The Life and Character of John Paul Jones

Author: Richard Dale  | Date: 1851

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J. H. Sherburne New York 1851

"I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight"

[1779]

On the 23d of September, 1779, being below, was roused by an unusual noise upon deck. This induced me to go upon deck, when I found the men were swaying up the royal yards, preparatory to making sail for a large fleet under our lee. I asked the coasting pilot what fleet it was. He answered:

"The Baltic fleet, under convoy of the Serapis of forty-four guns, and the Countess of Scarborough of twenty guns."

A general chase then commenced of the Bon Homme Richard, the Vengeance, the Pallas, and the Alliance. The latter ship being then in sight after a separation from the squadron to reach three weeks, but which ship, as usual, disregarded the private signals of the commodore. At this time our fleet headed to the northward, with a light breeze, Flamborough head being about two leagues distant. At 7 P. M. it was evident the Baltic fleet perceived we were in chase, from the signal of the Serapis to the merchantmen to stand in shore. At the same time, the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough tacked ship, and stood off shore, with the intention of drawing off our attention from the convoy. When these ships had separated from the convoy about two miles, they again tacked and stood in shore after the merchantmen. At about eight, being within hail, the Serapis demanded,

"What ship is that?"

He was answered: "I can’t hear what you say."1

Immediately after the Serapis hailed again:

"What ship is that? Answer immediately, or I shall be under the necessity of firing into you."

At this moment I received orders from Commodore Jones to commence the action with a broadside, which indeed appeared to be simultaneous on board both ships. Our position being to windward of the Serapis, we passed ahead of her, and the Serapis coming up on our larboard quarter, the action commenced abreast of each other. The Serapis soon passed ahead of the Bon Homme Richard, and when he thought he had gained a distance sufficient to go down athwart the fore foot to rake us, found he had not enough distance, and the Bon Homme Richard would be aboard him, put his helm a-lee, which brought the two ships on a line, and the Bon Homme Richard, having headway, ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis. We had remained in this situation but a few minutes when we were again hailed by the Serapis:

"Has your ship struck?"

To which Captain Jones answered: "I have not yet begun to fight."

As we were unable to bring a single gun to bear upon the Serapis, our topsails were backed, while those of the Serapis being filled, the ships separated. The Serapis bore short round upon her heel, and her jib boom ran into the mizen rigging of the Bon Homme Richard. In this situation the ships were made fast together with a hawser, the bowsprit of the Serapis to the mizenmast of the Bon Homme Richard, and the action recommenced from the starboard sides of the two ships. With a view of separating the ships, the Serapis let go her anchor, which maneuvre brought her head and the stern of the Bon Homme Richard to the wind, while the ships lay closely pressed against each other. A novelty in naval combats was now presented to many witnesses, but to few admirers. The rammers were run into the respective ships to enable the men to load after the lower ports of the Serapis had been blown away, to make room for running out their guns, and in this situation the ships remained until between 10 and 11 o’clock P. M., when the engagement terminated by the surrender of the Serapis.

From the commencement to the termination of the action, there was not a man on board the Bon Homme Richard ignorant of the superiority of the Serapis, both in weight of metal, and in the qualities of the crews. The crew of that ship was picked seamen, and the ship itself had been only a few months off the stocks; whereas the crew of the Bon Homme Richard consisted of part American, English, and French, and a part of Maltese, Portuguese, and Malays, these latter contributing, by their want of naval skill and knowledge of the English language, to depress rather than elevate the first hope of success in a combat under such circumstances. Neither the consideration of the relative force of the ships, the fact of the blowing up of the gundeck above them by the bursting of two of the eighteen pounders, nor the alarm that the ship was sinking, could depress the ardor or change the determination of the brave Captain Jones, his officers and men. Neither the repeated broadsides of the Alliance, given with a view of sinking or disabling the Bon Homme Richard2, the frequent necessity of suspending the combat to extinguish the flames, which several times were within a few inches of the magazine, nor the liberation by the master-at-arms of nearly five hundred prisoners, could change or weaken the purpose of the American commander. At the moment of the liberation of the prisoners, one of them, a commander of a twenty-gun ship taken a few days before, passed through the ports on board the Serapis, and informed Captain Pearson that if he would hold out only a little while longer, the ship alongside would either strike or sink, and that all the prisoners had been released to save their lives. The combat was accordingly continued with renewed ardor by the Serapis.

