Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones


The first few days of the cruise were uneventful. On the 14th of April, 1778, between the Scilly Isles and Cape Clear, the Ranger captured a brig bound for Ireland loaded with flaxseed. As the prize and her cargo were not worth sending in, the vessel was burned at sea. On the 17th, off St. George's Channel, they overhauled a large ship, the Lord Chatham, loaded with porter en route from London to Dublin. The ship and cargo being of great value-one likes to think how the porter must have appealed to the seamen, who, it is quite likely, were permitted to regale themselves to a limited extent from the cargo-she was manned and sent back to Brest as a prize. After this capture Jones proceeded up the Irish Channel, heading to the northeast, and on the 18th, finding himself off the northern extremity of the Isle of Man, and in line with Whitehaven, he attempted to carry out a preconceived project of destroying the shipping in the port; being determined, as he says, by one great burning of ships to put an end to the burnings and ravagings and maraudings of the British upon the undefended coasts of North America.

The wind was blowing from the east, and he beat up against it toward the town, where he hoped to find a large number of ships in the harbor. The adverse wind delayed him, however, and it was not until ten o'clock at night that the Ranger reached a point from which it was practicable to dispatch the boats. Preparations were hastily made, and the boats were called away and manned by volunteers. The boats were already in the water when the wind suddenly shifted and blew hard on shore, so that the Ranger was forced to beat out to sea promptly to avoid taking ground on the shoals under her lee. The expedition, therefore, for that time, was abandoned, the boats were swung up to the davits, and the Ranger filled away again.

The next morning, off the Mull of Galloway, they captured a schooner loaded with barley and sunk her. Learning from some prisoners that ten or twelve large ships, under the protection of a small tender, were anchored in Lochvyau, Scotland, Jones ran for that harbor, intending to destroy them, but the variable weather, as before, interfered with his plans, and a sudden squall drove the Ranger into the open once more and saved the ships. He captured and sunk a small Irish fishing sloop, making prisoners of the fishermen, that same afternoon. The sloop was of no value to Jones, and he would have let her go had it not been that he feared the alarm would be given. He treated the fishermen kindly, however, and, as we shall see, in the end they suffered no loss from his action.

On the 20th he captured a sloop loaded with grain, and on the 21st, off Carrickfergus, he took another small fishing boat. Learning from the fishermen that the British man-of-war Drake, twenty guns and a hundred and fifty men, was lying at anchor in Belfast Lough, he promptly determined upon a bold scheme to effect her capture. Beating to and fro off the mouth of the Lough until the evening, as soon as it was dark he ran for the harbor, proposing to lay his vessel athwart the hawse of the Drake, lying unsuspiciously at anchor, drop his own anchor over the cable of the English sloop of war, and capture her by boarding.

Every preparation was made to carry out this brilliant coup de main. The crew were mustered at quarters, armed for boarding with pike or cutlass and pistol, the best shots were told off to sweep the decks of the Drake with small-arm fire, guns were loaded and primed, and so on. It was blowing heavily as the Ranger under reduced canvas dashed gallantly into the harbor. With masterly seamanship Jones brought her to in exactly the right position, and gave the order to let go the anchor. His orders were not obeyed, through the negligence of a drunken boatswain, it was said, and the anchor was not dropped until the Ranger had drifted down past the lee quarter of the Drake, when she brought up. The position of the American was now one of extreme peril. The Ranger lay under the broadside of the Drake, subjected to her fire and unable to make reply.

The watch kept on the British ship, however, must have been very careless. In the darkness of the night, too, the guns of the Ranger being run in, it is probable that if they observed her they took her for a clumsy merchantman. Enjoining perfect silence on the part of his crew, with the greatest coolness Jones took the necessary steps to extricate the vessel from her dangerous position. The cable was cut, sail made, and under a heavy press of canvas the Ranger beat out of the harbor, barely clearing the entrance, and only escaping wreck by the consummate ability of her captain.

