John Paul Jones

“The death struggle had become two battles, a race to extinction on two fronts, one abovedeck, one below. Jones’s sharpshooters had cleared the British tops and now they were sweeping the decks of Serapis with musketry and shot from the blunderbusses and swivel guns. Captain Pearson, though stoic, was finally forced to move out of this dangerous hailstorm and take refuge beneath the quarterdeck. He still controlled the battle belowdecks, however. The Serapis’s 12- and 18- pounders continued to blast away. The cannonballs went in one side of the Bonnhomme Richard and out the other, creating ever larger holes at and below the waterline. The gun deck of the American ship was a wasteland, strewn with bodies and shattered cannon. One by one, the last of Jones’s 12-pounders were silenced. By 9 P.M. or so, the American captain was left with only three 9-pounders on the quarterdeck. When one of them was smashed, its gun captain badly wounded, Jones himself helped haul a 9-pounder across the deck from the other side and aim at the Serapis. Jones’s target was the three-foot-wide mainmast of the Serapis, painted yellow and easy to pick out in the swirling smoke. The smoke was getting thicker. Both ships were on fire. The stabs of flames from the cannons had ignited scraps of wood and canvas hanging down from the cut-up rigging and mast of the Serapis. Burning cartridge wads from the British guns were smoldering in the shattered timbers of the Bonhomme Richard. On a wooden ship laced with highly flammable tar and resin, fire was dreaded more than enemy cannonballs. Flames were creeping up the sails and the rigging; down below, hot coals were erupting in little blazes that threatened to create a conflagration that would reach the powder magazine. For a brief time the shooting and cannonading died down; as if by mutual agreement, the men left their guns to fight the fire, cutting away burning cordage and dousing flames with buckets of water hauled from the sea. Jones had a moment to catch a breather. He sat on a hen coop on the quarterdeck and looked out into the darkness, wondering what had happened to his disloyal squadron. He was glad to see that not all of his captains were timid. He could pick out the Pallas about a mile off in the night. She was bashing the outgunned Countess of Scarborough. Captain Cottineau was too cautious for Jones’s taste, but at least he had not shied from taking on the smaller British sloop. The Countess of Scarborough was beaten and would soon strike. Somewhere out there, Jones guessed, the Vengeance was biding its time, waiting to see if the British escorts would be defeated by braver men, thus leaving the merchantmen easy pray for scavengers. But where was the Alliance and its erratic Captain Landeau? Jones found out soon enough. At about 9:15 P.M., a broadside of grapeshot ripped through the bow of the Serapis and the stern of the Bonhomme Richard, wounding and killing men on both ships. It was the Alliance, apparently firing wildly into the inferno. Aboard the Bonhomme Richard, men cried out, yelling, “For God’s sake! Wrong ship! Stop firing!” But the Alliance, sailing along serenely only a musket shot away, rounded the Bonhomme Richard‘s bow and loosed another broadside of grapeshot. Among the mortally wounded on the Bonhomme Richard‘s forecastle was a young midshipman, Jonas Coram. “Alliance has wounded me,” he said with his dying breathe. Then, just as he had suddenly appeared, Landais vanished again into the blackness. Jones was “astonished.” He ordered his men to hang lanterns fifteen feet hight in the shrouds of each mast and the commodore’s private signal, two lanterns at the peak of the mizzenmast, so there would be no mistake if the Alliance deigned to rejoin the fray.”

Excerpted from “John Paul Jones”, author, Evan Thomas. Publisher: SIMON & SCHUSTER, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY. 10020.


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