This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The ‘Bon Homme Richard’ Sights the British Convoy.
For Great Britain, the navy was the core of its power; the core of its empire. The defeat of a powerful force just off England’s east shore by a colonial force brought the American Revolution to home waters (literally!) and established the U.S. Navy as a force in the world. And now, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie
This selection is from The Life of John Paul Jones by Alexander Slidell Mackenzie published in 1841. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was a naval officer and a naval historian. He was the captain of the USS Somers in 1842 when the famous mutiny against him occurred.
Time: September 23, 1779
Place: North Sea off Flambough Head, Yorkshire, Great Britain
The battle between the Bonhomme and the Serapis is invested with a heroic interest of the highest stamp. Jones had been cruising off the mouth of the Humber and along the Yorkshire coast, intercepting the colliers bound to London, many of which he destroyed (1779). On the morning of September 23d he fell in with the Alliance. This rencounter was a real misfortune; as, in the battle which ensued, the former disobedience and mad vagaries of Landais, her commander, were about to be converted into absolute treason. The squadron now consisted of the Richard, the Alliance, the Pallas, and the Vengeance.
About noon Jones dispatched his second lieutenant, Henry Lunt, with fifteen of his best men, to take possession of a brigantine which he had chased ashore. Soon after, as the squadron was standing to the northward toward Flamborough Head, with a light breeze from south-southwest, chasing a ship, which was seen doubling the cape, in opening the view beyond, they gradually came in sight of a fleet of forty-one sail running down the coast from the northward, very close in with the land. On questioning the pilot, the Commodore discovered that this was the Baltic fleet, with which he had been so anxious to fall in, and that it was under convoy of the Serapis, a new ship, of an improved construction, mounting forty-four guns, and the Countess of Scarborough, of twenty guns.
Signal was immediately made to form the line of battle, which the Alliance, as usual, disregarded. The Richard crossed her royal yards, and immediately gave chase to the northward, under all sail, to get between the enemy and the land. At the same time signal of recall was made to the pilot of the boat; but she did not return until after the action. On discovering the American squadron, the headmost ships of the convoy were seen to haul their wind suddenly and go about so as to stretch back under the land toward Scarborough and place themselves under cover of the cruisers; at the same time they fired signal-guns, let fly their topgallant sheets, and showed every symptom of confusion and alarm. Soon afterward the Serapis was seen reaching to windward to get between the convoy and the American ships, which she soon effected. At four o’clock the English cruisers were in sight from deck. The Countess of Scarborough was standing out to join the Serapis, which was lying-to for her, while the convoy continued to run for the fort, in obedience to the signals displayed from the Serapis, which was also seen to fire guns. At half-past five the two ships had joined company, when the Serapis made sail by the wind; at six both vessels tacked, heading up to the westward, across the bows of the Richard, so as to keep their position between her and the convoy.
The opposing ships thus continued to approach each other slowly under the light southwesterly air. The weather was beautifully serene, and the breeze, being off the land, which was now close on board, produced no ripple on the water, which lay still and peaceful, offering a fair field to the combatants about to grapple in such deadly strife. The decks of the opposing vessels were long since cleared for action, and ample leisure remained for reflection, as the ships glided toward each other at a rate but little in accordance with the impatience of the opponents. From the projecting promontory of Flamborough Head, which was less than a league distant, thousands of the inhabitants, whom the recent attempt upon Leith had made aware of the character of the American ships, and the reckless daring of their leader, looked down upon the scene, awaiting the result with intense anxiety. The ships also were in sight from Scarborough, the inhabitants of which thronged the piers. The sun had already sunk behind the land before the ships were within gun-shot of each other; but a full harvest-moon rising above the opposite horizon, lighted the combatants in their search for each other, and served to reveal the approaching scene to the spectators on the land with a vague distinctness which rendered it only the more terrible.
We have seen that the Alliance had utterly disregarded the signal to form the line of battle when the Baltic fleet was first discovered, and our squadron bore down upon them. She stood for the enemy without reference to her station, and, greatly out-sailing the other vessels, was much sooner in a condition to engage. Captain Landais seemed for once to be actuated by a chivalrous motive and likely to do something to redeem the guilt of his disobedience. The officers of the Richard were watching this new instance of eccentricity, for which Landais’ past conduct had not prepared them, with no little surprise; when after getting near to where the Serapis lay, with her courses hauled up, and St. George’s ensign–the white cross of England–proudly displayed, he suddenly hauled his wind, leaving the path of honor open to his commander. While the Pallas stood for the Countess of Scarborough, the Alliance sought a position in which she could contemplate the double engagement without risk, as though her commander had been chosen umpire, instead of being a party interested in the approaching battle. Soon afterward the Serapis was seen to hoist the red ensign instead of St. George’s, and it was subsequently known that her captain had nailed it to the flag-staff with his own hand.
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