the most distinguished colonists were not only British subjects, but they had worn the king's uniform, fought under the king's flag, and eaten the king's bread; as, for instance, the great Washington. Richard Montgomery, an Irishman, who laid down a life valuable to his adopted country when he fell in the assault on Quebec, had been a British officer; and there were many others, some of whom, like the traitor Charles Lee and the worthless Gates, were actually half-pay officers in the British army when they entered the American service!

Among the naval officers, the heroic Biddle, who matched the little Randolph, of thirty-two small guns, against the huge line of battle ship Yarmouth, and fought until his ship was blown to pieces, and he and all his crew were lost except four men, had been a midshipman in the British navy with Nelson. Stout old John Barry, who commanded the Alliance when he captured the Atlanta and the Trepassy, and fought the last action of the war by beating the frigate Sibylle, of superior force, was an Irishman.65 The most bigoted Englishmen to-day speak of those men with respect which they will not accord to Jones. Why is this?

The reason for the strange exception lies in the brilliant success with which he cruised and fought. The English claimed and exercised an absolute and practically undisputed supremacy on the high seas. Their arrogant navy for more than a hundred years had been invincible. In single ship actions they had always conquered. No enemy had landed on their shores for over a century. They could stand being beaten on land-they were accustomed to it. With few notable exceptions England does not produce great soldiers-Carlyle feelingly refers to the average English commander as a "wooden hoop pole wearing a cocked hat"66-but such a line of sailors as had sprung from their shores has never been equaled in the history of the world. Such sea leadership and such sea fighting has never been exceeded, or even equaled, by any nation.67

The capture of the Serapis was a trifling circumstance; it did not impair the naval efficiency or abridge the maritime supremacy of England an appreciable degree; but it had a moral significance that could not be misunderstood by the nations of the world. They saw and approved.68 English ships had been beaten in fair fight, in one instance by a ship of equal, and in the other instance of inferior, force. The English coasts, in spite of swarms of great ships of the line, had been shown to be as vulnerable as any other.69 The affront had been to her pride, and never since the days that brave old Tromp-gallant Dutchman, for whose character I have the greatest admiration-swept the narrow seas with a broom at his masthead, and actually entered the Thames under that same provoking emblem, had England suffered such naval humiliation. The English cheek tingles still from the blow dealt upon it by the hot-handed sailor. Naturally, they did not love Paul Jones. The hatred, which after a hundred years still rankles, is evidence of what they feel-and what he did! As for us, we love the bold little captain for the enemies he has made.

It has been stated by unthinking people that the Bon Homme Richard was a privateer or a letter of marque: in one case an armed vessel owned by private individuals and authorized, under certain restrictions, to cruise at private expense to prey upon the commerce of the enemy; in the other case, an armed vessel engaged in trade, but possessing the right to capture ships of the enemy should she happen to fall in with them. There is nothing disgraceful about either of these commissions, though, to be sure, their essence consists in making war for individual gain. The Bon Homme Richard was purchased and converted into a man-of-war by the French Government, and then loaned to the American Government for the time being. De Chaumont acted only as the representative of the king-that is, of the Government. There was no question of individual gain in the matter. The money for the sale of the prizes was received, and the share of Jones was paid, by the French Government. Therefore it was a Government ship, not a private vessel. France and the United States were allies in a war against England when she was commissioned, and the transaction was customary and legitimate. The Bon Homme Richard was as bona fide an American man-of-war as the Constitution. Of course, there could be no exception to the status of the Ranger or any of the earlier ships in which Paul Jones sailed.

I have considered the personal character and professional status of Paul Jones, now let me say a few words as to his qualities as an officer. Here at last we reach a field in which there is practically little disagreement. First of all, he was a thorough and accomplished seaman. His experiences had been many and varied. His handling of the Providence in the Gut of Canso, of the Alfred along the coast of Cape Breton, his splendid seamanship in the Ariel in the terrific gale off the Penmarques, his daring passage of the Baltic amid the winter gales and ice, not to speak of the way he maneuvered the Richard in the battle with the Serapis, all tell the same story of skill and address. Not only did he understand the sailing of ships, but he acquired no small familiarity with the principles of naval architecture. Witness his remodeling of the Alliance, the improvements he introduced in the America, and the skillful way he managed the launching of that ship. Some of his suggestions were radical, and some of the principles he laid down were embodied in shipbuilding by naval architects until the advent of the ironclad age.

He was a stern disciplinarian, and usually managed to work his very indifferent crews into something like fair shape. In none of his commands did he have a first-class crew of American seamen, such as the 1812 frigates exhibited. His sway on his ships was absolute. His officers were generally creatures of his own making (Simpson being an exception), and completely under his domination; with few exceptions, like Dale, whom he loved and respected, they were poor enough. In his passionate impatience with their stupidity or inefficiency, he sometimes treated them with great indignity, even going to the length of kicking them out of the cabin when they displeased him.70 He was a fierce commander, who brooked no interference, needed no suggestions, and had no tolerance for ignorance and incapacity. Notwithstanding all this, he was a merciful captain in an age in which the gospel of force, punctuated by the cat-o'-nine-tails, was the only one in vogue on ships of war. He resorted but rarely to the practice of flogging, and in comparison with most commanders of the period his rule was not intolerable. He did not, however, inspire affection in his crews; they respected his talents, trusted to his skill, and admired his courage, but nothing more. His men were drilled and exercised incessantly, and target practice was had as frequently as the poverty of his supplies permitted. His ships were all notably clean and orderly.


As a commander we may consider his achievements from three points of view: as a strategist, as a tactician, and as a fighter. Strategic operations tend to bring you where sound policy dictates you should be, while tactical maneuvers refer to the manipulation of your force at the point of contact. A man may be a brilliant strategist and a poor tactician, or the reverse; or he may be both, and yet not be a hard, determined fighter. Jones was all three in large measure. His strategic conceptions were excellent. His successful destruction of the fishery industry at Canso, and his attempt upon the coal fleet in the Alfred; the brilliant plan which would have resulted in the capture of Lord Howe by d'Estaing if it had been carried out in time; the project he conceived for taking the homeward-bound East Indiamen by capturing St. Helena as a base of attack, and the other enterprises he urged upon the French Government indicate these things; but the conception which lifted him above the ordinary sea officer was his acute realization of the great principle that should regulate commerce destroying, which is one of the legitimate objects of warfare, and merciful in that it tends to end the conflict, and is aimed at property rather than life.

His idea was that, to be successfully accomplished, it could not be committed to the cruiser or commerce destroyer, but that attacks on centers of trade must be made by forces sufficiently mobile to enable them to cover great distances rapidly, and sufficiently strong to defeat any reasonable force, and then crush the enemy's commerce at vital points. A single ship may catch a single ship upon the high seas, or from a fleet in convoy perhaps cut out two or three; but a descent upon a great body of shipping in a harbor-unprotected as were the harbors of those days-would result in an infinitely greater loss to the enemy. Mahan has demonstrated that the necessary preliminary to the destruction of the enemy's commerce is to batter his navy to pieces-then it is at one's mercy. So far as I know, Jones is the only sailor of his day, or of many subsequent days in any navy, who had a glimmer of an idea in this direction; and, without detracting from Mahan's originality, in a limited sense Jones forestalled him. Mahan, indeed, gives him full credit for his genius on this very point.

The beginning of strategy is to determine the vital point at which to aim, and Jones began well. He tried to carry out his idea of commerce destroying with the Ranger in the Irish Channel, and he came near enough to success to demonstrate the absolute feasibility and value of his conception, given adequate force to carry it out. He had a greater force, of course, under his partial command in his famous cruise in the Bon Homme Richard, but the peculiar constitution of that squadron, which was an assemblage of co-operative ships rather than a compact body responsive and obedient to one will, also prevented him from carrying out his plans. Suppose, for instance, that the Alliance had obeyed his orders, and that the Vengeance, the Cerf, and the privateers had remained with the Pallas under his command, and that all had been well officered and manned! He would have taken the Serapis in half an hour or less, and the great Baltic fleet, worth millions of dollars, would have been at his mercy. What he attempted at Leith he could have carried out at Newcastle and Hull.

The largest force under his command was the Russian squadron in the Liman. He chose his admirable position there with an eye to its strategic possibilities, and it was due to him, and not to the trained and veteran soldier Suvorof, that the fort was placed on Kinburn Point, which practically determined the fate of Otchakoff, since it prevented the Turks from re-enforcing their fleet, and kept them from escaping after Jones had defeated them. Fortune never gave him an opportunity, but it can not be doubted from what he did accomplish with an inferior force that if he had been given a chance he would have made a name for himself as a sea strategist not inferior to that of Nelson or Sampson.

