June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
In which John Jones, né Paul, invades both England and Scotland, despoils a countess, and defeats a British sloop—all in less than forty-eight hours
On the morning of April 23, 1778, the Countess of Selkirk, granddaughter to the Earl of Haddington and wife of the fourth Earl of Selkirk, was lingering over breakfast in the Selkirk mansion on St. Mary’s Isle—actually a small peninsula in Kirkcudbright Bay on the Scottish coast. She had no idea that she was presently to earn a colorful place in the history of the American Revolution. Had she known this she probably would not have been pleased; for although her husband the Earl disapproved of King George’s war against the colonists, she felt little doubt that they were generally uncouth people unfit to associate with nobility. The Countess, who was soon to give birth to a child, had better things to think about than war. Neither she nor proper old Daniel, the butler, who busied himself clearing away the breakfast silver, was aware that America’s first and only invasion of England had taken place this morning, just twenty miles away. Daniel poured the Countess a bit more tea from her shiny silver teapot. Perhaps he wondered when the Earl would return home from Buxton in Derbyshire.…
Two weeks earlier, on April 9, 1778, a man with considerably more ambition than old Daniel had set sail from Brest, France, in command of an eighteen-gun sloop of war, the U.S.S. Ranger . It was now almost thirty-one years since the Ranger ’s captain had been born in a stone cottage at Arbigland in the parish of Kirkbean, less than thirty-five miles from the Selkirk mansion, and christened John Paul, after his father. And it had been over six years since he had last seen his Scottish homeland.
At that time young John Paul had already put in four years as master of a brig in the West Indies trade. He had also been in trouble. A carpenter whom he had flogged for disrespectful conduct later died of fever, and John Paul was accused of having caused the man’s demise. The young captain cleared himself of the charge but carried away from the episode a dislike for the Scottish authorities who had beleaguered him. Throughout his career John Paul was to mystify people by being alternately, or even simultaneously, gentle and harsh. The log of a later command records that one Midshipman Potter was “ordered in irons by the Capt. for a thermometer being broke in his Cabbin.” Yet when the Ranger was in France “the Capt.” had paid advance wages with his own money and had gone out of his way to acquire plenty of brandy to raise the men’s spirits. His habitual concern for his sailors’ welfare throws doubt on the charge that he was tyrannical; but there can be no doubt that this captain was highly temperamental.
A year after John Paul extricated himself from the affair of the carpenter, in 1773, he got into a brawl with mutineers and ended it by killing their leader with his sword. This incident led him to adopt a pseudonym and flee the threat of another murder trial, arriving in Virginia in 1774 to find a new career. His new last name was to be Jones, and along with this name he adopted a brand-new nation. Both John Paul Jones and America were starting out afresh, and each was to be of great service to the other. In the summer of 1775 Jones went to Philadelphia unemployed; by December he had impressed enough congressmen with his sea experience to be commissioned as a first lieutenant in the fledgling United States Navy.
But now, in 1778, Captain Jones had not forgotten his life as John Paul. The contours of the Scottish coasts that had posed his first problems of navigation were still clear in his memory, and he was determined to use his knowledge in fulfilling the Ranger ’s mission. He could hardly have felt less fettered by his orders. The American representatives in Paris had freed him to proceed “in the manner you shall judge best for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war.” In 1778 the American Navy was struggling to become a moderately effective fighting force; it boasted only a few frigates to challenge the huge and renowned Royal Navy. With such limited striking capacity, Captain Jones had always argued, the Navy’s proper role was not to exchange broadsides with bigger British ships; nor was it merely to harass enemy supply vessels. Instead the Navy should do what privateers seeking booty would never do: prevent England from bringing her full weight to bear on the seas by hitting her at home. As he directed the Ranger northward between Ireland and Wales, Jones was eager to make the first trial of this strategy.
