Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

On the last day of June the squadron put into L'Orient again to repair damages. During the cruise it is interesting to note that Jones dispatched thirty pounds, in the shape of a draft, through a friend in Dublin, to Scotland for the use of his family. He frequently made them remittances from his scanty supplies of money, and, in fact, he never forgot them, however busy with great undertakings he may have been.

Instructions were received at L'Orient from Franklin intended to govern the future movements of the squadron. They had, of course, been prepared after consultation with De Sartine. Jones was directed to cruise off the west coast of Ireland to intercept the West Indian ships and then to proceed to the northward, passing the Orkneys, and range down the coast of Scotland and endeavor to capture the Baltic fleet-which, by the way, had been one of his original projects. After carrying out these orders he was instructed to proceed to the Texel about August 15th, where he would find further directions awaiting him. Prizes were to be sent to Dunkirk or Ostend in France, or Bergen in Norway, consigned to such agents as De Chaumont should designate.

Jones was very much disappointed, naturally, with the Richard, and in acknowledging the receipt of these instructions he made a last effort to get the Indien. It was intimated that such might be the result of his cruise when he arrived at the Texel, if it were successful, but that no change could be made in his orders at present. Franklin refused to attempt to have them modified by consulting with the ministry, and, in a way gentle but sufficiently decided, he directed Jones to finish repairing the ships with all speed and proceed to carry out the orders he had received. The commodore, swallowing his disappointment and dissatisfaction with a rather ill grace, it must be confessed, hastened to get his ships in shape for the proposed expedition.

During the cruise in the Bay of Biscay a mutinous spirit had broken out among the English seamen, with whom in part Jones had been forced to man his ship in default of other men, which had become sufficiently developed to result in an organized conspiracy to take the Richard. The plot was discovered and the ringleaders were put in irons. When the Richard arrived at L'Orient, these men, two quartermasters, were court-martialed; but, instead of being sentenced to death, as they deserved, they were severely flogged with the cat-o'-nine-tails. Jones, who, if he erred, leaned to the side of mercy, seems to have been greatly relieved at this termination of the affair. At this time the lieutenant of the Richard, who had been in charge of the watch during the collision, was also court-martialed and dismissed the service.

These several unfortunate happenings had given De Sartine a very low idea of the efficiency and value of the Bon Homme Richard and the squadron, which galled Jones extremely. Indeed, I imagine De Sartine looked upon Jones in the light of a nuisance more than anything else. The repairs progressed very slowly, and it was not until August that the ships were ready to proceed. Meanwhile an event of the greatest importance had occurred in the arrival of a cartel at Nantes with one hundred and nineteen exchanged American prisoners. Many of them entered on the Richard, and Jones was thus enabled to weed out a large proportion of the mutinous and disorderly element in his crew. The fine qualities of some of these new recruits enabled him to replace many of his petty officers-invaluable adjuncts to an efficient crew-with experienced seamen who could be depended upon, not merely as sailors, but as men who, fresh from the horrors and brutalities of English prisons, were more than ready to fight against the red flag wherever it was planted. They leavened the whole mass.

The re-enforcement was of the greatest value; but Jones' good fortune did not end here, for before he sailed again he was joined by a young American naval officer of the highest capacity and courage, named Richard Dale, who had been captured in the Lexington and held a prisoner in England. He had effected a most daring and romantic escape from the Mill Prison by the assistance of an unknown woman, whose name and the circumstances of their acquaintance remained a mystery; Dale absolutely refused to divulge them to the day of his death.

Jones found in him a congenial spirit and an able subordinate. He promptly appointed him first lieutenant of the Richard, and between the two men there speedily developed a friendship as lasting as it was unaffected and disinterested. Next to Jones himself, in the early records, stands the name of this young man, then scarcely twenty-three years of age. Aside from the great commodore, it was he who contributed more to the subsequent success of the Richard than any other man. At the request of De Sartine, Jones also received on the Richard a battalion of royal marines, who were all French of course, and who had been augmented until they numbered one hundred and thirty-seven officers and men, under Lieutenant-Colonel de Chamillard de Warville. It was supposed by the minister that they could at least keep order on the ship! The time limited to the expiration of the cruise was extended to the end of the month of September.

The total complement of the Richard, therefore, according to Jones' statement, was about three hundred and eighty officers, men, and boys, including the one hundred and thirty-seven marines. A roll of officers and men is given by Sherburne in his Life of Jones.

On this list, which purports to contain the names of those who were on board on the date of the battle with the Serapis, are enumerated the names of but two hundred and twenty-seven officers and men. It omits the name of de Chamillard and another colonel of infantry, de Weibert, who were actually on board, and gives no names of the French marines. Adding the two hundred and twenty-seven to the one hundred and thirty-seven, we get three hundred and sixty-four, which is as near as we can come to Jones' figures. There may have been others whose names were added later on, but at any rate it is safe to take Jones' statement as practically correct.

Assuming that the known factors fairly represented the whole crew, we find that among the officers twenty-four were Americans, two were Frenchmen, and six British, including Jones and two surgeon's mates. Among the seamen fifty-five were American born, sixteen Irish, sixty-one British, twenty-eight Portuguese, twenty who are not described, of whom seven were probably Portuguese, and fifteen of other nationalities, including, according to Cooper, some Malays-possibly Filipinos learning thus early to fight for freedom under, not against, the Stars and Stripes! Thus, scarcely more than one fifth of the complement were native Americans. The marines, of course, were efficiently organized and commanded, and were of the usual character of the men in the French service. The rest of the crew, with the exception of the Americans, who were filling the posts of petty officers, were a hard-bitten, reckless crowd of adventurers, mercenaries, bravos, and what not, whom only a man like Jones could control and successfully direct. Under his iron hand they developed into as ready a crew as ever fought a ship, and in our estimation of his subsequent success the fact must not be lost sight of that he made out of such a motley assemblage so efficient an organization. The officers were fairly capable, though none of them reached the standard of Dale, and at least one of them left the cruise with a serious cloud upon his reputation.

Perhaps two thirds of the crew of the Alliance were English seamen who had been recruited from the men of the line of battle ship Somerset, which had been wrecked in America, and a large number of her crew captured. They enlisted on the Alliance in the hope of capturing her and making their escape, thus avoiding a sojourn in American prisons. On the way to France, owing to the presence of these men on the ship, a conspiracy had developed, the successful termination of which was only prevented by the resolution and courage of Lafayette and the passengers with the regular officers of the ship. There were but a small number of Americans on the Alliance, owing to the fact that she was commanded by a Frenchman, under whom Americans generally refused to sail. The officers, with few exceptions, were poor in quality. Her crew had been somewhat improved before the squadron sailed, by the enlistment of some of the prisoners from the cartel, but it was still far from being an efficient body of men, and under such a captain as Landais there was no hope of it ever becoming so.

The officers and crew of the Pallas, Vengeance, and Cerf were French in toto, the officers all holding French commissions. The squadron was entirely at the charges of the French Government, although each of the officers sailed with a supplementary American commission issued by Franklin and his confrères, and all the vessels were under the American flag.

De Chaumont had been indefatigable in fitting out the ships as best he could, and personally he had done everything in his power to further the success of the enterprise. If his labors had ceased there, the results would have been better; but, probably under the direction of the minister, and influenced by the natural reluctance of the French officers and men to serve under the command of an officer of another country, de Chaumont prepared a concordat, which he suppressed until just before the time of sailing, when it was exhibited to Jones and the other captains and their signatures demanded. By the terms of this singular document the officers and men and the several vessels of the squadron, instead of being under the absolute charge of Jones himself, as is the case with every properly organized expedition, were formed into a species of alliance offensive and defensive; and while, of course, the headship was necessarily under Jones while he lived, he was so hampered and restricted by the various articles of the agreement as to feel himself scarcely more than first among his equals. He was left with full responsibility for success, but so shorn of power and ability to compel obedience to his orders as to render it necessary for him to resort to persuasion to effect his end. Any ordinary commander would have withdrawn at the last moment, but Jones was determined upon effecting something; so, with great reluctance and unavailing protests, he signed the concordat, and the ill-assorted squadron proceeded on its way.10


