Originally published at American Thinker November 22, 2012
At the outbreak of hostilities with the British in 1776, Captain John Paul Jones, in command of the Providence, wrecked the enemy fishing industry in Nova Scotia and captured sixteen prize British vessels. In 1777 and 1778 he captained the Ranger and raided along the English coast, bringing the war home to King George and his subjects. In recognition of his feats, the Continental Navy put him in command of five American and French warships, including his flagship, the Bonhomme Richard. Commodore Jones led his tiny squadron on raids of the Scottish coast, disrupting commerce, capturing numerous merchant ships, and making an aggravating nuisance of himself to the Crown and Royal Navy.
Painted by Charles Wilson Peale c1781
John Paul Jones later engaged in one of the bloodiest naval engagements of the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Flamborough Head, off the northern coast of England. At dawn on September 23, 1779, his four-ship squadron spotted what they believed to be a 41-ship convoy, guarded by the 44-gun Royal Navy frigate, Serapis, and the sloop-of-war HMS Countess of Scarborough. One of his squadron, the warship Alliance, captained by a Frenchman, refused to obey Commodore Jones’ orders to engage the enemy.
He attacked the Serapis, but two of his heavy 18-pound cannon burst in the opening salvo, seriously damaging the Bonhomme Richard and killing many sailors. John Paul abandoned the use of his heavy cannon, believing them to be too dangerous. The Serapis pounded and raked his ship with her heavy cannon. Severely mauled and outgunned, his ship on fire and sinking, John Paul had few options. The British commander issued a taunting demand for John Paul to surrender. His lieutenant recorded his historic words of defiance, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul knew that his only hope was to attack and board his enemy, so he swung his burning vessel around to ram the British warship. They came alongside and bound the ships together with grappling hooks. To John Paul’s astonishment, the Alliance showed up two hours after the fight began and poured cannon fire into both ships.
In bloody hand-to-hand combat, his crew fought the British sailors with hand grenades, musket fire and sabers—and overcame them. The British commander was forced to surrender the Serapis to the Americans. Jones’ crew tried desperately to save the Bonhomme Richard but the damage was too great and the vessel was lost. John Paul crossed over to the Serapis and took command of one of the greatest naval prizes of the war.
John Paul Jones saying farewell to the Bonhomme Richard.
Painting by Percy Moran
John Paul Jones should not have won. But he and his crew were made of sterner stuff than the enemy. They were outnumbered, outgunned, betrayed by their own, and had inferior technology with which to fight. But the American patriots prevailed through sheer determination, guts and relentless effort. They fought to their uttermost ability for the cause of freedom and liberty.
Can we do less? We would do well to follow the example of this early American hero and his crew, who lost their valiant vessel, but won a new and better one. The battles we face are no less formidable. But we will win, God willing. We have not yet begun to fight.