Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

Another curious letter to a former friend on the island of Tobago, written at this time, which deals with certain investments in property with balances due him from his various trading ventures, contains the following statement:

"As I hope my dear mother is still alive, I must inform you that I wish my property in Tobago, or in England, after paying my just debts, to be applied for her support. Your own feelings, my dear sir, make it unnecessary for me to use arguments to prevail with you on this tender point. Any remittances which you may be enabled to make, through the hands of my good friend Captain John Plainer, of Cork, will be faithfully put into her hands; she hath several orphan grandchildren to provide for."

All of which plainly indicates that, though a citizen of another country and the bearer of another name, he still retained those natural feelings of affection which his enemies would fain persuade us were not in his being.

While waiting at Boston for the purchase of the ships referred to, he was selected by Congress to command a heavy ship of war, a frigate to be called the Indien, then building at Amsterdam, which undoubtedly would be the most formidable vessel in the American service. This would be not only a just tribute to his merit, but would also solve the difficulty about relative rank, for he would be the highest ranking officer in Continental waters, and there could be no conflict of authority. He was directed to proceed at once to Europe to take command of this ship. The Marine Committee sent the following letter, addressed to the commissioners of the United States in Europe, to Paul Jones, for him to present to them on his arrival in France:

"Philadelphia, May 9, 1777.

"Honourable Gentlemen: This letter is intended to be delivered to you by John Paul Jones, Esquire, an active and brave commander in our navy, who has already performed signal services in vessels of little force; and, in reward for his zeal, we have directed him to go on board the Amphitrite, a French ship of twenty guns, that brought in a valuable cargo of stores from Messrs. Hortalez & Co.,4 and with her to repair to France. He takes with him his commission, and some officers and men, so that we hope he will, under that sanction, make some good prizes with the Amphitrite; but our design of sending him is, with the approbation of Congress, that you may purchase one of those fine frigates that Mr. Deane writes us you can get, and invest him with the command thereof as soon as possible. We hope you may not delay this business one moment, but purchase, in such port or place in Europe as it can be done with most convenience and dispatch, a fine, fast-sailing frigate, or larger ship. Direct Captain Jones where he must repair to, and he will take with him his officers and men toward manning her. You will assign him some good house or agent, to supply him with everything necessary to get the ship speedily and well equipped and manned; somebody that will bestir himself vigorously in the business, and never quit it until it is accomplished.

"If you have any plan or service to be performed in Europe by such a ship, that you think will be more for the interest and honour of the States than sending her out directly, Captain Jones is instructed to obey your orders; and, to save repetition, let him lay before you the instructions we have given him, and furnish you with a copy thereof. You can then judge what will be necessary for you to direct him in; and whatever you do will be approved, as it will undoubtedly tend to promote the public service of this country.

"You see by this step how much dependence Congress places in your advices; and you must make it a point not to disappoint Captain Jones' wishes and expectations on this occasion."

At the same time the committee sent the following letter to Jones himself:

"Philadelphia, May 9, 1777.

"Sir: Congress have thought proper to authorize the Secret Committee to employ you on a voyage in the Amphitrite, from Portsmouth to Carolina and France, where it is expected you will be provided with a fine frigate; and as your present commission is for the command of a particular ship, we now send you a new one, whereby you are appointed a captain in our navy, and of course may command any ship in the service to which you are particularly ordered. You are to obey the orders of the Secret Committee, and we are, sir, etc."

The Amphitrite, which was to carry out Jones and the other officers and seamen to man the proposed frigate, was an armed merchantman. The French commander of the Amphitrite, however, made great difficulty with regard to surrendering his command to Jones, and even to receiving him and his men on board the ship, and through his persistent and vehement objections this promising arrangement likewise fell through. Jones continued his importunities for a command, however, his desire being then, as always, for active service. Finally, by the following resolutions passed by Congress on the 14th of June, he was appointed to the sloop of war Ranger, then nearing completion at Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

"Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

"Resolved, That Captain Paul Jones be appointed to command the ship Ranger.

"Resolved, That William Whipple, Esquire, member of Congress and of the Marine Committee, John Langdon, Esquire, Continental agent, and the said John Paul Jones be authorized to appoint lieutenants and other commissioned and warrant officers necessary for the said ship; and that blank commissions and warrants be sent them, to be filled up with the names of the persons they appoint, returns whereof to be made to the navy board in the Eastern Department."

At last, having received something tangible, he hastened to Portsmouth as soon as his orders were delivered to him, and assumed the command. It is claimed, perhaps with justice, that his hand was the first to hoist the new flag of the Republic, the Stars and Stripes, to the masthead of a war ship, as it had been the first to hoist the first flag of any sort at the masthead of the Alfred, not quite two years before. The date of this striking event is not known.

It is interesting to note the conjunction of Jones with the flag in this resolution; an association justified by his past, and to be further justified by his future, conduct, and by the curious relationship in which he was brought to the colors of the United States by his opportune action upon various occasions. The name of no other man is so associated with our flag as is his.

CHAPTER VI
THE FIRST CRUISE OF THE RANGER-SALUTE TO THE AMERICAN FLAG

In spite of the most assiduous effort on the part of Jones, he was unable to get the Ranger ready for sea before October, and the following extract from another letter to the Marine Committee shows the difficulties under which he labored, and the inadequate equipment and outfit with which he finally sailed.

"With all my industry I could not get the single suit of sails completed until the 20th current. Since that time the winds and weather have laid me under the necessity of continuing in port. At this time it blows a very heavy gale from the northeast. The ship with difficulty rides it out, with yards and topmasts struck, and whole cables ahead. When it clears up I expect the wind from the northwest, and shall not fail to embrace it, although I have not a spare sail nor materials to make one. Some of those I have are made of hissings.5 I never before had so disagreeable service to perform as that which I have now accomplished, and of which another will claim the credit as well as the profit. However, in doing my utmost, I am sensible that I have done no more than my duty."

The instructions under which Jones sailed for Europe are outlined in the following orders from the Marine Committee:

"As soon as these instructions get to hand you are to make immediate application to the proper persons to get your vessel victualed and fitted for sea with all expedition. When this is done you are to proceed on a voyage to some convenient port in France; on your arrival there, apply to the agent, if any, in or near said port, for such supplies as you may stand in need of. You are at the same time to give immediate notice, by letter, to the Honourable Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, Esquires, or any of them at Paris, of your arrival, requesting their instructions as to your further destination, which instructions you are to obey as far as it shall be in your power.

"You are to take particular notice that while on the coast of France, or in a French port, you are, as much as you conveniently can, to keep your guns covered and concealed, and to make as little warlike appearance as possible."

 

In the original plan the ship was heavily over-armed, being pierced for twenty-six guns. Considering her size and slight construction, Jones exercised his usual good judgment by refusing to take more than eighteen guns, the ordinary complement for a ship of her class. These were 6-pounders manufactured in the United States and ill proportioned, being several calibres short in the length of the barrel, according to a statement of the captain-a most serious defect. To all these disabilities was added an inefficient and insubordinate first lieutenant named Simpson, who probably had been appointed to this responsible position on account of the considerable family influence which was back of him. He was related to the Hancocks among others. The crew was a fair one, but was spoiled eventually by the example of Simpson and other officers. On the first of November, 1777, the imperfectly provided Ranger took her departure from Portsmouth bound for Europe. Her captain laments the fact that she had but thirty gallons of rum aboard for the men to drink, a serious defect in those grog-serving days. Before sailing, Jones made large advances from his private funds to the men, the Government being already in his debt to the amount of fifteen hundred pounds, for previous advances to the men of the Alfred and the Providence. None of these advances were repaid until years after. These facts are evidence, by the way, that he had finally realized considerable sums of money from his brother's estate, for he had no other financial resource save his West Indian investments, which were worth nothing to him at this time.

Wickes, Johnston, and Cunningham, in the Reprisal, Lexington, Surprise, and Revenge, insignificant vessels of inferior force, had by their brilliant and successful cruising in the English Channel demonstrated the possibility of operations against British commerce in that supposedly safe quarter of the ocean. Paul Jones was now to undertake, upon a larger scale, similar operations with much more astounding results.

On the way over, two prizes, both brigantines, laden with wine and fruit, were captured. Nearing the other side, the Ranger fell in with ten sail of merchantmen from the Mediterranean, under convoy of the line of battle ship Invincible, 74. Jones made strenuous efforts to cut out one of the convoy, but they clung so closely to the line of battle ship that he found it impossible to bring about his design, though he remained in sight of the convoy during one whole day. Had the Ranger been swifter or handier, he might have effected something, but she was very crank and slow as well.

On the 2d of December the sloop of war dropped anchor in the harbor of Nantes. Jones sent his letters and instructions to the commissioners, and had the pleasure of confirming to them the news of the surrender of Burgoyne and his army, which was probably the most important factor in bringing about the subsequent alliance between America and France. While awaiting a reply to his letters he busied himself in repairing the defects and weaknesses of his ship so far as his limited means permitted. Her trim was altered, ballast restowed, and a large quantity of lead taken on board; the lower masts were shortened several feet, and every other change which his skill and experience dictated was made on the ship. The results greatly conduced to her efficiency. It may be stated here that Jones was a thorough and accomplished seaman, and no man was capable of getting more out of a ship than he. From a slow, crank, unwieldy vessel he developed the sloop of war into a handy, amenable ship, and very much increased her speed.

In January, 1778, in obedience to instructions from the commissioners, he visited them in Paris and explained to them in detail his proposed plan of action. Alone among the naval commanders of his day does he appear to have appreciated that commerce destroying can be best carried on and the enemy most injured by concentrated attacks by mobile and efficient force upon large bodies of shipping in harbors and home ports, rather than by sporadic cruising in more or less frequented seas. He had come across with the hope of taking command of the fine frigate Indien, then building in Holland, and then, with the Ranger and such other ships as might be procured, carrying out his ideas by a series of bold descents upon the English coasts. But while the ministers of the King of France were hesitating, or perhaps better perfecting their plans preparatory to announcing an alliance offensive and defensive with this country, it was deemed of the utmost importance that no occasion should be given the British which would enable them unduly to hasten the course of events. The suspicion of the British Government was aroused with respect to the Indien, however, and it was thought best, under the circumstances, to pretend that she was being made for the Government of France, with which England was then nominally at peace. In any event, work upon her had been so delayed that she was very far from completion, and would not have been available for months.

Thus was Jones deprived of the enjoyment of this command, to his great personal regret, to the disarrangement of his plans, and to the detriment of the cause he was so gallantly to support. There was no other ship nor were any smaller vessels then available for him, and he was therefore of necessity continued in the command of the Ranger.

This in itself was annoying, and produced a sequence of events of a most unfortunate character. Lieutenant Simpson had been promised the command of the Ranger when Jones took over the Indien, and the failure to keep this promise entailed by the circumstances mentioned, embittered Simpson to such a degree that his efficiency-never of the first order-was greatly impaired, and so long as he remained under the command of Jones he was a smoldering brand of discontent and disobedience.

On the 10th of January Jones, who had rejoined his ship, wrote at great length to Silas Deane, one of the commissioners, suggesting a plan whereby, in case the proposed alliance between France and the rebellious colonies were consummated, a magnificent blow might be struck against England, and the cause of the Revolution thereby greatly furthered. He urged that Admiral D'Estaing should be dispatched with a great fleet to pen up and capture Lord Howe, then operating in the Delaware with an inferior fleet. There is no doubt that this conception was essentially sound, and if he himself could have been intrusted with the carrying out of the plan the results would have been most happy; but, in order to effect anything, in peace or war, prompt action is as necessary as careful planning and wise decision.

When the French did finally adopt the plan they found that their dilatory proceedings, their failure to take immediate advantage of past preparation, and their substitution of Toulon for Brest as a naval point of departure, doomed the enterprise to failure. Lord Howe, hearing of the attempt, and realizing his precarious and indefensive position in the Delaware, made haste to return to his old anchorage in New York. When D'Estaing, urged by Washington, arrived off the harbor, he was deterred from attacking Lord Howe's inferior force by the representations of the pilots, who stated that there was not enough water on the bar for the greater ships of the line. While, therefore, Jones' suggestion came to nothing, it is interesting and instructive to contemplate this project of his fertile brain. Another enterprise proposed by him involved an expedition to take the island of St. Helena, and with it as a base of attack attempt the capture of the numerous Indiamen which either stopped at Jamestown or passed near the island. This too was unheeded.

