Chapter Nine: "We've Got Her Now!"
While Jones wore his customary groove on the windward side of the Bonhomme Richard's quarterdeck, some twenty miles to the north another captain paced a deck that, in the British navy tradition, had been scrubbed and buffed until it gleamed in the morning light. Victory was a custom and a habit for the Royal Navy; the captain of HMS Serapis did not need to be a glory-seeker to motivate himself and his men. He could call on centuries of duty.
Richard Pearson was a formidable opponent for John Paul Jones. A veteran of thirty years at sea, he had been a Royal Navy captain for the last six. He had won notice as a first lieutenant for taking over from his disabled captain and guiding a ship of the line, the Norfolk, safely through a hurricane. He had fought in three fleet actions and been wounded by grapeshot that smashed his ribs. Despite internal bleeding, he had stood fast at his post until the action was over. He had captained two ships-of-war before being given command of the Serapis, a new, fast warship that carried forty-four guns on two decks. He had experienced officers and a highly disciplined crew.
On the morning of September 23, the Serapis and her consort, the Countess of Scarborough, a lightly armed sloop, were convoying forty-four merchant ships from Scandinavia to the south of England dockyards. The merchantmen were carrying naval stores canvas, rope, timber essential to equipping the Royal Navy. The eight-day crossing from the Baltics had been uneventful. Pearson was on the lookout for American privateers, and he was generally aware of Paul Jones from the lurid press about the marauding "pirate." But as the Serapis reached the English coastline, the seas looked calm and clear.
At 10 A.M., Pearson spied through the light morning haze a red flag flying over old Scarborough Castle on the Yorkshire coastline. The red flag signaled "Enemy on Our Shores." Minutes later, a fishing boat came alongside with a message from the local bailiffs: a "flying squadron" of enemy ships had been seen off the coast just the day before, slowly heading south.
Jones's squadron had actually doubled back, looking for prizes north of the mouth of the Humber River. By 1 P.M., the lookouts of the Serapis could see them: the masts of four ships, still hull down on the horizon. Several merchantmen sailing up ahead had already spotted Jones's squadron. They had let fly their topsail sheets, signaling "strange sail in sight." Pearson signaled his flock to run toward shore, where they would be safe under the guns of Scarborough Castle. Then he signaled his small sloop consort and manuevered to put the warships between the merchantmen and the enemy raiders.
Aboard the Bonhomme Richard, lookouts were calling down to a quarterdeck that was stirring with anticipation. The officers were keeping count as the lookouts cried out with each new sail sighting. Through the haze, brightening in the early afternoon, they could see at least three dozen ships scattered across the azure sea a hunting ground rich with prizes. About three or four miles away, shimmering in the diffuse light, the chalky cliffs of Flamborough Head rose 150 feet above the Yorkshire coastline. The lookouts could see the closest merchantmen loosing their topsails to warn the others of danger. The merchant ships began to turn and run north and west, trying to get around the headland and under the guns of Scarborough Castle on the other side.
Jones was anxious to cut them off. "As soon as Jones had taken a peep or two at them with his spyglass, he expressed himself to his officers, then standing by him upon the quarterdeck," recalled Midshipman Fanning. "This is the very fleet which I have been so long cruising for." Jones realized that he had chanced upon the Baltic Fleet, with its rich cargo of naval stores. One of his early schemes, advanced to Sartine months before, was to intercept the Baltic Fleet and cut Britain's "sinews of war," its raw materials for the navy. Jones ordered the signal made, "General Chase." He needn't have. Unmindful of his signals in most events, Jones's captains could see the prizes floating ahead and made for them straightaway. Jones "appeared to be impatient," Fanning observed, probably understating his captain's intensity of feeling. Jones ordered the sailing master to crowd on all sail. Studding sails began to sprout along booms high above the deck. A cloud of canvas stretched to catch the light airs.
It was maddeningly slow going. Jones was running against the current and making no more than a mile or two an hour. But he was already imagining the battle ahead. By 4 P.M., he could distinctly make out the shape of a Royal Navy man-o-war, with her yellow topsides, as well as the smaller sloop following in her wake.
The shadows lengthened as the sun lowered in the late September sky. The golden light reflected off the gilt work on Bonhomme Richard's ornately carved stern. It illuminated the gold epaulets and gold theading on Jones's blue coat. He was neatly dressed as always, his straight brown hair pulled back from a clear brow, his strong jaw shaved, his eyes bright, though red-rimmed with exhaustion. As usual, he had not slept more than an hour or two the night before. But he was fully alert, as he always was going into action. All the nagging suspicions and doubts, the highly developed sense of grievance, blew away like doldrums before a great trade wind. His pride swelled and filled and became dauntless courage.
At 5 P.M., the marine drummers "Beat to Quarters." Bare feet slapped across the decks as the men ran to their battle stations. Aloft, chains clanked as sailors braced the yards so they would not crash to the deck below if hit. In the cockpit, far belowdecks, Surgeon Brooke laid out the crude tools of his trade, the saws and knives and the tub for the sawed-off limbs.
On the quarterdeck, Jones assembled his lieutenants and gave them precise instructions for destroying the enemy. Jones's heaviest guns were the six 18-pounders, three on each side, that poked out of the gun room on the ship's lower deck. They were to send their cannonballs smashing directly into the hull of the British warship. On the gun deck, the twenty-eight 12-pounders, fourteen to a broadside, were to fire double-headed shot into the enemy's rigging, seeking to disable her. Jones wanted to be able to board the enemy, if necessary. In any case, he knew the British man-o-war could sail faster and outmanuever his old Indiaman; he wanted to slow her down. On the quarterdeck, the six 9-pounders were also to be used to cut up the enemy's sails and rigging. Jones stationed a heavy contingent of marines on the Bonhomme Richard's antiquated poop deck, which enjoyed one residual advantage over the enemy's sleeker modern design: it provided a good field of fire down on the enemy's quarterdeck. Belowdecks, the ship's armory was unlocked so that, at the right moment, boarding parties could be handed cutlasses, axes, pikes, and pistols. Into the tops, Jones put no fewer than forty marines and assorted seamen. That was an unsually large force. Jones was a pioneer in using small arms marksmen high in the ship's rigging. Some captains, most famously Nelson, feared that soldiers blazing away with flintlock weapons would ignite the highly flammable rigging and sails. But Jones wanted all the extra firepower he could get, whatever the risk.
The marines and seamen were sent aloft with a small arsenal, armed with swivel guns, blunderbusses, and coehorns, a kind of small mortar to lob bombs, as well as baskets of grenades which could be tossed down to the deck below. Be ruthlessly methodical, Jones instructed the officers. First, clear the British tops of men. Then, aim down at the British decks and sweep them clean as well. The three tops were commanded by midshipmen. Fanning was in his early twenties, but neither of the others "exceeded 17 years of age," Fanning recorded. "The captains of the tops," Fanning noted, "drew up into the tops a double allowance of grog for their men."
At 6 P.M., as the sun was dipping down behind the cliffs at Flamborough Head, Jones could see the two British ships coming about and heading west toward the shore, keeping themselves between their merchantmen and the American marauders. Jones brought around the Bonhomme Richard to go straight at them and signaled "Form Line of Battle." Perhaps it was the dusk and not outright disobedience that caused his other three ships to sail off on their own. (Landais, ever the contrarian, would subsequently maintain that Jones ignored his hail and that he never saw Jones's signal.) But, for whatever reason, Jones suddenly found himself alone.
The British ship swung open her gun ports. Jones grimly took the measure of the black iron muzzles that thrust out: among her forty-four guns, HMS Serapis had a battery of twenty 18-pounders, ten to a side. At close range, a cannonball from one of these guns could smash through the thickest bulkhead of a warship and keep on going right through the other side, if it did not obliterate a man or a gun in the way. Jones had his doubts about the reliability of his own half-dozen 18-pounders, which were old. French cannon had a bad reputation for bursting.
Surveying the quarterdeck of the enemy warship with his spyglass, Jones could see his opposite, in the blue coat and black tricorned hat of a British captain, doing something peculiar. The tall staff on the stern holding up the British ensign, the white flag with the red St. George's cross, had been hauled down. The captain was bending over the long wooden pole, wielding hammer and nails, like an ordinary carpenter's mate. Actually, Captain Pearson was nailing on a new flag, an enormous, blood-red Royal Navy ensign. The message from Captain Pearson was clear to the warship's crew and equally to their foe: no one would surrender his ship by striking this flag, nailed to its staff by the captain himself.
As darkness fell, the combatants drifted across a tableau of serene beauty. The stars were beginning to show. In the east, a harvest moon was rising, orange and huge in the low haze. Yellow light spilled from each gun port. The crews of the two ships could clearly see each other as they stood outlined by their guns, which were primed, loaded with shot, ready to fire. "The surface of the great deep," Fanning recalled, was "perfectly smooth, even as in a millpond." Captain Pearson's voice sounded across the narrowing gap of sea: "This is his majesty's ship Serapis. What ship is that?" (Fanning recalled that Pearson's voice was "hoarse and hardly intelligible...in true bombastic English style.")
Jones played for every advantage, trying to edge as close to the British ship as possible. Jones instructed the sailing master to reply, "Princess Royal." (The Princess Royal was a British East Indies merchantman about the same size as the Bonhomme Richard.) Pearson called across again, "Where from?" Jones pretended not to hear. Pearson barked, "Tell me instantly from whence you came and who you be, or I'll fire a broadside into you!"
The game was up. Jones hauled down his false British colors and broke out his Continental Navy ensign. At just that moment, a nervous marine in the Bonhomme Richard's tops fired his musket. Both ships erupted, loosing their broadsides at once. The sound was appalling: the tremendous concussion of forty-two cannon and scores of small arms fired at nearly the same instant, the cracking of splintered wood, the jarring clang of a cannonball striking an iron muzzle or an anchor fluke, and, very soon thereafter, the shrieks and cries of the wounded. At the range of twenty-five yards, every gun hit home. For the officers standing exposed on the quarterdeck, it must have taken extraordinary willpower not to flinch or cringe, much less dive for cover.
