During the night of September 23/24, 1779, Captain John Paul Jones led his frigate, Bonhomme Richard, into its legendary fight with Serapis. In the midst of a battle that was not going well for the Americans, British Captain Richard Pearson asked if Jones was ready to strike his colors and surrender. Jones offered one of the most famous replies in American naval history: “I have not yet begun to fight!” Or did he?
In 1779, the Bonhomme Richard was a thirteen year old French merchantmen tired from playing the oceans between France an the East Indies. She was slow, old and difficult to maneuver. Yet, the French government bought her and provided her to Jones, who had become something of a pest while searching for a new command.
The captain was able to find a crew and provision the ship for war, but his success in arming it was decidedly mixed. Jones thought the ship could bear the weight of twenty-eight 18 pounders, but they proved unavailable. Instead, he had to improvise with mix of new and used guns, including twenty-eight 12 pounders, six old 18 pounders, and six 9 pounders. It was a mix that complicated logistics, but it was sufficient for the purpose of commerce raiding and should handle any British ships of a comparable size. Jones christened the ship Bonhomme Richard and set sail from L’Orient France leading a squadron of American vessels (Bonhomme Richard and the 36-gun frigate Alliance) and French ships (Pallas, Vengeance, and Le Cerf) on June 19, 1779. The squadron’s first duty was escorting convoys, hardly the kind of mission that naval officers and their crews relished. They did little to hurt Britain and rarely resorted in the kind of prize money that made service on the sea so attractive in the first place. But, Jones accomplished it and returned to France.
September 22 found the Bonhomme Richard in English waters off Flamborough Head, where she rendezvoused with Alliance, Pallas, and Vengeance. On the afternoon of September 23, lookouts spotted inbound sails. Believing it was a convoy from Norway, Jones turned north to intercept. (It was in fact a convoy headed for the Baltic.) The merchantmen turned away while Captain Richard Pearson led the convoy escort, Serapis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough south to investigate. Serapis was a new, fast warship with a copper-sheathed hull rated at 44 guns, but carrying 50, more than a match for the Bonhomme Richard, on paper anyway.
Winds were light on September 23 and it took most of the afternoon for the two squadrons to close the ten or eleven miles between them. Jones only ordered his crew to quarters and signaled for a line of battle at 6 pm, as the sun began to sink under the horizon. Alliance, Vengeance, and Pallas chose that moment to sheer away from the Bonhomme Richard, essentially abandoning Jones to a lopsided fight with Serapis and the Scarborough.
Jones flew British colors as Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis closed within pistol range, sailing on parallel lines. Richard held the windward position to the south, which gave her more maneuvering options and a tactical advantage, but Serapis was faster and more heavily armed. With both crews poised for battle and neither potential combatant’s identity firmly established, Captain Pearson called the standard inquiry, “What ship is that?”
Jones declined to answer.
Pearson yelled again, this time threatening to fire without a satisfactory response.
Jones, always the showman, promptly pulled down the British flag and hauled up an American one. Both ships erupted into massive broadsides. Within minutes, the hodge-podge and slapdash manner of arming his ship cost Jones and the Bonhomme Richard. One or two of its eighteen pounders were well-worn from prior service and blew apart inside the gun room, killing their crews and blowing a hole in the ship. The Americans dare not use the others less they suffer another self-inflicted wound. Almost immediately, Jones realized he could not win a gunnery duel and decided to close and grapple. The Americans and their polyglot crew would have to board the Serapis and fight hand-to-hand. With that in mind, he doubled-up on the normal contingent of armed sailors and Marines in the rigging.
Jones could never get ahead of the faster ship, which used its superior sailing capabilities to rake the Richard several times. So, the Scot-turned-American-naval captain maneuvered repeatedly to board from the rear, running the Richard first up against the stern and starboard quarter. Serapis’ marines replied with enough firepower to force Jones to abandon that boarding attempt. But, he wasn’t done. Pearson used his speed to try and get ahead of the Bonhomme Richard, turn, and rake her stem to stern, one of the most devastating attacks that a man of war could inflict. Jones, anticipating the move, used what little maneuvering room he had to try and get around the Serapis from where he could fire down its length, but the Serapis’ bowsprit became entangled with the Richard’s mizzenmast. Jones and his crew quickly sought to lash the two vessels together, again hoping to board the British ship.