In addition, he hoped to find some way of pressuring the British government into recognizing the rights of American seamen taken prisoner. So far the enemy, while acknowledging that Washington’s soldiers were part of a legitimate army, had insisted on calling all American ships privateers and jailing our Navy men as sea bandits. Such a policy was bound to rankle in the mind of a man whose future depended on whether or not the Continental Navy would win respect on the seas. “This circumstance more than any other,” he wrote, “rendered me the avowed enemy of Great Britain.” Thus the mission of the Ranger was twofold: to interfere with the British war effort at its source, and to promote the exchange of American naval prisoners.
Captain Jones’s great expectations were limited, however, by his dissatisfaction with his ship and her crew. From Brest he had written apologetically to the French Minister of Marine: “I am, sir, ambitious of being employed in active and enterprising services; but my ship is too small a force and does not sail as fast as I could wish.” Indeed, although the Ranger was a new vessel, she had plenty of defects. For one thing, her masts were too big, having been cut for a much larger warship; this made her top-heavy, so that she would heel far over on her side even in mild winds. At Brest, Jones had ordered extensive improvements of the sloop’s poorly made sails, and the mainmast and mizzen had been moved farther aft to adjust her balance; but the fact remained that the Ranger was not the formidable warship Jones felt he deserved.
Nor did her officers measure up to the captain’s standards. All were men of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the Ranger had been built, and Jones had had very little voice in their selection. None of them had served in the Continental Navy before; they had made their reputations in the merchant marine, not in battle. The precise naval discipline that Jones sought to impose seemed silly and undemocratic to them, and the captain’s assistants were even less enamored of him than he was of them. First Lieutenant Simpson was nine years older than Jones, Second Lieutenant Hall was five years older; they were not accustomed to obeying a younger man, especially one who stood only 5 feet 5 inches tall. These rough-hewn fellows found Jones’s fine manners offensive and his Scottish background suspicious.
The crew shared the attitudes of their lieutenants, and throughout their service on the Ranger they were inclined to regard Simpson, a man of loudly voiced opinions, as their rightful leader, and Jones as an interloper. Simpson was quite willing to encourage this feeling. Finally, every man on board was there above all for prize money, not for military service. The poster printed to invite their enlistment had offered them opportunities “to distinguish themselves in the GLORIOUS CAUSE of their COUNTRY , and make their Fortunes”—but it soon became clear that most of them had dismissed the first phrase as mere rhetoric. Nor were they eager to court danger in their pursuit of profit; they had been told that the Ranger ’s mission was to be “an agreable Voyage in this pleasant Season of the Year.”
Such were the expectations of the men handling Jones’s imperfect 100-foot sloop of war as she entered the Irish Sea. They were only temporarily mollified when they made a prize of the Lord Chatham , an Irish merchant ship heading for Dublin, and sent her back to Brest under a prize crew. They performed smartly enough in the next few days as the Ranger sank two supply vessels and frightened off two small armed ships. Then, on the morning of Monday, April 20, Jones sighted an enemy warship at anchor in the harbor of Belfast Lough. A short while later four astonished Irish fishermen in a small boat were captured by the Ranger when they passed too close to the harmless-looking ship —for the Ranger was disguised as a merchantman, with red cloth draped over her gunports and a Dutch pennant and British jack flying from her masthead. When questioned by Jones, the fishermen declared that the ship he had spotted in the Lough was the Drake , a twenty-gun sloop of war that offered just about an even match for the eighteen-gun Ranger . The Royal Navy, which supposedly kept the Irish Sea as safe for British shipping as the Thames, was at last showing a representative.
Never one to hesitate when a challenge was in the air, Captain Jones “ordered the ship to be put about in order to go in and cut her out,” reported Ezra Green, the Ranger ’s surgeon, in his diary. However, Jones soon learned that his men were not in the mood for such boldness in broad daylight. Instead they agreed on a sneak attack at midnight. The belief shared by nearly everyone on board that the captain’s orders should be subject to a majority veto is apparent in Surgeon Green’s offhand explanation of this piece of insubordination: “the wind blowing fresh and the people unwilling to undertake it we stood off and on till midnight when the people consenting and the wind having lulled a little we stood into the River [the Lough]. …”
Guided through darkness by the captive fishermen, the Ranger came within a hundred feet of the Drake . However, thanks to an inebriated boatswain’s mate who failed to drop anchor until the Ranger had floated beyond her strategic position, Jones found the situation too risky and ordered the cable cut. The Ranger fled the scene of this dangerously botched job. Officers and sailors alike, numbering almost 150 altogether, were quite content to assume that the Drake would never see them again; but their captain had other ideas.
