Late in 1775, the Congress ordered the establishment of a Continental navy. The thirteen vessels then authorized to be built or purchased were furnished early in 1776, and these, with many privateers, did good service on the ocean. The affairs of the little navy were at first managed by a committee of Congress only. This committee was modified from time to time, and finally, in October, 1779, it assumed the form and name of a "Board of Admiralty," with a salaried secretary, and was composed of members of Congress and three paid commissioners who were not members of that body. This organization continued until 1781, when General Alexander McDougal was appointed "Secretary of Marine," whose functions were essentially those of our Secretary of the Navy at the present time. Very soon afterward he was superseded by an "Agent of Marine," and in that office the name of Robert Morris often appeared. That eminent financier of the Revolution had more to do with the management of naval affairs than any other man. He sent out privateers on his own account, a business in which other patriots engaged. Washington was, at one time, part owner of a privateer.
Esek Hopkins, of Rhode Island, was appointed commander-in-chief of the little Continental navy. The avowed object of the armament was to intercept British vessels bearing supplies for the British armies in America, but the Continental war-ships were frequently more aggressive. Hopkins sailed on his first cruise in February, 1776. He left the Delaware with a small squadron of five vessels, carrying an aggregate of ninety-eight guns. The Alfred, 28, was his flag-ship, and his first-lieutenant was John Paul Jones, who afterward became famous. Jones raised on the Alfred, in the Delaware, in December, 1775, the first American ensign ever shown on an American vessel-of-war. Hopkins's captains were Whipple, Biddle, J. B. Hopkins and Hazard, all of them but Biddle, Rhode Island men. The first cruise was against Lord Dunmore, then distressing the Virginia coast. Hopkins extended his cruise to the Bahama Islands to capture British stores at Nassau, New Providence, and was successful. Among the spoils were one hundred cannon. Retiring, he operated off the New England coasts; but the Congress censured him for departing from the line of his instructions, and dismissed him from the service. His lieutenant, Jones, was placed in command of the Alfred, the following autumn. No naval commander-in-chief was subsequently appointed.
Jones was always successful. While in command of the Providence, in September, 1776, he was chased by two British ships-of-war off the Carolina coasts, but escaped, and sailing eastward as far as Nova Scotia, he captured and carried into Newport fifteen prizes. Meanwhile Whipple and Biddle were equally successful off the eastern coasts; and the New England colony vessels were very active. These, and the Continental cruisers, deprived the British army of about five hundred soldiers during the summer and fall of 1776. No less than three hundred and forty-two British vessels fell into the hands of the Americans that year.
In the fall of 1776, the Continental ship Reprisal, Captain Wickes, carried Dr. Franklin, as American Commissioner, to France, where she cruised in European waters, the first American armed ship that had appeared there. She captured several British prizes in the Bay of Biscay. Among these was the royal English packet on its way from Falmouth to Lisbon. These prizes were sold in French ports, and the proceeds were used by the American commissioners in Paris for purchasing other vessels in French ports. In the summer of 1777, Wickes, with a little squadron of three vessels, sailed entirely around Ireland, sweeping the channel in its whole breadth, and capturing or destroying a great number of British merchant vessels. This cruise produced a powerful impression on the public mind in England, and France was required to renounce its friendship for the rebellious colonists or pronounce a disclaimer. Policy, then, dictated the latter course, and the American vessels were ordered to leave the French coast. When the Reprisal was returning homeward, she was wrecked on the coast of New foundland, and Captain Wickes, and all of his people but the cook, perished.
The duplicity of France, at that time, caused much trouble. Franklin carried with him a number of blank commissions from the Congress, for army and navy officers who might be willing to enter the Continental service. One of them was given to Captain Conyngham, who sailed from Dun-deemed to be a mean robbery, with the greatest delicacy. The frightened Lady Selkirk delivered up the plate with her own hands; and when the marauders returned to the boat, they found Jones walking moodily among the old trees. He had laid his plans for the future. When the prizes of the Ranger were sold in the harbor of Brest, in May, he bought the plate and returned it to Lady Selkirk with a letter, in which he expressed his regret because of the annoyance she had suffered.
Late in April, Jones again appeared off Carrickfergus, when the Drake went out to give the Ranger battle. They fought more than an hour, when the Drake, much shattered, and forty of her men slain, surrendered. With this prize Jones went around Ireland and arrived at Brest on the 8th of May. Meanwhile D'Estaing had sailed for the Delaware, and his arrival made the American cruisers more active and bold. Captain Barry performed some notable exploits in the fall of 1778; and early in 1779, the Alliance, Captain Landais, sailed for France, bearing Lafayette, who went home to urge his king to send troops to America.
During the spring and summer of 1779, the American cruisers were very active. In March, the Hampden, a Massachusetts ship, had a severe fight with an English Indiaman, and was much damaged, but escaped capture. In April, Captain J. B. Hopkins, sailing on a cruise from Boston, captured several British vessels bound for Georgia with supplies for Prevost. In June, Captains Whipple and Rathburne, in command of two ships, captured several British merchant-vessels under convoy of a ship-of-the-line. In a money point of view, this was one of the most successful enterprises of the war. The estimated value of eight of the prizes taken into Boston was over a million dollars.
While these events were occurring in the western hemisphere, the French monarch and the American commissioners joined in sending Paul Jones, with five vessels, from L'Orient to the coast of Scotland, at the middle of August. His flag-ship was the Bon-Homme Richard. Just as he was about to strike some armed British vessels, in the harbor of Leith, a storm arose, which drove his squadron into the North Sea. When the tempest subsided he drew near the land, and cruising along the coast of Scotland, he captured thirteen prizes by the middle of September. Consternation prevailed along the coast, and many people buried their plate to keep the "pirate's" hands from it.
Late in September, while the squadron of Jones lay a few leagues north of the mouth of the Humber, he discovered the Baltic fleet of forty merchantmen, convoyed by the Scrapis, a 44-gun ship, and the Countess of Scarborough, of 22 guns, stretching seaward from behind Flamborough Head. Here was tempting prize for which he had sought. Jones signalled for a general chase, and all but the Alliance, Captain Landais, obeyed. The British vessels immediately prepared to defend the merchantmen; and while they, and the Richard and Pallas were manoeuvring for advantage, night fell upon the scene. The darkness did not restrain the impetuous Jones. At seven o'clock in the evening, the Richard was within musketshot distance of the Serapis, when one of the most desperate naval fights ever recorded began. The wind was slack, and as the vessels were struggling for the weather-gauge, they came in contact. Their spars and rigging were entangled, when Jones, at the head of his men, attempted to board the Scrapis. After a sharp and close contest with pike, pistol and cutlass, he was repulsed, when Captain Pearson of the Scrapis, who could not see the ensign of the Richard, called out: "Has your flag been struck?" Jones shouted, "I have not begun to fight yet."
The vessels now separated, and Jones attempted to lay his ship athwart the hawser of his enemy. He failed, and the wind brought the two ships broadside to broadside, the muzzles of the guns touching each other. Jones instantly lashed the ships together, and in that close embrace they poured their terrible volleys into each other with awful effect. From deck to deck of the entangled vessels the combatants madly rushed, fighting like demons. Very soon the Richard was pierced between wind and water with several 18-pound balls, and began to fill. Her ten greater guns were silenced, and only three 9-pounders kept up the cannonade; but the marines in the round top of the Richard sent deadly volleys of bullets down upon the struggling Englishmen. Ignited combustibles were scattered over the Serapis; and at one time she was on fire in a dozen places. Some cartridges were ignited on her lower deck and blew up the whole of the officers and men that were quartered abaft the mainmast. At half-past nine, just as the moon rose in a cloudless sky, the Richard was discovered to be on fire, also, and a scene of appalling grandeur was presented. In the midst of smoke and half-smothered flame, and the incessant roar of great guns, men as furious as wounded tigers were seen struggling hand-to-hand for the mastery. At that moment a cry was raised on the Richard-"The ship is sinking!" A frightened gunner ran aft to pull down the American flag, when he found the halyards cut away. He cried, "Quarter, quarter!" until he was silenced by a blow from a discharged pistol which Jones hurled at his head. It fractured his skull, and sent him headlong down the gangway. "Did you ask for quarter?" shouted Pearson. "Never!" replied Jones. "Then I'll give you none," answered the enraged Englishman; and the desperate fight went on more fiercely than before.
The situation of Jones was becoming, every moment, more critical for his ship could not float much longer. Nothing appeared more hopeless than his prospect for victory. Yet he won it. The flames crept up the rigging of the Serapis, and by their glow and the full light of the moon, Jones saw that his double-headed shot had almost cut Pearson's mainmast in two. He hurled another shot upon it, until the tall mast reeled. Pearson saw his great peril, and striking his flag, surrendered to his really weaker foe. Enveloped in sparks and smoke, Pearson said, in a surly manner, as he hurriedly handed his sabre to Jones: "It is painful to deliver up my sword to a man who has fought with a rope around his neck." Jones courteously replied, as he returned the weapon: "Sir, you have fought like a hero, and I make no doubt you sovereign will reward you in the most ample manner." The king knighted Pearson. When Jones heard of it, he said: "Well, he deserves it; and if I fall in with him again, I'll make a lord of him."
The battle ceased after raging three hours. Fire was consuming both ships, and all hands turned to fighting the flames. They did so successfully. The vessels were soon disengaged, when the mast of the Serapis, which had been kept erect by the entangled spars and rigging, fell with a tremendous crash, carrying with it the mizzen-topmast. The Richard was damaged past recovery, and now settled rapidly. Every living person was transferred to the Serapis, and sixteen hours afterward the gallant Bon Homme Richard went down into the valleys of the North Sea.
The Countess of Scarborough, Captain Cotineau, surrendered to the Pallas after an hour's fight, notwithstanding the treacherous Landais brought the guns of the Alliance to bear upon the later as he had upon the Richard, pretending to mistake them, in the darkness, for the ships of the enemy. This brilliant victory was achieved on the night of the 23d of September. The Baltic fleet had taken shelter behind Flamborough Head. After tossing about on the Northern Sea ten days, Jones ran into the Texel, Holland, with his little squadron and prizes, only a few hours before eleven English ships-of-war that had been sent after him, appeared in the offing. A demand was made upon Holland to deliver up the prizes, and Jones and his men, to the English authorities. By adroit diplomacy, the States-General refused, without involving themselves in trouble with the British government; and Jones, instead of being conveyed to England as a "corsair," was put in command of the Alliance, and did good service for the Americans afterward. His fame spread through the civilized world. The French monarch gave him an elegant gold-mounted sword, bearing on its blade the words: "Louis XVI, Rewarder of the Valiant Asserter of the Freedom of the Sea." He also created him a knight of the Order of Merit. Catharine of Russia conferred on him the ribbon of St. Anne; and from Denmark, he received marks of distinction and a pension. The United States thanked him cordially, and eight years afterward gave him a gold medal.
The exploits of Jones exasperated and alarmed the British. They made even heavy line-of-battle-ships shy of him; and he was regarded as like
"A malignant comet, bearing in its tail, Death, famine, earthquakes, pestilence, and ruin."
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