Captain Pearson = “Do you surrender? Do you strike?”
Captain Jones = “No sir! I have not yet begun to fight!”
These were the immortal fighting words bellowed by John Paul Jones at the height of his battle with the British frigate the Serapis, on today’s date, September 23 in the year 1779.
The Rise of John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones had been born as John Paul in Scotland on July 5, 1747. He began his career on the sea at age 13. In a hard life that included many scrapes with insubordinate crewmen, he rose to prominence as a ship’s leader, and eventually gained his first commission in the newly forming Continental Navy. Jones (as he now called himself) had a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian with his men and frequently had disagreements with those who had political influence over him. Nevertheless he championed the American cause as
a commerce raider along the Canadian coast before winding up in France and taking command of the American warship Ranger. After successfully attacking commerce around the coast of Great Britain Jones boldly took the Ranger into an engagement with the larger and more heavily armed British warship Drake. And on April 24, 1777 in one hour shot the British ship to pieces. Despite difficulties with his First Lieutenant, Thomas Simpson over the disposition of this prize, American naval prestige, and Jones’ own reputation were given a significant boost with this first victory over a major British warship by the Americans. But political maneuverings in Paris left Lt. Simpson in command of the Ranger, and Jones found himself beached for nearly a year.
John Paul Jones While Beached in France
During this period, Jones became convinced that John Adams, present in France and awaiting his return to America was one of those working against him, calling him “a wicked and conceited upstart.” For his part, Adams, who was definitely not working to undermine Jones, nonetheless looked upon him as quite an ambitious man, and had this observation of the young american officer:
“Eccentricities and irregularities are to be expexted from him. They are in his character, they are visible in his eyes. His voice is soft and small; his eye has keeness, and wildness and softness in it.”
In the end, Jones was able with the help of the American Minister in Paris, Benjamin Franklin to secure a decrepit old cargo ship, the Duras and immediately began refitting her as a warship. Renaming her the Bonhomme Richard after the character from the writings of his friend and sponsor, Franklin, he added new decks, and streamlined her hull for increased speed. He armed his old, but newly christened frigate with 28 twelve pound cannons for the gun deck, eight nine pounders for the upper decks and six older 18 pounders from the French naval arsenal. On August 14, 1779 Jones set sail from the French port of L’Orient with a motley, and not altogether reliable squadron of smaller ships to raid commerce shipping in and around the coast of the British Isles.
The Bonhomme Richard -vs- the H.M.S. Serapis
It was during the latter portion of this successful mission that a British Baltic Sea convoy was sighted on September 23 under the guard of the brand new 50 gun British frigate HMS Serapis. In the battle that followed, the larger and more powerful Serapis delivered blow after punishing blow to the Richard, “aided” by the bizarre behavior of one of Jones’ squadron members in the Alliance, under the command of Pierre Landais, who at one point fired at the Richard. Many of her guns both on the gun decks and the upper decks had been knocked out of action. At one point, with only a few of the Richard’s nine pound guns still in operable condition, the commander of the British ship, Captain Richard Pearson, certain that his foe was done for called out to ask if Jones had given up, and got the famous reply which typified Jone’s tenacity and fighting skill. As his only way of beating his enemy was now to close
with him and fight it out hand to hand, Jones was able to close with the Serapis and lash Richard to her stern to bow and blast away. In this configuration, the men on the Richard were able to rake the deck of the Serapis with musket fire, and a grenade thrown down the main hatchway of the British ship ignited a number of the cartridges in her gun-room. The resulting explosion spread aft of the gun deck, killing 38 men in one blow. With this dramatic turn of events, Jones and the Bonhomme Richard emerged triumphant.
The carnage aboard both ships had been dreadful. Although historians would glorify this battle, Jones himself wrote that “Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror.” Indeed, the damage done to Jones’ own ship, the Bonhomme Richard had been destructive enough that she had to be abandoned in heavy seas two days later, as Jones, his crew and his prisoners watched her sink from the decks of the beaten Serapis. Nevertheless, Jones’ pugnacity and fierce determination to fight on had won the day, and set an example of fighting spirit that secured his fame in the annals of US naval history.
FIVE VERY IMPORTANT MUSICIANS BORN TODAY
John William Coltrane (also known as “Trane”; September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz and later was at the forefront of free jazz. He was prolific, organizing at least fifty recording sessions as a leader during his recording career, and appeared as a sideman on many other albums, notably with trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Ray Charles Robinson (September 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004), known by his shortened stage name “Ray Charles”, was an American
musician. He was a pioneer in the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues styles into his early recordings with Atlantic Records. He also helped racially integrate country and pop music during the 1960s with his crossover success on ABC Records, most notably with his Modern Sounds albums.While with ABC, Charles became one of the first African-American musicians to be given artistic control by a mainstream record company. Frank Sinatra called Charles “the only true genius in show business.”
Carlann Telzerow Evans (September 23, 19??), Violinist, Musician, Jazz Saxophonist, Composer, Free-Lance Musician on the Florida
circuit, Mother, Wife to Alan Evans of Wales, and most importantly (to me anyway) one of the very finest and most loyal and supportive friends I have ever had. Really, baby… I cannot imagine my life without you!! I am not entirely certain what the year of your birth is, and even if I was, you would likely give me serious hell for daring to publish it, so let’s just say it was somewhere between 1965-1975 (I think!!) Anyway, take a bow darling!!
ALSO born this date:
Roy Buchanan (September 23, 1939 – August 14, 1988) was an American guitarist and blues musician.
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen (born September 23, 1949), nicknamed “The Boss.”
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“A Picture History of the U.S. Navy” by Theodore Roscoe & Fred Freeman Bonanza Books, New York, 1956, pp. 178-204.
Fighting Ships by Richard Hough G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York, 1969, pp. 151-52.
John Adams – David Mc Cullough Simon & Schuster, New York pp. 213-14.