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Issue 37 - America's navel hero

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008

 

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America's navel hero

John Paul Jones was one of America's greatest battle commanders during the Revolution. Not bad for a poor boy from Kirkcudbright.

John Paul Jones was born plain old ‘John Paul’ on the estate of Arbigland in Kirkcudbright on the 6th July 1747, and went on to be come America’s first naval hero in the American Revolutionary War.

John Paul began his maritime career at the age of 13, sailing out of Whitehaven, England, as apprentice aboard the Friendship.

For the next several years he sailed British merchant and slaver ships, eventually quitting in disgust at the cruelty he witnessed.

Given free passage home in 1768 onboard the brig John, John Paul’s career was quickly advanced when the captain and first mate died of fever, and he successfully brought the ship back to a safe port. As a reward, the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship and its crew, aged just 21.

During a subsequent voyage to Tobago aboard the John, the young captain was accused of being “unnecessarily cruel” having flogged one of his sailors, who later died of his injuries. He was cleared of blame but this was an event which would dog him for the rest of his life.

Leaving Scotland, John Paul’s next commission was the London vessel Betsy, which came to a similarly violent end when Jones killed a member of his crew with a sword in a dispute over wages. He fled to his brother’s estate in Virginia in 1773, changing his name, first to John Jones and later to John Paul Jones.

America at this time was working up to the Revolution, and shortly after arriving Jones volunteered his services to the newlyfounded Continental Navy, which later became the United States Navy.

His early assignments were aboard the frigate USS Alfred and the sloop Providence.

In November 1777 he sailed in the Ranger for France where he struck up a friendship with the American Commissioner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. Ayear later Jones sailed the Ranger for Britain where he carried out an attack on Whitehaven, the very town where he began his military career, and defeated the HMS Drake, a 20 gun sloop anchored near Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.

Jones had also conceived a plan to capture the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on an island in Kirkcudbright Bay. Upon arrival, they were informed by the gardener that the Earl was not at home. Not wanting to leave emptyhanded the captain allowed them to seize the family silver, including the teapot still wet with tealeaves from the Countess’s breakfast.

Jones later bought the silver himself when it was sold in France after the war, and returned it to the Earl of Selkirk with an apology.

At this point Jones was having some trouble keeping his crew in line, and the British thought him nothing but a marauding pirate. But his second cruise around the British Isles was to bring more glory.

In 1779, Captain Jones took command of the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard and as commodore of seven ships set sail for England. On 23rd September the ships met a merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. The 44 gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 20 gun hired escort Countess of Scarborough placed themselves between the convoy and Jones’s squadron, allowing the merchants to escape.

A dramatic battle followed during which Jones uttered the legendary words: “I have not yet begun to fight!” in response to a quip about surrender from the British captain.

During the fight one of Jones’ own ships fired at the Bonhomme Richard holing her so badly that she later sank. Eventually the Serapis surrendered, earning Jones a medal and the title Chevalier from the King of France.

In 1781 he returned to America and, missing out on the command of another ship, spent the remaining years of the war advising on the establishment of the navy and the training of naval officers until Thomas Jefferson, the new American Ambassador in France, recommended him for service with Russia. In 1788 he was made a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy by the Empress Catherine II, a rank higher than he had received in the United States.

He took the name Pavel Dzhones and fought for the Russians at sea many times, often displaying his skills as a battle commander that he was famous for.

He died in France on 18th July 1792, aged 45, and was buried in an unmarked grave for more than a century before his body was ceremonially brought back to America. It now rests in a bronze and marble sarcophagus (modelled on the tomb of Napoleon) at The United States Naval Academy Chapel in Maryland.