The Bon Homme Richard vs. the Serapis

In September of 1779 occurred the famous naval battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis, which is of sufficient interest to describe in detail. With the exception of this one striking conflict, the naval history of the Revolutionary War is of secondary importance, as compared with the conflict on land. Early in the war the American Congress authorized privateering, and much damage was done to the British shipping by the active rovers of the seas. Efforts were also made to build fleets, and many actions took place at sea, but none of particular interest, during the first half of the war.

John Paul Jones, the boldest of American naval commanders of that period, first entered the service on May 10, 1776, in command of the sloop-of-war Providence, one of the American squadron of thirteen war-vessels built in 1776. But he first attained celebrity in 1778, as commander of the Ranger, of eighteen guns. With this vessel, which is described as being crank and slow, he descended on the coasts of England and Scotland and made an effort to burn the shipping in the harbor of Whitehaven. This attempt proved unsuccessful. He afterwards attempted to seize the Earl of Selkirk, landing and taking possession of his house, from which the earl chanced to be absent. These daring operations created the greatest alarm along the English coast. The Ranger afterwards captured the sloop-of-war Drake, after a severe combat, and carried her prize safely into the harbor of Brest, though chased repeatedly.

The exploits of the captain of the Ranger yielded him so much celebrity that the French government soon after gave him command of the Duras, an old Indiaman of some size, which was placed under the American flag and fitted up as a ship of war, being armed with six eighteen-pounders, twenty-eight twelves, and eight nines. The vessel was old-fashioned and clumsy, and had a motley crew, from almost every nation of Europe, with one hundred and thirty-five marines to keep them in order. This ship, in company with four smaller vessels, the Alliance, the Pallas, the Cerf, and the Vengeance, of which only the Alliance and the Cerf were fitted for war, set sail from L'Orient on June 19, 1779. The name of the Duras had previously been changed to the Bon Homme Richard, in compliment to Franklin. After a short cruise the squadron returned, and sailed again on August 14. The Richard had now nearly one hundred Americans on board, gained from some exchanged American seamen.

After having produced a general alarm along the coast of England by his daring movements, Captain Jones met, on the 13th of September, a British fleet of more than forty sail of merchantmen, convoyed by the Serapis, a forty-four-gun ship, and the Countess of Scarborough, of twenty-two guns. The Serapis was a new vessel, reputed a fast sailer, and armed with twenty eighteen-pounders, twenty nine-pounders, and ten six-pounders, making fifty guns in all. She had a trained man-of-war's crew of three hundred and twenty men. This encounter took place off Flamborough Head, within easy view of the English coast.

On learning the character of the fleet, Captain Jones gave the signal for chase, and displayed signs of hostility which alarmed the English ships and caused a hurried flight for safety, while the Serapis hauled out to sea, until far enough to windward, when she stood in again to cover her convoy. The Alliance and Pallas, who were in company with the Richard, moved with indecision, as if in doubt whether to fly or fight.

IT was now quite dark, and Commodore Jones was compelled to follow the movements of the enemy by the aid of a night-glass. It is probable that the obscurity which prevailed added to the indecision of the commander of the Pallas, for, from this time until the moon rose, objects at a distance were distinguished with difficulty, and, even after the moon appeared, with uncertainty. The Richard, however, stood steadily on, and about half-past seven she came up with the Serapis, the Scarborough being a shot distance to leeward. The American ship was to windward, and, as she drew slowly near, Captain Pearson hailed. The answer was equivocal, and both ships delivered their entire broadsides nearly simultaneously. The water being quite smooth, Commodore Jones had relied materially on the eighteens that were in the gun-room; but at this discharge two of the six that were fired burst, blowing up the deck above, and killing or wounding a large proportion of the people that were stationed below. This disaster caused all the heavy guns to be instantly deserted, for the men had no longer confidence in their metal. It at once reduced the broadside of the Richard to about a third less than that of her opponent, not to include the disadvantage of the manner in which the force that remained was distributed among light guns. In short, the combat was now between a twelve-pounder and an eighteen-pounder frigate,--a species of contest in which, it has been said, we know not with what truth, the former has never been known to prevail. Commodore Jones informs us himself that all his hopes, after this accident, rested on the twelve-pounders that were under the command of his first lieutenant.

