Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones


When his countrymen heard the story of this daring and successful cruise, Jones immediately became the most famous officer of the new navy. The éclat he had gained by his brilliant voyage at once raised him from a more or less obscure position, and gave him a great reputation in the eyes of his countrymen, a reputation he did not thereafter lose. But Jones was not a man to live upon a reputation. He had scarcely arrived at Providence before he busied himself with plans for another undertaking. He had learned from prisoners taken on his last cruise that there were a number of American prisoners, at various places, who were undergoing hard labor in the coal mines of Cape Breton Island, and he conceived the bold design of freeing them if possible.

We are here introduced to one striking characteristic, not the least noble among many, of this great man. The appeal of the prisoner always profoundly touched his heart. The freedom of his nature, his own passionate love for liberty and independence, the heritage of his Scotch hills perhaps, ever made him anxious and solicitous about those who languished in captivity. It was but the working out of that spirit which compelled him to relinquish his participation in the lucrative slave trade. In all his public actions, he kept before him as one of his principal objects the release of such of his countrymen as were undergoing the horrors of British prisons.

The suggested enterprise found favor in the mind of Commodore Hopkins, who forthwith assigned Jones to the command of a squadron comprising the Alfred, the Providence, and the brigantine Hampden. Jones hoisted his flag on board the Alfred and hastened his preparations for departure. He found the greatest difficulty in manning his little squadron, and finally, in despair of getting a sufficient crew to man them all, he determined to set sail with the Alfred and the Hampden only, the latter vessel being commanded by Captain Hoysted Hacker. He received his orders on the 22d of October, and on the 27th the two vessels got under way from Providence. The wind was blowing fresh at the time, and Hacker, who seems to have been an indifferent sailor, ran the Hampden on a ledge of rock, where she was so badly wrecked as to be unseaworthy. Jones put back to his anchorage, and, having transferred the crew of the Hampden to the Providence, set sail on the 2d of November.

Both vessels were very short-handed. The Alfred, whose proper complement was about three hundred, which had sailed from Philadelphia with two hundred and thirty-five, now could muster no more than one hundred and fifty all told. The two vessels were short of water, provisions, munitions, and everything else that goes to make up a ship of war. Jones made up for all this deficiency by his own personality.

On the evening of the first day out the two vessels anchored in Tarpauling Cove, near Nantucket. There they found a Rhode Island privateer at anchor. In accordance with the orders of the commodore, Jones searched her for deserters, and from her took four men on board the Alfred. He was afterward sued in the sum of ten thousand pounds for this action, but, though the commodore, as he stated, abandoned him in his defense, nothing came of the suit.

On the 3d of November, by skillful and successful maneuvering, the two ships passed through the heavy British fleet off Block Island, and squared away for the old cruising ground on the Grand Banks. In addition to the release of the prisoners there was another object in the cruise. A squadron of merchant vessels loaded with coal for the British army in New York was about to leave Louisburg under convoy. Jones determined to intercept them if possible.

On the 13th, off Cape Canso again, the Alfred encountered the British armed transport Mellish, of ten guns, having on board one hundred and fifty soldiers. After a trifling resistance she was captured. She was loaded with arms, munitions of war, military supplies, and ten thousand suits of winter clothing, destined for Sir Guy Carleton's army in Canada. She was the most valuable prize which had yet fallen into the hands of the Americans. The warm clothing, especially, would be a godsend to the ragged, naked army of Washington. Of so much importance was this prize that Jones determined not to lose sight of her, and to convoy her into the harbor himself. Putting a prize crew on board, he gave instructions that she was to be scuttled if there appeared any danger of her recapture.

About this time two other vessels were captured, one of which was a large fishing vessel, from which he was able to replenish his meager store of provisions. On the 14th of November a severe gale blew up from the northwest, accompanied by a violent snowstorm. Captain Hacker bore away to the southward before the storm and parted company during the night, returning incontinently to Newport. The weather continued execrable. Amid blinding snowstorms and fierce winter gales the Alfred and her prizes beat up along the desolate iron-bound shore. Jones again entered the harbor of Canso, and, finding a large English transport laden with provisions for the army aground on a shoal near the mouth of the harbor, sent a boat party which set her on fire. Seeing an immense warehouse filled with oil and material for whale and cod fisheries, the boats made a sudden dash for the shore, and, applying a torch to the building, it was soon consumed.

Beating off the shore, still accompanied by his prizes, he continued up the coast of Cape Breton toward Louisburg, looking for the coal fleet. It was his good fortune to run across it in a dense fog. It consisted of a number of vessels under the convoy of the frigate Flora, a ship which would have made short work of him if she could have run across him. Favored by the impenetrable fog, with great address and hardihood Jones succeeded in capturing no less than three of the convoy, and escaped unnoticed with his prizes.

