France’s decision to enter the war with Britain drastically changed the landscape for the Americans in Europe. Up until that time, the American diplomats and naval officers had to dance around French efforts to keep the peace with Britain, while at the same time, trying to provoke as much trouble as possible.
Britain finally declared war on France after France signed the Treaty of Alliance. Once they were at war, American warships could unleash unrestricted warfare against Britain, and use French ports for repairs and safe harbor. Of course, the declaration of war also meant that the British fleet would be on high alert and would dominate the waters around Britain against any potential enemies.
John Paul Jones
One of those enemies was a young man seeking to make a name for himself in the Continental Navy, by the name of John Paul Jones. Since Jones later becomes affectionately known as the father of the US Navy, we should take a moment to understand where he came from.
|John Paul Jones|
John Paul was born to a Scottish family near the border between England and Scotland. His family surname was Paul. He added Jones later, for reasons I’ll address in a moment. His father was a gardener on a large estate, although a more accurate modern title would be landscape architect. He managed the construction and maintenance of large elaborate gardens for a wealthy lord. John Paul had no interest in the family business, and wanted to become an officer in the British Navy. Unlike the army, British naval commissions were possible for commoners and did not require a family fortune. They did, however, require connections, which the Paul family did not have.
Instead, at age thirteen, Paul signed aboard a merchant vessel. His enthusiasm and an understanding of mathematics encouraged one of the officers to teach him some maritime navigation skills. Ordinarily officers did not want sailors to understand navigation. They might be more likely to mutiny if they did not need the officers to get home. But Paul was clearly destined to be more than a sailor.
After serving on several ship’s crews on trips to the Americas, Paul got his big break when the ship’s captain and first mate aboard the John died from yellow fever while returning from the West Indies. Paul successfully navigated the ship home and was rewarded by the owners by giving him command of the ship. It was 1768 and Paul was only 21 years old.
Paul got a reputation as a strict and fastidious ship’s captain. Merchant captains at the time often resorted to violent force to control their crews. Corporal punishment was common. On one voyage to the West Indies, Captain Paul had cause to have a carpenter’s mate by the name of Mungo Maxwell flogged. While the ship was in Tobago, Maxwell filed a complaint against Paul for assault and abuse. A local admiralty court held that the beating was reasonable and acquitted Paul. Maxwell then left the ship to take another ship back to Scotland.
Paul was able to obtain bail and returned to Tobago to get a copy of the Admiralty Court’s verdict there. He also obtained the testimony of the captain of the ship on which Maxwell had died. The captain testified that Maxwell had died from a “fever and low spirits” not from the flogging. Paul eventually got the charges dismissed.
A couple of years later, Paul found himself back in the West Indies, facing another problem crew. Paul’s cargo had spoiled and he was unable to pay his crew. Several sailors broke into the ship’s store of liquor, got drunk and violent, and demanded their pay. One of the larger sailors came after Paul with a club. Paul grabbed a sword from his cabin and after being backed up by the crewmember, ran the man through, killing him.
This time, Paul did not trust the legal system to acquit him. The dead man was a local on the small island and had a great many friends. Instead, taking the advice of his own friends, Paul abandoned his ship and found passage on another ship bound for Virginia. He arrived there, on the run and almost broke, in 1774. He adopted the name Paul Jones in order to avoid anyone looking for a fugitive murderer named John Paul.
Jones attempted to start a new life in America. His older brother had moved to Virginia years earlier, but had died before John’s arrival. Jones made new connections, relying in part on his Masonic membership as an introduction. He eventually settled in Philadelphia. When war broke out in 1775, Jones probably could have gotten a lucrative position running a privateer vessel. But instead, he wanted a commission in the new Continental Navy.