"The battle thus begun was continued with unremitting fury," wrote Jones. The second broadside was more cataclysmic than the first. In the gun room, one, possibly two of the Bonhomme Richard's aging 18-pounders burst in a blinding flash. The force of the explosion was so great that it ripped a chunk out of the ship's starboard side right above the waterline. Inside the gun room there was utter devastation. Men lay dead, dismembered, and horribly burned. Jones knew right away what had gone wrong, and he ordered the gun room abandoned. The remaining 18-pounders were useless, made unreliable by age and poor casting. The ten 18-pounders on the port side of the Serapis were in perfect working order, however, and they were manned by crews who had relentlessly practiced loading and firing. Jones had rarely (if ever) exercised his great guns with live ammunition; he lacked sufficient gunpowder.
As the two ships glided along, blasting away in a pall of smoke, Pearson outfoxed Jones. The American commander had wanted the Bonhomme Richard to sail to windward of the Serapis. Normally, the ship to windward has more manueverability, and hence more ability to dictate the course of the battle, because a square-rigged sailing ship has a much easier time bearing down, sailing away from the wind, than trying to head up into it. The more aggressive British generally tried to get to windward against the French, who stereotypically hung to leeward because it was easier to escape. By sailing to windward, Jones thought he had seized the role of the aggressor and put the Serapis on the defensive. As the Bonhomme Richard blanketed the Serapis, stealing the light and eddying breeze from her sails, Jones's ship drew ahead. Then Pearson made his play. As soon as the stern of the Bonhomme Richard cleared the bow of the Serapis, Pearson veered up a few points, cutting to windward and behind the Bonhomme Richard. The British ship gained momentum and briefly blanketed the American ship. Then, at just the right moment, Pearson ordered, "Ware ship!" The helmsman spun the wheel, and the Serapis slipped down at right angles to the Bonhomme Richard's stern. Those beautiful stern windows that lit up Jones's great cabin, all the carving and gilt work, presented a fat target to the port battery of the Serapis. A basic tactic of single-ship battles is to rake the enemy, to cross his undefended bow or stern and send cannonballs or grapeshot sweeping down the length of the enemy ship. One by one, the guns of the British ship crashed out, smashing through the stern of the Bonhomme Richard, shattering glass and wood and ripping through anyone standing in the way. With the wind dying, Pearson backed his sails and got off another broadside. Then another.
The carnage aboard the Bonhomme Richard was unspeakable. On the poop deck, twenty-two of twenty-five marines had been killed or wounded. Down the length of the ship, guns had been overturned or knocked off their carriages. The superior tactics, manueverability, and firepower of Serapis threatened to turn the battle into a slaughter. "She made a dreadful havoc of our crew," Fanning wrote. "Men were falling in all parts of the ship by the scores." In the cockpit, Surgeon Brooke was already splattered with blood; a clutch of seamen, skin blackened by burns, limbs shattered or missing, lay groaning and crying around him. More dreadfully wounded men, carried by their shocked mates, were arriving every moment.
The Serapis was outsailing the Bonhomme Richard "by two feet to one," recorded Fanning. She rounded up to leeward of the American ship and continued to pour in grape- and roundshot as fast as her crews could fire and load a rippling broadside about every two minutes or less. Stabs of flame flared across the narrow gap of water. The Bonhomme Richard was holed several places below the waterline. The ship's carpenter dashed below with canvas and large wooden plugs to stanch the flow, but the pumps were barely keeping up.
Jones was losing the battle of his life, and he knew it. "I must confess that the enemy's ship being much more manageable than the Bonhomme Richard gained thereby several times an advantageous situation in spite of my best endeavors to prevent it," Jones later wrote, a bit stiffly, in his official report. As he stood on the quarterdeck, trying not to notice the splinters and body parts flying around him, Jones tried to concentrate. He needed to change the terms of engagement; his ships would not survive a cannon duel much longer.
Pearson wanted to finish off the American. As the Serapis slid out from under the Bonhomme Richard's lee, Pearson ordered the helmsman to head up, to cross the American's bow and rake her again. But at that moment, Pearson's luck ran out. The light wind died altogether; the Serapis hung without steerage way, just off of the Bonhomme Richard's starboard bow. Now Jones saw his chance. Feeling a gentle puff from the dying southerly, he ordered the sailing master, Samuel Stacey ("A true-blooded Yankee," according to Fanning), to "lay the enemy's ship on board." In the next breath, he ordered the officers to muster the boarding party. Seamen and marines were handed cutlasses, pikes, and pistols and assembled in the ship's waist and on the forecastle. The helmsman was barely able to steer the sluggish ship in the feeble breeze, but the Bonhomme Richard drifted toward the stern of the Serapis. The bowsprit of the American ship gently nudged into the rigging of the British ship's mizzenmast. "Well done my lads, we've got her now!" cried Jones, full of the savage joy that seized him at moments of maximum peril. The sailors hurled grappling hooks across to the Serapis, catching them in the rigging and hooking on to the bulwarks. British seamen and redcoats, armed with axes, just as quickly began cutting them away while Royal Marines peppered musket fire at the small knot of Americans trying to climb out onto the bowsprit.