The plan was brilliantly conceived, and would have been successful but for the mischance, or delay, in dropping the anchor. The crew originally was only a fair one, as has been stated, and, owing to the fact that their wages had not been paid, they were in a more or less mutinous state by this time. Jones was covetous of glory only. A less mercenary man never lived. To fight and conquer was his aim, but in this he radically differed from the ideas of his officers and men. Where he wrote honor and fame they saw plunder and prize money, and it was sometimes difficult to get them to obey orders and properly to work the ship.

After leaving Belfast the Ranger ratched over to the southern coast of Scotland to ride out the sudden and furious gale under the lee of the land. The wind had abated by the morning of the 22d, and the sun rose bright and clear, discovering from the of the Ranger a beautiful prospect of the three kingdoms covered with snow as far as the eye could see. The wind now set fair for Whitehaven, and Jones squared away for that port to carry out his previous project. The breeze fell during the day, however, and it was not until midnight that the boats were called away.

The expedition comprised two boats, carrying thirty-one officers and men, all volunteers, Jones himself being in command of one boat, while Lieutenant Wallingford, one of the best officers of the ship, had the other. Simpson and the second lieutenant both pleaded indisposition and fatigue as excuse for not going on the expedition. The tide was ebbing, and it was not until nearly dawn, after a long, hard pull, that the two boats reached the harbor, which was divided into two parts at that time by a long stone pier. There were from seventy to one hundred ships on the north side of the pier, and about twice as many on the south side, ranging in size from two hundred to four hundred tons. As the tide was out, the ships were all aground, lying high and dry upon the beach, and in close touch with each other. Directing Wallingford to set fire to the ships on the north side of the pier, Jones and his party landed and advanced toward the fort which protected the harbor.

The weather was raw and cold, the fort was old and dilapidated, and manned by a few men. The sentry, ignorant of the presence of any foe, never dreaming of an enemy within a thousand miles of him, had calmly retired to the sentry box. Probably he was asleep. The little party approached the walls without being detected. Climbing upon the shoulder of one of his men, Jones sprang over the rampart, where he was followed by the rest of the party. The feeble garrison was captured without striking a blow. The guns were hastily spiked. Ordering the prisoners to be marched down to the wharf, and throwing out a few sentries, Jones, attended by a single midshipman, then made his way to the other fort or battery, a distance of about half a mile. Finding it untenanted, he spiked the few guns mounted there and returned to the landing place.

To his very great surprise and disappointment, no evidence of a conflagration was apparent. When he reached the wharf he was met by Wallingford, who explained his failure to fire the shipping by claiming that his lights had gone out. It was before the days of lucifer matches, and the party had carried candles in lanterns with which to kindle the fires. Wallingford excused himself by a remark which does more credit to his heart than to his head, to the effect that he could not see that anything was to be gained by burning poor people's property. Inasmuch as he was sent on the expedition to obey orders and not to philosophize, his statement gives the key to the disposition among the officers and crew. Whether his hesitation was dictated by charity to others or lack of possible profit to the officers and men it is not necessary to inquire particularly now, for Wallingford redeemed himself nobly later in the cruise. A hasty inspection revealed the fact that the candles had also burned out, or had been extinguished through carelessness, in Jones' own boat.

It was now broad daylight, and considerations of safety indicated an immediate return to the ship; but Jones was not willing to abandon his brilliantly conceived, carefully prepared, and coolly undertaken enterprise without some measure of success. Re-posting his sentries, therefore, he dispatched messengers who broke into a neighboring dwelling house and procured a light in the shape of a torch or glowing ember. With his own hand Jones kindled a fire on one of the largest ships in the midst of the huddle of vessels on the beach. In order to insure a thorough conflagration, a hasty search through the other vessels was made, and a barrel of tar was found which was poured upon the flames now burning fiercely.

