Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Dwight Hughes
The recent disastrous conflagration aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) in San Diego harbor brings to mind the original warship by that name and its fiery fate, a tale excellently told in a previous post by Eric Sterner (“I Have not Yet Begun to Fight!” or Words to that Effect (September 23, 1779)). “Bonhomme Richard” means “good man Richard” in French. So, who is Richard? What was good about him? Why is his name on a man-of-war?
The United States Navy likes to carry forward the labels of famous vessels. This is one of the oldest and most revered monikers in navy history, originally assigned in 1779 by Captain John Paul Jones to a rather decrepit French merchantman armed with a motley collection of guns. The French government donated the former Duc De Duras to Jones to sail against their mutual enemies, the British.
Jones famously engaged the powerful frigate HMS Serapis on September 23, 1779 in English waters off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. The ships grappled together and blasted away at point blank range. Both were battered and ablaze in sinking condition with many casualties when the British captain surrendered. With Bonhomme Richard going down fast, the Americans took over Serapis and managed to save her.
John Paul Jones became the “Father of the U. S. Navy” (or one of them). Bonhomme Richard entered legend as the warship that won and sank. She and her successors also represent those rare U. S. Navy vessels whose names are rendered in a foreign language.
The second navy ship to bear the label (in less correct French) was the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV/CVA-31), one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers completed around the end of World War II. “Bonnie Dick” served in the final Pacific campaigns (one battle star); she figured prominently in the Korean War (five battle stars), and the Vietnam War. Bon Homme Richard was modernized in 1955, finally decommissioned in 1971, and scrapped in 1992.
The present USS Bonhomme Richard is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship (LHD) commissioned in 1998. Her primary mission is to embark Marine landing forces and to conduct amphibious assault operations by helicopters, landing craft, and amphibious vehicles. She also serves as a light aircraft carrier. Bonhomme Richard offloaded more than 1,000 Marines into Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and then provided close air support and airstrikes in Iraq with Harrier aircraft.
The LHD was undergoing major modernization, including upgrades to accommodate the new Marine F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighters when a fire broke out July 12, 2020 in the lower decks and quickly engulfed the entire vessel. Fire fighters extinguished the blaze after four days of valiant efforts. Depending on the outcome of damage investigations, the ship will be rebuilt or scrapped.
The loss, even temporarily, of this amphibious assault ship stresses a navy already suffering from severely constrained budgets, demanding operational requirements, and too few ships—but not nearly as bad off as its Revolutionary predecessor. The newly declared nation’s navy was as ragtag as its army.
October 13, 1775 is the birthday of the U. S. Navy. After much debate and over severe opposition, the Continental Congress at Philadelphia authorized the purchase of the first two armed vessels. Lacking funding, manpower, and resources, the Continental Navy would consist mostly of converted merchantmen with a few purpose-built warships. Primary missions were to intercept enemy material and reinforcements, capture supplies for Rebel use, and guard American commerce while avoiding unequal confrontations with their vastly superior navy.
Most of the eight Continental frigates that did make it to sea had reasonably successful cruises taking multiple prizes but were nearly all captured or sunk by 1781. Swarms of American privateers did much better, taking over 2,000 ships during the war according to Lloyd’s of London.
The new navy struggled to compete with profitable privateers for experienced mariners and officers. Scottish expatriate John Paul Jones volunteered and on December 7, 1775 was commissioned to serve as 1st Lieutenant of the newly converted 24-gun frigate Alfred. Founding Father Richard Henry Lee knew Jones’ abilities and sponsored him in the Continental Congress.
Jones, 28 years old, had been at sea since age 13 in British merchant and slave ships, commanding several of his own. He was an able and veteran seaman, but with a reputation for sensitive ego, quick temper, and strict discipline. Jones became entangled with British authorities when two of his sailors died, one by his own sword, in shipboard disputes and alleged mutinies. He emigrated to America to avoid the consequences, and then passionately adopted the Revolutionary cause.
Aboard Alfred in the Delaware River, February 1776, Jones personally hoisted the first ensign of the fledgling nation to fly over a naval vessel−the Grand Union Flag−and then sailed with her on the Continental Navy’s maiden cruise. Over the next eighteen months, he commanded the converted merchantmen Providence and Alfred taking British prizes, escorting American convoys, transporting supplies, and participating in shore raids in the Bahamas and Nova Scotia.
Despite successes at sea, Jones continued to alienate his sailors and feud with his superiors, primarily over rank and promotion. He hoped to command one of the new frigates then building but was assigned instead to the smaller sloop-of-war Ranger on June 14, 1777, the same day the new Stars and Stripes flag was adopted. In November, he sailed for France with orders to assist the American cause however possible.
In Paris, Jones met with American commissioners to France Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee to discuss operations against the British. He apparently developed a close friendship with Franklin, whom he greatly admired.
Franklin—the quintessential American—also won the hearts of the French elite. Thanks primarily to his influence, France signed the Treaty of Alliance on February 6, 1778, formally recognizing the independence of the new republic and pledging military and naval assistance. Captain Jones was at sea eight days later when a French warship fired the first international salute to the Stars and Stripes flying from Ranger’s masthead.
Jones was determined to take the war directly to British waters with Ranger and a small squadron. In six months, he captured five prizes (mostly merchantmen), staged a failed attack on the mainland at Whitehaven, and caused Royal Navy ships to be scrambled in pursuit. These operations caused minor damage but greatly embarrassed the haughty British navy.
Not satisfied, Jones campaigned for a larger and more powerful ship; Franklin appealed for him to the French court. The old Duc De Duras was not what they wanted, but the best they could get. Jones renamed her in honor of Franklin, whose bestselling Poor Richard’s Almanac was published in France under the title Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.
On August 14, 1779, Jones sailed with his squadron of four small warships north through the Irish Sea and into the North Sea, taking 16 merchant vessels as prizes before encountering Serapis and her squadron in the renowned engagement.
Afterward, King Louis XVI honored Jones with the title “Chevalier,” which he proudly used thereafter. The king also presented him a decoration of “l’Institution du Mérite Militaire” and ceremonial sword. The Continental Congress struck a gold medal to “Chevalier John Paul Jones” in commemoration of his “valor and brilliant services.” In Britain, they called him a pirate.
With the Revolution won, John Paul Jones’ services were no longer required, so in 1787, he joined the Russian navy of Empress Catherine II as a rear admiral. Admiral Jones fought in Black Sea campaigns against the Ottoman Turks, but once more became embroiled in politics and personal disputes, earning the enmity of the Russian commander, Prince Grigory Potëmkin.
A discouraged Jones left Russia in 1788 and ended up in Paris where he wrote his memoirs before dying, July 18, 1792, of kidney inflammation. A prominent Frenchman paid to have the remains preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin in case the United States wished to claim them in the future. Jones was buried in a cemetery owned by the royal family, which during the French Revolution, was built over and forgotten.
Jones’ memoirs inspired fictional characters in adventure novels of James Fenimore Cooper (The Pilot, 1824) and Alexandre Dumas (Captain Paul, 1846). He also has a cameo in Herman Melville’s novel Israel Potter.
In 1905, after a six-year search, United States Ambassador to France Horace Porter located Jones’ lost casket in Paris. Porter was a former Union staff officer and personal secretary to Ulysses S. Grant who earned a Medal of Honor at the Battle of Chickamauga and authored the classic memoir Campaigning with Grant.
The cruiser USS Brooklyn transferred Jones’s body to the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt presided over a welcoming ceremony at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. In 1913, the Captain’s remains were re-interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel where it resided to this day with his Louis XVI sword and other artifacts.
Bonhomme Richard‘s final resting place has been the subject of much speculation and several U. S. and French expeditions to locate her. In 2012, a candidate wreck was discovered in the mud over 200 feet down off Flamborough Head. Subsequent remote studies and recovered artifacts—an anchor, hull sections, iron rigging implements—were consistent with the vessel, but positive identification remains elusive. As of 2019, the two governments suspended investigations over disagreements concerning ownership.
Let us hope that the current U. S. warship of that name returns to duty soon or is succeeded by a new one so “Bonnie Dick” can continue serving the nation as she has since 1779.