Two days afterward he came across a heavily armed British privateer from Liverpool, which he took after a slight resistance. But now, when he attempted to make Louisburg to carry out his design of levying on the place and releasing the prisoners, he found that the harbor was closed by masses of ice, and that it was impossible to effect a landing. Indeed, his ships were in a perilous condition already. He had manned no less than six prizes, which had reduced his short crew almost to a prohibitive degree. On board the Alfred he had over one hundred and fifty prisoners, a number greatly in excess of his own men; his water casks were nearly empty, and his provisions were exhausted. He had six prizes with him, one of exceptional value. Nothing could be gained by lingering on the coast, and he decided, therefore, to return.

The little squadron, under convoy of the Alfred and the armed privateer, which he had manned and placed under the command of Lieutenant Saunders, made its way toward the south in the fierce winter weather. Off St. George's Bank they again encountered the Milford. It was late in the afternoon when her topsails rose above the horizon. The wind was blowing fresh from the northwest; the Alfred and her prizes were on the starboard tack, the enemy was to windward. From his previous experience Jones was able fairly to estimate the speed of the Milford. A careful examination convinced him that it would be impossible for the latter to close with his ships before nightfall. He therefore placed the Alfred and the privateer between the English frigate lasking down upon them and the rest of his ships, and continued his course. He then signaled the prizes, with the exception of the privateer, that they should disregard any orders or signals which he might give in the night, and hold on as they were.

The prizes were slow sailers, and, as the slowest necessarily set the pace for the whole squadron, the Milford gradually overhauled them. At the close of the short winter day, when the night fell and the darkness rendered sight of the pursued impossible, Jones showed a set of lantern signals, and, hanging a top light on the Alfred, right where it would be seen by the Englishmen, at midnight, followed by the privateer, he changed his course directly away from the prizes. The Milford promptly altered her course and pursued the light. The prizes, in obedience to their orders, held on as they were. At daybreak the prizes were nowhere to be seen, and the Milford was booming along after the privateer and the Alfred.

To run was no part of Paul Jones' desires, and he determined to make a closer inspection of the Milford, with a view to engaging if a possibility of capturing her presented itself; so he bore up and headed for the oncoming British frigate. The privateer did the same. A nearer view, however, developed the strength of the enemy, and convinced him that it would be madness to attempt to engage with the Alfred and the privateer in the condition he then was, so he hauled aboard his port tacks once more, and, signaling to the privateer, stood off again. For some reason-Jones imagined that it was caused by a mistaken idea of the strength of the Milford-Saunders signaled to Jones that the Milford was of inferior force, and disregarding his orders foolishly ran down under her lee from a position of perfect safety, and was captured without a blow. The lack of proper subordination in the nascent navy of the United States brought about many disasters, and this was one of them. Jones characterized this as an act of folly; it is difficult to dismiss it thus mildly. I would fain do no man an injustice, but if a man wanted to be a traitor that is the way he would act. Jones' own account of this adventure, which follows, is of deep interest:


"This led the Milford entirely out of the way of the prizes, and particularly the clothing ship, Mellish, for they were all out of sight in the morning. I had now to get out of the difficulty in the best way I could. In the morning we again tacked, and as the Milford did not make much appearance I was unwilling to quit her without a certainty of her superior force. She was out of shot, on the lee quarter, and as I could only see her bow, I ordered the letter of marque, Lieutenant Saunders, that held a much better wind than the Alfred, to drop slowly astern, until he could discover by a view of the enemy's side whether she was of superior or inferior force, and to make a signal accordingly. On seeing Mr. Saunders drop astern, the Milford wore suddenly and crowded sail toward the northeast. This raised in me such doubts as determined me to wear also, and give chase. Mr. Saunders steered by the wind, while the Milford went lasking, and the Alfred followed her with a pressed sail, so that Mr. Saunders was soon almost hull down to windward. At last the Milford tacked again, but I did not tack the Alfred till I had the enemy's side fairly open, and could plainly see her force. I then tacked about ten o'clock. The Alfred being too light to be steered by the wind, I bore away two points, while the Milford steered close by the wind, to gain the Alfred's wake; and by that means he dropped astern, notwithstanding his superior sailing. The weather, too, which became exceedingly squally, enabled me to outdo the Milford by carrying more sail. I began to be under no apprehension from the enemy's superiority, for there was every appearance of a severe gale, which really took place in the night. To my great surprise, however, Mr. Saunders, toward four o'clock, bore down on the Milford, made the signal of her inferior force, ran under her lee, and was taken!"