One of the boat party, named David Freeman, happened to be an Englishman. In the confusion attendant upon these various maneuvers he made off, and, escaping observation, sought shelter in the town, which he quickly alarmed. The inhabitants came swarming out of their houses in the gray of the morning and hastened toward the wharf. Seeing that the fire on the ship was at last blazing furiously, and realizing that nothing more could be effected, Jones ordered his men to their boats. Then, in order that the fire already kindled might have sufficient time to develop, the undaunted captain stood alone on the wharf, pistol in hand, confronting the ever-increasing crowd. Impelled by pressure from behind, those in front finally made a movement toward him. He gave no ground whatever. Pointing his weapons at the front rank, he sternly bade them retire, which they did with precipitation. I should think so. Having remained a sufficient time, as he thought, he calmly entered the boat and was rowed to the Ranger.


Some of the inhabitants promptly made a dash for the burning ship, and succeeded by hard work in confining the fire to that one vessel. Others released the prisoners which Jones left bound on the wharf, taking, as he said, only two or three for a sample. The soldiers ran to the fort and managed to draw the hastily applied spikes from two or three of the guns, which they loaded and fired after the retreating boats. Answering the harmless fusillade with a few derisive musket shots, Jones returned to the Ranger; having had, he says, the pleasure of neither inflicting nor receiving any loss in killed or wounded.

The desertion and treachery of David Freeman undoubtedly saved the shipping. The enterprise was well conceived and carried out with the utmost coolness. Had the orders of Captain Jones been obeyed, the shipping would have been completely destroyed. As it was, the descent created the greatest consternation in England. No enemy had landed on those shores for generations, and the expedition by Jones was like slapping the face of the king on his throne. A burning wave of indignation swept over England, as the news was carried from town to town, from hall to hall, and from hamlet to hamlet. It was all very well to burn property in America, but the matter had a different aspect entirely when the burning took place in England. A universal demand arose for the capture of this audacious seaman, who was called many hard names by the infuriated British.

From Whitehaven the Ranger ran over to St. Mary's Isle, a beautifully wooded promontory at the mouth of the River Dee, which was the seat of the Earl of Selkirk. In furtherance of his usual desire to ameliorate the wretched condition of the Americans in British prisons, Jones determined to seize the earl. He cherished the hope that by securing the person of a peer of the realm, who could be either held as a hostage or exchanged for some prominent American captive, he could thus effect a recognition of the principle of exchange, which the British had refused to consider. It was a wild hope, to be sure, but not without a certain plausibility.

Two boat crews under the command of Lieutenants Simpson and Hall, with himself in charge of the expedition, landed on the shore. Before moving toward the hall, Jones learned that the earl was not at home. He proposed, therefore, to return to the ship, but the mutinous men demurred fiercely to this suggestion, and demanded that they be permitted to enjoy the opportunity for plunder presented. The situation was a precarious one, and Jones finally agreed, although very reluctantly, that they should demand the family silver from the Countess of Selkirk, who was at home. He did this with the full intention of purchasing the silver on his own account when the prizes were disposed of, and returning it to the earl. A party of the men, therefore, with Simpson and Hall, went up to the house, leaving Jones pacing to and fro near the shore under the oaks and chestnuts of the estate. By Jones' orders the seamen did not enter the house. Simpson and Hall were ushered into the presence of the Lady Selkirk, made their demand upon her ladyship, received the silver, which the butler gathered up for them, and retired without molesting or harming any of the inmates or endeavoring to appropriate anything except what was given them. The men drank her ladyship's health in good Scots whisky, which was served them by the countess' orders. The party then embarked on the Ranger.

One of his biographers has said that the whole transaction was an evidence of the singular ability of Jones in creating difficulties which it afterward required greater labor to overcome; but the criticism is unfair. The only way in which he could satisfy the demands of his men and maintain even that precarious authority which the peculiar constitution of the crew and the character of his officers enabled him to have, was by permitting them to take something of value which could be turned into prize money. He could buy it from the prize court, or from the prize master, as well as any other man, and after it became his own property he could return it to its proper owners at his pleasure.