Gale-force winds came up on Tuesday, the twenty-first, and dashed Jones’s hopes of an immediate return to the Drake . The seamen spent the day battling the wind and growing more and more displeased with their leader’s strategy, which clearly was not designed to make them rich. Meanwhile, Jones made up his mind to strike at Britain herself, instead of just one of her warships. Now he would put his childhood memories to use.
It was from Whitehaven, the busy port on the English coast just below Solway Firth, that thirteen-year-old John Paul had first sailed for America as ship’s boy on the brig Friendship . And it was Whitehaven that he chose now as his target, because he knew the entry to the harbor as well as he knew his own real name. But when he announced his plan, he found that his enthusiasm had not infected his officers. As the Ranger made her way slowly east in a weakening wind, Jones called for volunteers. Lieutenants Simpson and Hall promptly declined on grounds of exhaustion. Some of the officers protested that there was no military excuse for “burning poor people’s property.” It was true that most of the shipping at Whitehaven consisted of trading vessels and fishing boats. Setting fire to them would not weaken the Royal Navy. But in Jones’s eyes the attack would surely justify itself by its propaganda value.
Despite the mutterings of Simpson and Hall and their admirers, Jones was able to muster a party of forty raiders, who would make the landing in two boats. The men volunteered for various reasons, some for adventure, some hoping for plunder, perhaps a few out of loyalty to their captain. One of the volunteers was a twenty-two-year-old sailor who was listed on the ship’s roll as David Smith but whose real name was David Freeman. Like his captain, Freeman had been born in the British Isles; but while John Paul Jones had felt no qualms in transferring his allegiance to America, for Freeman this had proved impossible.
The captain himself was to command the first landing boat, with Lieutenant Meijer as his mate. Meijer was a volunteer from the Swedish Army who distinguished himself among these Americans as the only officer completely loyal to Jones. Lieutenant Wallingford, who headed the Ranger ’s contingent of marines, would be in charge of the second boat. Each of the raiders was armed with pistol and cutlass. Jones addressed them briefly before they embarked, promising that he would be “the first who landed and the last who left the shore.” It was already midnight when the boats left the Ranger , and thanks to weak winds the harbor was still several miles away. The tide was going out, and it was only after three hours of rowing that the Americans stepped onto the English beach. The first pallor of dawn already appeared in the east.
In the meantime the guards stationed in the more southerly of the two forts of Whitehaven, which defended the north and south sides of the harbor, were dozing in the guardhouse. The night was chilly, and they were sure there was no point in standing watch outside. Suddenly they found themselves awake, surrounded by a ring of tough-looking sailors—pirates, the guards must have assumed—with pistols trained on their foreheads. Was it a dream?
Minutes earlier Captain Jones and most of the men of his boat had scaled the walls of the southern fort “by mounting upon the shoulders of our largest and strongest men,” as Jones reported. He himself had been the first of the attackers. The English guards “were secured without being hurt,” and the Americans quickly spiked all the cannon of the fort. Jones then ran the quarter of a mile to the northern fort and spiked its guns as well, accompanied only by one midshipman. But when the intrepid commander got back to the beach he found that the other raiders had failed to emulate him. He had sent Wallingford’s party to burn the vessels on the north side of the harbor, but instead they “had broken into a convenient alehouse and helped themselves liberally to its wares. Their explanation as to why they had set fire to nothing other than their own throats was that their torch had burned out. In his official report Jones describes his disappointment with a remarkable lack of rancor:
On my return from this business [spiking the guns], I naturally expected to see the fire of the ships on the north side, as well as to find my own party with every thing in readiness to set fire to the shipping on the south; instead of this, I found the boat under the direction of Mr. Hill and Mr. Wallingford returned, and the party in some confusion, their light having burnt out at the instant when it became necessary. By the strangest fatality, my own party were in the same situation, the candles being all burnt out. The day too came on apace, yet I would by no means retract while any hopes of success remained.
As if Captain Jones did not have enough problems with drunken and mutinous assistants, he also had an out-and-out traitor trying to sabotage the raid. No sooner had David Freeman got out of Jones’s sight than he broke away from his party and went dashing along the streets nearest the waterfront, shouting at the top of his lungs that “pirates” were on the beach. The sleepy townfolk at first regarded this English version of Paul Revere as a crazy man, but after a few minutes the alarm was spreading faster than the fire that Jones had hoped to start.
That fire, in fact, had yet to be kindled. Jones was unaware of Freeman’s performance, but he saw the townsfolk gathering near the wharves. Undaunted, he picked out one of the 150 or more ships grounded on the beach, a coal carrier named Thompson , and sent a man aboard her with a torch, having gotten a light in a house nearby. Jones’s account of the scene is typically well phrased:
I should have kindled fires in other places if the time had permitted; as it did not, our care was to prevent the one kindled from being easily extinguished. After some search a barrel of tar was found, and poured into the flames, which now ascended from all the hatchways. The inhabitants began to appear in thousands, and individuals ran hastily towards us. I stood between them and the ship on fire, with a pistol in my hand, and ordered them to retire, which they did with precipitation. The flames had already caught in the rigging, and began to ascend the mainmast; the sun was a full hour’s march above the horizon, and as sleep no longer ruled the world, it was time to retire.
Jones took care to make his escape appear as fearless as his arrival. True to his word, the captain was the last man into the boat, delaying a few moments “to observe at my leisure the terror, panic, and stupidity of the inhabitants.” Jones might have omitted this piece of bravado had he known that it was only due to the unflinching loyalty of Lieutenant Meijer that his crew had not rowed away without him.
On their way out of the harbor the boats were fired on by a few cannons that the raiders had neglected to spike. But the shooting was so pitifully wide of the mark that Jones’s men found it amusing rather than frightening, and returned the “salute” with a few good-natured pistol shots. The Ranger had sailed closer, and the boats reached her about 6 A.M. Jones had freed all the prisoners taken at the forts except three, whom he kept “as a sample .”
Thus concluded America’s brief invasion of England, if such it may be called. Of course, Jones never contemplated marching inland at the head of his tiny “army.” But on the morning of April 23, 1778, and for months thereafter, few natives of Whitehaven could believe that their town had not been invaded by an invincible force commanded by an evil genius named John Paul Jones. The London Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser commented sarcastically:
The people of Whitehaven, it is thought, can never recover from their fright; two thirds of the people are bordering on insanity ; the remainder on idiotism ; the defence of the harbour is left to the care of the old women, who declare that had they been called into power earlier, they would have preserved the town with their mopsticks and cut off the retreat of the rebels.
The fire on the Thompson had been brought under control quickly enough to keep it from spreading to other ships, but the panic that Jones had inspired, and that he took such pleasure in observing, was not so easily extinguished. It swept along the British coast and set thousands of villagers to scanning the horizon daily; insurance rates increased 300 per cent on shipping to Ireland. Moreover, the Royal Navy was sorely embarrassed by charges of extreme negligence. And the name of the “provincial privateer” who had caused all the furor was on its way to fame.
As he returned to his ship, however, Jones was not congratulating himself on winning notoriety. In his view the Whitehaven operation had been a fiasco. There had been no conflagration, and now every English seaport would be on the lookout. And the disaffection of his crew did not bode well for future operations. Ignorant of David Freeman’s contribution to the night’s events, Jones could only blame the failure on the lateness of the landing and “the backwardness of some persons under my command.” In his report to Congress, Jones expressed nostalgia for the reliable officers who had served him in his two earlier Navy commands, the Providence and the Alfred : “had they been with me in the Ranger 250 or 300 sail of large ships at Whitehaven would have been laid in ashes.”
And so, on the morning of April 23, this uncommon commander felt a need to strike again, to offset the negative results of the past night; and he knew there was little time before news of his attack would spread. Moreover, he was anxious to do something about the matter of prisoner exchanges. So he turned the Ranger northwest, toward St. Mary’s Isle, with a very unorthodox end in view.
Just four hours after leaving Whitehaven the Americans arrived at Kirkcudbright Bay. Taking fourteen men, Jones got into the Ranger ’s cutter and guided it through the shallow channel that he had learned to follow as a twelve-year-old sailor and as a twenty-one-year-old trader. By about 11 A.M. the cutter pulled up on the nearest shore of the tiny peninsula that was St. Mary’s Isle. Accompanied by crew master David Cullam, Lieuenant Wallingford, and the seamen, all equipped with pistol and cutlass, Captain Jones strode up the path through the woods toward the Earl of Selkirk’s mansion. On the way the group met and questioned a few of the Earl’s hired hands, brusquely announcing themselves to be a Royal Navy press gang hunting for “volunteers.” The effect of this news was to send all the able-bodied workers of the estate hurrying off to Kirkcudbright, since none of them was eager to swab the decks of a British frigate. One of the gardeners, however, gave Jones a piece of news in return that was even less happily received: “The Earl is not at home.” On hearing this the captain glumly turned his steps back toward his boat. For the temerarious aim of his visit had been to kidnap the Earl and hold him as a hostage for the release of American naval prisoners.
This outlandish scheme has given rise to much speculation and mythmaking about Jones’s “real” purpose in going after Lord Selkirk. The latter may have been the foremost citizen of his area, but he had nothing whatever to do with London’s war policy; King George barely knew he existed. Thus Jones’s mythologizers have cast about to discover a clue to the would-be kidnapper’s ulterior motive, and many have claimed to find it in the doubts that persist about John Paul’s parentage. There is no real evidence that he was not the son of John Paul, Sr., gardener of the estate of Arbigland. But many writers have been eager to believe that John Paul was a bastard son of Lord Selkirk, or at least that he believed himself to be, and that he came to St. Mary’s to get revenge on the father who had abandoned him. Like many other legends, this one is founded solely on the lack of absolute proof that it is false. The most plausible explanation of Jones’s rather foolish kidnapping plan is that the importance of Lord Selkirk had been vastly exaggerated in John Paul’s youthful mind and that in his absence from Britain Jones had never relieved himself of this illusion.
No wonder, then, that the captain was crestfallen when he heard that the Earl was away, and was anxious to leave the scene of his second disappointment of the morning. But now Cullam and Wallingford interrupted his thoughts, saying it was crazy to pass up the chance to rob a defenseless mansion belonging to the enemy. They reminded Jones of the crew’s resentment over his refusal to make plunder the chief object of the voyage; they also complained that “in America, no delicacy was shown by the English, who took away all sorts of movable property.”
Hoping no doubt to win some sorely needed popularity with his men, Jones agreed to let the two officers enter the mansion and take the family silver, on condition that they leave the sailors outdoors, injure no one, and satisfy themselves with whatever valuables were freely turned over to them. Cullam and Wallingford agreed and led the sailors toward the house while Jones returned to the cutter to wait.
The house that the two officers directed the sailors to surround was not a castle, as some wishful writers have called it, but a handsome old mansion with a high roof and wide yards. Inside there were no men of the family to meet the two strangers at the door; there were only the Countess, her children, servants, and four female guests. But it soon became clear that the Countess needed no one to help her handle the intruders. She acted throughout as if she knew that her conduct would some day be described by historians. When Cullam, a hard-bitten rogue, demanded the silver and growled, “It is needless to resist,” she answered calmly, “I am very sensible of that.”
In order to avoid violence, and because of her inbred distaste for deception, Lady Selkirk chose to co-operate completely. She caught old Daniel trying to hide some of the silver plate in a maid’s apron, reprimanded him, and submitted all there was in the pantry to the Americans who, she later wrote, “very deliberately called for sacks to put everything up.” The Countess even gave Cullam an inventory of the house’s silver, which prompted him to demand her teapot and coffeepot. The teapot came complete with the breakfast tea leaves still in the bottom. As these transactions were going on, the Countess was impressed by the demeanor of Lieutenant Wallingford, who seemed to regret the discomfort they had caused her. She offered a glass of wine to both Americans, which they accepted. By now, however, they were anxious to get away, and with good reason, since a group of local stalwarts were on their way from Kirkcudbright to repulse the “invaders.” Carrying their small treasure, Cullam and Wallingford marched their troop back to the shore, got in the boat with Captain Jones, and rowed out to the Ranger . It was in this rather unglorious way that the United States Navy departed Scotland with the spoils of war. The whole affair had lasted about twenty minutes.
They must have been a nervous twenty minutes for the captain, who didn’t relish the prospect of being labelled a common thief. From Wallingford he extracted a full report on the scene at the house, and the story of Lady Selkirk’s aplomb inspired in Jones a great respect for her, which was to manifest itself effusively. He resolved to buy the silver with his own funds when his crew sold it as booty, and return it to this splendid female. The impetus behind this resolve was not merely a respect for private property nor the appreciative courtesy of a connoisseur of women. Ever alert for opportunities to cut a heroic figure in the eyes of persons of high station, the indefatigable captain was already hoping, we are entitled to suspect, that his ignominious robbery would open the door to an applause-winning gesture of chivalry. By the time the Ranger got back to France, Jones had spent a good deal of time in his cabin working on one of the best letters ever produced by his suave pen. He sent this letter to Lady Selkirk from Brest on May 8, the day of his arrival there.
But before Jones could employ his genius as a writer, there was the problem of proving his genius as a fighter. By noon on the day of Lord Selkirk’s nonabduction, the Ranger was sailing toward Ireland and her commander was shoving thoughts of the Lord’s wife to the back of his mind. Twice he had landed on enemy territory, but he had no military achievement to show for it. All he had done was to stir up a lot of British villagers. “There are more men under arms,” Lady Selkirk wrote to her sister on the afternoon of April 23, “than I thought there were men or arms in this quarter.” The volunteer guardsmen of Kirkcudbright had hauled a rusty old cannon to the shore, and that night they repeatedly fired salvos at what looked like a ship in the bay. According to one of Jones’s early biographers, Alexander Mackenzie:
When the day dawned, the valiant burghers were overwhelmed with mortification at discovering, that they had been venting their prowess upon an invulnerable rock which stood at no great distance from the land.
Had he known about this barrage, John Paul Jones would not have been overly amused. By now he was desperate for some real action in which he could win the recognition that the Continental Congress had so far failed to give him. He thought of H.M.S. Drake . The Ranger headed for Belfast Lough.
The sun was just coming up on April 24, 1778, when the Drake ’s lookout spotted an unfamiliar sail approaching the harbor. The Ranger was still masquerading as a merchantman, so presently the Drake ’s elderly commander, Captain John Burden, sent a boat to identify the stranger. In the meantime the animosity felt by the American crew toward their ambitious leader was boiling over; led by the vituperative Lieutenant Simpson they were below decks, debating whether they should refuse to fight. When they heard that a defenseless British boat was coming close, some of them went up to watch how Captain Jones would handle the Royal Navy’s emissary. It was a good show. The British officer commanding the rowboat lifted his spyglass again and again to get a side view of the Ranger and ascertain whether she carried cannon. But Jones tacked so skillfully as to show only the Ranger ’s stern to the spyglass; the officer had to come alongside and board in order to learn the ship’s identity. This was imparted together with the further information that he and his five oarsmen and their boat had just been captured by John Paul Jones. Those seamen of the Ranger who had watched this excellent trick performed were quick to tell their shipmates, and all hands were so pleased by Jones’s cunning that mutiny was forgotten.
The Drake , getting no response to her signals for recall of her boat, hauled anchor and began to sail out of the harbor. Jones withdrew until the other ship was well away from shore, then waited. The breeze was light, and it was not until almost 6 P.M. that the Drake hailed her adversary, who had lured her all the way to the middle of the North Channel. Then for the first time the Ranger hoisted the Stars and Stripes. Surgeon Green recorded the suddenness with which Jones began the battle: “after the usual Compliments were pass’d we wore Ship & gave her a whole broadside, without receiving a Shot.”
Probably right up until the very last minute Captain Burden had been hoping that the stranger would flee or surrender without a fight. After the battle the London Advertiser tried to explain his lack of fervor by pointing out that he was “in years, and at that time very ill.” Burden’s men, however, fought fiercely. The two sloops of war were fairly matched. The Drake carried twenty cannons firing six-pound shot; the Ranger had eighteen nine-pounders. Perhaps 175 men were on the Drake , some of them volunteers from Belfast who had come aboard when they heard an American raider was nearby. Jones’s crew numbered less than 130 now, having lost several prize crews to take over earlier captures. Mackenzie may have a point in claiming that the British had a psychological advantage:
… the Drake belonged to a regularly established navy, whose ships were everywhere accustomed to conquer, whilst the equipping of the Ranger was among the earliest efforts of a new and imperfectly organized service.
But when Jones’s New Englanders were in the mood to fight, as they were now, victorious traditions were of little help to the men of H.M.S. Drake .
After the Ranger ’s opening broadside the two ships blasted away at each other for an hour and five minutes. The laconic Dr. Green described the action as “very warm.” At one point Jones saw that his gunners were firing mainly when the side of the ship was rolling down in the trough of the waves. They explained this was in order to drop their cannon balls low into the Drake ’s hull and sink her. But Jones had gone long enough with nothing to show for his daring stratagems—he wanted to keep the Drake afloat as a prize. So his gunners, following his instructions, began firing on the upward roll of the ship in order to tear up the enemy’s rigging. Their aim was accurate. Jones was later willing to pay them a high compliment despite their disloyal tendencies: “They gave the Drake three broadsides for two right along at that.… My supply of ammunition would never admit of actual target practice, so the precision of their fire was simply natural aptitude.”
When the battle had gone on without letup for at least an hour, Captain Burden was struck in the head by a musket ball fired by one of Wallingford’s marines from the Ranger ’s maintop. Almost at the same time his second officer, Lieutenant Dobbs, was mortally wounded. With sails utterly in shreds and the crew in desperate confusion, the Drake ’s third-in-command saw no choice but to shout the signal for surrender. In the captured boat from the Drake a group of Americans crossed to the maimed vessel and disarmed the English crew. The Ranger took the Drake in tow.
As the sun set over Ireland, at least seven men lay dead or dying. Three Americans had been killed in the maintop by British sharpshooters. One of these was Lieutenant Wallingford, who had made such a good impression on Lady Selkirk. In June her husband the Earl mentioned Wallingford in his reply to Jones’s letter to the Countess:
We were all sorry to hear afterwards that the younger officer in green uniform [the color of the marines] was killed in your engagement with the Drake , for he in particular showed so much civility and so apparent dislike at the business he was then on [taking the silver], that it is surprising how he should have been one of the proposers of it.
In addition to the deaths of Wallingford and two seamen, five Americans were wounded, while the British reported nineteen wounded. Jones later asserted that the number of enemy wounded was closer to forty.
The record reveals some poignant details. At the time of his death Lieutenant Wallingford had a son two months old. Lieutenant Dobbs of the Drake , who died of his wound thirty-six hours after the fight, had been married three days before. Old Captain Burden lived long enough to be aware that he had lost his ship, and then succumbed to his head wound. Surgeon Green listed the wounded Americans: “…Pierce Powers lost his right Hand, & his left badly wounded. James Falls by a musket shot through the Shoulder. Tho.s Taylor lost his little Finger by a musket shot at the wheel.”
Captain Jones sincerely regretted the loss of life and limb caused by his victory. He meant it when he wrote, “Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror.” At the same time, though, he had reason to be proud. His men had fought bravely, but the main credit for victory unquestionably belonged to Jones. He had overcome both their disloyalty and the valor of the prestigious enemy by his brilliant tactics and determination to win. The victory had converted the Ranger ’s cruise into a military triumph after a series of colorful but disappointing enterprises. Never before had an American defeated a British warship in all-out, one-to-one combat. That Jones’s spirits were uplifted is shown by a flippant gesture that made him a kind of Robin Hood to the villagers of eastern Ireland. The day after the battle Jones set free the fishermen captured on the twentieth, giving them the Drake ’s boat and a present of fifteen guineas for their trip home. According to a local newspaper, “He also gave them a piece of the Drake’s mainsail, which was very much shattered, desiring them to carry it to the Governor of Carrickfergus … and to tell him he had sent it to make him a pair of trousers.”
Yet when Jones reached France he was not universally acclaimed. His progress toward fame had always been hindered by his lack of family connections and political pull. It seemed to him that everyone except his friends persisted in ignoring him. Another year and another ship would have to come before John Paul Jones was recognized as a national hero. But the future commander of the Bonhomme Richard had learned a good deal during his exploits with U.S.S. Ranger ; and in the course of them he had revealed many of the traits in his intricate personality.
Even more about his personality comes to light, however, in the epistolary tour de force that Lady Selkirk received, to her great surprise, in early June. The letter begins by assuring the Countess that the loss of her silver distressed Jones as much as her. Jones describes himself as an “Officer of fine feelings and of real Sensibility.” He justifies having permitted his men to go after the silver on the grounds that British soldiers had committed atrocities in New England that made the men of the Ranger feel obligated to retaliate somehow. However, Jones declares, he gave Cullam and Wallingford firm orders to treat the Countess “with the utmost Respect.” He promises, moreover, that “when the plate is sold, I shall become the Purchaser, and I will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you, by such conveyance as you shall be pleased to direct.”
Jones goes on to relate his victory over the Drake , thinking, perhaps, to overawe milady with images of “the awful Pomp and dreadful Carnage of a Sea Engagement.” Responsibility for “this detested War,” Lady Selkirk is assured, lies with Britain for having infringed on “the rights of men.” Therefore: “As the feelings of your gentle Bosom cannot but be congenial with mine—let me entreat you Madam to use your soft persuasive Arts with your Husband to endeavor to stop this Cruel and destructive War, in which Britain can never succeed.”
This charming missive mattered so much to its author that he eventually sent the Countess three separate original copies, as well as making copies for various people whose esteem he wished to keep, including Benjamin Franklin in Paris. The old doctor gave it a good review: “a gallant letter, which must give her ladyship a high opinion of his generosity and nobleness of mind.” The letter’s outspoken quality notwithstanding, Jones’s motives in writing it are less than transparent. The egotism with which he had always approached his notoriously successful romantic liaisons may have persuaded him that this woman of such refined tastes was likely to fall in love with him through the mail. But such a conquest could not have been his sole object. His expressed hope that the lady might bring Lord Selkirk to lobby against the war has a convincing ring, since we know that Jones had a greatly inflated idea of the Earl’s political importance. To this extent the captain was writing as a military leader. Beyond this, however, Jones’s best biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, suggests that the hero harbored dreams of settling down as a Scottish landsman after the Revolution; with his letter he meant to inspire amity in his future neighbors!
This suggestion is a plausible explanation for the most “intimate” passage, in which Jones assumes a confessional tone and tells the Countess indirectly that he has no particular desire to live in America and that he is no stranger to the life of landed gentry.
Tho’ I have drawn my Sword in the present generous Struggle for the rights of Men; yet I am not in Arms as an American, nor am I in pursuit of Riches. My Fortune is liberal enough, having no Wife nor Family, and having lived long enough to know that Riches cannot ensure Happiness. I profess myself a Citizen of the World, totally unfettered by the little mean distinctions of Climate or of Country, which diminish the benevolence of the Heart and set bounds to Philanthropy. Before this War began I had at an early time of life, withdrawn from the Sea service, in favor of ‘calm contemplation and Poetic ease.’
Captain Jones was never to find this life of rural bliss in Scotland, nor anywhere else; but in 1778 it seems to have been a real and enticing possibility in his mind.
Whatever else in the letter may have been devious, Jones’s promise to restore the Selkirk silver was not. After more than five years of painstaking negotiation and personal expense, Jones got the plundered plate, which was worth about six hundred dollars, shipped back to the Selkirks in 1784. The breakfast tea leaves, we are assured, were still in the teapot.