The Richard, having backed her topsails, exchanged several broadsides, when she filled again and shot ahead of the Serapis, which ship luffed across her stern and came up on the weather quarter of her antagonist, taking the wind out of her sails, and, in her turn, passing ahead. All this time, which consumed half an hour, the cannonading was close and furious. The Scarborough now drew near, but it is uncertain whether she fired or not. On the side of the Americans it is affirmed that she raked the Richard at least once; but by the report of her own commander it would appear that, on account of the obscurity and the smoke, he was afraid to discharge his guns, not knowing which ship might be friend or which foe. Unwilling to lie by and be exposed to shot uselessly, Captain Piercy edged away from the combatants, exchanging a broadside or two, at a great distance, with the Alliance, and shortly afterwards was engaged at close quarters by the Pallas, which ship compelled him to strike, after a creditable resistance of about an hour.

Having disposed of the inferior ships, we can confine ourselves to the principal combatants. As the Serapis kept her luff, sailing and working better than the Richard, it was the intention of Captain Pearson to pay broad off across the latter's fore-foot, as soon as he had got far enough ahead; but, making the attempt, and finding he had not room, he put his helm hard down to keep clear of his adversary, when the double movement brought the two ships nearly in a line, the Serapis leading. By these uncertain evolutions the English ship lost some of her way, while the American, having kept her sails trimmed, not only closed, but actually ran aboard of her antagonist, bows on, a little on her weather quarter. The wind being light, much time was consumed in these different manoeuvres, and near an hour elapsed between the firing of the first guns and the moment when the vessels got foul of each other in the manner just described.

The English now thought that it was the intention of the Americans to board them, and a few minutes passed in the uncertainty which such an expectation would create; but the positions of the vessels were not favorable for either party to pass into the opposing ship. There being at this moment a perfect cessation of the firing, Captain Pearson demanded, "Have you struck your colors?" "I have not yet begun to fight," was the answer.

The yards of the Richard were braced aback, and, the sails of the Serapis being full, the ships separated. As soon as far enough asunder, the Serapis put her helm hard down, laid all aback forward, shivered her after-sails, and wore short round on her heel, or was box-hauled, with a view, most probably, of luffing up athwart the bow of the enemy, in order to again rake her. In this position the Richard would have been fighting her starboard and the Serapis her larboard guns; but Commodore Jones by this time was conscious of the hopelessness of success against so much heavier metal, and, after having backed astern some distance, he filled on the other tack, luffing up with the intention of meeting the enemy as he came to the wind, and of laying him athwart hawse. In the smoke, one party or the other miscalculated the distance, for the two vessels came foul again, the bowsprit of the English ship passing over the poop of the American. As neither had much way, the collision did but little injury, and Commodore Jones, with his own hands, immediately lashed the enemy's head-gear to his mizzen-mast. The pressure on the after-sails of the Serapis, which vessel was nearly before the wind at the time, brought her hull round, and the two ships gradually fell close alongside of each other, head and stern, the jib-boom of the Serapis giving way with the strain. A spare anchor of the English ship now hooked in the quarter of the American, and additional lashings were got out on board the latter to secure her in this position.

Captain Pearson, who was as much aware of his advantage in a regular combat as his opponent could be of his own inferiority, no sooner perceived that the vessels were foul than he dropped an anchor, in the hope that the Richard would drift clear of him. But such an expectation was perfectly futile, as the yards were interlocked, the hulls were pressed close against each other, there were lashings fore and aft, and even the ornamental work aided in holding the ships together. When the cable of the Serapis took the strain, the vessels slowly tended, with the bows of the Serapis and the stern of the Richard to the tide. At this instant the English made an attempt to board, but were repulsed with trifling loss.

All this time the battle raged. The lower ports of the Serapis having been closed, as the vessel swung, to prevent boarding, they were now blown off, in order to allow the guns to be run out; and cases actually occurred in which the rammers had to be thrust into the ports of the opposite ship in order to be entered into the muzzles of their proper guns. It is evident that such a conflict must have been of short duration. In effect, the heavy metal of the Serapis, in one or two discharges, cleared all before it, and the main-deck guns of the Richard were in a great measure abandoned. Most of the people went on the upper deck, and a great number collected on the forecastle, where they were safe from the fire of the enemy, continuing to fight by throwing grenades and using muskets.

In this stage of the combat, the Serapis was tearing her antagonist to pieces below, almost without resistance from her enemy's batteries, only two guns on the quarter-deck, and three or four of the twelves, being worked at all. To the former, by shifting a gun from the larboard side, Commodore Jones succeeded in adding a third, all of which were used with effect, under his immediate inspection, to the close of the action. He could not muster force enough to get over a second gun. But the combat would now have soon terminated, had it not been for the courage and activity of the people aloft. Strong parties had been placed in the tops, and at the end of the short contest the Americans had driven every man belonging to the enemy below; after which they kept up so animated a fire on the quarter-deck of the Serapis in particular as to drive nearly every man off that was not shot down.

Thus, while the English had the battle nearly to themselves below, their enemies had the control above the upper deck. Having cleared the tops of the Serapis, some American seamen lay out on the Richard's main-yard, and began to throw hand-grenades upon the two upper decks of the English ship; the men of the forecastle of their own vessel seconding these efforts, by casting the same combustibles through the ports of the Serapis. At length one man, in particular, became so hardy as to take his post on the extreme end of the yard, whence, provided with a bucket filled with combustibles, and a match, he dropped the grenades with so much precision that one passed through the main hatchway. The powder-boys of the Serapis had got more cartridges up than were wanted, and, in their hurry, they had carelessly laid a row of them on the main deck, in a line with the guns. The grenade just mentioned set fire to some loose powder that was lying near, and the flash passed from cartridge to cartridge, beginning abreast of the main-mast, and running quite aft.

The effect of this explosion was awful. More than twenty men were instantly killed, many of them being left with nothing on them but the collars and wristbands of their shirts and the waistbands of their duck trousers; while the official returns of the ship, a week after the action, show that there were no less than thirty-eight wounded on board, still alive, who had been injured in this manner, and of whom thirty were then said to be in great danger. Captain Pearson described the explosion as having destroyed nearly all the men at the five or six aftermost guns. On the whole, nearly sixty of the Serapis's people must have been instantly disabled by this sudden blow.

This advantage thus obtained, by the coolness and intrepidity of the topman, in a great measure restored the chances of the combat, and, by lessening the fire of the enemy, enabled Commodore Jones to increase his. In the same degree that it encouraged the crew of the Richard it diminished the hopes of the people of the Serapis. One of the guns under the immediate inspection of Commodore Jones had been pointed some time against the main-mast of the enemy, while the two others had seconded the fire of the tops with grape and canister. Kept below decks by this double attack, where a scene of frightful horror was present in the agonies of the wounded and the effects of the explosion, the spirits of the Englishmen began to droop, and there was a moment when a trifle would have induced them to submit. From this despondency they were temporarily raised by one of those unlooked-for events that characterize the vicissitudes of battle.

While the fight was taking place between the Pallas and the Scarborough, the Alliance stood off and on, as if in doubt how or where to be of service. She finally approached the Richard and Serapis, and fired in such a way as to do as much damage to friend as to foe, if not even more. Fifty voices hailed her, calling out that she was firing into the wrong ship. Ten or twelve men seem to have been killed and wounded on the Richard by this discharge. The Alliance, after some further ineffectual efforts to aid her consort, stood off, and took no part in the remainder of the fight.

The fire of the Alliance added greatly to the leaks of the Richard, which ship by this time had received so much water through the shot-holes as to begin to settle. It is even affirmed by many witnesses that the most dangerous shot-holes on board the Richard were under her larboard bow and larboard counter, in places where they could not have been received from the Serapis. This evidence, however, is not unanswerable, as it has been seen that the Serapis luffed up on the larboard quarter of the Richard in the commencement of the action, and, forging ahead, was subsequently on her larboad bow, endeavoring to cross her fore-foot. It is certainly possible that shot may have struck the Richard in the places mentioned, on these occasions, and that, as the ship settled in the water from other leaks, the holes then made may have suddenly increased the danger. On the other hand, if the Alliance did actually fire while on the bow and quarter of the Richard, as appears by a mass of uncontradicted testimony, the dangerous shot-holes may very well have come from that ship.

Let the injuries have been received from what quarter they might, soon after the Alliance had run to leeward an alarm was spread in the Richard that the ship was sinking. Both vessels had been on fire several times, and some difficulty had been experienced in extinguishing the flames; but here was a new enemy to contend with, and, as the information came from the carpenter, whose duty it was to sound the pump-wells, it produced a good deal of consternation. The Richard had more than a hundred English prisoners on board, and the master-at-arms, in the hurry of the moment, let them all up from below, in order to save their lives. In the confusion of such a scene at night, the master of the letter-of-marque that had been taken off the north of Scotland passed through a port of the Richard into one of the Serapis, when he reported to Captain Pearson that a few minutes would probably decide the battle in his favor, or carry his enemy down, he himself having been liberated in order to save his life. Just at this instant the gunner, who had little to occupy him in his quarters, came on deck, and, not perceiving Commodore Jones or Mr. Dale, both of whom were occupied with the liberated prisoners, and believing the master, the only other superior he had in the ship, to be dead, he ran up on the poop to haul down the colors. Fortunately, the flag-staff had been shot away, and, the ensign already hanging in the water, he had no other means of letting his intention to submit be known than by calling out for quarter. Captain Pearson now hailed to inquire if the Richard demanded quarter, and was answered by Commodore Jones himself in the negative. It is probable that the reply was not heard, or, if heard, was supposed to come from an unauthorized source; for, encouraged by what he had learned from the escaped prisoner, by the cry, and by the confusion that prevailed in the Richard, the English captain directed his boarders to be called away, and, as soon as mustered, they were ordered to take possession of the prize. Some of the men actually got on the gunwale of the latter ship, but, finding boarders ready to repel boarders, they made a precipitate retreat. All this time the topmen were not idle, and the enemy were soon driven below again with loss.

In the mean while, Mr. Dale, who no longer had a gun that could be fought, mustered the prisoners at the pumps, turning their consternation to account, and probably keeping the Richard afloat by the very blunder that had come so near losing her. The ships were now on fire again, and both parties, with the exception of a few guns on each side, ceased fighting, in order to subdue this common enemy. In the course of the combat the Serapis is said to have been set on fire no less than twelve times, while towards its close, as will be seen in the sequel, the Richard was burning all the while.

As soon as order was restored in the Richard, after a call for quarter, her chances of success began to increase, while the English, driven under cover, almost to a man, appear to have lost, in a great degree, the hope of victory. Their fire materially slackened, while the Richard again brought a few more guns to bear; the main-mast of the Serapis began to totter, and her resistance, in general, to lessen. About an hour after the explosion, or between three hours and three hours and a half after the first gun was fired, and between two hours and two hours and a half after the ships were lashed together, Captain Pearson hauled down the colors of the Serapis with his own hands, the men refusing to expose themselves to the fire of the Richard's tops.

As soon as it was known that the colors of the English had been lowered, Mr. Dale got upon the gunwale of the Richard, and, laying hold of her main brace pendant, he swung himself on board the Serapis. On the quarter-deck of the latter he found Captain Pearson, almost alone, that gallant officer having maintained his post throughout the whole of this close and murderous conflict. Just as Mr. Dale addressed the English captain, the first lieutenant of the Serapis came up from below to inquire if the Richard had struck, her fire having entirely ceased. Mr. Dale now gave the English officer to understand that he was mistaken in the position of things, the Serapis having struck to the Richard, and not the Richard to the Serapis. Captain Pearson confirming this account, his subordinate acquiesced, offering to go below and silence the guns that were still playing upon the American ship. To this Mr. Dale would not consent, but both the English officers were immediately passed on board the Richard. The firing was then stopped below. Mr. Dale had been closely followed to the quarter-deck of the Serapis by Mr. Mayrant, a midshipman, and a party of boarders, and as the former struck the quarter-deck of the prize he was run through the thigh by a boarding-pike in the hands of a man in the waist, who was ignorant of the surrender. Thus did the close of this remarkable combat resemble its other features in singularity, blood being shed and shots fired while the boarding officer was in amicable discourse with his prisoners.

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