Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

The action did not reflect credit on the American arms. The Glasgow, being a regular cruiser and of much heavier armament than any of the American ships, was more than a match for any of them singly, though taken together, if the personnel of the American squadron had been equal to, or if it even approximated, that of the British ship, the latter would have been captured without difficulty. The gun practice of the Americans was very poor, which is not surprising. With the exception of a very few of the officers, none of the Americans had ever been in action, and they knew little about the fine art of hitting a mark, especially at night. They had had no exercise in target practice and but little in concerted fleet evolution. There seems to have been no lack of courage except in the case of the captain of the Providence, who was court-martialed for incapacity and cowardice, and dismissed from the service. Hopkins' judgment in withdrawing from the pursuit for the reasons stated can not be questioned, neither can he be justly charged with the radical deficiency of the squadron, though he was made to suffer for it.

While the Glasgow escaped, she did not get off scot free. She was badly cut up in the hull, had ten shot through her mainmast, fifty-two through her mizzen staysail, one hundred and ten through her mainsail, and eighty-eight through her foresail. Her royal yards were carried away, many of her spars badly wounded, and her rigging cut to pieces. This catalogue tells the story. The Americans in their excitement and inexperience had fired high, and their shot had gone over their mark. The British defense had been a most gallant one, and the first attack between the ships of the two navies had been a decided triumph for the English.

Paul Jones' conduct in the main battery of the Alfred had been entirely satisfactory to his superior officers. He, with the other officers of that ship, was commended, and subsequent events showed that he still held the confidence of the commodore.


The British fleet having left Newport in the interim, on the 24th of April, 1776, the American squadron got under way from New London for Providence, Rhode Island. The ships were in bad condition; sickness had broken out among their crews, and no less than two hundred and two men out of a total of perhaps eight hundred and fifty-at best an insufficient complement-were left ill at New London. Their places were in a measure supplied by one hundred and seventy soldiers, lent to the squadron by General Washington, who had happened to pass through New London, en route to New York, on the day after Hopkins' arrival. There was a pleasant interview between the two commanders, and it was then that Jones caught his first glimpse of the great leader.

The voyage to New London was made without incident, except that the unfortunate Alfred grounded off Fisher's Island, and had to lighten ship before she could be floated. This delayed her passage so that she did not arrive at Newport until the 28th of April. The health of the squadron was not appreciably bettered by the change, for over one hundred additional men fell ill. Many of the seamen had been enlisted for the cruise only, and they now received their discharge, so that the crews of the already undermanned ships were so depleted from these causes that it would be impossible for them to put to sea. Washington, who was hard pressed for men, and had troubles of his own, demanded the immediate return to New York of the soldiers he had lent to the fleet. The captain of the Providence being under orders for a court-martial for his conduct, on the 10th of May Hopkins appointed John Paul Jones to the command of the Providence.

The appointment is an evidence of the esteem in which Jones was held by his commanding officer, and is a testimony to the confidence which was felt in his ability and skill; for he alone, out of all the officers in the squadron, was chosen for important sea service at this time. Having no blank commissions by him, Hopkins made out the new commission on the back of Jones' original commission as first lieutenant. It is a matter of interest to note that he was the first officer promoted to command rank from a lieutenancy in the American navy. His first orders directed him to take Washington's borrowed men to New York. After spending a brief time in hurriedly overhauling the brig and preparing her for the voyage, Jones set sail for New York, which he reached on the 18th of May, after thirty-six hours. Having returned the men, Jones remained at New York in accordance with his orders until he could enlist a crew, which he presently succeeded in doing. Thereafter, under supplemental orders, he ran over to New London, took on board such of the men left there who were sufficiently recovered to be able to resume their duties, and came back and reported with them to the commander-in-chief at Providence. He had performed his duties, routine though they were, expeditiously and properly.

He now received instructions thoroughly to overhaul and fit the Providence for active cruising. She was hove down, had her bottom scraped, and was entirely refitted and provisioned under Jones's skillful and practical direction. Her crew was exercised constantly at small arms and great guns, and every effort made to put her in first-class condition. In spite of the limited means at hand, she became a model little war vessel. On June 10th a sloop of war belonging to the enemy appeared off the bay, and in obedience to a signal from the commodore Jones made sail to engage. Before he caught sight of the vessel she sought safety in flight. On the 13th of June the Providence was ordered to Newburyport, Massachusetts, to convoy a number of merchant vessels loaded with coal for Philadelphia. Before entering upon this important duty, however, Jones was directed to accompany the tender Fly, loaded with cannon, toward New York, and, after seeing her safely into the Sound, convoy some merchant vessels from Stonington to Newport.

There were a number of the enemy's war vessels cruising in these frequented waters, and the carrying out of Jones' simple orders was by no means an easy task; but by address and skill, and that careful watchfulness which even then formed a part of his character, he succeeded in executing all his duties without losing a single vessel under his charge. He had one or two exciting encounters with English war ships, the details of which are unfortunately not preserved. In one instance, by boldly interposing the Providence between the British frigate Cerberus and a colonial brigantine loaded with military stores from Hispaniola, he diverted the attention of the frigate to his own vessel, and drew her away from the pursuit of the helpless merchantman, which thereby effected her escape. Then the Providence, a swift little brig admirably handled, easily succeeded in shaking off her pursuer, although she had allowed the frigate to come within gunshot range. The brigantine whose escape Jones had thus assured was purchased into the naval service and renamed the Hampden.

The coal fleet had assembled at Boston instead of Newburyport, and in pursuance of his original orders Jones brought them safely to the capes of the Delaware on the 1st of August. The run to Philadelphia was soon made, and Hopkins' appointment, under which he was acting, was ratified by the Congress, and the commission of captain was given him, dated the 8th of August, 1776.

Hitherto Jones, like all the others engaged in the war, had been a subject of England, a colonist in rebellion against the crown. By the Declaration of Independence he had become a citizen of the United States engaged in maintaining the independence and securing the liberty of his adopted country. The change was most agreeable to him. It added a dignity and value to his commission which could not fail to be acceptable to a man of his temperament. It was pleasant to him also to have the confidence of his commander-in-chief, which had been shown in the appointment to the command of the Providence, justified by the government in the commission which had been issued to him.

Jones had made choice of his course of action in the struggle between kingdom and colony deliberately, not carried away by any enthusiasm of the moment, but moved by the most generous sentiments of liberty and independence. He had much at stake, and he was embarked in that particular profession fraught with peculiar dangers not incident to the life of a soldier. It must have been, therefore, with the greatest satisfaction that he perceived opportunities opening before him in that cause to which he had devoted himself, and in that service of which he was a master. A foreigner with but scant acquaintance and little influence in America, he had to make his way by sheer merit. The value of what has been subsequently called "a political pull" with the Congress was as well known then as it is now, and nearly as much used, too. He practically had none. Nevertheless, his foot was already upon that ladder upon which he intended to mount to the highest round eventually. He was not destined to realize his ambition, however, without a heartbreaking struggle against uncalled-for restraint, and a continued protest against active injustice which tried his very soul.

It was first proposed by the Marine Committee that he return to New England and assume command of the Hampden, but he wisely preferred to remain in the Providence for the time being. He thoroughly knew the ship and the crew, over which he had gained that ascendency he always enjoyed with those who sailed under his command. Not so much by mistaken kindness or indulgence did he win the devotion of his men-for he was ever a stern and severe, though by no means a merciless, disciplinarian-but because of his undoubted courage, brilliant seamanship, splendid audacity, and uniform success. There is an attraction about these qualities which is exercised perhaps more powerfully upon seamen than upon any other class. The profession of a sailor is one in which immediate decision, address, resource, and courage are more in evidence than in any other. The seaman in an emergency has but little time for reflection, and in the hour of peril, when the demand is made upon him, he must choose the right course instantly-as it were by instinct.


With large discretion in his orders, which were practically to cruise at pleasure and destroy the enemy's commerce, the Providence left the Delaware on the 21st of August. In the first week of the cruise she captured the brigs Sea Nymph, Favorite, and Britannia; the first two laden with rum, sugar, etc., and the last a whaler. These rich prizes were all manned and sent in.