Surely never before was such an expedition for warlike purposes put forth upon the narrow seas! It is difficult to see what result any sane man could have legitimately expected from it. That it accomplished anything was due to Jones himself-commodore by virtue of a paper agreement, just as binding and effective as any of the several signers wished it to be! The world had long known him as a man remarkable for audacity in conception, boldness in planning, hardihood in carrying out, and downright courage in the supreme moment. As a seaman and a fighter he had few equals and no masters. But the cruise developed that he possessed other qualities of leadership which are sometimes lost sight of in this brilliant galaxy, qualities which his previous experience had not led us to expect him to exhibit. He was shown to be considerate, tactful, forbearing, persuasive, holding himself under strong restraint. Naturally of a passionate, impetuous, uncontrollable nature, that he exhibited these qualities speaks well for the man. He had learned to control his feelings in the bitter school of procrastination, evasion, and disappointment of the past year.


All things being as ready as it was possible to make them, on the 14th of August, 1779, amid the booming of cannon and the waving of flags, the expedition set sail. Very pretty it must have looked, dropping down the roads, as sail after sail was set on the broad yardarms extending above the little commander on the poop deck of the Indiaman, resolutely putting his difficulties and trials behind him, and glad to be at last at sea and headed for the enemy. And yet he might well have borne a heavy heart! Only a man of Jones' caliber could have faced the possibilities with a particle of equanimity. By any rule of chance or on any ground of probability the expedition was doomed to failure, capture, or destruction. But the personality of Jones, his serene and soon-to-be-justified confidence in himself, discounted chance and overthrew probability. I have noticed it is ever the man with the fewest resources and poorest backing who accomplishes most in the world's battles. The man who has things made easy for him usually "takes it easy," and accomplishes the easy thing or nothing.

The squadron was accompanied by two heavily armed privateers, the Monsieur and the Granvelle, raising the number of vessels to seven. The masters of the privateers did not sign the concordat, but they entered into voluntary association with the others and agreed to abide by the orders of Jones-an agreement they broke without hesitation in the face of the first prize, which was captured on the 18th of August. The prize was a full-rigged ship, called the Verwagting, mounting fourteen guns and loaded with brandy. The vessel, a Dutch ship, had been captured by the English, and was therefore a lawful prize to the squadron. The captain of the Monsieur, which was the boarding vessel, plundered the prize of several valuable articles for his own benefit, manned her, and attempted to dispatch her to Ostend. Jones, however, overhauled her, replaced the prize crew by some of his own men, and sent her in under his own orders. The Monsieur and her offended captain thereupon promptly deserted the squadron in the night.

On the 21st, off the southwest coast of Ireland, they captured a brig, the Mayflower, loaded with butter, which was also manned and sent in. On the 23d they rounded Cape Clear, the extreme southwestern point of Ireland. The day being calm, Jones manned his boats and sent them inshore to capture a brigantine. The ship, not having steerage way, began to drift in toward the dangerous shore after the departure of the boats, and it became necessary to haul her head offshore, for which purpose the captain's barge was sent ahead with a towline. As the shades of evening descended, the crew of the barge, who were apparently English, took advantage of the absence of the other boats and the opportunity presented, to cut the towline and desert. As they made for the shore, Mr. Cutting Lunt, third lieutenant, with four marines, jumped into a small boat remaining, and chased the fugitives without orders; but, pursuing them too far from the ship, a fog came down which caused him to lose his bearings, and prevented him from joining the Richard that night.

The crew of a commodore's barge, like the crew of a captain's gig, is usually made up of picked men, and the character of the Richard's crew is well indicated by this desertion. The other boats luckily managed to rejoin the Richard, after succeeding in cutting out the brigantine. The ships beat to and fro off the coast until the next day, when the captains assembled on the Richard. Landais behaved outrageously on this occasion. He reproached Jones in the most abusive manner, as if the desertion of the barge and the loss of the two boats was due to negligence on his part. One can imagine with what grim silence the irate little American listened to the absurd tirade, and in what strong control he held himself to keep from arresting Landais where he stood. It gives us a vivid picture of the situation of the fleet to find that Jones was actually compelled to consult with his captains and obtain the consent of de Varage before he could order the Cerf to reconnoiter the coast, if possible to find the two boats and their crews.

Thus, as Commodore Mackenzie, himself a naval officer, grimly remarks:

"Before giving orders of indispensable necessity, as a superior officer, we find him taking the advice of one captain and obtaining the consent and approbation of another."

But we may be sure that it was only dire necessity that required such a course of action. Evidently the situation was not to the liking of the commodore, but it was one that he could not remedy.

As the Cerf approached the shore to reconnoiter, she hoisted the English colors to disguise her nationality, and was seen by Mr. Lunt, who had evidently overtaken the deserters. Mistaking her character, he pulled in toward the shore to escape the fancied danger, and was easily captured by the English with the two boats and their crews. By this unfortunate mishap the Richard lost two of her boats, containing an officer and twenty-two men. The Cerf, losing sight of the squadron in the evening, turned tail and went back to France, instead of proceeding to the first of the various rendezvous which had been agreed upon. The Granvelle, having made a prize on her own account, took advantage of her entirely independent position and the fact that she was far away from the Richard to disregard signals and make off with her capture. This reduced the squadron to the Richard, Alliance, Pallas, and Vengeance. It was Jones' desire to cruise to and fro off the harbor of Limerick to intercept the West Indian ships, which, to the number of eight or ten, were daily expected. These vessels, richly laden, were of great value, and their capture could have easily been effected, but Landais protested vehemently against remaining in any one spot. Among other things, the Frenchman was undoubtedly a coward, and, of course, by remaining steadily in one place opportunities for being overhauled were greatly increased. Jones finally succumbed to Landais' entreaties and protestations, which were backed up by those of Captains Cottineau and Ricot.

Of course, it is impossible to say how far his authority would have lasted had he peremptorily refused to accede to their demands, as paper concordats are not very binding ties; but he might perhaps have made a more determined effort to induce them to carry out his plans and remain with him. To leave the position he had chosen, which presented such opportunities, was undoubtedly an error in judgment, and Jones tacitly admits it in the following words, written long afterward:

"Nothing prevented me from pursuing my design but the reproach that would have been cast upon my character as a man of prudence.11 It would have been said: 'Was he not forewarned by Captain Cottineau and others?'"

The excuse is as bad as, if not worse than, the decision. But this is almost the only evidence of weakness and irresolution which appears in Jones' conduct in all the emergencies in which he was thrown. It is impossible to justify this action, but, in view of the circumstances, which we can only imagine and hardly adequately comprehend, we need not censure him too greatly for his indecision. In fact, the decision itself was a mistake which the ablest of men might naturally make. The weakness lay in the excuse which he himself offers, and which it pains one to read. In this connection the noble comment of Captain Mahan is interesting:

"The subordination of public enterprises to considerations of personal consequences, even to reputation, is a declension from the noblest in a public man. Not life only, but personal credit, is to be fairly risked for the attainment of public ends."

It can not be said that Jones was altogether disinterested in his actions. The mere common, vulgar, mercenary motives were absent from his undertakings, but it must be admitted that he never lost sight of the results, not only to his country and its success, but to his own reputation as well. If Jones had proceeded in his intention, and Landais had finally deserted him, the results would have been very much better for the cruise-always provided that the Pallas at least remained with the Richard. We shall see later on that all the ships deserted him on one occasion.

