The Power of "No"
Captain John Paul Jones, Continental Navy
Commander of Continental Navy Ship
The Battle of Flamborough Head
September 23, 1779
Give me a fast ship, for I intend to go in harm's way.
Attributed to John Paul Jones
When I walked into the United States Naval Academy on a hot summer's day in the early 1970s, the first thing that happened to me was that I got a quick and brutal haircut. It was not only a sudden induction into military life but a way for the Navy to emphasize that my own power to decide anything, including the length of my hair, was emphatically terminated. Alongside twelve hundred classmates from every state in the Union and a smattering of foreign countries, we were then lined up in a very rough formation, broken into small groups-squads of about a dozen-and marched around the Academy grounds. The highlight of those first hours was an introduction to Captain John Paul Jones, or, more accurately, to his crypt in the heart of the massive Naval Academy Chapel-the de facto high church of the US Navy.
When it came our turn to enter the chapel and see the crypt, my squad was ordered to maintain complete "silence about the decks" and remove our "covers" (little blue-striped sailor hats, or "Dixie cups" as they were called with extreme derision by the upper-class midshipmen who were shepherding us around). We were then shuffled into the relatively small crypt, at the center of which repose the earthly remains of John Paul Jones. At that time, I had little knowledge of Jones beyond a schoolboy's appreciation for his immortal words "I have not yet begun to fight," supposedly uttered at the climax of a bloody Revolutionary War sea battle conducted off the eastern coast of the United Kingdom. Later I would discover that the saying-memorized along with other bon mots from Jones by generations of midshipmen-was almost certainly apocryphal. But at that moment, in the crypt, I was at least happy to be out of the humid summer haze of Annapolis and in some air conditioning.
We were arrayed in a loose circle around the crypt at "parade rest," and one of the senior midshipmen read a lengthy passage on Jones and his contributions to the Navy and the nation. It was full of heroic pronouncements about overcoming fearful odds in battle again and again, quotes about the qualities and characteristics of a naval officer, and lots of commentary concerning command at sea. At the time, I found it quite inspiring, and later that evening pulled out the small booklet we were given upon arrival, Reef Points, and began to memorize some of Jones's sayings and exploits. This scene has played out many thousands of times as young midshipmen arrive at the Academy and begin their voyages in the Navy and Marine Corps, and ultimately set their course to go to sea and join the fleet. It is not an exaggeration to say that John Paul Jones is in many ways "the father of the American Navy." I learned of him on the first day of my naval life, and he was a part of my own life at sea, both in peace and at war, for almost forty years.
As I matured and learned more about this complicated, difficult sailor and sea captain, my initial admiration for his legend diminished somewhat. I began to understand the dark side of John Paul Jones-the immense vanity, deep insecurity, sexual profligacy, and enormous ambition that drove this gardener's son who seemed cursed with an inferiority complex. He had a vicious temper that would flare often at sea, and his men at times suffered as a result. Jones was no Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson nor a Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the beau ideals of naval leadership. He lacked their ability to inspire subordinates and build a band of brothers who could fight together and win decisively. Jones ended his days a broken man, nearly destitute, living a hardscrabble existence in Paris and dying at the age of forty-five a largely unmourned and forgotten figure.
But at the heart of this compact, handsome man was an indomitable fighting spirit. He was a superb mariner who knew the sea well and could bring to bear his knowledge of ship-handling in the complex age of sail, his gunnery and boarding tactics, and his keen sense of when an opponent might be faltering. His personal courage was remarkable and frequently deployed in combat. Jones was a classic sea warrior willing to lead from the front-whether in close boarding fights, personally aiming a cannon, or subduing a mutinous subordinate. Despite his small size (he was about my height, a not-so-towering five foot six), he had the kind of courage that made him seem larger than life in a fight.
