HP088: John Paul Jones

HP088: John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones

Welcome to history podcast 88. We will be giving away some goodies from the History Channel at the end of this episode so stay tuned after the history to hear how you can win. Now I would like to cover an old request from the new forums board. The forums can be found at historyonair.com. This one is from Ben K. Ben asks,

“Jason, I would like to make a suggestion about a podcast on John Paul Jones. I recently read an article in Smithsonian about his body and it’s reburial from Paris. After reading the article I realized I don’t really know much about John Paul Jones at all and the article did not go into much detail about his life. I thought it might make an interesting podcast. Thanks, Ben, Katy TX”

Thank you for the suggestion Ben! There are some French names and places in this one so please bear with me the pronunciations. John Paul Jones’s original name was a little shorter, at just John Paul. He was born on July 6, 1747 to a master gardener on a Scottish estate. In short, John Paul is an American naval hero in the U.S. War of Independence renowned for his victory over British ships of war off the east coast of England on September 23, 1779.

Apprenticed at the age of 12 to John Younger, a Scottish merchant shipper, John Paul sailed as a cabin boy on a ship to Virginia, where he visited his older brother William at Fredericksburg. When Younger’s business failed in 1766, Paul found work as a chief mate of a Jamaica-owned slaver brigantine. After two years he quit the slave trade and shipped passage for Scotland. When both master and chief mate died of fever en route, he brought the ship safely home and was appointed a master. In 1772 he purchased a vessel in the West Indies but the following year, after killing the ringleader of a mutinous crew, he fled the islands to escape trial and changed his name to John Paul Jones. Two years later he returned to Fredericksburg and when the Revolutionary War broke out, he went to Philadelphia and was commissioned a senior lieutenant in the new Continental Navy.

Assigned to the “Alfred,” flagship of the little fleet commanded by Commo. Jones distinguished himself in action in the Bahamas and against the British ship “Glasgow” on the return trip. In 1776 he was in command of the “Providence,” and between August and October he ranged over the Atlantic from Bermuda to Nova Scotia, twice outwitting British frigates, manning and sending in eight prizes, and sinking and burning many more. Again in charge of the “Alfred,” later in the same year, he reached port unmolested with several prizes in tow.

Appointed by Congress to the newly built “Ranger” in June 1977, Jones made a spectacular cruise through St. George’s Channel and the Irish Sea, where he took a number of prizes. Arriving at Brest, Fr. On May 8, 1778, he was hailed as a hero by the French. He was once described by President John Adams as “the most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American Navy.”

In August 1779 Jones took command of a ship on loan from the French, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, then serving as an envoy to France, whose popular “Poor Richard’s Almanac” had been translated as “Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.” “Bonhomme Richard” (here afterward referred to as Richard).

Jones’ mission aboard his loaned French ship was two-fold. He was to lead a small squadron harassing the Irish and English coasts and act as a diversion for a planned invasion of England by a combined French and Spanish fleet. But epidemics of small pox and typhus aborted the invasion, so Jones continued his raids on his own. He captured merchant ships and on Sept. 14 launched an assault on Leith, the main port of Edinburgh, only to be repelled by a sudden gale. On the 23rd, he sighted a vast convoy carrying naval supplies from Scandinavia, guarded by just two British ships, the 44 gun Serpis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough. At 5pm he ordered his crew to prepare for battle.

What followed was one of the most famous naval engagements in American history. The now forgotten battle was fought off a chalk cliff called Flamborogh Head. And is now called The Battle of Flamborogh Head.

One ship in his squadron chased the Countess of Scarsbough. But the others – including the largest, a 36-gun American frigate, the Alliance, commanded by a French officer – did not follow the Richard toward the Serapis.

The Richard was a converted merchantman. It had a larger crew than the Serapis, including about 100 Americans released in a prisoner exchange, and it carried almost as many cannon. But the heaviest were six old guns carried below the main deck. On the second broadside, fired about 7:15 p.m., at least one of the heavy guns burst. The explosion ripped a gaping hole in the Richard’s starboard side and Jones ordered the remaining big cannon abandoned.

At 7:30 the Serapis, with a better-trained crew, crossed the Richard’s stern, firing three broadsides that killed 22 marines. Already the Richard was leaking below the waterline. At 8 p.m. a light wind died to almost nothing, and the two ships collided when the Serapis tried to cross the Richard’s bow for another raking broadside. The ships separated, and then collided again.

