“I Have not Yet Begun to Fight”: John Paul Jones’ Greatest Victory

U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard vs H.M.S Serapis | September 23, 1779 | Oil painting by Thomas Mitchell | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The Spring months of 1779 had been uneventful, almost boring for Commodore John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy. He spent most of his time in France overseeing the refitting of his squadron and the outfitting of his new flagship the Bonhomme Richard. As the Spring passed, Jones grew increasingly anxious over his lack of action in the American War for Independence. It was not natural for him to sit by and do nothing in any situation, much less in his young nation’s fight for independence from Great Britain. The beginning of Summer was not much more eventful. Jones and his squadron were relegated to mere convoy duty escorting French merchant vessels in the English channel and the Bay of Biscay. It was a tedious task, and Jones was unable to engage any British warships.1 He craved to return to sea and continue the fight against the Royal Navy. He was desperate for a battle and despised the Royal Navy with an almost obsessive self destructive hatred. He wanted nothing more than to destroy every Royal Navy ship he encountered at sea.2 Finally, at the beginning of August 1779, Jones received orders from the American ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, to pursue merchant vessels sailing in British territorial waters. This was the chance that John Paul Jones had been waiting for; a chance to resume his attacks against the British merchant marine and the Royal Navy in their own waters. The feat was extremely dangerous, but no one was better equipped than the fiery audacious Jones. So, at 4:00 a.m on 14 August, Jones and his squadron of six ships set sail from the French port of Groix Roadstead bound for British waters.3 He did not know it then, but John Paul Jones had embarked on the cruise that would immortalize his name in American history forever.

Jones was in high spirits as his cruise around the British Isles began. With the land behind him, he was free to do what he liked as commander of his squadron, and he began capturing prizes within three days of his departure from France. His squadron took its first prize on 18 August and then captured a British vessel, Mayflower, laden with food provisions bound for London. The prizes were good, but Jones had trouble keeping his squadron together all the same. Some of his ships were separated in violent storms, which are so common in the waters of the Irish and North Seas, while some vessels wandered off on their own accord only to reappear when their captains saw fit. Nevertheless, Jones carried on his crusade. At noon on 1 September he took Union, a British vessel carrying uniforms for an army in Quebec. On the 16th, Jones took aboard a yacht captain who desired gun powder for his employer for protection from John Paul Jones. Commodore Jones proceeded to ask the yacht captain if he knew who he was speaking to, and the yacht captain replied that he was speaking to Captain Johnston of H.M.S. Romney. Jones, no doubt having fun at this point replied, “No I am Paul Jones.”4 His mistake revealed to him, the man fell to his knees and begged for mercy. Jones happily spared his life, but the yacht captain was taken prisoner. He then proceeded up the coast of Scotland, where his presence created widespread consternation and fear, but he was unable to make landfall anywhere due to incessant bickering with his subordinates and a disadvantageous shift in the wind the night of the landing. Up to that point, the mission was entirely normal; Jones was accustomed to taking prizes,  dealing with the oddities of life at sea, as well as handling insubordination from the captains under his command. He had no idea that his date with fame, glory, and immortality was just around the corner.5

John Paul Jones’ day began early on September 23, 1779. He hoped to rendezvous with some of his rouge ships, and reunite them with the rest of his squadron. At 5:30 a.m the frigates Alliance and Pallas rejoined Jones on the Bonhomme Richard, and together with a small prize they had taken, brought Jones’ squadron up to four vessels. Jones ordered the squadron to sail slowly toward Flamborough Head. At 3:00 p.m he spotted a large convoy of forty-one merchant vessels. This was it. This was the moment that Jones had been waiting for. He would love nothing more than to destroy and scatter the enemy’s merchant fleet, but he knew that every merchant convoy was accompanied by a powerful escort of at least two warships. The two escorts that accompanied this merchant fleet were the fifty-gun warship Serapis and the smaller twenty-gun vessel Countess of Scarborough. It was time for Jones to act, but his opponents beat him to action. Captain Richard Pearson, of the Serapis, ordered his convoy away to safety along the English coast. He then positioned his ships between Jones’ squadron and the merchant convoy. Jones, seeing this, ordered his ships to give chase, and began preparations for battle. Sailors rushed to and fro, taking their assigned positions on deck, preparing cannons for battle, and passing out hand-held weapons. At 6:00 p.m Jones hoisted his blue signal flag notifying the three ships to form a line of battle. Leading the line was Alliance, followed by Bonhomme Richard, and then finally Pallas brought up the rear. The three vessels slowly sailed towards their opponents, then suddenly both the Alliance and Pallas dropped out of the line of battle (this was a touch of the aforementioned insubordination manifesting itself at the worst possible time). Jones was utterly shocked, but he was nevertheless determined to engage his powerful foe; even if that meant doing it alone.6

Commodore John Paul Jones, Continental Navy painted by Cecilia Beaux, 1906 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Finally, at 6:30 p.m, just as the sun was setting behind the horizon, Jones sailed the lone Bonhomme Richard on a parallel course with Serapis. It was not long before the two vessels were within pistol shot of each other. Jones, who had up to that point been flying a British flag, tore it down and replaced it with the flag of his young nation. The cannons of the two vessels opened fire with ear shattering force. The red flashes of gunpowder exploding from the cannons were harbingers of death to the men on both decks. Within seconds, they were inundated by smoke as cannon balls crashed into wood and limb alike. Loose splinters of wood easily pierced sailors’ skin inflicting excruciating pain. The decks of both ships rang out with terrible cries of suffering and death. It truly was a horrific scene.7 In the thick of it all was John Paul Jones. He thrived in such a situation; he could be seen in the blue uniform of the Continental Navy barking orders to his men and fighting gallantly alongside them in the battle. Still though things were looking bleak. The Countess of Scarborough was firing her cannons at the stern of the Bonhomme Richard, unchallenged by either of Jones’ allies. Then disaster struck; half a dozen cannons stationed on the Bonhomme Richard’s deck exploded. The deck of the ship belched fire and smoke, while wounded men laid dying in the embers of the resultant fire or simply refused to fight any longer. Jones knew that he could not sustain much more damage, and he decided to order his remaining men to use grappling hooks to draw the Serapis into a deadly embrace. The tools were laid out, and the feat was performed successfully; the two ships were now intertwined. The firing of the Countess of Scarborough ceased, but despite that, the fighting was deadlier than ever. Both crews attempted to rush the boat deck of the enemy ship only to be turned back by the sheer determination of their foes. The two vessels, battered and beaten as they were, fought to a stalemate. However, Jones’ prudence and luck soon began to turn the tide of battle.8

Commodore Jones hails the captain of the Serapis during the battle by Paul Moran | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

By 9:00 p.m. the moon shone brightly in the sky revealed the truly terrible sight below. Both vessels were lit by the intense fires on deck, men laid wounded and dying with blood covering their clothes and skin. Some were missing whole limbs. Still, the battle raged on. There still was John Paul Jones, untouched and unmoved by the perils of battle, and curious as to what to do next. He soon realized that if he could muster his three remaining guns he might be able to destroy the mast of the Serapis. Working side by side with his remaining crew, they pointed the last of the guns at the large yellow mast of the enemy ship. Off the cannon balls went towards their weakened prey, hoping to score a crippling shot. As events unfolded on the boat deck, it became clear to those men on the lower decks that the ship was taking on too much water. The Bonhomme Richard was sinking. Those working below rushed up on the boat deck, and, thinking of nothing but saving their lives, did not join their fellow crew mates in combat, but rather attempted to flee the battle. As pandemonium overtook the boat deck, a rumor reached the master gunner, Henry Gardner, that John Paul Jones and his lieutenant had been killed in action, and that he was now captain. With no time to check the truthfulness of this rumor, Gardner rushed to haul down the American Flag and surrender. Captain Pearson, seeing this, asked, “Do you ask for quarter?”9 Jones, still very much alive and fighting, replied, “No, sir, I haven’t as yet thought of it, but I’m determined to make you strike.”10 Indeed, this was true and the battle raged on just as fierce as before. The cannons of the Serapis had ripped so many holes in Bonhomme Richard that its cannon balls simply sailed through the air, in one side and out the other. The Serapis itself had lost its mainmast, which lay crippled on its side supported only by the deck of Bonhomme Richard. However, one side had to win eventually, and John Paul Jones’ luck soon began to change. La Pallas and Alliance, which up to that point had been absent from the battle, joined the fray. La Pallas engaged the Countess of Scarborough and forced her to surrender. Then, Alliance opened fire on Serapis and Bonhome Richard, sending cannon balls hurling towards the already crippled ships. Jones and his men on deck yelled out for Alliance to stop as she was putting her fellow sailors in danger. Alliance delivered one last broadside, and then sailed off away from danger, never to offer assistance again (Alliance’s captain despised Jones, and this half-minded attempt at assistance was a manifestation of insubordination as well). Above the decks, a Scottish-American sailor had been tossing grenades at enemy crewmen all night. He managed to toss three grenades into the hatchway of Serapis and ignite one of her guns and create a massive explosion. With that, Captain Pearson decided to strike his colors and surrender his ship. John Paul Jones and his crew were victorious.11