Ashore, however, he was typically quiet, a bit subdued, and strove to appear very much the gentleman. Abigail Adams, in a brilliant turn of phrase, once said, "He is small of stature. . . . I should sooner think of wrapping him up in cotton wool and putting him into my pocket, than sending him to contend with cannon ball[s]." Indeed, his love life was quite fulsome and a source of satisfaction to Jones, although the tumultuous course of his life ultimately precluded a marriage. He indulged in one torrid affair after another but told companions again and again that he was not one to settle down with a single woman-despite his occasional propensity to pour his heart out in poorly written love poetry. With a handsome head of dark hair, sharply etched cheekbones, and an athletic mien, Jones never lacked for female companionship.
Born in southwest Scotland on July 6, 1747, he grew up on a large estate called Arbigland as the son of the head gardener, John Paul Sr.; Jones was named John Paul Jr. after his father, and added the "Jones" only later in life. I visited the estate when I was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and noticed that it affords sweeping views of the sea, which must have inspired Jones early. He set sail as a young teen, in an era when life at sea was truly like "being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned," in the memorable words of Samuel Johnson. As was customary, he began as an apprentice-essentially a midshipman-to learn the ropes, quite literally, in sailing ships. The early part of his seagoing days was spent in a series of merchant and slave ships, and he sailed the North Atlantic passages frequently.
He became a sea captain for the first time unexpectedly in 1768 when the brig in which he was sailing as a mate, the John, lost both the captain and the first mate. John Paul was able to get the ship safely back into port, and the Scottish owners rewarded him with his first command. His propensity for harsh discipline was then unfettered as he ascended to become a ship's captain, which in the eighteenth century was an office imbued with immense power. This led in 1770 to a highly publicized flogging and the eventual death of one of his crew members (who had strong influence in Scotland via family connections), for which John Paul was arrested and investigated. While released on bail, he was able to gather enough evidence to exonerate himself, but the incident had a lasting negative effect both on his reputation in Scotland and upon his own prickly sense of self-worth. It also led him to depart Scotland and strike out more broadly in the world. This strategy seems to have worked, as John Paul was given another command soon thereafter, this time of a London-based West Indiaman called the Betsy. John Paul again had to put down a rebellious crew member, killing him in a "disagreement" over wages. He now left England under a cloud as well, coming to Virginia and settling near Fredericksburg. Here he adopted the surname Jones to distance himself from the unsavory stories that followed on from his brushes with the law.
So it was John Paul Jones who volunteered his services to the Continental Navy in 1775, around the time the fledgling Navy and Marine Corps were founded. His first ship was a twenty-four-gun frigate, Alfred, to which he was posted as the first lieutenant toward the end of that year. Of note, he had the honor of raising the so-called Grand Union Flag at the mast of the ship-perhaps the first time a US flag was flown in a warship. While his time in Alfred was relatively short, he was quickly able to gain command of a sloop of war, the Providence, in 1776. While in his first warship command role, he undertook essentially logistic duties, ferrying supplies from Continental bases to depots closer to troops in the field, and moving soldiers to and from assembly points. Yet he was still able to capture more than a dozen prizes and continue to build his reputation in the small naval force. He returned to Alfred as the captain in the fall of that year, but a dispute with the Continental Navy's leadership resulted in his being given a smaller and less prestigious command, the sloop Ranger, in 1777.
Ranger ultimately provided a significant boost to Jones's career in the American Navy. It also led to his improbable and lasting friendship with Benjamin Franklin when the two worked together in France following the Treaty of Alliance between the United States and France in 1778, where Franklin was one of the US commissioners to that nation. It is hard to summon a mental picture of these two mismatched friends strolling through eighteenth-century Paris, but they remained warmly supportive of each other throughout their lives. Franklin was even instrumental in arranging for the Ranger to become the first US warship to receive a formal salute from France. Jones departed that nation in spring of 1778 to conduct a campaign of maritime guerrilla warfare (which the English regarded as simple piracy) on the British towns and shipping along the coast of the Irish Sea.