It was a perfectly legitimate transaction on his part, and he could only obviate the necessity by taking the proposed value of the silver out of his own pocket and handing it to his men, a proceeding which would have been subversive of the last remains of discipline, and therefore could not be considered for a moment. It would establish a precedent which could not be carried out in the future unless he were willing to abrogate his right of command; if he began that way he would have to buy their acquiescence to every command-bribe them to obey orders; so he said nothing whatever to them about his intentions with regard to the plate at present.

Standing away from St. Mary's Isle on the morning of the 24th, the Ranger came in sight once more of Carrickfergus. By this time her presence on the Irish coast had become well known, and expresses had been sent to the Drake with information of the propinquity of the enemy. In the afternoon the Ranger appeared in the offing easily visible from the Drake. The commander of the Drake, Captain George Burdon, with singular stupidity, sent a lieutenant and a boat off toward the Ranger to investigate and report what she was, meanwhile getting his ship under way and clearing for action. The boat foolishly came alongside the Ranger and was captured. As Burdon weighed anchor he was joined by Lieutenant William Dobbs, engaged on recruiting duty in the vicinity, and a band of volunteers ranging in number, according to different reports, from ten to forty.

The regular complement of the Drake was one hundred and fifty officers and men. This re-enforcement raised her crew to between one hundred and sixty and one hundred and ninety. It was developed at the court-martial, which was held upon the survivors some months after for the loss of the ship, that the Drake was poorly prepared for action; that she was short of commissioned and warrant officers and skilled men; that her powder charges were bad, matches poor, cartridges unfilled, and that her guns were badly mounted, so that they were easily "overset," and so on. In short, the whole catalogue of usual excuses for failure is given. It is true that although the Drake carried two more guns than the Ranger, they were of smaller caliber, being 4-pounders. Still, the two ships were well matched, and preparedness for action has always been considered a test of naval ability as much as capacity in maneuvering and courage in the actual fight.

The wind was now blowing toward the shore, and the Drake made but slow progress in ratching toward the sea. While the Ranger awaited her, the guns were run in and the English flag hoisted on the approach of the Drake's boat, and the character of the American disguised as much as possible. I presume that, save for her armament, she looked more like a merchant vessel than anything else, and, as Jones skillfully kept the sloop end on to the cutter, the British suspected, or at least discovered, nothing. Indeed, so well was the deception carried out that the Drake's officer actually boarded the Ranger and was made prisoner with his crew before he discovered her quality.

Meanwhile things were almost in a state of mutiny. Jones states in his journal that he was in peril of his life from his recalcitrant crew, who, under the leadership of Simpson, were apparently appalled at the prospect of encountering a regular man-of-war, and therefore manifested a great unwillingness to fight. Plunder without danger was the end of their ambition. However, after the capture of the Drake's boat, by putting a bold front on the situation, Jones succeeded in restoring comparative order and getting his men to their quarters. His power of persuasive and inspiring speech never stood him in better stead than on this occasion, and he actually seems to have succeeded in infusing some of his own spirit into the refractory men.

It was late in the evening before the Drake neared the Ranger. Jones had stood out to sea to draw his pursuer far away from the land to prevent his escape in case of defeat, and now awaited his advance. The Drake was accompanied by several pleasure yachts filled with people who were desirous of seeing the English victory, which was almost universally attendant upon single ship actions in which the British navy participated; but, not liking the look of things in this instance, they one by one dropped astern and returned to the land.

Between five and six o'clock, having come within easy distance, an officer of the Drake sprang on the rail and hailed, demanding to know the name of the stranger. Jones, still keeping the stern of his ship toward the bow of the enemy, seized the trumpet and replied:

"This is the American Continental ship Ranger. We are waiting for you. The sun is scarce an hour high. It is time to begin. Come on!"

