This is the man known as The Father of the American Navy; need I say more? Of course I will. This is the man who once said “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way,” and he meant it. His love of the water and ships began at an early age, and by the age of 12 he was pretty much a permanent fixture working as a sailor. He came to America at the age of 26 and secured his first command mission as captain of the Providence, which was a 21-gun sloop and led to his taking over 16 ships in 6 weeks. Jones proved his mettle fast and was known for being maybe a little mean, but his surly nature and possible Napoleon complex – historians place his height around 5’5” – paid off.
It was, after all, his tendency towards being mean (read: aggressive) that appears to have landed him in the Colonies to begin with. Back in 1773, he was a Scotsman in command of the Betsy after spending years working his way up through the ranks on a slave-trading vessel, the aptly named John. It was on the Betsy that a particular sailor instigated a mutiny, and that particular sailor apparently believed challenging Jones was his ticket to fame and riches (or something). Watching as the sailor fomented a mutiny, Jones did what any captain faced with an uprising would do – he drew his sword. In response, the trouble-making sailor snagged a hunk of wood and came at Jones swinging. After successfully blocking his mutinous attacker’s assault a few times, Jones ended up stabbing him in self-defense. And that’s when it got weird.
It was Jones who gave the tale of self-defense, and though that was probably true, it doesn’t entirely explain what happened next. The sailor Jones ran through with his trusty sword died, and in response, Jones immediately took off. He headed for the Colonies incognito, apparently intending to reinvent himself. Historians speculate the death was grounds for fleeing because the dead sailor had been a Tobagoan – a local to the island they’d made port at – and it’s likely the citizenry took the death rather personally. Either way, their loss was our gain, and the future Father of the American Navy made his way to American soil. Jones later referred to the near-mutiny as “the Great Misfortune of My Life” but also said it at least got him on his way to his “favorite country” – yes, he’d longed for America for some time, apparently.
“I can take no delight in the effusion of human blood, but if this war should continue, I wish to have the most active part in it.” John Paul Jones
There was a brief window of time where Jones seemed to have thought he’d simply retire from naval service of any kind. Of course, we all know that didn’t happen (and thank goodness for small favors). Until his arrival in America, he’d been simply John Paul; it was after his arrival to our shores he added “Jones” to his name. Our Original Navy American Hero arrived in the Colonies right as tensions between America and England came to a head, and after a brief pause, Jones offered his skills to the Navy. Jones said he had long since studied and enjoyed “the art of war by sea” and admitted he had a deeply rooted love of liberty. The Brits, he felt, had “violated rights of mankind,” and Jones, apparently an idealist and romantic by many accounts, was always game for a good fight.
John Paul Jones was the first man ever to hoist a United States Naval Ensign on a United States ship. That ship was the 30-gun Alfred, and on the Alfred Jones served as second in command. For months Jones used the Alfred to sail up and down the East Coast, but not on a pleasure cruise. No, Jones’ idea of a good time was sacking and plundering British vessels that were attempting to get supplies to the Redcoats. Thanks to his efforts, countless important supplies ended up in American hands rather than British. Of course, his efforts also succeeded in annoying the Brits to no end, but Jones wasn’t worried about that. After all, he had always been a bit of an outlaw, and he had badassery to spare.
Later, as the captain of the USS Bonhomme Richard, Jones took his most famous stand against the attacking Brits. The British naval fleet was significantly larger than ours, and it was men like Jones who made it possible for us to not only persevere but triumph at sea. It was on September 23, 1779, Jones and his ship faced off with a fleet of 40 British merchantmen, who were, of course, being escorted by the Serapis, a 44-gun frigate, and the Countess of Scarborough, a 28-gun frigate. Jones had a much smaller squadron, but believed he and his U.S. warships were more than capable of winning the day, and he ordered an attack.
It was the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis that became legendary; the two ships battled abreast one another, with the Serapis quickly destroying several of Jones’ main cannons and effectively crippling his ship. In no time, Jones and his men were forced to abandon the guns on the lower deck and parts of the ship even caught fire as devastating holes were blown into the ship’s hull. Finally, another mighty blow from the Serapis knocked the Bonhomme Richard’s mast off, and Captain Pearson of the Serapis called across – yes, that’s how close they were, he simply leaned over and asked – if Jones was surrendering. That is when John Paul Jones delivered the line he is best known for: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”
Now he was mad, because Jones then rammed the other ship with his own clearly mangled one and ordered his men to lash the ships together. His men kept up the musket fire and fought wildly, and despite a British attempt to board the Bonhomme Richard, it was Jones and his men who boarded the Serapis, forced her surrender, and declared victory. Jones knew a fight wasn’t over when he still had breath in his body, and fight he did.
“…without a respectable Navy, alas America!” John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones was known for many things, including his strategic thinking. It was Jones who understood the importance of taking the enemy by surprise – something not seen as “gentlemanly” at the time. He was also known for his foresight in suggesting the Navy promote based on merit rather than on what boiled down to nothing better than nepotism. And let’s not forget his talent for modifying his ships for greater speed: Jones knew when to remove guns or add lead ballast, when to cut sails into new shapes, and even understood the value of having the crew thoroughly scrape the bottoms of his ships. Although he may have possessed some less-than-desirable traits, John Paul Jones was the Original American Navy Hero. Without him, the direction of the Revolutionary War at sea may well have gone quite differently, and the Navy at large probably would have gone in some random direction. Men like Jones personified the tenacious spirit and ferocious fight Americans came to be known for, and one can only hope Americans today will remember his drive and follow suit. As Jones knew, the world is constantly changing, and Americans must adapt and wade into fights with both fists raised. Bloody and bruised we may be, perhaps, but not defeated; do like John Paul Jones and refuse to surrender.
“It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.” John Paul Jones
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