Saturday, July 11, 2009

Misunderstood Mariners: John Paul Jones

This week marked the birthday of John Paul Jones, "father of the American navy." Like a lot of the early heroes of the United States, Jones's story had been polished up a bit in popular accounts. While he was undoubtedly a brave and brilliant naval commander, Jones left a lot to be desired in the leadership department.

Born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, Jones went to sea as teenager. His early berths were in the slave trade, but he found that distasteful and switched to other vessels. The first black mark on his record came when a sailor he had flogged died, leading to charges of over-harsh punishment. When Jones killed another sailor in a sword fight (as part of a mutiny over wages), Jones left the British service and fled to Virginia, where he took the last name "Jones."

After some struggle, Jones acquired a posting in the new Continental Navy in the fight against the British. Jones felt he was being held back by his superiors and butted heads with them as a result. Eventually, partly due to his new friendship with Benjamin Franklin, he was given command of the Ranger and brought the fight against Britain to its home waters, raiding shipping off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Jones crew thought of themselves more as privateers than as part of a navy and the British branded Jones a pirate for his acts of plunder and destruction during the war. One of these raids led to the capture of a prize ship and a falling out with one of his officers, leading to the officer's court martial. The charge was dismissed through the efforts of John Adams, but Jones had developed a reputation for being difficult among both his crew and his superiors.

Jones's next command was the Bonhomme Richard, which engaged in the famous battle with the British ship Serapis. It was during this battle that Jones supposedly said "I have not yet begun to fight." What he actually said is a matter of dispute. Jones says he told the Serapis's commander "I am determined to make you strike" (referring to striking the colors as a sign of surrender). Members of Jones's crew remember the Jones saying "I have just yet begun to fight."

After the Revolution, Jones was having a hard time finding work for the Americans, so he went to sea for Russian empress Catherine the Great in her campaign to free Istanbul from the Ottoman Empire. Jones's feuded with other officers, though, leading to charges of sexual misconduct against him. He retired after two years to France, where he died in 1792.

Jones was not allowed to rest in peace. The cemetery where he was buried was taken over by the French revolutionary government and eventually used as a place where animal fights were held. There Jones lay for a century, until a determined search by admirers found his remains and moved them to the US Naval Academy grounds in 1906, where they rest today.

Many biographies of Jones are in print. It's hard to beat John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography by the dean of naval historians Samuel Eliot Morrison. Morrison is a historian of the old school who doesn't gloss over Jones's warts, but presents him as an overall admirable person nonetheless.

If you like your history in two-minute musical segments, Johnny Horton of "Sinking of the Bismark" and "Battle of New Orleans" fame recorded his lesser hit "John Paul Jones" for his 1960 concept album Johnny Horton Makes History.

The general story of the Continental Navy and the eventual development of the US Navy has not been particularly fertile ground for popular histories. The best overview is historian George Daughan's interesting, if somewhat flawed, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy -- From the Revolution to the War of 1812. It is superior to, if not as well marketed as , financial analyst and speechwriter Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy.

Filed from M/Y Safari Explorer at Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

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