A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part VI, Chapter 60." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


CHAPTER 60
WAR ON THE SEA

BESIDES being themselves more fit to fight, the Americans now received other help, for France joined with America in her struggle against Britain. And after this the war was not confined to America only. There was war on the sea, now, as well as on land, and whenever the British and the French navies met there was fighting.

France joins with America, February, 1778

The Americans themselves also carried the war on to the sea. At first they had no fleet, but very soon they began to build ships and before long they had a little fleet of six. Of this fleet Esek Hopkins was made commander-in-chief. He was an old salt, for he had been captain of a trading vessel for thirty years. But as a naval commander he was not a success. He had no knowledge of warfare, he was touchy, obstinate, and could not get on with Congress, which he said was a pack of ignorant clerks who knew nothing at all. The fleet under him only made one cruise. Then he was dismissed, and was succeeded by James Nicholson, the son of a Scotsman from Berwick-on-Tweed.

The fleet

As the war went on other vessels were added to the first six. But the largest was not bigger than a small British cruiser, and in the end they were nearly all taken, or sunk to prevent them being taken. Still before their end they fought many gallant fights, and did some good work for their country.

 

The first shot of the Revolution on the water was fired by Captain Abraham Whipple when he chased a tender belonging to the British cruiser Rose, and captured her. This was, however, not the first shot the hardy Captain had fired against the British. For in 1772, before the "Boston Tea Party," even, had taken place, he had seized and burned the British revenue schooner, Gaspé, in Narragansett Bay.

Abraham Whipple, 1733-1819

The Gaspé, 10th June, 1772

The commander of the Gaspé had been trying to put down smuggling on the coast of Rhode Island. He stopped all vessels, and examined even market boats, to see if they had any smuggled goods. This made the Rhode Island people very angry. They had smuggled as they liked for a hundred years; the British laws against it seemed to them mere tyranny; and they looked upon the commander of the Gaspé as little better than a pirate, who was interfering with their lawful trade. So when one day the people learned that the Gaspé had gone aground a few miles from Providence, and could not be got off before three o'clock in the morning, they determined to attack her.

 

Abraham Whipple was chosen as captain for the expedition. He and his men boarded the Gaspé, wounded the captain, overpowered the crew, and burned the schooner to the water's edge.

 

When the British commander-in-chief heard of it he was furious, and he wrote to Whipple.

 

"Sir," he said, "you, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned his Majesty's ship the Gaspé, and I will hang you at the yardarm."

 

To this Whipple, nothing daunted, replied: "Sir, always catch a man before you hang him."

 

Whipple was never caught until 1778, when with his ship the Providence he tried to relieve Charleston, in South Carolina, which was at that time besieged by the British. Then he was not hanged, but kept prisoner until the end of the war.

 

Lambert Wickes, captain of the Reprisal, was another gallant naval officer. When Benjamin Franklin was sent as United States ambassador to France in 1776 he sailed in the Reprisal, which was the first American warship to visit the shores of Europe.

Lambert Wickes, 1735-78

It might be here interesting to note that besides being minister to France, Franklin had to look after naval affairs in a general way. He used his powers with wisdom, and often with great humanity. Among other things he gave all American naval commanders orders that they were not to attack the great discoverer, Captain Cook, no matter in what part of the ocean they might meet him. They were not merely forbidden to attack him, they were even commanded to offer him any aid they could. For it would not beseem Americans, said Franklin, to fight against one who had earned the admiration of the whole world.

 

The Reprisal did not return home before it had made its presence felt. For, having landed Franklin, Wickes cruised about the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel, capturing many British merchantmen, and taking them to France, where he sold them.

 

At this time France was still at peace with Britain, and the British Government complained bitterly to the French at this breach of neutrality. They were, therefore, forced to order the American ships to leave France, and Wickes sailed for home.

 

On the way the Reprisal was chased by a British warship, and Wickes only saved himself from capture by throwing his guns overboard. He thus escaped one danger, however, only to fall into another, and in a storm off the coast of Newfoundland the Reprisal went down, and all on board were lost.

