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The Life Story of John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones was a founding father of the United States Navy, America’s first naval hero and America’s greatest Revolutionary naval commander. John Paul Jones, born Paul Jones, started his sailing career in 1759 at the young age of 12 as an apprentice to a ship owner. The ship would sail across the Atlantic once a year, where Jones would visit his older brother, a tailor, in Fredericksburg, Virginia; here Jones would study navigation and improve his English. At the age of 17 his apprenticeship would end due to the ship owner going bankrupt. (1)

Jones soon accepted the position of third mate aboard a slave ship, where he made two voyages between Jamaica and Africa. Jones, however, had grown disgusted with the slave trade and in 1762 he resigned his position and joined the merchant ship John for passage home. This would prove to be a valuable experience for Jones and the beginning of his legend. During the voyage home, John’s Captain and First Mate died of fever, leaving Jones as the only sailor onboard who knew how to navigate. Jones successfully took control of the ship and navigated it to England. The ships owners were so impressed that they gave command to the 21 year old Jones. (2)

John Paul Jones was in Philadelphia during the commencement of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Navy suffered from lack of men, money, supplies and most importantly leadership; men would not enlist under a leader they did not know or trust. Jones began his naval career when he was commissioned as a Lieutenant by the Continental Congress. His first assignment was as First Lieutenant of the Alfred, a merchant ship converted into a Man of War and the lead ship of the fleet to sail into the Bahamas. In May of 1776, John Paul Jones was promoted to Captain and given command of the sloop, Providence. Accomplishments were racked up quickly; in six months the Providence captured sixteen British vessels, and ran down a transport ship carrying British supplies to the British Army in North America.

Jones was ambitious in lobbying for a larger command and in June 1777 with help from congressional friend, John Hancock, he received command of the Ranger, an eighteen gun sloop. The most important achievement during his time on the Ranger came on February 14, 1778 when off the Irish coast; the Ranger was attacked by the Drake, a British twenty gun sloop. The two ships battled, with the Ranger coming out victorious; for the Royal Navy, it marked their first and most decisive defeat by the Continental Navy in British waters and the start of the Continental Navy taking the fight to enemy territory. (3)

In February of 1779, The East Indiaman Duc Du Duras was purchased by Benjamin Franklin and command given to John Paul Jones, who renamed the ship to the Bonhomme Richard, homage to Benjamin Franklin’s pen name, Poor Richard. Outfitted with new guns, a squadron of ships under the command of Jones, consisting of the Bonhomme Richard, the Vengeance, the Pallas and the Alliance, set sail towards the most dramatic and important naval battle of the Revolutionary War. (4)

September 23rd 1779 would become the date to cement John Paul Jones legacy in American history. Jones encountered a large convey of British merchant ships, escorted and protected by the forty four gun frigate, Serapis, and the twenty two gun sloop Countess of Scarborough. Fighting quickly began between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, with the Bonhomme Richard highly over matched. According to the memoirs of John Paul Jones, “From the commencement to the termination of the action, there was not a man on board of the Bonhomme Richard, ignorant of the superiority of the Serapis.” (5)

With the odds against him, Jones decided to get risky and gave the order to move along side of the Serapis and board the ship, but this proved unsuccessful. The Captain of the Serapis hailed the Bonhomme Richard and asked if they were striking their colors, a show of surrender, to which John Paul Jones responded with his now famous quote of “I have not yet to begun to fight!” (6)

Jones once again attempted to board the Serapis, but this time the two ships struck and got lashed together, though the position of the two ships gave the advantage to the Bonhomme Richard, with it having line of fire directly down on the deck and hatches. After three and a half hours of battle, with the Bonhomme Richard slowly sinking, the Captain of the Serapis, seeing no ends to victory, struck colors signaling the ships surrender. (7)

The defeat of the Serapis at the hands of the Bonhomme Richard was considered a major defeat and embarrassment to the British, who from that point on, now considered the Continental Navy a serious threat. Although John Paul Jones’ flagship had sunk, the victory was still considered a major morale booster to the American rebels. John Paul Jones returned to America as a national hero and on April 14 in 1787 Jones was awarded a gold medal from congress. (8)

Captain John Paul Jones’ exploits have deep roots in naval tradition, his fighting attitude and never say die persona are now a part of the U.S. Navy philosophy and all new sailors learn of his heroics. John Paul Jones has had two United States naval ships named after him, including a guided missile destroyer, home ported in San Diego that is still in commission. Today, John Paul Jones rests in a tomb fit for a hero, located at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as the only officer of the Continental Navy honored by a congressional gold medal. (9)

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