Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Figure 1: Painting of the Bonhomme Richard by artist Geoff Hunt. The painting depicts Bonhomme Richard, commanded by Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones, probably just before her famous duel with the British warship HMS Serapis, commanded by Royal Navy Captain Richard Pearson, off Flamborough Head, England, on 23 September 1779. Click on photograph for larger image. You can see other works of art by Geoff Hunt here: http://www.brooksartprints.com/Huntlist.html
Figure 2: Model of Bonhomme Richard by Alain Benoit. Click on photograph for larger image. You can find out more about this model and Mr. Benoit’s work at this web site: http://www.shipmodel.com/models/bonhomme-richard-full-hu
Figure 3: Battle between Continental ship Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, 23 September 1779. Oil on canvas, 21" x 28," by Thomas Mitchell (1735-1790), signed and dated by the artist, 1780. It depicts Bonhomme Richard (center), commanded by Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones, closely engaged with HMS Serapis, commanded by Royal Navy Captain Richard Pearson, off Flamborough Head, England. Firing at right is the Continental frigate Alliance, while at left the British Countess of Scarborough is engaging the American Pallas.The original painting is in the US Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. It was donated by the US Naval Institute in 1949. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis by William Gilkerson. The two ships are nearing each other for the final fight. Courtesy of the Beverley R. Robinson Collection, US Naval Academy Museum. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: “He slowly drove his jibboom into Serapis’ mainmast” by William Gilkerson. About a half hour into the battle, Serapis tried to cross the bow of Bonhomme Richard, but, blanketed by the American’s sails, Serapis lost way. Jones, seeing an opportunity to board, placed his ship’s bow into the British ship’s side. The boarding party was beaten back, and the ships separated. Courtesy of the Beverley R. Robinson Collection, US Naval Academy Museum. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: "The Ordeal Of John Paul Jones Crew Of The Bonhomme Richard Repelling Boarders From HMS Serapis, September 23, 1779," by Anton Otto Fischer (1882 - 1962). With Bonhomme Richard and Serapis now locked in a death struggle, John Paul Jones’ crew tries desperately to fight off the British crew from Serapis. Click on photograph for larger image. For more examples of Fischer’s extraordinary artwork, go to this web site: http://www.americanartarchives.com/fischer.htm
Figure 7: John Paul Jones bids goodbye to his victorious ship, Bonhomme Richard. Painting by Percy Moran. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 8: Captain John Paul Jones, Continental Navy (1747-1792). Portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942),1906. The original painting is in the US Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. Many biographies have been written about this great man, but the best one still seems to be Samuel Eliot Morison’s John Paul Jones, published by Little, Brown, and Company, 1959. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
The 998-ton Bonhomme Richard was originally built as a merchant ship in 1766 under the name Duc de Duras for the French East India Company. She was purchased by King Louis XVI in early 1779 and placed at the disposal of Captain John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy for operations against the British. Louis XVI, along with France’s Minister of Marine, Monsieur Gabriel de Sartine, gave Jones authority to “use his own judgment” in determining when and where he would sail and what he would then attempt to do. As soon as Jones received the ship, he renamed it Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin, then the American Commissioner to Paris and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac. The almanac was published in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.
Bohomme Richard was a sturdy ship but slow, a defect that would haunt her in the coming days. The ship was approximately 152 feet long and 40 feet wide and had a crew of 322 officers and men. Bonhomme Richard was armed with six 18-pounder, 28 12-pounder, and eight 9-pounder cannons. After receiving his ship, Jones spent the next few months selecting his officers, recruiting a crew, and transforming Bonhomme Richard into a frigate. Jones also now bore the honorary title of commodore since several warships had been placed under his overall command. Bonhomme Richard, along with the other ships in Jones’ command, left L’Orient, France, on 19 June 1779 and their first mission was to escort a convoy of transports and merchantmen to various ports along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The new American frigate Alliance and three French warships, the frigate Pallas, the brig Vengeance, and a cutter taken from the British named Le Cerf, were all part of the squadron under the command of John Paul Jones sailing on board his flagship Bonhomme Richard.
Soon after Bonhomme Richard left L’Orient, a major storm developed. The ships had to battle heavy seas that night and Bonhomme Richard and Alliance collided in the dark. Although both ships sustained substantial damage, each was able to continue with their mission. As the ships proceeded to their destinations, British warships approached the French and American squadron. However, upon seeing the strength of Jones’ force, the British backed off and left the area. Unfortunately, Jones now realized just how slow Bonhomme Richard was because it could not chase any of the faster British warships. After delivering all of the French merchant ships safely to their destinations, Jones and his ships returned to L’Orient on 1 July 1779.