As lieutenant, Jones sailed the Alfred to the Bahamas for the raid I discussed in Episode 84. I mentioned in that episode that on the return trip, the fleet encountered the British warship Glasgow but was unable to capture it. Commodore Hopkins took great criticism for that failure. One of his critics as John Paul Jones. Although he tried to be respectful to his commander, Jones made clear that the leadership during the mission was definitely lacking. He wrote to a member of the Marine Committee in Congress about both Commodore Hopkins and Captain Saltonstall.
Following that raid, Congress commissioned several more ships. After the captain of the Providence moved to a larger ship, Congress gave command of the Providence to Jones. This time, he accepted.
With his own command, Captain Jones spent the summer of 1776 around Long Island, New York, transporting soldiers and escorting merchant ships as the British fleet prepared for its invasion that fall.
Later, he sailed down to the West Indies, capturing several British merchant ships and dodging much larger British warships. In the fall, he sailed northward around Nova Scotia, to avoid the hurricane season to the south. There, he captured several more prizes.
However, unlike privateers, Jones was interested in more than prizes. He raided the fishing village of Canso, destroying a fishery and taking on additional sailors. He also captured sixteen fishing ships, six of which he was able to sail back to New England.
Jones also received word that more than one hundred American prisoners were being used as slave labor on the coal pits on Cape Breton. He tried to organize a fleet to rescue them. He was given the Alfred and the Hampden, along with his own ship the Providence. However, he could not find enough crew to sail all three. Initially, he put his crew aboard the larger Alfred and sailed off along with the Hampden, leaving the Providence behind. After the captain of the Hampden crashed his ship on rocks, the ships returned to leave the Hampden for repairs and departed again aboard Alfred and Providence.
As he sailed north in November, he encountered an American privateer vessel called the Eagle, a search of the ship turned up two deserters from the Continental Navy. Jones took the two men, as well as twenty others as punishment for hiding the deserters. Later, they captured a valuable British transport ship. By this time though, it was mid November and sailing off the coast of Canada was pretty miserable in wooden unheated ships. One night the Providence simply turned around and sailed for home, leaving Jones on the Alfred on his own.
Jones pressed on, although the crew of the Alfred was getting more mutinous each day. The Alfred captured three more ships carrying coal for the British, and learned that the prisoners at Cape Breton were already gone. Jones sent the coal ships to New England and raided Canso once again to destroy an oil warehouse there.
On his return the Alfred and her prize ships encountered a British warship. Since it was almost dark, Jones put a lantern on the Alfred and sent the prize ships in another direction. As he hoped, the British followed his ship and allowed the prizes to escape. Jones then outran the British who gave up the chase after another day.
Winter in Boston
When Jones finally returned to Boston in late December, he had another greeting. The sheriff had a complaint for his arrest. The owner of the Eagle had lodged a complaint for the sailors that he had kidnapped at sea. Jones drew his sword on the sheriff and made clear that he would not be arrested. He did, however, agree to remain in town. Jones filed a countersuit against the owner for inducing sailors to desert the navy. Eventually the courts threw out both suits.
In the meantime though, Jones had a more important fight. In October, Congress had issued its seniority list of navy captains. Jones was number 18 of 24 on the list, behind many men he regarded as inferiors. Jones did not learn about the list until January 1777. Jones had taken command of the Providence in May 1776, but only as “acting captain.” When he took command of the Alfred in August, the Marine Committee had written on the back of his commission that he had been made captain in August. While in Boston, he met with John Hancock and requested his commission be rewritten to reflect that he had become a captain in May when he took command of the Providence. When he got his commission back the day before he was to leave Boston, he discovered his commission date was listed as October 10, then Congress drew up the seniority list. Jones was understandably upset, but could not do anything about it.
Command of the Alfred went to a more “senior” captain, and Jones spent several months in Boston without a ship. There, he got involved with one of the local masonic lodges, and struck up a friendship with Phillis Wheatley, the former slave who had become a well known poet. Jones fancied himself a poet as well, and the two enjoyed an exchange of poetry. It is unclear if there was a romantic relationship, although some have speculated that there was.