On the morning of the 1st of September, being in the latitude of the Bermudas, five vessels were sighted to leeward. The sea was moderately smooth, with a fresh breeze blowing at the time, and the Providence immediately ran off toward the strangers to investigate. It appeared to the observers on Jones' brig that the largest was an East Indiaman and the others ordinary merchant vessels. They were in error, however, in their conclusions, for a nearer approach disclosed the fact that the supposed East Indiaman was a frigate of twenty-eight guns, called the Solebay. Jones immediately hauled his wind and clapped on sail. The frigate, which had endeavored to conceal her force with the hope of enticing the Providence under her guns, at once made sail in pursuit. The Providence was a smart goer, and so was the Solebay. The two vessels settled down for a long chase. On the wind it became painfully evident that the frigate had the heels of the brig. With burning anxiety Jones and his officers saw the latter gradually closing with them. Shot from her bow-chasers, as she came within range, rushed through the air at the little American sloop of war, which now hoisted her colors and returned the fire. Seeing this, the Solebay set an American ensign, and fired one or two guns to leeward in token of amity, but Jones was not to be taken in by any transparent ruse of this character. He held on, grimly determined. As the Solebay drew nearer she ceased firing, confident in her ability to capture the chase, for which, indeed, there appeared no escape.

An ordinary seaman, even though a brave man, would probably have given up the game in his mind, though his devotion to duty would have compelled him to continue the fight until actually overhauled, but Jones had no idea of being captured then. Already a plan of escape had developed in his fertile brain. Communicating his intentions to his officers, he completed his preparations, and only awaited the favorable moment for action. The Solebay had crept up to within one hundred yards of the lee quarter of the Providence. If the frigate yawed and delivered a broadside the brig would be sunk or crippled and captured. Now was the time, if ever, to put his plan in operation. If the maneuver failed, it would be all up with the Americans. As usual, Jones boldly staked all on the issue of the moment. As a preliminary the helm had been put slightly a-weather, and the brig allowed to fall off to leeward a little, so bringing the Solebay almost dead astern-if anything, a little to windward. In anticipation of close action, as Jones had imagined, the English captain had loaded his guns with grape shot, which, of course, would only be effective at short range. Should the Englishman get the Providence under his broadside, a well-aimed discharge of grape would clear her decks and enable him to capture the handsome brig without appreciably damaging her.

From his knowledge of the qualities of the Providence, Jones felt sure that going free-that is, with the wind aft, or on the quarter-he could run away from his pursuer. The men, of course, had been sent to their stations long since. The six 4-pounders, which constituted the lee battery, were quietly manned, the guns being double-shotted with grape and solid shot. The studding sails-light sails calculated to give a great increase in the spread of canvas to augment the speed of the ship in a light breeze, which could be used to advantage going free and in moderate winds-were brought out and prepared for immediate use. Everything having been made ready, and the men cautioned to pay strict attention to orders, and to execute them with the greatest promptitude and celerity, Jones suddenly put his helm hard up.

The handy Providence spun around on her heel like a top, and in a trice was standing boldly across the forefoot of the onrushing English frigate. When she lay squarely athwart the bows of the Solebay Jones gave the order to fire, and the little battery of 4-pounders barked out its gallant salute and poured its solid shot and grape into the eyes of the frigate. In the confusion of the moment, owing to the suddenness of the unexpected maneuver, and the raking he had received, the English captain lost his head. Before he could realize what had happened, the Providence, partially concealed by the smoke from her own guns, had drawn past him, and, covered with great wide-reaching clouds of light canvas by the nimble fingers of her anxious crew, was ripping through the water at a great rate at a right angle to her former direction.

When the Solebay, rapidly forging ahead, crossed the stern of the saucy American a few moments after, she delivered a broadside, which at that range, as the guns were loaded with grape shot, did little damage to the brig and harmed no one. The distance was too great and the guns were badly aimed. By the time the Solebay had emulated the maneuvers of the Providence and had run off, the latter had gained so great a lead that her escape was practically effected. The English frigate proved to be unable to outfoot the American brig on this course, and after firing upward of a hundred shot at her the Solebay gave over the pursuit. This escape has ever been counted one of the most daring and subtle pieces of seamanship and skill among the many with which the records of the American navy abound. As subsequent events proved, the failure to capture Jones was most unfortunate on the part of the English.