It was no use. A bowsprit is a precarious bridge; the boarding party was on a virtual suicide mission. Jones called it off, and the men drew back; the lines to the grappling hooks were hacked off. The Bonhomme Richard backed its sails and the two ships drew apart. Pearson wanted to resume hammering his foe, so he ordered his topsails backed to check the Serapis and bring the two ships parallel again. The heavy guns of the Serapis flashed out and another several hundredweight of iron ripped through the Bonhomme Richard's aged planks. At some badly mauled gun stations, the decks were wet with blood. Jones was truly up against it now. The Bonhomme Richard was barely sailing. Jones needed to make a last attempt to gain the upper hand.
He did have one small advantage. Because the Bonhomme Richard was to windward of the Serapis, Jones was able to blanket his opponent and steal her wind, catching what little zephyrs still rippled the water in the settling darkness. A slight puff nudged the American warship ahead, and Jones made his move. "It was my intention to lay the Bonhomme Richard athwart the enemy's bow," Jones wrote. He wanted to cross the T, putting his ship at a right angle to the Serapis in order to rake the enemy ship with cannon and musket fire from stem to stern.
The sailing master ordered the helmsman to spin the wheel, and the old Indiaman made the last course change of her life. The Bonhomme Richard's bow began to swing ponderously around, but the manuever didn't quite work. Some of the braces, the blocks and tackles used to swing the yardarms to trim the sails, had been shot away. The Bonhomme Richard stalled in front of the Serapis. Pearson ordered his helmsman to steer around the smoldering hulk, but too late: the bowsprit of the British ship drove into the Bonhomme Richard's mizzen rigging.
Jones decided to make a virtue of necessity. A forestay from the Serapis had parted and lay across the Bonhomme Richard's poop deck. Jones scrambled up the ladder to the poop deck and made fast the line to the mizzenmast. He called for Sailing Master Stacey to find a heavier rope and help him lash it around the Serapis's jib boom and Bonhomme Richard's mizzenmast, binding the two ships together. Stacey, a salty sea dog, was swearing a blue streak. "Mr. Stacey, it's no time to be swearing now," teased Jones, almost lighthearted in the gloom and chaos. "You may by the next moment be in eternity, but let us do our duty."
The wind had now died altogether. The sea was "smooth as glass," recalled Fanning. A strong tide was running. Pearson was anxious not to be caught in a fatal embrace with the dying Bonhomme Richard, which, he feared, could blow up at any minute. The British captain ordered an anchor dropped. He figured that as the anchor bit into the bottom and held the Serapis, the Bonhomme Richard would pull away and drift off on the tide. Once the two ships were apart, the British guns could deliver the final blows.
But the Serapis could not break free. As the two ships swung around in the tide, the Serapis's jib boom bent and snapped off, but Jones's men were able to throw grappling hooks "at least 50 of them," according to one witness onto the rigging and bulkheads of the British ship. The sailors of the Serapis tried to cut away the lines, but the marines in the tops of the Bonhomme Richard picked the sailors off as they were swinging their axes. The fluke of Pearson's spare anchor caught in the mizzen chains of the Bonhomme Richard. The two ships ground together, facing in opposite directions but hopelessly entangled. They were literally muzzle-to-muzzle now.
It was about 8:30 P.M. The battle was more than an hour old. A few miles away, atop the cliffs of Flamborough Head, large crowds were gathering. About a thousand people had walked or ridden from the surrounding villages, lured by the news that a British man-o-war had trapped the Pirate Jones. Under the silvery moon, across the glistening water, they witnessed a fantastic sight. The two warships were locked inside a yellowish cloud that pulsated with flashes of orange and white light. In the dead calm, the smoke from the cannon and numerous small blazes created a thick blanket of sulfurish smoke, eerie and ghostly to the onlookers on the cliff, choking and toxic to the men trapped within.
The death struggle had become two battles, a race to extinction on two fronts, one abovedeck, one below. Jones's sharpshooters had cleared the British tops and now they were sweeping the decks of Serapis with musketry and shot from the blunderbusses and swivel guns. Captain Pearson, though stoic, was finally forced to move out of this dangerous hailstorm and take refuge beneath the quarterdeck. He still controlled the battle belowdecks, however. The Serapis's 12- and 18-pounders continued to blast away. The cannonballs went in one side of the Bonhomme Richard and out the other, creating ever larger holes at and below the waterline. The gun deck of the American ship was a wasteland, strewn with bodies and shattered cannon. One by one, the last of Jones's 12-pounders were silenced. By 9 P.M. or so, the American captain was left with only his three 9-pounders on the quarterdeck. When one of them was smashed, its gun captain badly wounded, Jones himself helped haul a 9-pounder across the deck from the other side and aim at the Serapis. Jones's target was the three-foot-wide mainmast of the Serapis, painted yellow and easy to pick out in the swirling smoke.