Travel to France
In May 1777, Congress ordered Jones to make his way to France. There, the American Commissioners had contracted to build several larger warships and he would finally be given a respectable command. However, a disagreement with the captain who was supposed to take him to France delayed his departure. Finally in June, Congress granted Jones command of the twenty gun ship Ranger and he sailed for France. However, when he arrived in Portsmouth in July, he found that his ship had been stripped by a more senior navy captain. Jones had to refit the Ranger, which proved difficult given the lack of supplies.
It was not until November that the Ranger finally made its way out to sea. As it crossed the Atlantic, it discovered a merchant fleet. The men sailed toward the ships, hoping for some prizes, only to discover that they were under the protection of the 74 gun Invincible. Jones wisely pretended to be part of the merchant fleet until dark, then quietly slipped away.
|French salute the Ranger on its arrival|
Also over the winter, Jones had the Ranger re-outfitted with better rigging and had other improvements. In April, 1778 the Ranger set sail. By this time, France and Britain were at war. There was no longer the need to play diplomatic games to satisfy French officials. Jones planned to sail up the Channel between England and Ireland, looking to cause as much fear and chaos as he could. Unlike earlier raids, though, Jones was not just after shipping. He wanted to conduct raids on the British mainland as well.
Raid on Whitehaven
During his months in France, Jones had learned about the many American sailors held prisoner in Britain. Most of them were from captured privateer ships and were held as criminals on charges of piracy. Britain was not executing them out of fears that the Americans would retaliate with their prisoners. But the men were being held in miserable condition. Further, the navy desperately needed more sailors.
Jones concocted a plan to land near his childhood home on the Scottish border. His first goal was to destroy the ships there, mostly smaller fishing vessels. Next, he would sail across the inlet and kidnap the local laird. As a peer, the British would likely trade many sailors for his return.
First though, Jones had to convince his own crew. Most of the men wanted to go after prizes, so they would get a share of the booty. Kidnapping and destruction brought no profit. Even Jones’ own first mate, Lieutenant Thomas Simpson was not happy. The original plan when they had sailed from New England was that Jones would take command of a larger warship in France, and that Simpson would become captain of the Ranger. When that larger ship did not materialize, Jones remained in command of the Ranger and Simpson remained first mate. The New England officers and crew were not happy with this Scottish captain, who they saw as more interested in settling old scores in his hometown than seizing prizes.
After only a few days at sea, Jones’ crew mutinied and attempted to take over the ship. Jones had received an advance tip from a loyal member of the crew. The tipster let him know that while the officers did not participate in the mutiny, they agreed to make themselves scarce while it happened. When the attack came, Jones was armed with a sword and pistol and was able to force the mutineers to back off. He did not try to lock up or punish anyone for the incident, but tried to put it behind him and continue with the mission.
Before Jones reached Whitehaven, he got word from a local fisherman that the HMS Drake was nearby just across the Irish Sea. Although the Drake was a larger ship with more guns, Jones hoped to sail up next to it at night, board her, and take the crew by surprise. The Ranger sailed into the port at night. Jones gave the order to drop anchor right next to the ship so they could board. The man responsible to drop anchor did not do so until the ships were too far apart to board. By the time they turned around to try again, the winds had shifted and dawn was approaching. They opted to sail out to sea and escape rather than be discovered.
|Raid on Whitehaven|
By the time they returned, it was almost dawn. As the crew began to set a larger ship full of coal on fire, an alarm rang out in the village. One of Jones’ crew was an Irishman who had signed up for the sole purpose of getting home. Deciding he was close enough, the man slipped away from the landing party and started banging on doors to alert the locals to the burning ships in the harbor. With the locals turning out, the crew had to jump back in their longboats and row back to the Ranger.
Once aboard, the Ranger sailed across the Firth for the final stop in Jones’ plan, to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. Jones went ashore with his crew. Pretending to be a British press gang, Jones interrogated one of the locals. It turned out that the Earl was not at home.
Jones wanted to return to his ship, but his crew had other plans. The crew, which still had captured nothing of value on the voyage, insisted on looting the Earl’s home. Jones, in his later recollections, said he did not want to allow this, thinking it would harm his reputation. At the same time, he also thought the crew might kill him and loot the home anyway if he refused. Instead, he permitted the men to go to the home without him and to demand they turn over the family silver. That is what the men did. The Lady Selkirk, who was home at the time and pregnant, complied with their demands and turned over the silver. Everyone returned to the ship and sailed away.
Next, Jones encountered the British warship Drake again, this time in open sea. The British had 200 men aboard ship and hoped to board the Ranger and capture the ship and crew. Jones was able to keep them at a distance as the two ships exchanged fire. The British captain was killed and the ship eventually struck her colors.
Jones took the ship as a prize. He gave command of the Drake to Lieutenant Simpson as they went in search of other ships in the area. Simpson, however, had no interest in this. Instead, he sailed away for France, leaving the Ranger on its own. Jones sailed after the Drake, eventually catching up with it back in France.
Back in France
Jones had Lieutenant Simpson thrown in jail and brought up on charges of insubordination. Simpson reached out to John Adams, by this time in France as a member of the American delegation. Adams supported his fellow New Englander. He got Simpson released and the charges dismissed. Adams’ account of the event was that Jones had Simpson arrested so that he could take all the glory for the mission.
Despite the failure to burn the fleet at Whitehaven, and the failure to capture the Earl of Selkirk, patriots celebrated the mission as a success for the capture of the British warship, the Drake. Well, at least the French and Franklin celebrated the event. The other two American delegates, Arthur Lee and John Adams mostly gave Jones a hard time over the treatment of his officers and for spending too much money on the crew.
They turned over the Ranger to the command of Captain Simpson. Jones found himself in France awaiting command of a new ship. It would be almost another year before Jones received a new ship to command.
Next Week we return to upstate New York to talk about the West Point chain.
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Next Episode 181 West Point Chain
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Zellers-Frederick, Andrew A. “A Chink in Britain's Armor: John Paul Jones' 1778 Raid on Whitehaven" Journal of the American Revolution June 25, 2019: https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/06/a-chink-in-britains-armor-john-paul-joness-1778-raid-on-whitehaven
Smith, John L. Jr. “The Complex Character of John Paul Jones and his Polite Home Invasion” Journal of the American Revolution, May 4, 2017: https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/05/complex-character-john-paul-jones-polite-home-invasion
Letter, John Paul Jones to Lady Selkirk, May 8, 1778: https://www.bartleby.com/400/prose/529.html
USS Ranger After Whitehaven Raid: http://www.whitehavenandwesternlakeland.co.uk/johnpauljones/rangerafter.htm
(from archive.org unless noted)
Naval documents of the American Revolution, Vol 6, Vol 7, and Vol 8, Department of the Navy, 1964.
Abbott, John S. C. Life of John Paul Jones, New York, Dodd, Mead and Co. 1898.
De Koven, Anna The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones, Vol. 1, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
Honeyman, A. Van Doren Admiral Paul Jones, Plainfield, N.J. Honeyman & Co. 1905.
Jones, John Paul Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Paul Jones, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1830.
Morison, Samuel Eliot John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography, Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
Paullin, Charles Oscar The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy and Its Achievements, The Burrows Brothers Co. 1906.
Tooker, L. Frank John Paul Jones, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916.
Walker, George Benjamin Life of Rear-Admiral John Paul Jones, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1876.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Bowen Hassell, E. Gorden, Dennis Conrad, and Mark Hays Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, Univ of the Pacific Press, 2004.
Fowler, William M. Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution, Charles Scribern’s Sons, 1976.
McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014.
Thomas, Evan, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, Simon & Schuster, 2003 (book recommendation of the week).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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