Both Bonhomme Richard and Alliance needed to be repaired. Bonhomme Richard needed a new bowsprit and Alliance needed her mizzenmast repaired. By the end of July 1779, both the American and the French ships were ready for sea again. At this point, the size of the squadron actually grew. Bonhomme Richard sailed with Pallas, Vengeance, and Le Cerf to the waters off the Ile de Groix, where Alliance waited with the French privateers Monsieur and Granville. Shortly after 14 August 1779, the seven warships left the Ile de Groix and sailed northwest toward the southwestern coast of Ireland. Four days later, Monsieur captured a ship and she left the squadron and headed back to France with her prize.
On 20 August 1779, Bonhomme Richard captured the merchant ship Mayflower and Jones sent the brigantine back to L’Orient with a prize crew. On the afternoon of 23 August, Jones and his squadron captured the brig Fortune which was bound for Bristol, England, and sent her back to France as well. But on that same day, Jones had a major problem with the captain of one of the ships in his squadron, the frigate Alliance. Pierre Landais, captain of the Alliance, was a former officer in the French Navy who had gone to America under the sponsorship of Silas Deane, an American diplomat in France. Landais received a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy from Congress’ Marine Committee, which generally approved commissions through connections and political influence rather than ability. On that day, Landais requested to pursue a ship that had been sighted in shoal water near the coast of Ireland. But Jones thought the move too dangerous and risked exposing Alliance in shallow waters that were patrolled by enemy warships. As a result of this decision, Laindais, on the afternoon of 24 August, visited Bonhomme Richard and insultingly berated Jones while announcing that he would obey no future orders from the commodore. Instead, he would follow his own judgment in all matters.
Needless to say, this outburst didn’t sit well with Jones. Unfortunately, France was an ally and Jones’ rank of commodore was a symbolic one. He really only commanded Bonhomme Richard. As a result of the fight between Landais and Jones, several of the ships in Jones’ squadron left. Granville, the other French privateer, left to take a prize and never returned. Pallas, the French frigate, broke her tiller at night and dropped out of sight. Landais took Alliance off in pursuit of prizes on his own and he didn’t return until the end of August. Worse, word had spread of French and American warships in the area, so the British Admiralty sent its own ships to seek them out. Jones’ squadron of seven ships was now reduced to the Bonhomme Richard and Vengeance.
Bonhomme Richard and Vengeance continued to sail in a northerly direction west of the New Hebrides and then headed for Cape Wrath, the northwestern tip of Scotland. On the afternoon of 30 August 1779, Jones sighted three ships on his port bow and gave chase. The next day he captured one of them, the transport Union. Shortly after that, Alliance reappeared with a prize of her own named Betsy. Landais celebrated the reunion by repeating his refusal to obey Jones and by speaking of a duel once both men reached shore. Pallas rejoined the squadron on the night of 1 September and the next day Vengeance captured an Irish brigantine returning from Norway.
On 3 September 1779, the squadron passed between the Orkney and Shetland Islands and then, after sending two of their prizes to Bergen, Noway, turned south to begin the last part of their cruise around the British Isles. Alliance took two more small prizes and Landais, after refusing to confer with Jones on board Bonhomme Richard, left the squadron once again. The weather deteriorated on 4 September and forced the warships away from the dangerous and rocky shores of Scotland. For the next nine days, Bonhomme Richard did not see any ships. On 13 September, Bonhomme Richard caught two ships leaving Scotland carrying coal. A few days later, Bonhomme Richard captured a collier and the sloop Speedwell off the coast of Whitby, England. Jones ordered that all valuables be removed from the ships and ordered the prizes to be scuttled, but one of the French captains released the sloop after obtaining a ransom from the sloop’s captain.
On the night of 21 to 22 September 1779, Bonhomme Richard captured another collier and drove a second ship ashore south of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, England. Jones also captured a British brigantine inbound from Rotterdam, Holland. Early on the morning of 22 September, the squadron sighted a group of merchant ships, but slight winds prevented Bonhomme Richard from pursuing them. That evening, Jones reversed course and headed back north to Flamborough Head to look for Pallas which had fallen behind while chasing some ships. Shortly before dawn on 23 September 1779, a lookout spotted the return of Alliance and Pallas.