On the 26th of August a heavy gale blew up from the southwest, and Jones scudded before it to the northward along the Irish coast. Landais deliberately changed the course of the Alliance in the darkness, and, the tiller of the Pallas having been carried away during the night, Jones found himself alone with the Vengeance the next morning. The gale having abated, these two remaining vessels continued their course in a leisurely manner along the Irish coast. On the 31st the Alliance hove in sight, followed by a valuable West Indiaman called the Betsy, mounting twenty-two guns, which she had captured-a sample of what might have resulted if the squadron had stayed off Limerick.

The Pallas having also joined company again, on the 1st of September the Richard brought to the Union, a government armed ship of twenty-two guns, bound for Halifax with valuable naval stores. Before boats were called away and the prize taken possession of, with unparalleled insolence Landais sent a messenger to Jones asking whether the Alliance should man the prize, in which case he should allow no man from the Richard to board her! With incredible complaisance the long-suffering Jones allowed Landais to man this capture also, while he himself received the prisoners on the Richard. These two vessels, in violation of Jones' explicit orders, were sent in to Bergen, Norway, where they were promptly released by the Danish Government and returned to England on the demand of the British minister. Their value was estimated at forty thousand pounds sterling. The unwarranted return of the vessels was the foundation of a claim for indemnity against Denmark, of which we shall hear later. On the day of the capture Landais disregarded another specific signal from the flagship to chase; instead of doing which, he wore ship and headed directly opposite the direction in which he should have gone. The next morning he again disregarded a signal to come within hail of the Richard, on which occasion he did not even set an answering pennant.


On September 3d and 4th the squadron captured a brig and two sloops off the Shetland Islands. On the evening of this day Jones summoned the captains to the flagship. Landais refused to go, and when de Cottineau tried to persuade him to do so he became violently abusive, and declared that the matters at issue between the commodore and himself were so grave that they could only be settled by a personal meeting on shore, at which one or the other should forfeit his life. Fortunately for the peace of mind of the commodore, whose patience had reached the breaking point, the Alliance immediately after parted company, and did not rejoin the command until the 23d of September. If Landais had stayed away altogether, or succeeded in getting himself lost or captured, it would have been a great advantage to the country.

Another gale blew up on the 5th, and heavy weather continued for several days. The little squadron of three vessels labored along through the heavy seas to the northward, passed the dangerous Orkneys, doubled the wild Hebrides, rounded the northern extremity of Scotland, and on the evening of the 13th approached the east coast near the Cheviot Hills. On the 14th they arrived off the Firth of Forth, where they were lucky enough to capture one ship and one brigantine loaded with coal. From them they learned that the naval force in the harbor of Leith was inconsiderable, consisting of one twenty-gun sloop of war and three or four cutters. Jones immediately conceived the idea of destroying this force, holding the town under his batteries, landing a force of marines, and exacting a heavy ransom under threat of destruction.

Although weakened in force by the desertion of the ships, by the number of prizes he had manned, and the large number of prisoners on board the Richard, he still hoped, as he says, to teach English cruisers the value of humanity on the other side of the water, and by this bold attack to demonstrate the vulnerability of their own coasts. He also counted upon this diversion in the north to call attention from the expected grand invasion in the south of England by the French and Spanish fleets. The wind was favorable for his design, but unfortunately the Pallas and the Vengeance, which had lagged as usual, were some distance in the offing. Jones therefore ran back to meet them in order to advise them of his plan and concert measures for the attack. He found that the French had but little stomach for the enterprise; they positively refused to join him in the undertaking, a decision which, by the terms of the concordat, they had a right to make. After a night spent in fruitless argument between the three captains-think of it, arguments in the place of orders! – Jones appealed to their cupidity, probably the last thing that would have moved him. By painting the possibilities of plunder he wrung a reluctant consent from these two gentlemen, and proceeded rapidly to develop the plan.