The fire from the tops of the Bon Homme Richard was conducted with so much skill and effect as to destroy ultimately every man who appeared upon the quarter-deck of the Serapis, and induced her commander to order the survivors to go below. Nor even under shelter of the decks were they more secure. The powder-monkeys of the Serapis, finding no officer to receive the eighteen-pound cartridges brought from the magazines, threw them on the main deck, and went for more. These cartridges being scattered along the deck, and numbers of them broken, it so happened that some of the hand grenades thrown from the main-yard of the Bon Homme Richard, which was directly over the main hatch of the Serapis, fell upon this powder, and produced a most awful explosion. The effect was tremendous. More than twenty of the enemy were blown to pieces, and many stood with only the collars of their shirts upon their bodies. In less than an hour afterward the flag of England, which had been nailed to the mast of the Serapis, was struck by Captain Pearson’s own hand3, as none of his people would venture aloft on this duty; and this, too, when more than 1,500 persons were witnessing the conflict, and the humiliating termination of it, from Scarborough and Flamborough head.

Upon finding the flag of the Serapis had been struck, I went to Captain Jones, and asked whether I might board the Serapis, to which he consented; and jumping upon the gunwale, seized the main-brace pennant, and swung myself upon her quarterdeck. Midshipman Mayrant followed with a party of men, and was immediately run through the thigh with a boarding-pike by some of the enemy stationed in the waist, who were not informed of the surrender of the ship. I found Captain Pearson standing on the leeward side of the quarterdeck, and, addressing myself to him, said:

"Sir, I have orders to send you on board the ship alongside."

The first lieutenant of the Serapis coming up at this moment, inquired of Captain Pearson whether the ship alongside had struck to him. To which I replied:

"No, sir, the contrary; he has struck to us."

The lieutenant, renewing his inquiry—

"Have you struck, sir?"

"Yes, I have."

The lieutenant replied: "I have nothing more to say," and was about to return below, when I informed him he must accompany Captain Pearson on board the ship alongside. He said:

"If you will permit me to go below, I will silence the firing of the lower-deck guns."

This request was refused, and with Captain Pearson [he] was passed over to the deck of the Bon Homme Richard. Orders being sent below to cease firing, the engagement terminated, after a most obstinate contest of three hours and a half.

1According to the report of the Serapis’s captain, Richard Pearson, dated October 12, 1779, Jones’s ship answered evasively.

2John Paul Jones to Franklin, October 3, 1779: "At last, at half past nine o’clock, the Alliance appeared, and I now thought the battle at an end; but, to my utter astonishment, he discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Bon Homme Richard. We called to him for God’s sake to forbear firing into the Bon Homme Richard; yet he passed along the off side of the ship, and continued firing. There was no possibility of his mistaking the enemy’s ship for the Bon Homme Richard, there being the most essential difference in their appearance and construction; besides, it was then full moonlight, and the sides of the Bon Homme Richard were all black, while the sides of the prizes were yellow; yet, for the greater security I shewed the signal of our reconnoissance by putting out three lanthorns, one at the head (bow), another at the stern (quarter), and the third in the middle in a horizontal line. Every tongue cried that he was firing into the wrong ship, but nothing availed. He passed around, firing into the Bon Homme Richard’s head, stern, and broadside; and by one of his volleys killed several of my best men, and mortally wounded a good officer on the forecastle. My situation was really deplorable. The Bon Homme Richard received various shot under water from the Alliance, the leak gained on the pumps, and the fire increased much on board both ships. Some officers persuaded me to strike, of whose courage and good sense I entertain a high opinion. My treacherous master. at-arms let loose all my prisoners without my knowledge, and my prospect became gloomy indeed. I would not however, give up the point. The enemy’s main-mast began to shake, their firing decreased outs rather increased, and the British colors were struck at half an hour past 10 o’clock."

3Captain Pearson subsequently stated: "I found it in vain, and indeed impracticable from the situation we were in, to stand out any longer with the least prospect to success. I therefore struck."

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Chicago: Richard Dale, The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, ed. J. H. Sherburne in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 3, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=39CQ7S4DE3RPPU3.

MLA: Dale, Richard. The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, edited by J. H. Sherburne, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 3 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=39CQ7S4DE3RPPU3.

Harvard: Dale, R, The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 3 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=39CQ7S4DE3RPPU3.