 

But of all the naval commanders on the American side, the Scotsman, John Paul Jones, was the most famous. He was the son of a gardener, and was born at Arbigland in Kirkcudbrightshire. From a child he had been fond of the sea, and when still only a boy of twelve he began his seafaring life on board a ship trading with Virginia. For some years he led a roving and adventurous life. Then after a time he came to live in America, which, he said himself, "has been my favourite country since the age of thirteen, when I first saw it."

John Paul Jones, 1747-92

His real name was John Paul. But he took the name of Jones out of gratitude to Mr. Jones, a gentleman of Virginia, who had befriended him when he was poor and in trouble.

 

When the War of the Revolution broke out Jones was a young man of twenty-seven, and he threw himself heart and soul into the struggle on the side of the Americans. He was the first man to receive a naval commission after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was, too, the first man to break the American naval flag from the mast. This was not, however, the Stars and Stripes, but a yellow flag with a pine tree and a rattlesnake, and the words, "Tread on me who dares."

The first naval flag

Jones became famous at once for his deeds of skill and daring, for it was his sole ambition, he said, "to fight a battle under the new flag, which will teach the world that the American flag means something afloat, and must be respected at sea." But he never liked the yellow flag. It was more fit for a pirate ship, he thought, than to be the ensign of a great nation, and he it was who first sailed under the Stars and Stripes, which he hoisted on his little ship, the Ranger. This was only a vessel of three hundred tons. In it in November, 1777, he crossed the Atlantic, harried the coasts of England and Scotland, and then made his way to France.

The Ranger

From France Jones set out again with a little fleet of four ships. His flagship he called Bonhomme Richard, as a compliment both to France and Franklin. Franklin being the author of "Poor Richard's Almanac," for which Bonhomme Richard was the French translation.

The Bonhomme Richard

The Bonhomme Richard was the largest vessel of the American navy, but it was only a worn-out old East India merchantman, turned into a man-of-war by having portholes for guns cut in the sides. And, although, Jones did not know it at the time, the guns themselves had all been condemned as unsafe before they were sent on board. The other ships of the squadron were also traders fitted up with guns in the same way, but were all much smaller than the Bonhomme.

 

With this raffish little fleet Paul Jones set out to do great deeds. His bold plan was to attack Liverpool, the great centre of shipping, but that had to be given up, for he found it impossible to keep his little squadron together. Sometimes he would only have one other ship with him, sometimes he would be quite alone. So he cruised about the North Sea, doing a great deal of damage to British shipping, catching merchantmen, and sending them to France as prizes.

 

At length one afternoon in September, when he had only the Pallas with him, he sighted a whole fleet of merchantmen off the coast of England and at once gave chase. The merchantmen were being convoyed by two British men-of-war, the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, and they at once got between Jones and his prey. Then the merchantmen made off as fast as they could, and the men-of-war came on. Presently the captain of the Serapis hailed the Bonhomme Richard.

Jones meets the Serapis, 23rd Sept., 1779

"What ship are you?" he shouted.

 

"I can't hear what you say," replied Jones, who wanted to get nearer.

 

That made the British captain suspicious. Nearer and nearer the two vessels drew on to each other.

 

"Hah," he said, "it is probably Paul Jones. If so there is hot work ahead."

 

Again the Serapis sent a hail.

 

"What ship is that? Answer immediately, or I shall be obliged to fire into you."

 

Paul Jones answered this time–with a broadside–and a terrible battle began. The carnage was awful. The decks were soon cumbered with dead and dying. The two ships were so near that the muzzles of the guns almost touched each other. Both were soon riddled with shot, and leaking so that the pumps could hardly keep pace with rising water. Still the men fought on.

The battle

Jones was everywhere, firing guns himself, encouraging his men, cheering them with his voice and his example. "The commodore had but to look at a man to make him brave," said a Frenchman, who was there. "Such was the power of one heart that knew no fear."