With the exception of one small vessel, which was recaptured, the prizes all arrived safely, the precious Mellish finally reaching the harbor of Dartmouth. The Alfred dropped anchor at Boston, December 15, 1776. The news of the captured clothing reached Washington and gladdened his heart-and the hearts of his troops as well-on the eve of the battle of Trenton.

The reward for this brilliant and successful cruise, the splendid results of which had been brought about by the most meager means, was an order relieving him of the command of the Alfred and assigning him to the Providence again. When he arrived at Philadelphia the next spring he found that by an act of Congress, on the 10th of October, 1776, which had created a number of captains in the navy, he, who had been first on the list of lieutenants, and therefore the sixth ranking sea officer, was now made the eighteenth captain. He was passed over by men who had no claim whatever to superiority on the score of their service to the Commonwealth, which had been inconsiderable or nothing at all. Indeed, there was no man in the country who by merit or achievement was entitled to precede him, except possibly Nicholas Biddle.

If the friendless Scotsman had commanded more influence, more political prestige, so that he might have been rewarded for his auspicious services by placing him at the head of the navy, I venture to believe that some glorious chapters in our marine history would have been written.


The period between the termination of his last cruise and his assignment to his next important command was employed by Jones in vigorous and proper protests against the arbitrary action of Congress, which had deprived him of that position on the navy list which was his just due, were either merit, date of commission, or quality of service considered. To the ordinary citizen the question may appear of little interest, but to the professional soldier or sailor it is of the first importance. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of properly maintaining an army or navy without regular promotion, definitive station, and adequate reward of merit. To feel that rank is temporary and position is at the will of unreasonable and irresponsible direction is to undermine service.

The same injustice drove John Stark, of New Hampshire, to resign the service with the pithy observation that an officer who could not protect his own rights was unfit to be trusted with those of his country. It did not prevent his winning the fight at Bennington, though. The same treatment caused Daniel Morgan to seek that retirement from which he was only drawn forth by his country's peril to win the Battle of the Cowpens. And, lastly, it was the same treatment which, in part at least, made Arnold a traitor. Then, as ever, Congress was continually meddling with matters of purely military administration, to the very great detriment of the service.

Jones has been censured as a jealous stickler for rank, a quibbler about petty distinctions in trying times. Such criticisms proceed from ignorance. If there were nothing else, rank means opportunity. The range of prospective enterprises is greater the higher the rank. The little Scotsman was properly tenacious of his prerogatives-we could not admire him if he were not so-and naturally exasperated by the arbitrary course of Congress, against which he protested with all the vehemence of his passionate, fiery, and-it must be confessed-somewhat irritable nature. On this subject he thus wrote to the Marine Board at Philadelphia:

"I am now to inform you that by a letter from Commodore Hopkins, dated on board the Warren, January 14, 1777, which came to my hands a day or two ago, I am superseded in the command of the Alfred, in favour of Captain Hinman, and ordered back to the sloop in Providence River. Whether this order doth or doth not supersede also your orders to me of the 10th ult. you can best determine; however, as I undertook the late expedition at his (Commodore Hopkins') request, from a principle of humanity, I mean not now to make a difficulty about trifles, especially when the good of the service is to be consulted. As I am unconscious of any neglect of duty or misconduct, since my appointment at the first as eldest lieutenant of the navy, I can not suppose that you have intended to set me aside in favour of any man who did not at that time bear a captain's commission, unless, indeed, that man, by exerting his superior abilities, hath rendered or can render more important services to America. Those who stepped forth at the first, in ships altogether unfit for war, were generally considered as frantic rather than wise men, for it must be remembered that almost everything then made against them. And although the success in the affair with the Glasgow was not equal to what it might have been, yet the blame ought not to be general. The principal or principals in command alone are culpable, and the other officers, while they stand unimpeached, have their full merit. There were, it is true, divers persons, from misrepresentation, put into commission at the beginning, without fit qualification, and perhaps the number may have been increased by later appointments; but it follows not that the gentleman or man of merit should be neglected or overlooked on their account. None other than a gentleman, as well as a seaman both in theory and practice, is qualified to support the character of a commission officer in the navy; nor is any man fit to command a ship of war who is not also capable of communicating his ideas on paper, in language that becomes his rank. If this be admitted, the foregoing operations will be sufficiently clear; but if further proof is required it can easily be produced.

"When I entered into the service I was not actuated by motives of self-interest. I stepped forth as a free citizen of the world, in defense of the violated rights of mankind, and not in search of riches, whereof, I thank God, I inherit a sufficiency; but I should prove my degeneracy were I not in the highest degree tenacious of my rank and seniority. As a gentleman I can yield this point up only to persons of superior abilities and superior merit, and under such persons it would be my highest ambition to learn. As this is the first time of my having expressed the least anxiety on my own account, I must entreat your patience until I account to you for the reason which hath given me this freedom of sentiment. It seems that Captain Hinman's commission is No. 1, and that, in consequence, he who was at first my junior officer by eight, hath expressed himself as my senior officer in a manner which doth himself no honour, and which doth me signal injury. There are also in the navy persons who have not shown me fair play after the service I have rendered them. I have even been blamed for the civilities which I have shown to my prisoners, at the request of one of whom I herein inclose an appeal, which I must beg leave to lay before Congress. Could you see the appellant's accomplished lady, and the innocents their children, arguments in their behalf would be unnecessary. As the base-minded only are capable of inconsistencies, you will not blame my free soul, which can never stoop where I can not also esteem. Could I, which I never can, bear to be superseded, I should indeed deserve your contempt and total neglect. I am therefore to entreat you to employ me in the most enterprising and active service, accountable to your honourable board only for my conduct, and connected as much as possible with gentlemen and men of good sense."

The letter does credit to his head and heart alike. Matter and manner are both admirable. In it he is at his best, and one paragraph shows that the generous sympathy he ever felt for a prisoner could even be extended to the enemies of his country, so that as far as he personally was concerned they should suffer no needless hardship in captivity. Considered as the production of a man whose life from boyhood had been mainly spent upon the sea in trading ships and slavers, with their limited opportunities for polite learning, and an entire absence of that refined society without which education rarely rises to the point of culture, the form and substance of Jones' letters are surprising. Of this and of most of the letters hereafter to be quoted only words of approbation may be used. A just yet modest appreciation of his own dignity, a proper and resolute determination to maintain it, a total failure to truckle to great men, an absence of sycophancy and hypocrisy, a clear insight into the requirements of a gentleman and an effortless rising to his own high standard without unpleasant self-assertion, are found in his correspondence. Considering the humble source from which he sprang, his words, written and spoken, equally with his deeds, indicate his rare qualities.

It is probable that no disposition existed in Congress to do him an injustice-quite the reverse, in fact; but the claims of the representatives of the several States, which were insistently put forth in behalf of local individuals aspiring to naval station from the various colonies in which the different ships were building, were too strong to be disregarded. The central administration was at no time sufficiently firm for a really strong government, and conciliation and temporization were necessary. It was only by the very highest quality of tact that greater difficulties were overcome, and that more glaring acts of injustice were not perpetrated. So sensible were the authorities of Jones' conduct, so valuable had been his services on his last two cruises, that while they were unable at that time, in spite of his protests, to restore him to his proper place in the list, as a concession to his ability and merit orders were given him assigning him to the command of the squadron consisting of the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, Hampden, and Providence, to operate against Pensacola.

This was virtually creating him commander-in-chief of the naval forces, for outside the ships mentioned there were but few others worthy of consideration. Natural jealousy had, however, arisen in the mind of Hopkins, the commander-in-chief, at being thus superseded and ignored through one of his own subordinates by Congress, with which his relations had become so strained that he affected to disbelieve the validity of the order assigning Jones to this duty, and, refusing to comply therewith, retained the ships under his command. The matter thereupon fell through.

Finding all efforts to secure the squadron and carry out these orders fruitless, Jones journeyed to Philadelphia for the purpose of emphatically placing before the Marine Committee his grievances. There a further shock awaited him.

"My conduct hitherto," he writes on this subject in the memorial addressed to Congress from the Texel years after, "was so much approved of by Congress that on the 5th of February, 1777, I was appointed, with unlimited orders, to command a little squadron of the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, Hampden, and sloop Providence. Various important services were pointed out, but I was left at free liberty to make my election. That service, however, did not take place; for the commodore, who had three of the squadron blocked in at Providence, affected to disbelieve my appointment, and would not at last give me the necessary assistance. Finding that he trifled with my applications as well as the orders of Congress, I undertook a journey from Boston to Philadelphia, in order to explain matters to Congress in person. I took this step also because Captain Hinman had succeeded me in the command of the Alfred, and, of course, the service could not suffer through my absence. I arrived at Philadelphia in the beginning of April. But what was my surprise to find that, by a new line of navy rank, which had taken place on the 10th day of October, 1776, all the officers that had stepped forth at the beginning were superseded! I was myself superseded by thirteen men, not one of whom did (and perhaps some of them durst not) take the sea against the British flag at the first; for several of them who were then applied to refused to venture, and none of them has since been very happy in proving their superior abilities. Among these thirteen there are individuals who can neither pretend to parts nor education, and with whom, as a private gentleman, I would disdain to associate.


"I leave your excellency and the Congress to judge how this must affect a man of honour and sensibility.

"I was told by President Hancock that what gave me so much pain had been the effect of a multiplicity of business. He acknowledged the injustice of that regulation, said it should make but a nominal and temporary difference, and that in the meantime I might assure myself that no navy officer stood higher in the opinion of Congress than myself."

The complete news of his displacement and supersession in rank does not appear to have reached him before this. His efforts to secure the restoration of his rank proving useless, he applied for immediate sea duty. The next attempt on the part of the Marine Committee to gratify Jones's wish for active service, and avail themselves of his ability at the same time, took the shape of a resolution of Congress authorizing him to choose the best of three ships which it was proposed to purchase in Boston, which he was to command until some better provision could be made for him. He was ordered to that point to fit out the ship. During this period of harassing anxiety he gave great attention to formulating plans and making suggestions looking to a more effective organization of the new naval establishment.

To Robert Morris, chairman of the committee, on different occasions, he communicated his views on this important subject in a series of valuable letters, of which the following are pertinent extracts:

"As the regulations of the navy are of the utmost consequence, you will not think me presumptuous, if, with the utmost diffidence, I venture to communicate to you such hints as, in my judgment, will promote its honor and good government. I could heartily wish that every commissioned officer were to be previously examined; for, to my certain knowledge, there are persons who have already crept into commission without abilities or fit qualifications; I am myself far from desiring to be excused. From experience in ours, as well as from my former intimacy with many officers of note in the British navy, I am convinced that the parity of rank between sea and land or marine officers is of more consequence to the harmony of the sea service than has generally been imagined… I propose not our enemies as an example for our general imitation; yet, as their navy is the best regulated of any in the world, we must, in some degree, imitate them, and aim at such further improvement as may one day make ours vie with and exceed theirs."

With regard to the difficulty of recruiting seamen, some of whom, finding the merchant service or coasting trade was broken up, had entered the army at the beginning of the war, while many more had engaged in privateering-a much more profitable vocation than the regular service-he says:

"It is to the least degree distressing to contemplate the state and establishment of our navy. The common class of mankind are actuated by no nobler principle than that of self-interest; this, and this alone, determines all adventurers in privateers-the owners, as well as those whom they employ. And while this is the case, unless the private emolument of individuals in our navy is made superior to that in privateers, it can never become respectable, it will never become formidable. And without a respectable navy-alas! America. In the present critical situation of affairs human wisdom can suggest no more than one infallible expedient: enlist the seamen during pleasure, and give them all the prizes. What is the paltry emolument of two thirds of prizes to the finances of this vast continent? If so poor a resource is essential to its independence, in sober sadness we are involved in a woeful predicament, and our ruin is fast approaching. The situation of America is new in the annals of mankind; her affairs cry haste, and speed must answer them. Trifles, therefore, ought to be wholly disregarded, as being, in the old vulgar proverb, penny wise and pound foolish. If our enemies, with the best establishment and most formidable navy in the universe, have found it expedient to assign all prizes to the captors, how much more is such policy essential to our infant fleet! But I need use no arguments to convince you of the necessity of making the emoluments of our navy equal, if not superior, to theirs. We have had proof that a navy may be officered on almost any terms, but we are not so sure that these officers are equal to their commissions; nor will the Congress ever obtain such certainty until they in their wisdom see proper to appoint a board of admiralty competent to determine impartially the respective merits and abilities of their officers, and to superintend, regulate, and point out all the motions and operations of the navy."

In another letter to Robert Morris he writes:

"There are no officers more immediately wanted in the marine department than commissioners of dockyards, to superintend the building and outfits of all ships of war; with power to appoint deputies, to provide, and have in constant readiness, sufficient quantities of provisions, stores, and slops, so that the small number of ships we have may be constantly employed, and not continue idle, as they do at present. Besides all the advantages that would arise from such appointments, the saving which would accrue to the continent is worth attending to. Had such men been appointed at the first, the new ships might have been at sea long ago. The difficulty now lies in finding men who are deserving, and who are fitly qualified for an office of such importance."

We are surprised at the clear insight of this untrained, inexperienced Scotsman, whom, by the way, I shall hereafter call an American. Most of his recommendations have long since been adopted in our own navy and other navies of the world. His conclusions are the results of his long and thorough professional study, his habits of application, his power of comprehension and faculty of clear and explicit statement. His observations would do credit to the most trained observer with large experience back of his observation.

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