Sunday, January 9, 2022

ARP233 Bonhomme Richard vs Serapis

Last week we left John Paul Jones leading a small fleet of ships against the British coast.  The main purpose of the raids, at least as far as the French were concerned, was to distract the British from the armada that France and Spain planned to use to begin a massive invasion of Britain.  After smallpox decimated the French and Spanish crews, the allies cancelled the invasion.  But by that time Jones was well into the North Sea, looking to cause whatever disruption he could.

A Mutinous Crew

Jones’ fleet left in mid-August.  The French Armada had left France nearly six weeks earlier. After a shakedown cruise in June, Jones ran into some delays, falling ill for several weeks.  He was also still trying to recruit more sailors. About the same time Jones sailed into the English Channel, the combined French and Spanish fleets were also moving into the Channel in search of battle. 

Bonhomme Richard & Serapis
Jones had to collect a crew of mostly European sailors and marines.  Some of the sailors were British prisoners, eager to escape jail - not exactly what you would call dedicated to the cause.  Other sailors were similarly poor men, looking for opportunities to make some money.  They were not idealists looking to join a cause either.  Some of his crew were ideologically inclined.  Among Jones’ crew of about 380 men, he took with him 140 French marines, a large number for a fleet his size, but necessary if he wanted to conduct coastal raids.  Many of the marines were part of the French Navy, but were from an English speaking Irish regiment that always enjoyed an opportunity to shoot at the English.  Another hundred or so were American seamen that Jones had obtained through a prisoner exchange with Britain.  Many of these sailors were also eager to get back into the fight.

The voyage did not begin particularly well.  As the Bonhomme Richard left port, a sailor fell from the rigging above Captain Jones.  If he had fallen on the captain, he likely would have killed him.  As it was, the fall was close enough to knock off Jones’ hat.  The unfortunate sailor hit the deck with a thud and died instantly.  Jones did not flinch.  He reached down, picked up his hat, and returned to his duties without comment.

The Bonhomme Richard was the largest of the ships in the small fleet, but also the slowest.  The Alliance, Pallas, Vengeance, and Cerf continually had to slow down and wait for the flagship to catch up with them.  Two other privateer ships, the Monsieur and Grandville also joined the fleet.

One evening off the Irish coast, the current threatened to push the Bonhomme Richard onto the rocks.  Jones sent out his captain’s barge, with oarsman, to tow the ship back out to safer waters.  The man in charge of the barge was one of the sailors that Jones had lashed for abandoning the barge while they were ashore. He and the other oarsman decided to make a break for it.  They cut the tow line and rowed for the Irish shore.  

Jones fired cannons at the escapees into the dark but had no good chance of hitting such a small target at such a distance.  He ordered a longboat to be lowered and go after the barge.  Not only did the barge disappear, but the longboat chasing after them also vanished.  Jones spent several days sailing up and down the coast, looking for signs of his deserters. He sent the smallest ship in his fleet, the Cerf, closer to the coast to look for the sailors. To Jones’ frustration, the Cerf also disappeared.

Jones and Landais

Jones captained the Bonhomme Richard, while Pierre Landais commanded the second largest ship in the small fleet, the Alliance.  As I explained last week, Landais was an experienced French naval officer who had left the service several years before joining the Continental Navy in 1777.

Jones aboard ship

By the time the fleet left, Jones and Landais had spent months getting to know each other and working together.  They were not, however, what you would call a good match.  Rather, they were two incompatible officers who were thrown together.  Landais was not particularly happy with his assignment.  He would have preferred to be ferrying VIP’s like John Adams back to America, and keeping an eye out for valuable merchant prizes that would improve his bottom line.  Like most of the crew, Landais did not share Jones’ interest in gaining glory and furthering the war effort against the British.  Not only did Jones have very legitimate trust issues about his crew, he did not trust his second in command either.

Normally, a military chain of command should be very clear.  As commodore of the fleet, Jones should be able to expect that his orders would be obeyed.  That might not always be the case, as Jones discovered during his previous mission, when Lieutenant Simpson simply abandoned Jones and sailed off aboard his prize ship.  In some ways, this mission was even worse.  French officials had forced Jones to sign a concordat just before leaving France.  The primary purpose of the document was to spell out how prize money would be divided.  But the document also contained language that essentially said that the fleet strategy should be based on consensus, rather than giving Jones the final word on everything.  Writing years later, Jones ruminated that, under other circumstances, he never would have signed such a document, but that the French official had the ability to replace him as commodore if he proved troublesome, and he did not want to have any further delays.  So Jones signed the agreement in hopes of finally getting to sea.  