The smoke was getting thicker. Both ships were on fire. The stabs of flame from the cannons had ignited scraps of wood and canvas hanging down from the cut-up rigging and mast of the Serapis. Burning cartridge wads from the British guns were smoldering in the shattered timbers of the Bonhomme Richard. On a wooden ship laced with highly flammable tar and resin, fire was dreaded more than enemy cannonballs. Flames were creeping up the sails and the rigging; down below, hot coals were erupting in little blazes that threatened to create a conflagration that would reach the powder magazine. For a brief time, the shooting and cannonading died down; as if by mutual agreement, the men left their guns to fight the fire, cutting away burning cordage and dousing flames with buckets of water hauled from the sea.
Jones had a moment to catch a breather. He sat on a hen coop on the quarterdeck and looked out into the darkness, wondering what had happened to his disloyal squadron. He was glad to see that not all the captains were timid. He could pick out the Pallas about a mile off in the night. She was bashing the outgunned Countess of Scarborough. Captain Cottineau was too cautious for Jones's taste, but at least he had not shied from taking on the smaller British sloop. The Countess of Scarborough was beaten and would soon strike. Somewhere out there, Jones guessed, the Vengeance was biding its time, waiting to see if the British escorts would be defeated by braver men, thus leaving the merchantmen easy prey for scavengers. But where was the Alliance and its erratic Captain Landais?
Jones found out soon enough. At about 9:15 P.M., a broadside of grapeshot ripped through the bow of the Serapis and the stern of the Bonhomme Richard, wounding and killing men on both ships. It was the Alliance, apparently firing wildly into the inferno. Aboard the Bonhomme Richard, men cried out, yelling, "For Gods sake! Wrong ship! Stop firing!" But the Alliance, sailing along serenely only a musket shot away, rounded the Bonhomme Richard's bow and loosed another broadside of grapeshot. Among the mortally wounded on the Bonhomme Richard's forecastle was a young midshipman, Jonas Coram. "Alliance has wounded me," he said with his dying breath. Then, just as he had suddenly appeared, Landais vanished again into the blackness. Jones was "astonished." He ordered his men to hang lanterns fifteen feet high in the shrouds of each mast and the commodore's private signal, two lanterns at the peak of the mizzenmast, so there would be no mistake if the Alliance deigned to rejoin the fray.
Holed several times below the waterline, the Bonhomme Richard was slowly settling. The carpenter, John Gunnison, descended into the hold and sank to his chin in water. He could hear the screams of a hundred British prisoners, taken off the Bonhomme Richard's prizes, and locked in the hold. Sure that they were going to drown, they begged to be set free. Gunnison climbed back up on deck looking for an officer. He found the gunner's mate, Henry Gardner. "We're sinking," he told Gardner. The two men made their way aft and climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck on the port side, away from the fighting. They saw that the Bonhomme Richard's ensign staff on the taffrail was gone. Dazed, frightened, unable to identify Captain Jones (he was on the starboard side, bent over a 9-pounder), the two men assumed that the captain was dead. First Lieutenant Dale was nowhere to be seen. Gardner, an Englishman, determined that he was the senior surviving officer. He decided to end the slaughter before the ship sank or blew up. Raising his voice to be heard amidst the din, he cried the word for surrender: "Quarters! Quarters!" The two master's mates turned and started for the mainmast, where they intended to lower the broad pendant flying at the peak, thus striking the last American flag.
Jones was concentrating on slowly cutting down the enemy's mainmast with barshot from his 9-pounder when he heard someone on the quarterdeck cry "Quarters!" In a rage, he wheeled, shouting, "Who are those rascals? Shoot them! Kill them!" He lunged across the deck at Gardner and Gunnison. The two men took one look at the gleaming eyes of their captain and the pistol he was drawing from his belt and made a dash for it. Jones tried to shoot Gunnison, but when he pulled the trigger, he heard only a click. He had forgotten that he had already discharged the weapon at the Serapis's quarterdeck, hoping to wing an officer, earlier in the battle. In a fury, Jones gripped the pistol by the muzzle and hurled it at Gardner's head, just as the gunner tried to scramble down the ladder. Knocked cold, the man collapsed into the ship's waist.
Aboard the Serapis, Pearson, too, had heard the cries for "Quarters!" aboard the Bonhomme Richard. Were the stubborn Americans at least relenting? The British captain came to the quarterdeck rail and yelled across, "Have you struck? Do you call for Quarters?"
Jones's response, delivered as his ship was sinking beneath him, has become his most enduring legacy. In his official report, Jones wrote that he answered Captain Pearson "in the most determined negative." Some forty-five years later, an aging Lieutenant Dale (Captain Richard Dale, USN Ret.) told an early Jones biographer that the captain had shouted defiantly, "I have not yet begun to fight!" Those words became immortal, but they are probably not the exact ones he used. In a memoir Jones wrote to Louis XVI, Jones reported replying, "Je ne songe point a me rendre, mais je suis determine a vous faire demander quartier" literally translated, "I haven't as yet thought of surrendering, but I am determined to make you ask for quarter." Even by eighteenth-century standards, that is a mouthful for a man standing at the brink of doom. One contemporary account suggested a pithier exclamation: "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike."
Jones was beset on all sides. The master-at-arms, John Burbank, took pity on the crying prisoners, trapped in the hold while the water rose around them. He set them free, and a hundred Englishmen clambered up onto the deck. Jones was suddenly faced with a potential prisoner revolt. That many men, if determined enough, might have overwhelmed Jones's bloodied and dwindling crew. Fortunately for Jones, the freed prisoners were so terrified, and so grateful to be gasping fresh air, that they proved docile. Jones and Dale were able, with a wave of their pistols, to convince the Englishmen to man the pumps, lest they all drown together.
Through the crack of musket fire and the continued pounding of the Serapis's heavy guns, Jones heard a cry go up and saw a commotion toward the bow. The British were boarding. A gang of twenty or thirty seamen and Royal Marines scrambled over the bulwark and, armed with cutlasses and pistols, ran down the Bonhomme Richard's gangway along the waist to the quarterdeck ladder. There they were met by Jones, wielding a boarding pike, supported by his seamen, some of whom remembered their recent confinement in a British jail. Steel met steel, clanging and jarring; men grunted and yelled; pistols popped. The fight was vicious but brief. Rather than die where they stood, the outnumbered and exhausted redcoats and tars scrambled and slipped back to their ship.
The last assault came from Jones's dubious ally, Captain Landais, a little after 10 P.M. Once more, the Alliance glided by the two ships in their desperate clinch and unloaded an indiscriminate blast of grapeshot. The moon was bright, and Jones's signals, hung after the last assault, were hard to miss. The topsides of the Serapis were yellow; those of the Bonhomme Richard, with its high poop deck, were black. But the men of the Bonhomme Richard could only scream and wave their fists as Landais sailed off again, to sit out the battle's climax.
The end came with surprising suddenness. In the maintop, a roughly fifteen-foot-by-fifteen-foot platform some forty feet above the deck, Midshipman Fanning, fifteen marines, and four sailors had been plinking away at the British marines, dropping them one by one from their platforms high in the rigging above the Serapis, then shooting at anything that moved on the deck below. Fanning's position was precarious. The Bonhomme Richard's mainmast had been shot through by an 18-pound ball at its base; the mast was held up largely by the rigging. The sails and tarry ropes around the maintop kept catching on fire. Having exhausted a large tub of water, Fanning's men were using their clothes to snuff the flames. "The coat on my back was partly burned...together with the blackness of my face with powder, I had more the appearance of a runaway negro that that of an American officer," Fanning recalled. Still, the Bonhomme Richard had won the battle of the tops. Indeed, a nimble sailor was able to crawl out onto the mainsail yard, which extended out over the deck of the Serapis: a perfect bombing platform.
The sailor was a Scotsman named William Hamilton. As the battle entered its fourth hour, around 10:15 P.M., Hamilton edged out along the footropes of the mainyard carrying a lighted slow-match and a leather bucket of grenades. These were small bombs, about the size of baseballs. When lit, their fuses burned for about twenty seconds before detonating. Hamilton saw a half-open hatch on the deck below and began lobbing grenades, hoping one would drop through to the gun deck below. On the second or third try, he succeeded. The grenade glanced off the coaming around the hatch and tumbled below. Hamilton waited and listened. He heard a loud bang then, in rapid succession, a series of thunderous explosions.
He had caught the British navy in an uncharacteristic moment of carelessness. It is a time-honored rule of the gun deck never to leave powder cartridges lying around, for the obvious reason that they are flammable and explosive. But during the course of the long and wearying struggle, the powder monkeys, the small boys used to ferry the cartridges from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the gun deck, had gotten ahead of the exhausted gun crews. Cartridges haphazardly lined the deck behind the great guns.
Hamilton's grenade came bouncing down the hatchway ladder, its fuse sizzling. The explosion set off a chain reaction among the loose powder cartridges with devastating effect. Two-ton guns were blown from their carriages, men were ripped apart and scorched. A flash fire raced the length of the gun deck, which was packed with sweltering men. Some, their lungs seared, their hair on fire, leapt through open gun ports into the sea.
Pearson had lost five guns from his battery. He could see the mainmast begin to sway and lean to port, held up only by the web of rigging. Jones's 9-pounder had done its work, virtually chopping the 150-foot mast off at its base. The British captain had lost half his men; his ship was on fire in a dozen places. It was now 10:30 P.M.; he had fought gallantly. His duty was done.
Pearson climbed up the ladder to the quarterdeck and walked to the rail. Spotting his nemesis still hunched over the 9-pounder twenty yards away, he called, "Sir, I have struck! I ask for quarter!" Jones looked up at this apparition in a blue coat. The commodore wondered: could he really be hearing a plea for surrender? He demanded: "If you have struck, haul down your ensign!" Pearson walked, stiff-backed, to the taffrail and began ripping down the giant red ensign, now shredded by musket balls and grape, nail by nail from its staff.
"Cease firing!" Jones yelled. He ordered Lieutenant Dale to take a boarding crew across to secure the enemy ship. Grabbing a stray line hanging from a yardarm, the lieutenant swung himself across to the quarterdeck of the Serapis. Midshipman John Mayrant followed with a party of men and was immediately run through the thigh with a pike; some of the British sailors had not gotten the word. Pearson's first officer, Lieutenant John Wright, was also caught by surprise. Dale was just informing Pearson, "I have orders to send you on board the ship along side," when Wright, breathless from running up the ladder, appeared and asked his captain whether the Americans had struck. Dale interjected, "No sir, the contrary, he has struck to us." Wright was taken aback. He turned to Pearson. "Have you struck, sir?" Pearson quietly replied that he had. Wright could not hide his shame. "I have nothing more to say, sir," the first lieutenant stammered. Collecting himself, he asked Pearson's permission to go below and silence the remaining guns.
With a grinding, wrenching crash, the mainmast of the Serapis toppled over the side, ripping with it the mizzen topmast. After Pearson had crossed over, Jones ordered his men to cut away the grappling hooks and tangled rigging and let the Serapis float free. If the Bonhomme Richard was going to sink or burn, Jones wished at least to save his prize. Aboard the Serapis, Dale backed the remaining sails and was puzzled when the British ship did not respond. He did not realize that the Serapis was anchored. Deciding to investigate, Dale jumped off the binnacle, where he had been sitting in a state of semishock, and promptly fell to the deck as his leg collapsed under him. His calf had been badly cut by an iron splinter. In the heat of the battle, he had not realized that he had been wounded.
Captain Jones may have been lightly wounded, grazed by a piece of shrapnel, perhaps; in later years, Jones would refer vaguely to the blood he shed, but no record exists of any kind of serious injury. It is doubtful that he felt any sensation beside pure exultation as he stood, begrimed and haggard but erect, to greet Captain Pearson on the quarterdeck of the Bonhomme Richard. Against the Drake, he had been cheated out of the surrender ceremony by his opponent's demise: mortally wounded in the battle, Captain Burden had been unable to hand over his sword in the ancient ritual of submission. Now Jones's moment of triumph, of sweet vindication, had arrived. Pearson, the symbol of Britannic rule, his soot-stained face struggling to remain impassive, stood before Jones, holding out his sword. Jones took it. "Sir," Jones said to Pearson, "you have fought like a hero, and I make no doubt that your sovereign will reward you in a most ample manner for it." Fanning and gunner's mate John Kilby both recalled hearing Pearson ask Jones the nationality of his crew. Mostly Americans, replied Jones. "Then it was diamond cut diamond," Pearson responded. The British captain did not want to hear that he had succumbed to Frenchmen or Spaniards; Americans were at least cousins, endowed with English virtues. Fanning reported that Pearson also said that it "pained" him to hand his sword to a man who "has a halter around his neck," i.e., a pirate who would hang if caught. This blatant snub seems unlikely, though Pearson would be surly and haughty to Jones as a prisoner in port. Jones, for his part, tried to play the gentleman. According to Fanning, he asked Pearson to join him in his cabin for a glass of wine.
When he opened the cabin door, Jones must have had difficulty finding anything not blown to smithereens, much less a pair of wineglasses and a bottle of claret. His once elegant great cabin had taken a broadside from the Serapis in the first minutes of battle. Captain Pearson was stunned at the condition of the Bonhomme Richard belowdecks. "I found her in the greatest distress," he wrote in his official report to the Admiralty. Jones was also taken aback by what he saw. "A person must have been an eye witness to form a just idea of the tremendous scenes of carnage, wreck, and ruin which everywhere appeared," he recorded. The timbers on the lower deck were "mangled beyond my powers of description," wrote Jones after surveying the impact of the 18-pound balls that had smashed, by the dozens, through the ship during three hours of combat. "Only an old timber here and there kept the poop from crashing down on the gundeck." Gaping holes had been knocked in the topsides of the Bonhomme Richard. One breach was so wide, Fanning wrote, "One might have drove in with a coach and six."
The human toll was ghastly. Fanning wrote of his horror at seeing "the dead lying in heaps." The surgeons on both ships were overwhelmed. The burns were particularly gruesome aboard the Serapis. On the gun deck, Dale found men wearing "only the collars of their shirts." Their clothes, their hair, and their skin had been singed off. "The flesh of several of them dropped off from their bones and they died in great pain," wrote Fanning. The number of dead and wounded for the two crews (the Serapis had about 270 men aboard, the Bonhomme Richard roughly 320) has never been worked out with precision, but the casualty rate on both ships was close to 50 percent, extraordinarily high for a single-ship action in the Age of Sail.
The death toll was very nearly higher. The fires aboard the Bonhomme Richard threatened to blow up the ship. The flames came "within a few inches of the powder," reported Jones, who hastily ordered that the kegs of gunpowder be moved from the magazine to the upper decks. A human chain was formed to pass the volatile barrels up the smoky companionways. The fact that British officers volunteered to stand shoulder to shoulder with American sailors suggests the sense of urgency.
Jones tried to lighten his sinking ship by ordering the useless old 18-pounders thrown over the side. At daybreak, the ship's log cryptically reported, "The leak still gaining on us. We were supplied with men from the other ships who assisted in heaving the lower deck guns overboard & the dead, etc." Once their captains could see the American ensign flying from both the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, the Alliance, Vengeance, and Pallas (with her prize the Countess of Scarborough) all came skulking back to Jones. There is no record of the words exchanged between the various captains and Jones, but the congratulations must have been strained, particularly in the case of Captain Landais. Jones had already formed the opinion that Landais had intentionally fired on him.
Dawn of September 24 came with a mercifully thick blanket of fog and still calm seas. Jones needed time to jury-rig a mainmast and a mizzen topmast for the Serapis before he could make a run for it. British cruisers could not be far off. Jones was determined to save the Bonhomme Richard. He wanted to sail her into port leading his prize. But the old Indiaman's wounds were mortal. Slowly, the pumps lost the battle. By nightfall on the 24th, Jones had given the order to abandon ship. The wounded were carried over to the Serapis and the other ships. At the last minute, Jones sent Fanning back to recover his papers and personal effects, but the midshipman never made it on board the Bonhomme Richard. He could see the water pouring through her lower gun ports. With a great heave, the battered warship plunged quickly, bow first, with her colors flying. Jones watched, he wrote, "with inexpressible grief." He was not really mourning his ship, which he had regarded as an old clunker. More likely, he was feeling the letdown that always followed the exhilaration of battle.
Copyright © 2003 by Evan Thomas
from Chapter Ten: "No Sooner Seen Than Lost"
Jones had no time to brood. At least eight Royal Navy warships, dispatched by a frantic Admiralty, were converging on Flamboough Head. The sea and wind were rising, the sky lowering. Jones and his squadron slipped over the horizen as the first of the British cruisers arrived on the scene. They split up and searched for Jones to the northeast, toward Scandinavia, to the southeast, toward Holland and France, and all around the British Isles. They never found him. Jones zigzagged in the North Sea for ten days and finally made a dash for the Texel island, the deep-water anchorage off Amsterdam, and the safety of a neutral port.
Jones's legend was made. "Paul Jones resembles a Jack o' Lantern, to mislead our mariners and terrify our coasts," wrote the London Morning Post. "He is no sooner seen than lost." As the reports of the battle began to filter back to London, the British press responded with lurid stories and illustrations. In the confused aftermath of the battle, a half-dozen British sailors who been set free from the hold of the Bonhomme Richard had stolen a small boat and rowed ashore near Flamborough Head. They described the incident of Jones throwing his pistol at the Bonhomme Richard's carpenter, as the frightened man was trying to strike the American flag. The tale was quickly and colorfully embellished by the newspapers:
During the engagement, Paul Jones (who was dressed in a short jacket and long trousers with about twelve charged pistols slung in a belt around his middle and a cutlass in his hand) shot seven of his men for deserting from their quarters, and to his nephew, whom he thought a little dastardly, he said that damn his eyes he would not blow his brains out, but he would pepper his shins, and actually had the barbarity to shoot at the lad's legs, who is a lieutenant in his ship.
It was important for the British establishment to depict Jones as a lowlife, a brigand who wore short jackets and trousers, not a gentleman in breeches and coat. The navy had been embarrassed and wanted to belittle its adversary. "Jones flings us all into consternation and terror, and will hinder Lady Carlisle's sea bathing," the Earl of Carlisle wrote, a little flippantly. A London paper sent a correspondent to Kirkbean to learn more about the devil's incarnation; he reported back that Jones as a schoolboy had been a "blockhead" who lay in wait for his teacher and beat him almost to death. But the poems and ballads in the cheap penny chapbooks also made Jones out to be a Robin Hood figure, outfoxing the clumsy sheriff's men.
The more abuse the press heaped on Jones he was a "desperado," "a good seaman but a bad man," "a vile fellow," "a daring pirate who has for some time past done so much mischief on the coast of Great Britain" the greater the victory he could claim. His achievement was not simply to defeat a superior warship, but to spread fear all through Britain. He was teaching the British a lesson: that the price of keeping America as a colony was too high. By taking the war to the British homeland, Jones helped fuel an already vigorous anti-war movement amongst the loyal opposition, which questioned His Majesty's government's labored prosecution of a costly war that might not be lost, but which could not be won either. Jones was raising the stakes in uncomfortable ways. Intelligence reports seeping into the London papers hinted at dreadful escalations: "A gentleman in the city, well known at the 'Change for his early American intelligence," reportedly learned that Ben Franklin was pressing Congress to put the British on notice: if Jones was captured and hanged, "the Congress would immediately retaliate, by treating a British prisoner of equal rank exactly in the same manner."
The British might still hang the pirate, but first they had to catch him.
Copyright © 2003 by Evan Thomas