This time Jones lashed them fast together, the Serapis’ bow grinding against the Richard’s stern. As the battle progressed, marksmen high in the Richard’s mast drove the English off their exposed main deck. But the Serapis gun crews protected below deck continued to batter the Richard, so that by 9 p.m. the Richard had only three small cannon left.

Eventually the Serapis’ heavier guns inflicted so much damage that their cannon balls began to fly straight through Jones’ ship, touching nothing. Jones was at one of them, directing fire at the Serapis’ main mast, when his carpenter and gunner’s mate, who’d seen the devastation below deck, tried to strike the Richard’s flag, lowering it to signal surrender. Jones turned from his cannon to stop them. An enraged Jones leveled a pistol at one and pulled the trigger. Then, when the gun misfired, he threw it at the fleeing pair, breaking ones skull. Soon after he heard the Serapis’ captain shout if he wanted to give up the battle.

Decades later, one of Jones’ lieutenants would tell a biographer that his captain replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” But what he probably said was something like, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.” In his own report, written several days later, Jones only said he “answered in the most determined negative” and that the battle then resumed with “double fury.”

It continued for another hour, growing more incredible. Twice the Alliance appeared out of nowhere to fire broadsides of grapeshot – at both ships. Somebody released English prisoners trapped deep inside the sinking Richard to save them from drowning. Instead of joining the fight, the prisoners, who had been taken in earlier actions, manned the Richard’s pumps to keep it afloat.

The end came suddenly, around 10:15, when a sailor crawled out on one of the Richard’s yardarms with a bucket of grenades. He began dropping them toward a half-open hatch on the Serapis. One bounced through and a series of explosions followed. The grenade ignited powder cartridges piled near the English cannon, setting off a flash fire. At almost the same time, the Serapis’ splintered main mast toppled.

After trying to save the Richard, Jones escaped on the re-rigged Serapis, eluding British pursuers on his way to a neutral port in Holland. He’d always sought glory and he got it. King Louis XVI gave him a sword to commemorate his victory, and he became the toast of Paris, where in the fashion of the time, he had many mistresses. Thomas Jefferson would keep a bust of Jones alongside those of Franklin, Lafayette and Washington.

But the rest of his life was mostly frustration. The Revolution ended before he saw any more real action, and the new nation had no money for a navy. In 1788, he was loaned to Catherine the Great of Russia to lead her Black Sea fleet in a war against Turks. He won a decisive victory, but left Russia in disgrace after being caught, or entrapped, in a sex scandal involving a young prostitute.

He died alone in Paris in July 1792, where his body, preserved in alcohol, was buried in a lead-lined coffin. More than a century later, in 1905, the coffin was dug up and sent to the U.S. in great pomp and circumstance. President Teddy Roosevelt, an advocate of naval power, presided at Jones’ reburial beneath the U.S. Navel Academy Chapel. “Every officer should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones,” Roosevelt said.

Jones, still known as the father of the U.S. Navy, was already immortal. Herman Melville in one of his later novels placed his fictional hero, Israel Potter, aboard the Richard at the Battle of Flamborough Head and wrote these words:

“Intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in externals but savage at heart, America is, or may yet be, the Paul Jones of nations.”

As of August 2006, an attempt was underway to resurrect Jones’ ship and its place in history. Since mid-July 2006, an expedition launched from the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton has been searching the North Sea for the wreck of the Richard. Already sinking under its still fighting crew, it went down the next day, abandoned by Jones in favor of the captured Serapis.

The battle sowed doubts about the war among the English and pushed the French closer to the American side. The battle also made Jones a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thank you for listening to this episode of history podcast. You can visit the website at historyonair.com. Many thanks to the history channel for their generous donation of a DVD and book. This week we will be giving away the DVD to a lucky listener. The question to win the history channel DVD Digging for the Truth: Pompeii Secrets Revealed is What year was John Paul Jones born?

One last note. I have been enjoying some podcast that UC Berkley has been doing. There is even a history class being recorded and set up as a podcast. You can learn more and subscribe at webcast.Berkley.edu.


Encyclopedia Britannica


The Hartford Courant “Looking for the Master and Commander’s Lost Ship”, By Joel Lang, August 6, 2006


S.E. Morison, John Paul Jones, a Sailor’s Biography (1959)

John Paul Jones, fighter for freedom and glory,: United States naval institute,

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