Sunday, August 30, 2015
"I have not yet begun to fight."
During the Civil War, Horace Porter served as a personal secretary to General Grant, a role he also played during Grant's presidency. Later he became a vice president of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Porter helped elect William McKinley president in 1896 and McKinley rewarded Pullman's Porter with the ambassadorship to France. Porter's assignment: determine which grave in the long-neglected St. Louis Cemetery held a Scotsman who had retired as an admiral in the Russian Navy, for interment in the crypt of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. This task took years and Porter gladly paid for the search out of pocket. For the sailor was John Paul Jones, the most storied naval hero of the American Revolutionary War.
Born John Paul on July 6, 1747, on the estate of Arbigland near Kirkbean, Scotland, where his father was a gardener, John Paul went to sea at age 12. By 21, he was a captain. But he was a tough taskmaster. As a merchant captain in 1770, he had a carpenter flogged so severely that the man died. The British charged John Paul with murder. The jury acquitted him. In 1773, he ended a mutiny by lancing the leader with his sword, killing him. Not willing to risk standing a second trial, he added the surname Jones, and fled to America.
John Paul Jones was a well-known captain whom the Continental Congress recruited. He served under Captain Esek Hopkins initially.
"At the beginning of the war, during the year 1775, I was charged with fitting out the small squadron which Congress had placed under the command of Mr. Hopkins, commander of the American navy; and I hoisted with my own hands (on board the Alfred, flagship of the commander in chief) the American flag, then unfurled for the first time," John Paul Jones later wrote.
Historians are unsure which flag it was. Perhaps it was the Grand Union Flag with the British Union Jack where the stars are on today's flag, but more likely it was the Gadsden flag -- a rattlesnake on a field of yellow -- that Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Continental Congress, had given Hopkins earlier. Whatever the flag, the spirit was there.
As the Americans acquired ships, John Paul Jones received a command. In 1776, he wreaked havoc along the Nova Scotian coast, capturing 25 ships, or prizes as sailors called them.
In 1777, he headed to France aboard the Ranger, where he met Benjamin Franklin. The two worked out a strategy. John Paul Jones would interrupt British commerce, which delighted the French who were at the time neutral but rooting for the Americans.
In 1778, he headed for the Irish Sea and did something that had not been done in a century by successfully attacking a British port, Whitehaven in Scotland. His harassment of British merchant ships drew the wrath of the British press and the delight of the French.
In 1779, with the French now in the war on the American side, French shipping magnate Jacques-Donatien Le Ray gave John Paul Jones a 900-ton ship outfitted with 42 guns, which John Paul Jones christened as Bon Homme Richard (his spelling) in honor of Poor Richard, the long ago pseudonym of his friend, Benjamin Franklin.
The ship did well and eventually he confronted the HMS Serapis, a sturdy, new, copper-bottomed frigate, in the North Sea off Famborough Head, England. The battle began at twilight on September 23, 1779. The Serapis saw Bon Homme Richard and demanded it to identify itself.
From the Serapis: "What ship is that?"
The reply: "I can't hear what you say."
Both ships immediately opened fire. Early on, the Serapis had the upper hand and its captain asked John Paul Jones if he was going to haul dawn his flag -- strike the colors -- and surrender.
Captain Richard Pearson: "Has your ship struck?"
John Paul Jones: "I have not yet begun to fight."
However, in his journal, John Paul Jones reported Pearson's words as, "Do you ask for quarter? Do you ask for quarter?"
John Paul Jones replied, "Je ne songe point a me rendre, mais je suis determine a vous faire demander quartier."
This was after all a French ship he commanded. Over the years, this was translated into "I have not yet begun to fight."
And he had not.
"The moon rose at 8 o'clock in the evening and the two vessels were then in flames from the cannonade. That was why the Serapis' mainmast, which was painted yellow, was such an easy object to distinguish, and I pointed one of my guns loaded with bar shot at it. In the meantime the two other pieces were well used to destroy the barricades of the enemy and to sweep their quarterdeck with oblique fire. Only the men on the topmast bravely supported the quarterdeck cannons with muskets and swivel guns and threw grenades on board the enemy vessel with great skill," John Paul Jones wrote.
"In this way the enemy were killed, wounded, or driven from their stations on deck and aloft, notwithstanding the superiority of their artillery and manpower."
The Bon Homme Richard took heavy damage. This occasioned Captain Pearson to ask again if John Paul Jones would surrender to which he responded, "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike!"
An hour later, Pearson crawled to where the British flag was nailed to the Serapis and personally struck his colors.
The historic importance of that victory is it convinced the French even more that the Americans were determined to defeat the greatest military on Earth. The victory boosted the efforts by Lafayette, who was in France at the time, to raise money for the cause. King Louis XVI personally presented John Paul Jones the Order of Military Merit.
John Paul Jones lapped up the celebrity and partied like it was 17-79. His behavior appalled John Adams, who was angered by the suggestion of John Paul Jones that Adams take up a mistress to learn the French language.
After the war, John Paul Jones joined the Russian navy, retiring to France in 1790, where he died on July 18, 1792, in Paris, one month after being appointed by the U.S, Consul to negotiate with Algiers. The French honored him with burial in the royal St, Louis Cemetery, but the cemetery shortly was abandoned in the French Revolution, and records lost.
But more than a century later, Horace Porter began a search for John Paul Jones. Americans finally recovered his body in April 1905. Teddy Roosevelt, now president, sent four U.S. cruisers to bring John Paul Jones home. They were accompanied by seven battleships as they made their way up the Chesapeake Bay.
As for Horace Porter, he received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor from the French in 1904. He died at 84 in New York City on May 29, 1921, having served the nation in the Civil War, as an administrator, and as a diplomat. However, he likely would prefer to be remembered as the man who brought John Paul Jones home.
On January 26, 1913, the Navy laid John Paul Jones to rest in the crypt at Annapolis. A Marine honor guard stands duty whenever the crypt is open to the public. Visiting hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
We have not yet begun to honor the hero.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on Tuesday, September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.