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Navy Legend – John Paul Jones

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

The Right Stuff: What Makes A Navy Legend – Actions or Attributes?

If you ask any Sailor to name a favorite Navy legend, you’ll likely get as many names to field an entire squadron of naval heroes – including a few ships.

So we’re asking you – the Sailor, veteran and reader – to offer up one of your own favorite legends, with a reason or two as to what makes a naval legend. Is it action or attributes?

Navy Legend – John Paul Jones

But to kick off this series on Navy Legends, we’ll begin with John Paul Jones, since 223 years ago his life ended, but not his legacy. And while there are those who might fault some of his attributes, no one can quibble about his actions for the Continental Navy.

The Early Years

John Paul Jones. Oil on pressboard. Artist: A.S. Conrad. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 50012-KN
John Paul Jones. Oil on pressboard. Artist: A.S. Conrad. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 50012-KN

Back in 1747, July was a far kinder month for the infant John Paul. He was born July 6 in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. At the age of 12, he entered the British merchant marine as a cabin boy.

The teenage Jones grew disgusted with the slave trade after three years working on a slaver, deciding instead to work on a merchant vessel.

When the vessel’s captain and first mate died due to disease during a cruise, Paul took charge and got the ship home. To reward him, Paul was given command of his own vessel. But an uprising among his crew at Tobago in the West Indies in 1773 resulted in Paul killing the leader, an act he claimed was in self-defense. To avoid trial, he fled to the home of his brother in Fredericksburg, Va., and took on the surname of Jones.

His Life in America

As the American Revolution heated up and Congress began funding ships for the Continental Navy, they needed experienced crew members. Jones was excited to join the revolution, sympathetic to the cause of liberty having grown up Scottish under British rule.

He was commissioned a lieutenant on Alfred, the flagship under the command of Capt. Esek Hopkins, the Continental Navy’s commanding officer. On her commissioning date, it was Jones who raised the rebelling colony’s new flag – the Union Jack.

Jones’ prowess on the sea earned him a promotion to captain by 1776 and he was given the command of the sloop Providence in January. During her first cruise, Providence and her crew captured 16 British ships as prizes while harassing the British shipping industry around Nova Scotia. By November, Hopkins gave Jones command of Alfred, the larger ship. Alfred and Providence, with its new captain, headed toward the Bahamas, where they captured three British ships within a month.

After Providence returned to repair leaks, Jones and his ship Alfred continued to raid shipping around Nova Scotia, capturing a small schooner, three colliers and the 10-gun letter-of-marque John of Liverpool. After eluding MHS Milford following a four-hour chase, Alfred returned to Boston Dec. 15.

While Alfred underwent a major refit, Jones was given command of Ranger on July 14, 1777. On Ranger, Jones quickly sailed back to Europe, making audacious raids on England’s shore. On Feb. 14, 1778, Jones’ ship Ranger was given the first salute from a foreign navy after the French signed an alliance treaty with the United States the week before.

Jones’ exploits and success earned his command of the 42-gun frigate Bonhomme Richard, a gift from King Louis XVI in 1779. Jones’ squadron was responsible for the capture of seven merchantmen off the coast of Scotland. On Sept. 23, 1779, Jones fought one of the bloodiest engagements in naval history south of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. Jones struggled with the 44-gun Royal Navy frigate Serapis, and although his own vessel was burning and sinking, Jones would not accept the British demand for surrender, replying, “I have not yet begun to fight.” After colliding with Serpais, the British frigate’s anchor fouled Bonhomme Richard’s hull. Jones lashed his sinking ship to Serapis, and he and his crew continued close combat for three more hours until a tossed grenade down one of Serapis’ hatches caused gunpowder to explode. With another American ship, Alliance, shooting broadsides at the tangled ships, the British Capt. Richard Pearson chose to save the lives of his remaining crew and struck his colors.

Bonhomme Richard vs HMS Serapis, Sept. 23, 1779. Artwork of Anton O. Fischer. NHHC Photograph Collection: NH 56467-KN
Bonhomme Richard vs HMS Serapis, Sept. 23, 1779. Artwork of Anton O. Fischer. NHHC Photograph Collection: NH 56467-KN

Bonhomme Richard, however, could not be salvaged, sinking Sept. 25, 1779. Jones took command of his British prize, and sailed to Texel Roads, Holland, flying a unique Stars and Stripes that included a few blue stripes and eight-sided stars, the favorite design of his mentor, Ben Franklin.

Jones’ next ship was to be the best and largest ever built in the Western Hemisphere, the 74-gun ship-of-the-line America, which had already been delayed by numerous issues. On June 26, 1781, Jones was named the commanding officer, but before work was completed, the war with Great Britain was virtually over.

Congress decided Sept. 3, 1782, to present the as-yet-finished warship as a gift to France after its ship-of-the line Magnifique ran around and sank Aug. 11, 1782 while attempting to enter Boston Harbor.

Jones remained in Portsmouth to oversee the completion of the ship.

With a ship under his feet, Jones appeared to be unsinkable. But without a ship, Jones struggled to find relevance. He argued for Congress to fund its own Navy, assuring his continued employment with his adopted home. But the decision was made to dismantle the Continental Navy since the new republic had no funds to continue supporting one.

John Paul Jones the sea captain was seen as a bold leader, daring, ruthless and even a bit of a pirate to the British. He had been accused more than once of disciplining his crew too harshly.

John Paul Jones the person, however, was described as a well-dressed and charming rogue with the ladies, sociable and gracious, able to speak a smattering of French accented with his Scottish brogue. But for those who opposed his views, he difficult to get along with, and was often accused of being a self-promoter to get the constant attention he needed.

Life After America

John Paul Jones, is entombed at the U.S. Naval. U.S. Navy photo
John Paul Jones, is entombed at the U.S. Naval. U.S. Navy photo

Jones would seek employment elsewhere, and eventually was appointed in 1788 by Russian Empress Catherine the Great as a rear admiral in the Russian Navy. Although he performed well during his fleet battles against Turkey in the Black Sea, he failed to win over his Russian counterparts, which led to his commission not being renewed and his return to Paris in 1789.

After much letter-writing, Jones was appointed U.S. Consul to Algiers, but he died July 18, 1792, before he received official notification. Virtually penniless at that point, he was buried in Paris; a friend paid 462 francs for the funeral.

Jones’ exploits on the sea outlived him, and 113 years after his death and burial, Jones’ body was finally located in April 1905, exhumed, given a ceremonial sendoff in Paris, and repatriated to the United States on USS Brooklyn. His remains were reburied in a temporary vault on July 6, 1905, to commemorate his 158th birthday. On April 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a thundering eulogy during a commemoration service to honor Jones. Then in January 1913, Jones was exhumed again, and reinterred for the last time in an ornate tomb at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md., where it remains today.