While he was amusing the English captain with this rather lengthy rejoinder for the purpose of gaining time, the Stars and Stripes supplanted the red ensign of England, the helm of the Ranger, which was to windward of her antagonist, was suddenly put up, and by smart handling, in the twinkling of an eye she was rushed across the bow of the Drake, which was severely raked by a prompt broadside at short range. As Jones shifted his helm so as not to lose the weather gauge, the advantage of the first hard blow was clearly with the Americans. The English captain, after an attempt to cross her stern, which was frustrated by Jones' promptness, ran off by the side of the Ranger, and the combat resolved itself into a fair and square yardarm to yardarm fight, which was continued with the most determined persistence on both sides. The two ships under the gentle breeze sailed side by side, gradually nearing, and poured a furious fire upon each other. The lack of preparedness on the English ship was manifested in the slowness and inaccuracy of her gun practice. That of the Ranger, however, was very effective. An hour and five minutes after the first broadside the enemy called for quarter and hauled down the flag. The Drake was a wreck. Her fore and main topsail yards were cut adrift and lying on the caps; the fore topgallant yard and the spanker gaff were hanging up and down their respective masts; two ensigns had been shot away, and another one was hanging over the quarter galley and dragging in the water. The jib was dragging under her forefoot; her sails and rigging were entirely cut to pieces, most of the yards wounded, and her hull very much shattered. Many of her guns were dismounted, and she had lost, according to the statement of the Americans, forty-two6 men in killed and wounded (or about twenty per cent of her force!), including her captain, who had been struck in the head by a musket ball at the close of the action, about a minute before the ship surrendered; the gallant first lieutenant, Dobbs, who had bravely volunteered for service, was so severely wounded that he survived the action only two days. Captain Burdon was still living when Jones boarded the prize, but died a few moments after. The Americans lost two killed, among them being poor Wallingford, whose death has somewhat redeemed him from his failure to obey orders in the raid on Whitehaven. There were six wounded on the Ranger, including the gunner and a midshipman who lost his arm; one of the wounded subsequently died.

The action was a sharp and brilliant one. Jones had maneuvered and fought his ship with his usual skill and courage, and had given fair evidence of what might be expected from him with a better vessel and better men under his command. The English captain had been outmaneuvered when he permitted the American to rake him, and he had been outfought in the action. Unpreparedness was the cause of the failure of the Drake to make a better showing in the fight. This lack must be laid at the captain's door. It is the business of a captain to see that things are ready. The deficiencies in the Drake's equipment were counterbalanced by equal deficiencies on the part of the Ranger. The apparent preponderance of the latter's gun power was, in fact, minimized by the shortening of her guns, of which Jones had previously complained. It is probable that the Drake had a better crew, and such officers as she had were probably better than those under Jones, with a few exceptions. It is always the custom of the defeated party to make excuses, and always will be; but the ships were as nearly matched in offensive qualities as two vessels in different navies are ever likely to be, and the difference between them, which determined the issue of the conflict, was purely a question of the personal equation. It was always hard to find anything to counterbalance Jones for the other side of the equality sign. Burdon was not the man.


The English captain was a brave but very stupid or very confident man. Jones was more than a match for him at best, and when the mistakes of Burdon are considered the comparison is painful. The English knew that the Ranger was on the coast; the Drake had picked up her anchor (it was, of course, recaptured), and an alert mind would have connected the recovered anchor with the attempt of the night of the 20th. The suspicious actions of the stranger-and there must have been some indication in her maneuvers and appearance at least to inspire caution-the failure of the boat crew either to return or to make any signal, should have made the English captain pause and consider the situation. But with the usual "uncircumspect gallantry" of his kind he charged down, bull-like, on his enemy, was promptly raked, hammered to pieces, killed, and his ship surrendered. He proved his courage in battle-which no one would question, bravery being usual and to be expected-and he died in the attempt to atone for his rashness; but professionally he was a failure, and his demise was fortunate for his reputation and future career. His death probably prevented some very inconvenient questions being asked him.

Jones treated his prisoners with a kindness and consideration the more remarkable from the fact that the contrary was the custom with the British toward American captives. During the night and the whole of the next day, the weather being moderate, the two ships were hove to while the Drake was refitted as well as their resources permitted. Late the next afternoon a large brigantine, actuated by an unfortunate curiosity, ran down so near the two ships that she was brought to by a shot from the Drake and taken possession of. Having repaired damages and put the Drake in as good trim as possible, Jones first determined to return to Brest by the South Channel, the way he had come, but the variable wind shifted and came strongly, and he decided to run northward before it and pass around the west coast of Ireland. In spite of his previous insubordination Simpson was placed in command of the Drake.