As usual, not being able to embrace the opportunity when it was presented, a change in the wind rendered it impossible for the present. The design and opportunity were too good, however, to be lost, and the squadron beat to and fro off the harbor, waiting for a shift of wind to make practicable the effort. On the 15th they captured another collier, a schooner, the master of which, named Andrew Robertson, was bribed by the promised return of his vessel to pilot them into the harbor of Leith. Robertson, a dastardly traitor, promised to do so, and saved his collier thereby. On the morning of the 16th an amusing little incident occurred off the coast of Fife. The ships were, of course, sailing under English colors, and one of the seaboard gentry, taking them for English ships in pursuit of Paul Jones, who was believed to be on the coast, sent a shore boat off to the Richard asking the gift of some powder and shot with which to defend himself in case he received a visit from the dreaded pirate. Jones, who was much amused by the situation, made a courteous reply to the petition, and sent a barrel of powder, expressing his regret that he had no suitable shot. He detained one of the boatmen, however, as a pilot for one of the other ships. During the interim the following proclamation was prepared for issuance when the town had been captured. The document is somewhat diffuse in its wording, but the purport of it is unmistakable:

"The Honorable J. Paul Jones, Commander-in-chief of the American Squadron, now in Europe, to the Worshipful Provost of Leith, or, in his absence, to the Chief Magistrate, who is now actually present, and in authority there.

"Sir: The British marine force that has been stationed here for the protection of your city and commerce, being now taken by the American arms under my command, I have the honour to send you this summons by my officer, Lieutenant-Colonel de Chamillard, who commands the vanguard of my troops. I do not wish to distress the poor inhabitants; my intention is only to demand your contribution toward the reimbursement which Britain owes to the much-injured citizens of the United States; for savages would blush at the unmanly violation and rapacity that have marked the tracks of British tyranny in America, from which neither virgin innocence nor helpless age has been a plea of protection or pity.

"Leith and its port now lie at our mercy; and, did not our humanity stay the hand of just retaliation, I should, without advertisement, lay it in ashes. Before I proceed to that stern duty as an officer, my duty as a man induces me to propose to you, by means of a reasonable ransom, to prevent such a scene of horror and distress. For this reason I have authorized Lieutenant-Colonel de Chamillard to conclude and agree with you on the terms of ransom, allowing you exactly half an hour's reflection before you finally accept or reject the terms which he shall propose. If you accept the terms offered within the time limited, you may rest assured that no further debarkation of troops will be made, but the re-embarkation of the vanguard will immediately follow, and the property of the citizens shall remain unmolested."

On the afternoon of the 16th, the squadron was sighted from Edinburgh Castle, slowly running in toward the Firth. The country had now been fully alarmed. It is related that the audacity and boldness of this cruise and his previous successes had caused Jones to be regarded with a terror far beyond that which his force justified, and which well-nigh paralyzed resistance. Arms were hastily distributed, however, to the various guilds, and batteries were improvised at Leith. On the 17th, the Richard, putting about, ran down to within a mile of the town of Kirkaldy. As it appeared to the inhabitants that she was about to descend upon their coast, they were filled with consternation. There is a story told that the minister of the place, a quaint oddity named Shirra, who was remarkable for his eccentricities, joined his people congregated on the beach, surveying the approaching ship in terrified apprehension, and there made the following prayer:

"Now, deer Lord, dinna ye think it a shame for ye to send this vile piret to rob our folk o' Kirkaldy? for ye ken they're puir enow already, and hae naething to spaire. The wa the ween blaws, he'll be here in a jiffie, and wha kens what he may do? He's nae too guid for onything. Meickle's the mischief he has dune already. He'll burn thir hooses, tak their very claes and tirl them to the sark; and wae's me! wha kens but the bluidy villain might take their lives! The puir weemen are maist frightened out o' their wits, and the bairns skirling after them. I canna thol't it! I canna thol't it! I hae been lang a faithfu' servant to ye, Laird; but gin ye dinna turn the ween about, and blaw the scoundrel out of our gate, I'll na staur a fit, but will just sit here till the tide comes. Sae tak yere will o't."

10See Appendix No. II.
11In case of disaster, that is.
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