Pearson, recognizing his adversary’s helplessness, demanded to know “Has your ship struck?” From across the distance, Jones called back, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Or, so that is how the fight went down in the some history books. Historian Nathan Miller points out that the reply was not recorded until 1825, when the Richard’s First Lieutenant, Richard Dale, gave it to an early Jones biographer. Whether the battlecry was offered or not, the spirit raged on in the Bonhomme Richard’s captain and crew. Indeed, they were far from finished. Jones and his crew were quick to lash the Richard and Serapis together at the point of contact and any other place they could reach. With both ships entangled, American sharpshooters in the rigging began to ply their work to deadly effect while dropping grenades down onto Serapis.
Alliance chose that moment to enter the fight. Rather than firing on Serapis, however, he loosed broadsides into the Bonhomme Richard. Three times the Alliance passed by the grappled British and American ship, firing each time into the Bonhomme Richard, before finally moving off. The captain of the Alliance was a French naval officer, Captain Pierre Landais, who had volunteered to fight for the Americans early in the war and subsequently received a commission in the U.S. Navy and honorary citizenship from Massachusetts. He and Jones had already sparred verbally on the cruise. Both seemed to lack the sensitivity, tact, and diplomatic skills needed to cooperate. As the moon was bright and the Bonhomme Richard and Serapis looked nothing alike, Jones was forever after convinced that Landais had attacked the Richard on purpose. (Captain Pearson believed Alliance fired into his ship as well.) In the distance, the Pallas had also entered the fight, dueling with the Countess of Scarborough.
The Bonhomme Richard and Serapis remained entangled for hours in darkness lit by a bright moon and constant muzzle flashes, the crew fighting amidst smoke generated by those guns, burning wood, and tar while trying to pump water out of the hulls as fast as it rose. Jones himself had to join a gun crew on a 9 pounder when one of its crew was hit in the head. Around ten o’clock, Gunner’s Mate Henry Gardner emerged from below, where the water had risen to chin level, to discover the carnage was as bad above decks as below. Assuming Jones and the first lieutenant were dead, he began calling for quarter to the British ship. That was enough to distract Jones from his cannon. The captain flew into a rage and chased Gardner and others who had joined him across the deck, finally flinging his pistol at Gardner and knocking the man unconscious.
Aboard Serapis, Pearson heard the call and asked whether it was true: was the Bonhomme Richard ready to strike its colors. The U.S. Navy’s version of the fight has Jones insisting he had barely begun to fight at this point in the battle. Other reports suggest he said something like, “No sir, I will not. We have but a small fight as of yet,” or “No sir, I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike” or “I’ll be damned before I’ll strike” or “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.” Jones reported only that he replied “in the most determined negative,” but later wrote to the French King that he answered, “I haven’t as yet thought of surrendering, but I am determined to make you ask for quarter.” Pearson, however, claimed he heard no response. In any event, the fight would continue with the battered ships and crews flailing away at one another like two exhausted boxers.
A few minutes later, an American crewman managed to crawl across the yards to the Serapis and dropped a grenade into an open hatch. Its detonation ignited powder cartridges stored there and across the deck, sending a thunderous explosion through the Serapis. That explosion set off secondary explosions every bit as devastating as the detonation of Richard’s two 18 pounders at the beginning of the battle.
Sometime after this, with both ships on the verge of sinking, a crewman reportedly ran up to Jones and begged him to surrender. Again, he refused. Pearson may have heard the argument above the fray of battle and, with his mainmast tottering over the deck and Alliance still in the vicinity, finally decided that the carnage had to end. He pulled down his flag and gave John Paul Jones his most memorable victory in the war. Both ships were horrendously wounded, but the Bonhomme Richard mortally so. Jones transferred his flag to the newly captured Serapis and watched the Richard slip beneath the waves on the morning of September 25.
Gardner Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, Vol. II, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913).
“Bonhomme Richard, (Frigate), 1779,” Naval History and Heritage Command. Available at: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/b/bonhomme-richard-frigate-i.html. Accessed September 20, 2019.
Nathan Miller, Sea of Glory: A Naval History of the American Revolution, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1974).
Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).