While these matters were under consideration, the Ranger sailed from Nantes to Quiberon Bay early in February, 1778, having under convoy several American trading ships which were desirous of joining a great fleet of merchant vessels assembling at that point. These vessels were to be convoyed past Cape Finisterre on their way across the Atlantic by a heavy French squadron of five line of battle ships and several frigates and sloops under the command of La Motte Piquet.

On the 13th of February the Ranger hove to off the bay. The wind was blowing furiously, as it frequently does on the rocky confines of that bold shore, off which a few years before the great Lord Hawke had signally defeated Conflans; but, instead of running to an anchorage immediately, Jones sent a boat ashore, and through the American resident agent communicated to the French commander his intention of entering the bay the next day and saluting him; asking, as was customary, that the salute be returned. The French admiral courteously replied that he would return four guns less than the number he received, his instructions being to that effect, and in accordance with the custom of his navy when an interchange of sea courtesies took place between the fleets of France and those of a republic. This was not satisfactory to the doughty American, and he addressed the following letter to the American agent for the French commander:

"February 14, 1778.

"Dear Sir: I am extremely sorry to give you fresh trouble, but I think the admiral's answer of yesterday requires an explanation. The haughty English return gun for gun to foreign officers of equal rank, and two less only to captains by flag officers. It is true, my command at present is not important, yet, as the senior American officer at present in Europe, it is my duty to claim an equal return of respect to the flag of the United States that would be shown to any other flag whatever.

"I therefore take the liberty of inclosing an appointment, perhaps as respectable as any which the French admiral can produce; besides which, I have others in my possession.

"If, however, he persists in refusing to return an equal salute, I will accept of two guns less, as I have not the rank of admiral.

"It is my opinion that he would return four less to a privateer or a merchant ship; therefore, as I have been honoured oftener than once with a chief command of ships of war, I can not in honour accept of the same terms of respect.

"You will singularly oblige me by waiting upon the admiral; and I ardently hope you will succeed in the application, else I shall be under a necessity of departing without coming into the bay.

"I have the honour to be, etc.

"To William Carmichael, Esq.

"N. B. – Though thirteen guns is your greatest salute in America, yet if the French admiral should prefer a greater number he has his choice on conditions."

A great stickler for his rights and for all the prerogatives of his station was John Paul Jones. In this instance he was maintaining the dignity of the United States by insisting upon a proper recognition of his command.

However, having learned afterward that the contention of the French admiral was correct, Jones determined to accept the indicated return, realizing with his usual keenness that the gist of the matter lay in receiving any salute rather than in the number of guns which it comprised; so the Ranger got under way late in the evening of the 14th, and beat in toward the harbor. It was almost dark when she drew abreast the great French flagship. Backing his main-topsail, the 6-pounders on the main deck of the Ranger barked out their salute of thirteen guns, which was promptly returned by the French commander with nine heavy guns from the battle ship.

It was the first time the Stars and Stripes had been saluted on the high seas. It was, in fact, the first official recognition of the existence of this new power by the authorized military representatives of any civilized nation. A Dutch governor of St. Eustatius, a year before, had saluted an American ensign-not the Stars and Stripes, of course-on one of our cruisers, but the act had been disavowed and the governor promptly recalled for his presumption.

As this little transaction between Paul Jones and La Motte Piquet had occurred so late at night, the American sent word to the Frenchman that he proposed to sail through his line in broad daylight on the morrow, with the brig Independence, a privateer temporarily attached to his command, and salute him in the open light of day. With great good humor and complaisance, La Motte Piquet again expressed his intention of responding. Accordingly, the next morning, Jones repaired on board the Independence, which had been lying to during the night outside of signal distance, and, having made everything as smart and as shipshape as possible on the little vessel, with the newest and brightest of American ensigns flying from every masthead, the little brig sailed past the towering walls of the great ships of the line, saluting and receiving their reply. There were no doubts in any one's mind as to the reality of the salute to the flag after that!

 

It must have been a proud moment for the man who had hoisted the pine-tree flag for the first time on the Alfred; for the man who had been the first officer of the American navy to receive promotion; for the man who had first flung the Stars and Stripes to the breeze from the masthead of a ship; for the man who, in his little vessel, trifling and inconsiderable as she was, was yet about to maintain the honor of that flag with unexampled heroism in the home waters and in the presence of the proudest, most splendid, and most efficient navy of the world. That 15th of February, that bright, cold, clear winter morning, is one of the memorable anniversaries in the history of our nation.

Writing to the Marine Committee on the 22d of February, 1778, he says:

"I am happy in having it in my power to congratulate you on my having seen the American flag for the first time recognized in the fullest and completest manner by the flag of France. I was off their bay the 13th instant, and sent my boat in the next day, to know if the admiral would return my salute. He answered that he would return to me, as the senior American Continental officer in Europe, the same salute which he was authorized by his court to return to an admiral of Holland, or any other republic, which was four guns less than the salute given. I hesitated at this, for I demanded gun for gun. Therefore I anchored in the entrance of the bay, at a distance from the French fleet; but, after a very particular inquiry on the 14th, finding that he had really told the truth, I was induced to accept of his offer, the more so as it was, in fact, an acknowledgment of American independence. The wind being contrary and blowing hard, it was after sunset before the Ranger got near enough to salute La Motte Piquet with thirteen guns, which he returned with nine. However, to put the matter beyond a doubt, I did not suffer the Independence to salute till next morning, when I sent the admiral word that I would sail through his fleet in the brig, and would salute him in open day. He was exceedingly pleased, and he returned the compliment also with nine guns."

The much-talked-of treaty of alliance between France and the United States had been secretly signed six days before, but neither of the participants of this interchange of sea courtesies was then aware of this fact. Having discharged his duties by placing the merchant ships he had convoyed under La Motte Piquet's command, Jones left Quiberon Bay and went to Brest, where there was assembled a great French fleet under the famous Comte D'Orvilliers. Jones had the pleasure of again receiving, by the courtesy of that gallant officer, a reply to the Ranger's salute from the great guns of the flagship La Bretagne.

The Frenchman, whose acquaintance Jones promptly made, was much attracted by his daring and ingenuous personality, and, having been advised of the disappointment caused by the loss of the Indien, he offered to procure him a commission as a captain in the French navy and assign him to a heavy frigate instead of the petty sloop of war at present under his command-an unprecedented honor. Had Jones been the mere soldier of fortune which his enemies have endeavored to maintain he was, this brilliant offer would have met with a ready acceptance. The French marine, through the strenuous efforts of the king and his ministers, was then in a most flourishing condition. The terrific defeats at the close of the century and the beginning of the next were still in the womb of events and had not been brought forth, and the prospects of its success were exceedingly brilliant. With the backing of D'Orvilliers and his own capacity, speedy promotion and advancement might easily be predicted for the American. He refused decisively to accept the flattering offer, and remained with the Ranger.

On the 10th of April, having done what he could to put the ship in efficient trim, he sailed from Brest under the following orders:

"Paris, January 16, 1778.

"Sir: As it is not in our power to procure you such a ship as you expected, we advise you, after equipping the Ranger in the best manner for the cruise you propose, that you proceed with her in the manner you shall judge best for distressing the enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war and the terms of your commission." (Directions here follow for sending prizes taken on the coasts of France and Spain into Bilboa or Corogne, unless the danger was too great, in which case they were to be sent to L'Orient or Bordeaux.) "If you make an attempt on the coast of Great Britain we advise you not to return immediately into the ports of France, unless forced by stress of weather or the pursuit of the enemy; and in such case you can make the proper representation to the officers of the port, and acquaint us with your situation. We rely on your ability, as well as your zeal, to serve the United States, and therefore do not give you particular instructions as to your operations. We must caution you against giving any cause of complaint to the subjects of France or Spain, or of other neutral powers, and recommend it to you to show them every proper mark of respect and real civility which may be in your power."

These orders had been dated and issued to him some months before, but were not modified or revoked in the interim. He was given an opportunity to carry out so much of his proposed plan for attacking the English coast as was possible with his single ship.

4A fictitious house, under the name of which the commissioners sent out military stores.
5A coarse thin stuff, a very poor substitute for the ordinary canvas.
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