As a tactician he was even more able-perhaps because he enjoyed better opportunities. It was seamanship and tactics which enabled him to escape from the Solebay, and it was seamanship and tactics by which he diverted the Milford from the pursuit of his prizes and insured their safety. His tactics when he fought the Drake were admirable. In his famous battle with the Serapis they were even more striking. One never ceases to wonder how he succeeded in maneuvering his slow, unwieldy ship so as to nullify the greater speed and gun power of the Serapis. His action in laying the Bon Homme Richard aboard the English frigate was the one chance that he had of success, and he made that chance himself.

His tactics in the Liman were even higher than elsewhere. It was he who so maneuvered the boats of the flotilla on June 17th as to precipitate the flight of the Turks; it was he who again, on June 28th and 29th, so placed his ships that he drove the Turks from their stranded flagships. It was he who dispatched the flotilla to clear the right flank, which would have enabled the Russians to take possession of the two frigates if Nassau had not foolishly burned them. It was he who, by his splendid disposition of his ships and the battery on the point, forced the Turkish ships to take ground upon the shoals, in their attempt to escape, where Nassau destroyed them. On the other hand, he was never reckless. He coolly calculated chances and judiciously chose the right course, and he was happy in that the right course was usually the bold and daring one.

In the third capacity of an officer, there is no question as to his willingness and ability to fight. No one ever called him a coward. He certainly exhibited the very highest reach of physical bravery. It was not the courage of the braggart, for he was not continually thrusting it in the face of people on all occasions. Having established his reputation, he was content to rest upon it, and did not seek opportunity-which he did not need-for further demonstration. Nothing could surpass the personal courage and determination with which he fought his ships. Unlike most commanders, who confine their efforts to direction, he labored and fought with his own hands.

We find him heading the boarders on the forecastle of the Richard, and, pike in hand, repelling those from the Serapis; he assists in lashing the two ships together; he takes personal command of the quarter-deck guns, one of which, with the assistance of a few resolute souls, he dragged across the deck from the unengaged side. When the Ariel was drifting in deadly peril upon the Penmarques, with his own hand he heaves the lead. At Kinburn, after repeated efforts to get the galley fleet to move, he leads it forward himself. To ascertain the depth of water, he goes in a small boat under the walls of Otchakoff, within easy range of the cannon. He takes his barge on the Liman in the midst of the hottest engagement, and rows about through the contestants. When the assault is made on the flotilla under the walls of that town, he leads in person, and captures two gunboats by boarding. At Whitehaven, alone he confronts a mob and keeps them in check until the fire which he started himself has gained sufficient headway. The bullying of the Dutch admiral in the Texel can not move him a single foot.

While he did not always exhibit the same amount of moral courage, yet in some very interesting situations he showed that he possessed it in large measure. His physical courage was, of course, natural. His moral courage seems to have arisen in part from an absolute confidence in his own ability and an habitual reliance upon the accuracy of his own judgment. He showed this moral courage when, at the peril of his commission, he assumed the responsibility of piloting the Alfred to her anchorage in the Bahama expedition. He showed it particularly when, after assuming the proper position demanded by good strategy in the opening of the Liman campaign, he refused to be moved from it by the representations of such fire eaters as Nassau and Alexiano. His declining to hoist the French flag, or to sail under a French letter of marque, were evidences of this quality, and he showed it again by sending a present to Louis XVI in the dark days of the Revolution, when respect to the king in his hours of humiliation marked a man immediately.

On the other hand, he showed a sad lack of moral courage if de Ségur's statement be true that he found him, pistol in hand, in his apartments in St. Petersburg, apparently contemplating suicide. Moral courage is perhaps a more universal requisite for true greatness of character than any other virtue, and he did not rise in this sphere quite to the height he attained in the others. In other words, he was greater as a commander and as an officer than as a man.

As a commander he made mistakes. What commander did not? His quickness to imagine or to resent a slight was marred by too great a willingness to forgive. His treatment of the mutinous Simpson was entirely too gentle and forgiving for the maintenance of that discipline necessary to the welfare of the service. It was certainly a mistake to yield to Landais' importunities and leave the advantageous situation off Limerick, and, as I have stated, the excuse was worse than the action. His failure to keep his promise to his men after leaving Corunna in the Alliance was a more serious blunder. There are few professions in which the word of an officer is so implicitly relied upon by his inferiors as in the naval service. The lives of the crew are so entirely in the hands of the officers that without confidence the situation is impossible. His extravagant outfitting of the Alliance was also a wrong to Franklin under the circumstances. His method of dealing with the mutiny on the Alliance and with Landais' successful attempt to get command of her was weak, and can only be explained by the postulation that he did not really desire to get possession of her; but even the explanation leaves him in a bad position. His dawdling at L'Orient is also censurable. This, however, is a small catalogue in view of what he attempted and accomplished. Otherwise in his campaigns and in his military life he made no blunders.