Before they left these waters, however, something still remained to be done. On the evening of the 25th the two ships sailed once more for Belfast Lough. There Jones hove the Ranger to, and, having given the poor Irish fishermen, whom he had captured on the 21st and held, one of the Drake's boats, and having charitably bestowed upon them all the guineas which he had left in his private purse (not many, I suppose) to remunerate them for the loss they had sustained, he sent them ashore. They took with them one of the Drake's sails, which would attest the truth of their story of what had happened. The grateful Irishmen were delighted and touched by such unusual treatment, and they signalized their gratitude to their generous and kindhearted captor by giving Jones three cheers from the boat as they passed the Ranger's quarter. The Americans then bore away to the northwestward.

The voyage around the coast of Ireland was uneventful. Lieutenant Dobbs, of the Drake, died on the cruise, and he and Captain Burdon were buried at sea with all possible honors, Jones himself reading the usual Church service. The cruise was continued without incident until the morning of the 5th of May, when the Ranger being off Ushant, and having the Drake in tow, Jones cut the towline and bore away in chase of a sail which had been sighted. Simpson, instead of continuing toward Brest, as he had been directed, hauled off to the south, so that when Jones had overtaken the chase and found her a neutral, the Drake was almost entirely out of sight to the southward.

The Ranger chased her and made various signals, to which no attention was paid. Simpson changed his course aimlessly several times. During the whole of the day the same eccentric maneuvers on the part of the Drake continued. To Jones' great annoyance, the inexplicable actions of the prize prevented him from chasing several large vessels which he saw standing into the Channel, among which he would probably have made many valuable captures. He was forced to abandon any attempt to take them and follow the Drake, which he only overhauled late in the evening. By Jones' orders Lieutenant Elijah Hall immediately replaced Simpson in command of the Drake, and the latter was placed under arrest. On the 8th of May both vessels arrived safely at Brest, from which point Jones promptly dispatched the following remarkable letter to the Countess of Selkirk:

"Ranger, Brest, May 8, 1778.


"Madam: It can not be too much lamented that, in the profession of arms, the officer of fine feelings and real sensibility should be under the necessity of winking at any action of persons under his command which his heart can not approve; but the reflection is doubly severe when he finds himself obliged, in appearance, to countenance such actions by his authority. This hard case was mine, when, on the 23d of April last, I landed on St. Mary's Isle. Knowing Lord Selkirk's interest with his king, and esteeming as I do his private character, I wished to make him the happy instrument of alleviating the horrors of hopeless captivity, when the brave are overpowered and made prisoners of war. It was perhaps fortunate for you, madam, that he was from home, for it was my intention to have taken him on board the Ranger and detained him until, through, his means, a general and fair exchange of prisoners, as well in Europe as in America, had been effected.

"When I was informed, by some men whom I met at landing that his lordship was absent, I walked back to my boat, determined to leave the island. By the way, however, some officers who were with me could not forbear expressing their discontent, observing that in America no delicacy was shown by the English, who took away all sorts of movable property, setting fire not only to towns and to the houses of the rich, without distinction, but not even sparing the wretched hamlets and milch cows of the poor and helpless, at the approach of an inclement winter. That party had been with me the same morning at Whitehaven; some complaisance, therefore, was their due. I had but a moment to think how I might gratify them, and at the same time do your ladyship the least injury. I charged the officers to permit none of the seamen to enter the house, or to hurt anything about it; to treat you, madam, with the utmost respect; to accept of the plate which was offered, and to come away without making a search or demanding anything else. I am induced to believe that I was punctually obeyed, since I am informed that the plate which they brought away is far short of the quantity expressed in the inventory which accompanied it. I have gratified my men, and when the plate is sold I shall become the purchaser, and will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you by such conveyance as you shall please to direct.

6English accounts state their casualties at twenty-five.
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