The battle ended at approximately 10:40 p.m. Both sides had fought so bravely and suffered so dearly. In accordance with standard eighteenth-century protocol, Jones invited Captain Pearson on board his shattered vessel for a drink after accepting his surrender. The two captains had been enemies, but now they had no choice but to work together to reach shore. The next day, September 24, after making every effort to save Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones was forced to leave her lost to the sea. No matter, for he had a brand new ship and a fine one at that. However, he had paid dearly for it. Jones recorded 150 men killed or wounded of a crew of 322, while Pearson had lost at least a hundred as well. The battle had been one of the most gruesome and bloody affairs of the Age of Sail. Nevertheless, when he returned to France, he was hailed as a hero by all, including Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XVI. Jones had gained his place in the pantheon of American heroes, and it is one that he still rightly holds to this day. Strategically, the battle counted for nothing—the British still ruled the waves—but the battle provided the groundwork on which a proud naval tradition of the new United States could be built.12

John Paul Jones’ tomb USNA, Annapolis, Maryland | Photo taken March 29, 2016 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 193-197.
  2. Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 311.
  3. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 198.
  4. John Paul Jones, quoted in Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 218.
  5. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 207-212, 216-218.
  6. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 226-228.
  7. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 229.
  8. John Paul Jones, Memoir of the American Revolution presented to King Louis XVI of France (Washington D.C: American Revolution Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979), 33.
  9. John Pearson, quoted in John Paul Jones, John Paul Jones’ Memoir of the American Revolution Presented to King Louis XVI of France ( Washington D.C: American Revolution Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979), 35.
  10. John Paul Jones, quoted in, John Paul Jones, John Paul Jones Memoir of the American Revolution presented to King Louis XVI of France (Washington D.C: American Revolution Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979 ), 35.
  11. John Paul Jones, John Paul Jones’ Memoir of the American Revolution presented to King Louis XVI of France ( Washington D.C: American Revolution Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979), 35-38.
  12. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 243-244.
More from Christopher Hohman

The Climax of a Rivalry: The Battle of Jutland

It’s May of 1916, war rages across the world as Great Britain...
Read More

8 Comments

  • Beautifully written and interesting article with eye-catching imagery. It can be argued with this deep research that John Paul Jones and his men had paved the way for the United States to have a strong Navy. Even though the British had control of the seas, Commodore Jones had set a major example for the American cause for independence at the height of the Revolutionary War.

  • Another story that shows a brave person and showing the story of success. I’ve always enjoyed reading these because it shows the journey and different obstacles that a person may have gone through before getting to where they wanted to be. The images were pretty cool to look at, it really gave me a visual of what it was like, it was like a video playing in my head. John Paul Jones seemed like a really brave person.

  • Before reading this article I did not know anything about John Paul Jones of the Continental Navy. This was a very interesting read as Jones was a very determined man and he seemed to really want to fight the British and was able to capture a British ship full of food and provisions. It is unfortunate that in the end he lost his ship to the sea.

  • I liked reading about the determination of John Paul Jones and how he attempted to succeed through his story. I liked the structure and the flow of the article because of the detail in which the story was explained. The images were also really interesting and the stories of the battles were really well written, especially the ending in which it was described that the new United States was built because of the work done from the battle.

  • Very interesting article, I had heard about John Paul Jones before and was nice to read more information about his most famous naval battle. Seemingly, like all great American heroes, he has to enter the conflict with smaller support than anticipated and had to use determination, strategy, and a little luck to win the day. Would be very hard to write a story better than John Paul Jones’ victory.

  • I found this article interesting because 1) I did not know about John Paul Jones and this story gave me insight in one of the battles he fought in, and 2) how the Americans won even though the odds were against them. It takes bravery to overcome any odds and still gamble towards victory, but most importantly, it takes pride in your country.

  • I had never heard of John Paul Jones before reading this article. He seemed to be able to think clearly in the heat of battle and be an expert at creating strategies. It is amazing that he was able to still win the battle after his other ship abandoned him, his cannons exploded and caused many of his men to die and his ship to catch on fire, and his ship was sinking.

  • I found this a very interesting article as this man seems to be an American hero or legend, but he is one that I have never heard of before. John Paul Jones is interesting not just because of the fact that he captured a British ship but that he did it with the cards stacked against him. It speaks very true to the nation he was fighting for. By all rights, the Americans were at a disadvantage but they were still able to overcome the British. Jones was a man who pushed his luck and was determined to succeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.