While he constantly complained about the low quality of his officers and crew, he was ultimately able to bind them into a somewhat effective if undisciplined raiding force. They conducted a series of operations along the English coast, mostly directed against an increasingly terrified civilian population. The British press of this time depicted Jones repeatedly as a privateer, and on several occasions his crew did in fact avail themselves of booty and liquor ashore. The apex of Ranger's war cruise was a single-ship engagement with a roughly equally armed British man-of-war, HMS Drake. On April 24, 1778, the two ships fought, and Jones was the victor, a milestone for the nascent US Navy. The victory was later tarnished by a dispute between Jones and his first mate (the reoccurring pattern of failing to control his subordinates) that had to be adjudicated by John Adams, then also a US commissioner in France. Nonetheless, the fight stands as one of the earliest victories at sea by a US warship, and was particularly important given that it was a win over the vaunted Royal Navy.
By 1779, Jones was given command of a larger, albeit slow and occasionally unseaworthy, vessel, the forty-two-gun United States Ship Bonhomme Richard. She was a reconfigured merchant ship given to the Americans by the French. A sluggish sea-keeper but heavily armed, the ship would eventually make the fighting reputation that followed Jones for the remainder of his seagoing life. With the help of Ben Franklin who provided cash and contacts, Jones broke his flag aboard the ship as a commodore in command of a small squadron of mismatched ships led by an eclectic mix of captains: tiny twelve-gun USS Vengeance, thirty-six-gun USS Alliance (commanded by an eccentric and spectacularly unreliable French captain, Pierre Landais), and thirty-two-gun USS Pallas. He also had two privateers in company, with French crews. The British were aware of the squadron's existence and general plan (having watched Jones during his adventures in Ranger) and sent a small group of warships to intercept him and protect coastal convoys in the area. As was the usual case for Jones, he had extreme difficulty controlling his subordinates, particularly Captain Landais in the ironically named Alliance. Jones decided to sail farther north into the North Sea, then down the eastern coast of Britain, searching for prizes and generally harassing the British.
By September 23, 1779, the small squadron was off the coast of Flamborough Head near East Yorkshire, where Jones herded his vessels together in the early-morning hours. Here he encountered a British Baltic convoy of around four ships with rich merchant cargoes of iron and timber headed to various southern English ports. Unfortunately for Jones, there were also two British warships in the vicinity. The larger and more capable warship was the forty-four-gun HMS Serapis, and she was escorted by the smaller twenty-two-gun Countess of Scarborough, essentially a contracted combatant (not a Royal Navy vessel, but still quite capable). Together, they had the mission of protecting the convoy from predators like the Americans and French. By 4:00 p.m., the two British ships had managed to maneuver themselves into a blocking position to protect the merchant ships. HMS Serapis was commanded by Captain Richard Pearson.
By 6:00 p.m., Jones had conceived his battle plan and had Bonhomme Richard and Alliance in a loose formation headed toward the British. At this point, Captain Landais began to deviate from Jones's plan, using the better sailing qualities of his newer and faster frigate to split the two British ships. This left Bonhomme Richard and the other smaller American ships to fight the larger and more dangerous Serapis, while Alliance was matched against the much smaller Countess of Scarborough. After an initial query from the British to the Americans, the two sides traded broadsides beginning around 7:15 p.m.
As the battle unfolded over the next several hours, it became clear that despite having more total gunnery capability among his four principal ships, Jones was handicapped by several factors. First was the intransigence of the French captain Landais, who simply ignored Jones's orders throughout much of the engagement. Second, his forces never effectively operated as a single cohesive unit, lacking as they did a unified plan of engagement, which Jones-ever the individualist-failed to provide. And third, the crews of both Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough were much more professional and better trained for the kind of confused night combat that ensued.
As a result, the first round of the battle-especially the evolving one-on-one combat between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis-went largely to the British. Jones realized he was outgunned and decided to try to ram, grapple, and board his opponent. The British were able to pour several rounds of cannon fire into Jones's ship, using the better maneuverability of Serapis, including raking Bonhomme Richard around 7:30 p.m. The devastation to the old merchant ship was enormous-scores of both Marines and sailors were killed, much of the ship's main battery of cannon were destroyed, and the American ship was holed below the waterline in several places.