Jones now shaped his course for the Banks of Newfoundland, to break up the fishing industry and let the British know that ravaging the coast, which they had begun, was a game at which two could play. On the 16th and 17th of the month he ran into a heavy gale, so severe in character that he was forced to strike his guns into the hold on account of the rolling of the brig. The gale abated on the 19th, and on the 20th of September, the day being pleasant, the Providence was hove to and the men were preparing to enjoy a day of rest and amusement, fishing for cod, when in the morning two sail appeared to windward. As Jones was preparing to beat up and investigate them, they saved him that trouble by changing their course and running down toward him. They proved to be a merchant ship and a British frigate, the Milford, 32.

Jones kept the Providence under easy canvas until he learned the force of the enemy, and then made all sail to escape. Finding that he was very much faster than his pursuer, he amused himself during one whole day by ranging ahead and then checking his speed until the frigate would get almost within range, when he would run off again and repeat the performance. It was naturally most tantalizing to the officers of the Milford, and they vented their wrath in futile broadsides whenever there appeared the least possibility of reaching the Providence. After causing the enemy to expend a large quantity of powder and shot, having tired of the game, Jones contemptuously discharged a musket at them and sailed away.

On the 21st of September he appeared off the island of Canso, one of the principal fishing depots of the Grand Banks. He sent his boat in that night to gain information, and on the 22d he anchored in the harbor. There were three fishing schooners there, one of which he burned, one he scuttled, and the third, called the Ebenezer, he loaded with the fish taken from the two he had destroyed, and manned as a prize. After replenishing his wood and water, on the 23d he sailed up to Isle Madame, having learned that the fishing fleet was lying there dismantled for the winter. Beating to and fro with the Providence off the island, on that same evening he sent an expedition of twenty-five men in a shallop which he had captured at Canso, accompanied by a fully manned boat from the Providence. Both crews were heavily armed. The expedition captured the fishing fleet of nine vessels without loss. The crews of most of them, numbering some three hundred men, were ashore at the time, and the vessels were dismantled. Jones promised that if the men ashore would help to refit the vessels he desired to take with him as prizes, he would leave them a sufficient number of boats to enable them to regain their homes. By his ready address he actually persuaded them to comply with his request, and the unfortunate Englishmen labored assiduously to get the ships ready for sea.

On the 25th of September their preparations were completed, but a violent autumn gale blew up, and their situation became one of great peril. The Providence, anchored in Great St. Peter Channel, rode it out with two anchors down to a long scope of cable. The ship Alexander and the schooner Sea Flower, which were heavily laden with valuable plunder, had also reached the same channel. The Alexander succeeded in making an anchorage under a point of rocks which sheltered her, and enabled her to sustain the shock of the gale unharmed. The Sea Flower was driven on the lee shore, and, being hopelessly wrecked, was scuttled and fired the next day. The Ebenezer, loaded with fish from Canso, was also wrecked. The gale had abated about noon, when, after burning the ship Adventure, dismantled and in ballast, and leaving a brig and two small schooners to enable the English seamen to reach home, the Providence, accompanied by the Alexander and the brigs Kingston Packet and Success, got under way for home. On the 27th the Providence, in spite of the fact that she was now very short-handed on account of the several prizes she had manned, chased two armed transports apparently bound in for Quebec, which managed to make good their escape. The little squadron resumed its course, and arrived safely at Rhode Island without further mishap on the 7th of October.

On this remarkable cruise Jones had captured sixteen vessels, eight of which he manned and sent in as prizes, destroying five of the remainder, and generously leaving three for the unfortunate fishermen to reach their homes. He had carried out his orders to sink, burn, destroy, and capture with characteristic thoroughness, but without needless cruelty and oppression. He burned no dwelling houses, and turned no non-combatants out of their homes in the middle of winter, as Mowatt had done at Falmouth. He had entirely broken up the fishery at Canso, had escaped by the exercise of the highest seamanship from one British frigate, and had led another a merry dance in impotent pursuit. Property belonging to the enemy had been destroyed to the value of perhaps a million of dollars in round numbers, not to speak of the effect upon their pride by the bold cruising of the little brig of twelve 4-pound guns and seventy men.

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