 

The sun went down over the green fields of England, and the great red harvest moon came up. Still through the calm moonlit night the guns thundered, and a heavy cloud of smoke hung over the sea. Two of the rotten old guns on the Bonhomme Richard had burst at the first charge, killing and wounding the gunners; others were soon utterly useless. For a minute not one could be fired, and the Captain of the Serapis thought that the Americans were beaten.

 

"Have you struck?" he shouted, through the smoke of the battle.

 

"No," cried Jones, "I haven't begun to fight yet."

"I haven't begun to fight yet."

The next instant the roar and rattle of the musketry crashed forth again. Both ships were now on fire, and a great hole smashed in the side of the Bonhomme.

 

"For God's sake, strike, Captain," said one of his officers.

 

Jones looked at him silently for a minute. The he answered: "No," he cried, "I will sink. I will never strike."

 

The ships were now side by side, and Jones gave orders to lash the Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis. He seized a rope himself and helped to do it. The carpenter beside him, finding the lines tangled, rapped out a sailor's oath.

 

But Jones was calm as if nothing was happening.

 

"Don't swear, Mr. Stacy," he said. "We may soon all be in eternity. Let us do our duty."

 

Lashed together now the two ships swung on the waves in a death grapple. The guns on the Bonhomme Richard were nearly all silenced. But a sailor climbed out on to the yards, and began to throw hand grenades into the Serapis. He threw one right into the hold, where it fell upon a heap of cartridges and exploded, killing about twenty men. That ended the battle. With his ship sinking and aflame, and the dead lying thick about him, the British captain struck his flag, and the Americans boarded the Serapis and took possession.

The Serapis strikes her flag

In silence and bitterness of heart Captain Pearson bowed and handed his sword to Jones. But Jones had only admiration for his gallant foe. He longed to say something to comfort him, but he looked so sad and dignified that he knew not what to say. At length he spoke.

 

"Captain Pearson," he said "you have fought like a hero. You have worn this sword to your credit, and to the honour of your service. I hope your King will reward you suitably."

 

But Captain Pearson could not answer, his heart was still too sore. Without a word he bowed again and turned away.

 

While this terrible fight had been going on the Pallas had engaged the Countess of Scarborough, and captured her, and now appeared, not much worse for the fight. But the Bonhomme Richard was an utter wreck, and was sinking fast. So as quickly as possible, the sailors, utterly weary as they were with fighting, began to move the wounded to the Serapis. The crew of the British ship, too, worked with a will, doing their best to save the enemies of the night before. At length all were safely carried aboard the Serapis, and only the dead were left on the gallant old Bonhomme Richard.

 

"To them," says Jones, in his journal, "I gave the good old ship for their coffin, and in it they found a sublime sepulchre. And the last mortal eyes ever saw of the Bonhomme Richard was the defiant waving of her unconquered and unstricken flag as she went down."

The Bonhomme Richard sinks

So this strange sea-duel was over. The victorious ship went down, and the victorious captain sailed away in his prize. But the Serapis, too, was little more than a wreck. Her main mast was shot away. Her other masts and spars were badly damaged, and could carry but little sail, and it seemed doubtful if she would ever reach port. But, after a perilous journey, the coasts of Holland were sighted, and the Serapis was duly anchored in the Texel.

 

With deeds like these the little American navy realised Jones' desire. But beyond that they did little to bring the war to an end. Far more was done by the privateers, which were fitted out by the hundred. They scoured the seas like greyhounds, attacking British merchantmen on every trade route, capturing and sinking as many as three hundred in one year. This kind of warfare paid so well, indeed, that farming was almost given up in many states, the farmers having all gone off to make their fortunes by capturing British merchantmen.

The privateers

As for Paul Jones he never had a chance again of showing his great prowess. When the war was over he entered the service of Russia, and became an admiral. He died in Paris in 1792, but for a long time it was not known where he was buried. His grave was discovered in 1905, and his body was brought to America by a squadron of the navy which was sent to France for the purpose, and reburied at Annapolis with the honour due to a hero.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom