Blame it on my public school education, but I assumed the American Revolution was entirely a land-based war. Okay, I remember a little about British ships blockading Boston Harbor and then the French fleet arriving at Yorktown to cut off any escape and forcing Cornwallis to surrender…but that’s it. Turns out there was a small American Navy. It mostly attempted to waylay supplies and reinforcements from reaching British troops, but there was one man who actually commanded his ship to take the fight to the Eastern shores of the Atlantic. His name was John Paul Jones.
John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor
Sperry, Armstrong. . New York: Random House, 1953, 176 pp.
He was actually born John Paul, son of a Scottish gardener. He captained a merchant ship in the British West Indies and after the death of two crew members (one during an attempted mutiny), he was forced to seek refuge in the American colonies under a new name (he added Jones to the end). Two years later (1775) the name Lt. John P. Jones appeared on the roster of officers for the newly formed Continental Navy.
His first command was a small sloop with only twelve 4-pound cannons mounted on the deck, but he used it to defeat ship after ship – he captured a full company of English infantry and their cargo of 10,000 heavy winter uniforms that protected Washington’s troops instead of Burgoyne’s. During a raid of Nova Scotia he commandeered nine ships from the English fishing fleet. He was chosen to carry news of Burgoyne’s surrender to Ben Franklin in Paris where he was trying to persuade the French king to join the American cause.
And while there, he decided to take advantage of his proximity to English soil. With 29 men he snuck into the fort at Whitehaven, England and spiked all the cannons (rendering them useless) then he had the gall to set fire to the town and ships in the harbor –the spark being provided by a local when Jones asked him for a light for his pipe. It was the only raid on English soil during the war.
With all his success, it seems strange that orders arrived from the Continental Congress that took away Jones’ command. Fortunately, Jones didn’t take the slap in the face the same way Benedict Arnold did. Rather than turn traitor he sought the aid of Ben Franklin to persuade the king to outfit a new ship to captain. It was an old ship with old cannons (they’d actually been condemned by the French Navy) but Jones seemed to prefer the role of underdog.
He engaged in battle with a 50-gun frigate and was boarded. When a British officer asked him to surrender he uttered his immortal words “I have not yet begun to fight” (I do recall that phrase so maybe he did appear in my history books). Eventually it was the British ship that lowered its colors.
The story ends with this triumph – in fact I wish we hadn’t read the Afterward. John Paul Jones was essentially abandoned by the country he had served so well. He commanded the Black Fleet for Russia’s Catherine the Great for a short time, but died penniless in Paris at the age of 46. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
The United States eventually did try to do right by him, more than 100 years too late. In 1908 and American ambassador led a successful search to recover the body which is now entombed in a crypt in the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
If you’ve got a child enthralled with pirates and sailing ships this would be an excellent read. Just judge by this passage…
Sweating gun-crews slewed the 4-pounders forward to bear on the mighty frigate. The powder boys came racing, each with a coil of smoldering slow-match in a tub.
The gun-captain shouted, “Run ‘em out, lads!”
The men threw their weight on the tackles and the cannon ran out. For a second Paul Jones thought with satisfaction of the dismantling shot: lengths of wicked iron chain, joined to a single iron ring in the center. When discharged, it would hurtle like a rocket from the guns, shredding the enemy’s rope and canvas.
My copy of John Paul Jones, Fighting Sailor was in a whole box of Landmark Books I picked up at a library book sale. They were all part of the private collection of a John Carron –I can’t imagine why he parted with such treasures.
You can find a list of all my Rescued Books here.