While most Americans are familiar with George Washington and his exploits leading the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy” and first American naval hero is less well known.
Jones was born “John Paul” in 1746 in a small town on the southwest coast of Scotland, he later added the last name Jones to evade law enforcement upon moving to the United States. Jones began his career as a sailor at the age of 13 and worked aboard several merchant ships transiting the Caribbean. After a mutineer confronted him and Jones killed him in self-defense with a saber, he was forced to flee to the United States.
After the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Jones volunteered to serve in the fledgling Continental Navy. Due to his reputation as a skilled naval captain, he was given command over a small merchant vessel converted to military use, the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard (named in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac in French). He used the Bonhomme Richard to effectively terrorize British commercial and fishing activities off the coast of Nova Scotia in the early days of the war.
Unlike George Washington and the Continental Army who were engaged in a mostly defensive battle against the invading British Army, Jones took the fight to the enemy. His reach extended across the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles where he captured valuable resources for the American war effort and disrupted enemy supply lines.
At the Battle of Flamborough Head, in 1779, Jones and the men under his command left their permanent mark on United States’ naval history. Commodore Jones led a small squadron of American and French ships on a mission to disrupt British commerce. On the afternoon of September 23rd, the American and French squadron attacked a 41-ship merchant convoy being escorted by the 44-gun Frigate, HMS Serapis, and the 22-gun sloop-of-war, HMS Countess of Scarborough.
The Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis but they quickly found themselves outgunned when their 18-pound guns backfired, damaging their own ship and forcing them to take the remaining 18-pound guns out of commission. Outgunned and outmaneuvered by the Serapis, Jones saw that their only chance for victory was if they boarded the Serapis. The Bonhomme Richard turned and rammed the Serapis after which the order was given to bind the two ships together with grappling hooks. Boarding parties from both ships were repelled by snipers, hand grenades, and with sabers in bloody hand-to-hand fighting.
During the fray, the Bonhomme Richard’s ensign was shot from its flagpole. Thinking that the Bonhomme Richard had lowered its flag in surrender, the commander of the Serapis, Captain Robert Pearson, shouted over to Jones asking him if they intended to surrender, to which Jones famously replied, “SURRENDER? I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO FIGHT!”
After a lengthy and savage fight, the marines aboard the Bonhomme Richard eventually overcame their foes aboard the Serapis and the British were forced to surrender. Badly damaged during the fighting, the Bonhomme Richard had to be abandoned and sunk, John Paul Jones and his crew took command of the Serapis. The Battle of Flamborough Head and the brave men who fought and died there will forever be remembered by patriotic Americans. It is a testament to the fact that quick wit and tenacity can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
In a strange twist, Jones ended his naval career working as a mercenary naval captain for the Russians, fighting the Ottoman Turks in the Russo-Turkish War. After retirement, Jones moved to Paris where he died and was buried. His remains were repatriated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and interred at their rightful resting place at the United States Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland.