October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
Eighth in a series of paintings for AMERICAN HERITAGE
On September 23, 1779, Captain John Paul Jones, wallowing along the English coast in the unwieldy Bonhomme Richard , met the British frigate Serapis . The battle that followed remains one of the most extraordinary single ship actions in history. The Richard had been a weary old French Indiaman, condemned for rot, when Jones took her over. He armed her with such guns as he could get, many of them antiquated and in poor condition, and took her to sea as a balky, decrepit frigate mounting six eighteen-pounders, twenty-eight twelvepounders, and six nine-pounders. His crew was made up of men from a dozen different nations. But Jones was a fighter and longed to bring this dubious ship into action.
He got his chance on the afternoon of the twenty-third, off a chalk-cliff headland called Flamborough Head. The Richard was sailing in company with the American frigate Alliance , thirty-six guns (commanded by the half-mad French captain Pierre Landais), and the French ships Pallas , thirty-two, and Vengeance , twelve, when Jones sighted upward of forty ships. To his delight they turned out to be the convoy that was carrying timber and other vital naval supplies down to England from the Baltic. Riding herd on the merchantmen were the Countess of Scarborough , twenty-two, and the Serapis , rated at forty-four guns but actually mounting fifty. She was a fine new copper-bottomed frigate and the delight of her commander, Captain Richard Pearson. Pearson put the Serapis between the convoy and the enemy, and Jones crawled across a calm sea to engage her. The American captain signalled his little squadron to form a line of battle, but the three ships in his command paid no attention, leaving him to sail into action alone.
A bright moon had risen over the two ships by the time the fighting started. At the first broadside some of the eighteen-pounders on the Richard ’s lower gundeck exploded, in effect putting the rest of the battery out of action. The Serapis had no such trouble, and soon the Richard was a nightmare of splintered timber, dismounted guns, and blood. Jones realized the only hope for his outgunned ship was to grapple with the faster, more maneuverable Serapis . Through superb seamanship he managed to do it just as a broadside destroyed what was left of his gundeck. Pearson, seeing nothing but smoke and chaos on the enemy ship, demanded if she had surrendered, and Jones made his immortal rejoinder. With the two ships locked together the marines in the Richard ’s, mastheads began to clear the enemy’s upper decks with their muskets. Below, however, the eighteen-pounders continued to maul the American ship, which now had only three nine-pounders left in action. Jones worked one of these hims.elf as the fight wore on. The Americans were briefly cheered by the appearance of the Alliance , but Landais, hoping to sink the Richard and claim the Serapis for himself, poured three broadsides into his ally and went on his way. With his ship afire and sinking, half his crew dead or wounded, his guns out of action, and his men calling for quarter, Jones would not surrender. Then a lucky grenade from the Richard caused a severe explosion on the Serapis , and a little later her mainmast began to go. Finally, after three and a half hours of fighting, Pearson pulled down his flag with his own hands.
The Bonhomme Richard sank soon after the victory, and Jones and his surviving crew made port in the Serapis . Pearson had bought enough time for the Baltic convoy to save itself, and for this he was eventually knighted. When Jones heard about that, he remarked, “Let me fight him again … and I’ll make him a lord!”