John Paul Jones

When the Revolutionary War was begun in the spring of 1775, the British decided to blockade all of the ports along the Atlantic and thus cut off trade and keep outside aid from reaching the Colonies. This was a serious blow to the war effort and to the economy of the Colonies.

General Washington, the Commander-in-Chief, saw the need for some action to counteract the British blockade. He authorized Colonel John Glover of Massachusetts to convert fishing vessels into armed ships. He also called on Congress to take action to break the blockade.

The Continental Congress decided to heed the warning of General Washington, and on October 13, 1775, they authorized the formation of a navy. Within thirty days, four vessels were purchased. Here are the names of the first ships of the United States Navy: the Alfred, Columbus, Andrew Doria, and Cabot. These were merchant ships that had been transformed into fighting craft. Now they needed someone to be the head man of this newly organized sea-going organization.

Congress looked around and picked a man with long and wide experience. His name is one I’m sure many of you have never heard: Esek Hopkins. Hopkins was named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy, and on December 22, 1775, he was piped on board the ship Alfred, along with a young lieutenant by the name of Jones.

Esek Hopkins’ career as the Commodore of the Navy did not turn out very well. He was an experienced seaman and the owner of a fleet of trading vessels, but he was hampered by Congressional delays and interference, and within a year and a half he was suspended from his command and later dismissed from the service. The post of Commander-in-Chief of the Navy was not filled, so individual commanders and privately owned vessels authorized by the Congress to arm and prey on British shipping fought most of the naval engagements of the war. Of all the naval commanders of the war, the most outstanding was the young man I just mentioned who was twenty-eight years old when the war began. What was his name? John Paul Jones.

John Paul Jones was born in Scotland in 1747. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Continental Navy. He was the commander of the Navy ship Providence and captured sixteen British ships and was promoted to captain and assigned to a larger ship, the Ranger. He carried out raids on British shipping using Brest, France, as a base. His charming personality and his daring naval exploits made him a hero in France.

The French government was delighted with John Paul Jones’ success in harassing British shipping, and to Jones’ suggestion that he could do a better job if he had a larger and more heavily armed ship, they agreed to furnish him with such a ship. Jones’ ship, the Ranger, was lightly armed, mounting only 18 six-pound cannon. The French presented Jones with a much larger ship that mounted 40 guns, but it was a leaky old ship, worn out from long service in trade to the Indies.

Jones accepted the battered old merchant ship, transformed it into a warship and named it the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin. He sailed from France to again engage in the capture and destruction of British shipping. Off the coast of England, he ran into the British battleship Serapis. This British man-of-war mounted 44 guns, only four more than the Bonhomme Richard, but the American vessel was old and lacked speed and maneuverability. The battle raged for about four hours, and when the Bonhomme Richard began to sink from holes in the side of the ship, John Paul Jones ran his ship into the British ship and lashed them together and continued to battle hand to hand until the British captain surrendered his ship. Just before this desperate maneuver, the British captain had demanded that the Americans surrender. John Paul Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

This great victory over British sea power was one of the turning points in the Revolutionary War and made the name of John Paul Jones a household word throughout the world.

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