Once at sea, his officers were testing just how deferential they would have to be.  As Jones was searching for his escaped crew along the Irish coast, Captain Landais came aboard, upset that Jones had prevented him from chasing a prize ship into rocky waters that Jones deemed too risky.  Landais announced to the Scottish-born Jones that since he, Landais, was the only American captain in the fleet (having been granted Massachusetts citizenship during his last voyage) that he planned to make his own decisions going forward.

According to Jones’ later account of the matter, he took Landais to his cabin and tried to work out their differences.  He told Landais that Jones had supported Landais continuing to captain the Alliance, despite having spawned two mutinies on his last two voyages.  Landais rejected the idea that Jones had anything to do with his command.  Jones tried to change the subject, turning to the deserters that he had been trying to recover.  Landais said that Jones was to blame for their loss, by allowing the boats to go out during a fog.  

Landais later reported that Jones’ response to that comment was to mutter “that’s a damn lie.”  Accusing a gentleman of a lie was fighting words, and usually led to a duel.  Landais challenged Jones.  According to Landais’ account Jones locked the cabin door and the two men drew swords.  However,  the two men agreed that, for the good of the service, such a confrontation would have to wait until the mission was over.  

Landais returned to his ship, but after that time, simply ignored any of Jones’ orders, badmouthed the commander to other officers and men, and refused to set foot again on the Bonhomme Richard.

Ransom of Leith

Because Jones’ ship was so slow, the chances of capturing prizes with it were not very good.  Landais began sailing the Alliance away from the fleet, looking for prizes.  Jones had to give up on efforts to catch several prize ships because he was always struggling to catch up with the Alliance.  The announced purpose of the fleet’s actions was to disrupt merchant traffic and capture prizes.  But Jones had other goals as well.  He had told Franklin that he planned to attack British towns and ports, as he had attempted with Whitehaven on his earlier cruise. Franklin let him know that the French expected him to go after shipping, but that people probably wouldn’t be upset if he also attacked some coastal areas as well.

Edinburgh & Leith, 1779
As the fleet sailed on, the deserters who landed in Ireland began to spread word that the Pirate Jones was on the prowl again.  Coastal towns built up their defenses and set out night watchmen.  The Admiralty dispatched two frigates to patrol the waters off Whitehaven, just in case Jones returned to finish the job he started a year earlier.

Jones, however, avoided those familiar waters.  Instead, he sailed his fleet up the west coast of Ireland, avoiding contact with land, and simply looking for merchant ships.  The fleet made it up to the North Sea and turned east toward Scotland.  

On September 14, the fleet was in the waters off Edinburgh. Jones called aboard the Captains of the Pallas and the Vengeance.  The two privateer ships had left the fleet.  The Cerf had disappeared during the search for the deserters, and Captain Landais of the Alliance still refused to come aboard.  Jones revealed plans to his remaining captains to capture the port town of Leith, just outside Edinburgh.  They would force the town to release American prisoners to avoid having their homes put to the torch.  The captains were hesitant to go along until Jones sweetened the pot by calling for a ransom of £200,000.

British defenses at Leith consisted of a small twenty-gun ship and a couple of smaller cutters.  The attacking fleet would be far enough away from the cannons of Edinburgh Castle to prevent them from becoming a threat.  

Jones planned to overwhelm the British vessels, send ashore a landing party to capture the city leaders, and hold them for ransom.  Instead, things seemed to go awry from the beginning.  During his discussions with the captains, the fleet had drifted south and needed to sail back to the mouth of the waterway, known as the firth of Forth, where the Forth River emptied into the sea.  By the time the fleet returned, it was daylight.  Jones decided on another tact.  He put on the uniform of a British naval officer and sailed in plain sight, appearing to be a friendly ship.

Jones' Raiding Voyages

The Bonhomme Richard soon encountered a small British cutter, which mistook the enemy for a British ship that was in the area. The cutter warned them that the “Pirate Jones” was thought to be in the area, and asked if they had a cask of gunpowder to spare.  Jones played into the mistake and sent over a cask, asking the cutter to send over a pilot to help guide them upriver.

The cutter sailed away, unsuspecting.  The pilot who came aboard repeated the warning that the Pirate Jones was in the area and that he deserved to be hanged.  Jones then revealed that he was, in fact, the “Pirate Jones” at which the shocked man dropped to his knees, fearing death.  Jones assured him that he was quite safe, as long as he helped to navigate the ship, but that he was a prisoner.

The ruse did not work for long.  As the Americans struggled to get upriver, against the currents and wind.  The alarm went out across the land.  Families and businesses fled inland with whatever valuables they could carry.  Men scrambled to find arms for a defense.  But since Scotsmen were forbidden from possessing firearms since the battle of Culloden, it was hard to come up with much of a defense.

As Jones tried to approach Leith, the winds grew stronger, and blew against him.  It began to rain hard.  The storm put an end to any hope of landing a force at Leith. The fleet was blown out to sea.  With the element of surprise now gone they had to abandon the raid entirely.

Jones was not ready to give up completely.  He suggested a different raid, down the coast, on Newcastle to destroy the coal ships there.  The other captains, however, refused to go along.  The alarm was spreading.  The enemy knew their location and would almost certainly be sending ships to capture them.  They were leaving, and Jones should too.  Jones later said he considered going in on his own, but that his crew was equally reluctant to participate in such a plan.

The Pallas and the Vengeance had already sailed off - moving south down the English coast.  Jones struggled to catch up to them.  His slow ship was even slower after the storm damaged his main topmast.  After a couple of days he managed to catch up with his fleet, which had once again joined up with the Alliance.

By this time it was the evening of September 22.  Jones had orders to be in Texel, a Dutch island off the coast of the Netherlands, to escort a French merchant fleet.  Feeling defeated at the few prizes he managed to collect, Jones saw his mission coming to a disappointing end.  The following morning, all that changed.

The Serapis

On September 23, the Serapis and another smaller sloop were escorting 44 merchant ships from Scandinavia to England.  The fifth-rate ship normally carried 44 cannons but had recently taken on several extra, bringing her armament to 50.  Not only did this outnumber the 40 gun Bonhomme Richard, but most of the cannons aboard the Serapis were much larger and in better condition.  She was a faster ship, with far more firepower, and an experienced crew.

When the Serapis Captain Richard Pearson spotted the small American fleet, the thirty year veteran of the navy had every reason to believe he could defeat them.  However, he also had to worry about the merchant fleet that he was protecting.  

Flamborough Head  

The two opponents did not see each other until early afternoon.  It then took several hours for each to maneuver into position.  The ships met in the waters just off an outcropping of land near Yorkshire, known as Flamborough Head.  Pearson ordered the merchant fleet to sail for the shore where they could find safety, while he moved the Serapis to intercept the strangers.

Bonhomme Richard & Serpais
Jones ordered his ships to form a line of battle.  Instead the three other ships simply sailed away, trying to cut off the merchant fleet, and leaving the Bonhomme Richard to face the Serapis on its own.  Through his looking glass, Jones spotted his counterpart, Captain Pearson, nailing his flag to the staff, to ensure that no one would be able to lower the flag and surrender the ship.

It was dark by the time the two ships got within range of each other.  Captain Pearson identified the Serapis and demanded to know who he was facing.  Jones called out, claiming to be a merchant ship, hoping to get the enemy captain to hold off firing until he drew closer.  When a sailor on the Bonhomme Richard rigging fired his gun, the nervous crew on both ships immediately fired their broadsides. 

This was the first time that Jones had the opportunity to fire his large 18-pound cannons with live ammunition.  The older guns were not up to the task. One or two of the guns exploded, killing the gun crews and taking a chunk out of the starboard side of his ship.  The loss of his larger guns also meant that the firepower advantage of the Serapis was that much greater.  

After the first broadside, the Serapis sailed behind the Bonhomme Richard and used its working 18 pound cannons to fire massive volleys through the ship’s stern.  The faster Serapis then circled around to fire another broadside into the bow of its enemy.  Jones, however, managed to get some speed out of his ailing ship and rammed into the Serapis.  He then tried to turn to fire a broadside into the British ship, but Pearson rammed him during the attempt.

Over the course of the next hour, the two ships fearlessly launched volley after volley at each other at near point blank range.  The fatalities on both sides exploded.

The Bonhomme Richard had taken more damage to its hull, while American marines, firing from the rigging, managed to decimate the sailors on the deck of the Serapis.  

Jones realized that he was sinking.  His ship had far less firepower and was moving at about half the speed of the Serapis.  Much of his surviving crew was below decks trying desperately to plug holes and keep the ship afloat.

Marines boarding the Serapis
Jones’ only chance was to storm the Serapis.  Taking advantage of a lull in the wind, the Bonhomme Richard slowly drifted up to the Serapis.  American sailors and marines used grappling hooks to pull the ships together and crossed onto the enemy deck.  The British, however, managed to cut the lines, and push back the attackers.  As the Serapis pulled away, it fired another point blank broadside into the enemy’s hull.  

Remaining barely afloat, Jones managed to move in front of the Serapis leading to another slow motion collision.  Once again, his crew tried to tie the ships together and board the enemy.  With many of the British sailors and marines on deck killed by the American marines firing from the rigging, the American boarding crew was able to get aboard and begin hand to hand combat.  Pearson tried to drop the Serapis anchor in order to stop it from drifting along with the sinking Bonhomme Richard, but by this time the ships were too well tied together.  As the Americans began to take control of the Serapis’ deck, the British cannons below deck continued to fire into the Bonhomme Richard’s hull.

As both ships were locked together in a death grip, Captain Landais returned aboard the Alliance.  He fired a volley into both ships, killing a number of Americans aboard the Bonhomme Richard.  

As Jones struggled to assist one of his cannon crews, he heard one of his men call for quarter.  Apparently, the man thought Jones and first officer Dale were both dead.  Jones immediately called from another deck for someone to shoot that man.  He pulled his own pistol and tried to fire at the frightened sailor, but his gun misfired.  He then threw his pistol at the man.

British Captain Pearson heard the call for quarter and called out to Jones to confirm if he was surrendering.  It was then that Jones allegedly responded “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!”

The fighting continued for another hour, during which time the Alliance made another pass, firing grapeshot at the men on both ships.  The Americans firing from the rigging were still able to maintain deadly fire against the Serapis.  A little after 10:00 PM, one of the men carried up a bucket full of grenades, small baseball sized bombs with 20 second fuses.  The Americans tried throwing several into the open hatch of the Serapis.  After several attempts, they succeeded.

Below decks, the British gunners had gotten sloppy, leaving powder and shells sitting out in the open near their cannons for faster loading.  The grenade set off a chain reaction of explosives below decks on the Serapis, killing many and horribly burning more of the crew.  By this time, it was nearly 10:30.  The Serapis had suffered a 50% casualty rate, had multiple fires aboard ship, and was threatened with being pulled under by the sinking Bonhomme Richard.  Captain Pearson finally called for quarter.

Jones ordered Lieutenant Dale to take a boarding party and secure the Serapis and asked Pearson to join him in his quarters for a glass of wine.

After a short time Jones had to concede that the Bonhomme Richard was sinking.  A fire had nearly blown up the powder magazine.  Men below decks could not patch the massive cannonball holes.  Despite efforts over the next 24 hours, Jones had to order both crews aboard the Serapis and cut loose the Bonhomme Richard to sink below the surface. The Alliance, Vengeance, and Pallas also returned to assist with the survivors.  

Of course the Serapis, now commanded by Jones, was also seriously damaged.  At least eight British frigates were storming toward the area in search of the Pirate Jones. The American fleet managed to sail to Texel in the Netherlands and put into the neutral port for repairs.

Jones’ capture of a British ship of the line would lead to celebration throughout Europe and America and make Captain Jones a celebrity.  The British made it an even greater priority to capture the Pirate Jones.

Next week, the French fleet cooperates with the Continental army to besiege British-held Savanna, Georgia.

- - -

Next Episode 234 Siege of Savannah 

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Further Reading


“To Benjamin Franklin from John Paul Jones, 3 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Excerpts from John Paul Jones’ Memoirs

Landais, Pierre

Norton, Louis Arthur “The Battle between Bonhomme Richard and SerapisJournal of the American Revolution, August 20, 2019.

Norton, Louis Arthur “The Revolutionary War’s most Enigmatic Naval Captain: Pierre Landais” Journal of the American Revolution, July 17, 2018.

Battle of Flamborough Head

I have not yet begun to fight

Schellhammer, Michael “The Real Immortal Words of John Paul Jones” Journal of the American Revolution, January 19, 2015.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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. 

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 unless otherwise noted)*

Boudriot, Jean & David H. Roberts John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard: A Reconstruction of the Ship and an Account of the Battle With H.M.S. Serapis, Naval Institute Press, 1987. 

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 Scribner’s Sons, 1976.

Lardas, Mark Bonhomme Richard vs Serapis: Flamborough Head 1779 (Duel), Osprey Publishing, 2012. 

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.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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