Bonhomme Richard and her consorts moved slowly northward until early afternoon when a stillness fell over the squadron. At roughly 1500 hours on 23 September 1779, a lookout on board Bonhomme Richard shouted down in a bellowing voice to Jones that a large group of ships was approaching from the north. Jones, guided by information obtained from the captains of some of his captured ships, concluded that these vessels belonged to a 41-ship convoy coming from the Baltic under the protection of the British frigate HMS Serapis, commanded by Captain Richard Pearson, Royal Navy, and the sloop-of-war HMS Countess of Scarborough. Eager to go after such big targets, Jones ordered that maximum sail be used to close with the enemy. But the wind was so light that it took three and a half hours before the ships reached striking distance.
At approximately 1830 on 23 September 1779, one of the greatest battles in naval history was about to begin. Bonhomme Richard rounded Serapis’ port quarter and, after an exchange of shouted questions and answers between Jones and Pearson to establish identity, Bonhomme Richard opened fire with a salvo from her starboard broadside guns. Serapis was the superior ship compared to Bonhomme Richard. Serapis was faster, more maneuverable, and carried a far greater number of 18-pounder cannons. Almost immediately after Bonhomme Richard fired, Serapis replied with a devastating broadside of her own. After the first or second broadside from Bonhomme Richard, two of her 18-pounder cannons exploded, killing many men and neutralizing the rest of her largest guns for fear that they too would explode. The explosions also caused substantial damage to Bonhomme Richard. But Bonhomme Richard unleashed two or three more broadsides, attempting to rake the Serapis’ bow and stern.
John Paul Jones was now in trouble. Realizing that he was outgunned by his more powerful and faster opponent, Jones reasoned that his only chance of victory was to move alongside Serapis so that he could board the British ship and have his sharpshooters pick off the British officers and men. Bonhomme Richard neared Serapis and then collided with her in a way that the British warship’s anchor was embedded into the hull of the American vessel, locking the two ships together.
At this point, with some cannons still firing at point blank range and with the crews of the two ships shooting at each other, Captain Pearson shouted over the side to John Paul Jones, “Has your ship struck?” (meaning: are you going to surrender?) John Paul Jones then uttered perhaps the greatest reply in all of naval history, shouting right back, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul Jones was not about to give up the battle, let alone his ship. With the two ships now locked together in a deadly embrace, Jones shouted, “Well done, my brave lads, we have got her now; throw on board her the grappling irons and stand by for boarding.” For four hours the crews of the two ships fought each other. At one point, the sails of both ships were on fire and the battle had to be suspended while damage control parties on both ships fought the flames. Once that was done, the battle resumed.
With the loss of his 18-pounders, Jones had no cannon left except three 9-pounders on the quarterdeck, one of which he helped pull from the port side with his own hands. Jones’ biggest advantage was the good marksmanship of the French Marine musketeers on deck and the seamen and gunners in the fighting tops. The fighting top was a platform located at the top end of the lower masts on a sailing warship. In battle, this position was manned by Marines or sailors with rifles and muskets. From the fighting tops, these men would fire down on the decks of enemy vessels. Because of their fast and accurate shooting, Serapis had no men alive on deck and her open-deck battery of ten 6-pounders was deserted. But Serapis’ 18-pounders below deck were banging away, blowing huge holes in Bonhomme Richard. It was amazing Bonhomme Richard was still afloat given all of the structural damage she sustained. With the two ships still locked together, the only thing keeping Bonhomme Richard’s sails up were the sails and rigging on board Serapis.
Jones personally directed the fire of one of the 9-pounders on deck, since so many of his crew were either dead or wounded. At one point, Jones was so exhausted that he sat down to rest on a hencoop, when a sailor came up to him and said, “For God’s sake, Captain, strike!” Jones paused and leaped to his feet and said, “No, I will sink, I will never strike!” He then resumed command of the 9-pounder cannon.
Jones’ incredible will, the expert marksmanship of his men in the tops, and his Marines proved to be decisive. They picked off so many British gunners that the British were having trouble manning their cannons. Jones then directed the fire of his last three 9-pounders, loaded with double-headed shot, against the Serapis’ mainmast. After a big explosion, Captain Pearson was almost ready to surrender. He tried his luck one more time, shouting to Jones, “Sir, do you ask for quarter?” And Jones replied, “No, sir, I haven’t as yet thought of it, but I’m determined to make you strike.” Pearson tried to have his men board Bonhomme Richard one last time, but were beaten back again by Jones’ crew.
By 2200, the battle continued to drag on. The situation on board Bonhomme Richard seemed hopeless to almost every officer except the captain. With a sinking ship that was on fire and almost every cannon silenced except three 9-pounders, and with the enemy still firing a good number of their own cannons, Bonhomme Richard’s situation was desperate. But Jones continued to have his few remaining guns fire at the Serapis’ mainmast. Then, at roughly 2230, Serapis’ mainmast began to tremble and Captain Pearson lost his nerve. Seeing the condition of his own ship and his men, Pearson walked over to his own staff and pulled down his flag. At this point, Serapis’ mainmast cracked and fell overboard, carrying with it her mizzen topmast. The battle was finally over.
Some of Bonhomme Richard’s crew boarded Serapis and Captain Pearson was brought on board of what was left of Bonhomme Richard. Pearson was introduced to John Paul Jones and at that point the defeated British captain handed over his sword to Jones, who promptly returned it with a few gracious words about his gallant fight. Jones then invited Pearson below into his wrecked cabin to drink a glass of wine. Such were the ceremonial manners of 18th century naval warfare.
As for the other ships in Jones’ squadron, only Pallas rose to the occasion and attacked HMS Countess of Scarborough. After a battle lasting two hours, Countess of Scarborough also surrendered. The rest of Jones’ squadron decided to take no major part in the battle, much to the anger of Jones. But it still was a huge victory. Between the two British ships, Jones captured 504 prisoners, including 26 officers. Serapis was in terrible condition, with most of her spars and sails and rigging cut away and her dead and dying men lying all over her decks. But the condition of Bonhomme Richard was even worse. Her rudder was barely hanging on to the ship, her stern frames and transoms were almost entirely shot away, the quarterdeck was about to fall into the gunroom, at least five feet of water was in the hold and increasing rapidly, and her topsides were gone. The timbers of her lower deck were blown to pieces and the ship was sinking. Jones and his crew tried to save Bonhomme Richard, but the damage was just too great. Jones transferred his flag and surviving crewmen to Serapis and on 25 September 1779, Bohomme Richard sank beneath the waves. Jones took his prisoners and his ships to the neutral port of Texel, Holland.
Final casualties were heavy by 18th century standards. Bonhomme Richard lost 150 men killed and wounded out of a total of 322. Serapis lost roughly 100 killed and 68 wounded. Although Captain Pearson lost two warships, he had accomplished his mission. The Baltic convoy made it through without a loss. Pearson was eventually acquitted at a court martial and was presented with a magnificent silver vase by the Russia Company out of gratitude for saving the convoy. Pearson was later knighted by King Georg III. Not bad for the man who lost the battle. Actually, Great Britain probably didn’t want to admit that it had lost a major naval battle to an American captain off her own shores.
As for John Paul Jones, in honor of his victory he received a special sword and medal from Louis XVI as well as the title “Chevalier.” Jones accepted the high honor, along with all the other praises and gifts that were bestowed upon him in Louis XVI’s court. In 1787, the Continental Congress resolved that a gold medal be struck in commemoration of Jones’ “Valor and brilliant services” and it was presented to Chevalier John Paul Jones. Unfortunately, he never again was given a major command in the Continental Navy. In 1788, Jones decided to go to Russia where Catherine the Great made him a rear admiral in her navy. He hoped that command of a battle fleet in Russia would qualify him for higher command if and when the United States built a permanent Navy. Although he successfully commanded the Black Sea Squadron in the Dnieper River, court intrigues forced Jones to leave Russia. In 1790, Jones returned to Paris and died almost penniless on 18 July 1792. It was a sad, sad end to a brilliant naval war hero who deserved much better from the United States.
John Paul Jones and Bonhomme Richard’s great victory over Serapis not only proved that the United States could project naval power overseas, but that it could also fight the Royal Navy off its own shores and win. This was a tremendous morale boost not only for the Continental Congress, but also for the people in a collection of colonies trying to become a nation. The Royal Navy, masters of the seas and the most powerful fighting force in the world, could be beaten in their own backyard, and John Paul Jones on board Bonhomme Richard proved that.