He has been severely censured for choosing localities with which he was familiar from childhood as the scene of his military operations. The war of the Revolution was practically a civil war, with all the rancorous passions attendant thereon superadded to those ordinarily engendered in conflict. In America, friend met friend in deadly hatred, and not one royalist or rebel hesitated to use his local knowledge for the advancement of his cause. In accordance with his duty, by his oath as an officer, Jones was bound to put all the information as well as the ability he possessed at the services of the country under whose flag he fought. He was not born at Whitehaven, and, while he had sailed from the port many times, he had no special attachment for the place and people which comes from long association in society and business. When he made his famous descent upon the place it was seven years since he had set foot in it. At any rate, he was only doing in England what other people on both sides were doing in America without censure, and he was doing it with so much more respect to the laws of civilized warfare, and with so much more mercy, that there is no comparison between his forays and those, let us say, of Lord Dunmore, for instance, or Mowatt at Portland. The journal of an officer of the Serapis, who was killed in the action, was found after the battle was over. He had been under Dunmore's command in Virginia at the outbreak of the Revolution, and such a tale of maraudings, accompanied by destruction of property, murdering, and outraging of women as the volume contained would have been incredible had it not been confirmed by the statement of hundreds of witnesses in America. None of this kind of warfare was waged where Jones commanded.

A century and a decade, lacking two years, have elapsed since the lonely little commander entered upon his long, long rest; and the country whose first banner was hoisted by his hands at the masthead of the Alfred, whose permanent standard was flung to the breeze by the same hands from the truck of the Ranger, whose ensign was first saluted by one of the greatest powers of the world through his address and determination, whose flag was made respectable in the eyes of the world by the desperate gallantry with which he fought under it, which alone among the powers that sailed the sea through him demonstrated its ability to meet successfully the Mistress of the Ocean, has done nothing to perpetuate the memory of this founder of the Republic and rescue him from oblivion. The place of his grave is known, but squalid tenements and cheap stores have been erected over his remains. Commerce, trade, and traffic, restless life with its passions, noble and ignoble, flows on above his head, and it is probable that so it will be until the end of time. "So runs the world away!"


It is all so mournful in some strange way. In spite of his glory and his heroism, in spite of his strenuous life and his strugglings, the note that lingers in my mind as I write these concluding words is one of sadness. I read of hopes that brought no fruition; of plans made and abandoned; of opportunities that could not be embraced; of great attempts frustrated by inadequate means; of triumphs forgotten. I see a great life that might have been greater, a man of noble qualities marred by petty faults, and yet I love him. I can not tell why exactly, but the words of Solomon come into my mind as the vision of the little captain appears before me, dying alone of a broken heart, fretted away-Vanitas vanitatem.

And yet he did not live in vain, and his exploits shall live forever in the minds of his countrymen. So long as we possess that masculine virility which is the heritage of a great nation whose rugged coasts are washed by thousands of leagues of beating seas; so long as the beautiful flag we love waves above the mighty Republic, which, true to the principles of its founders, stands in every quarter of the globe for freedom of person, for liberty of conscience, for respect to law, so long shall the story be told of the little captain from the far land who loved these things, and who fought so heroically to establish and to maintain them.

65See my book, American Fights and Fighters.
66The recent war in South Africa demonstrates the accuracy of Carlyle's perspicuous observation.
67The United States has shown that it possesses in full measure the sea adaptability and capacity of the Anglo-Saxon, but opportunity for demonstrating that capacity, except upon a small scale, has never been afforded us. The almost unbroken line of victories on the sea, however, which we have won with anything like equality of force from English, French, and Spaniards, enables us to confidently await the issue of any future naval action under conditions of equality; and the names of Jones, Dale, Biddle, Barry, Preble, Hull, Decatur, Bainbridge, Lawrence, Stewart, MacDonough, Perry, Farragut, Dewey, and Sampson will not be outshone by any galaxy.
68So careful and accurate an historian as John Fiske makes the mistake of saying that Russia bestowed the order of St. Anne on Jones for this action.
69Paul Jones and his men were the last foreign foemen to land on the shores of England.
70See Park Benjamin's History of the Naval Academy for similar instances on the part of less famous captains. Personal abuse was a custom of the service, apparently.
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