Fight of the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis

“On the 5th of July, General Tryon landed at New Haven with three thousand men, where there was no force to oppose him. The people, nevertheless, bravely defended their homes. The Yale students formed themselves into a military company under Captain James Hillhouse; the Reverend Dr. Daggett, President of the College, after sending his daughters to a place of safety, shouldered his musket, and with his sons went out to fight the invaders. He was taken prisoner. The townspeople tore up the planks of West Bridge, and with a few field-pieces checked the advance in that direction. They took advantage of every commanding point about the town, of every bit of wood where an ambush could be made to annoy the troops and to impede their progress. But the British and Hessian soldiers overran the town; women were outraged, and men were murdered; houses were ransacked for plate, watches, jewelry, and clothing, and what could not be carried off was recklessly destroyed. It was a scene of robbery and debauchery disgraceful to civilized soldiers, doubly disgraceful to Tryon and the other officers of his command. It was a mere raid for the purpose of plunder, and the next morning the drunken soldiers were marched, or driven, or carried on board the ships, to sail for Fairfield. This fared even worse than New Haven. It was first given over to rapine, and then its eighty-five dwelling-houses, two churches, fifty or sixty barns, and a courthouse were burned to the ground. Green’s Farms and Norwalk were next visited, and the same pitiless destruction inflicted upon both. Houses, churches, barns, and vessels were given to the flames.

Before these raids, Clinton had made a purely military movement up the Hudson, and captured the half-finished forts at Verplank’s Landing and Stony Point, then held by small garrisons. Washington marched at once to cover West Point, making his headquarters at New Windsor, determined to recapture both places. The first attempt was upon Stony Point, and was eminently successful. The details were planned by the Commander-in-chief, and their execution intrusted to General Wayne, whose courage and dash especially fitted him for so difficult an enterprise. His attacking column consisted of four regiments, under Colonels Febiger of Virginia, Butler of Pennsylvania, and Meigs of Connecticut, and Majors Hill and Murfree of Colonel Putnam’s regiment. The attack was to be made at midnight on July 15; and at eight o’clock that evening, Wayne, who had made that day with his men a difficult march over the mountains from Fort Montgomery, was within a mile and a half of the fort. After a careful reconnoissance in person, he divided his force into two columns and moved forward. The men were to depend on the bayonet alone, and an order was issued that the nearest officer should instantly cut down any soldier who took his gun from his shoulder before the word was given. That they might distinguish each other in the darkness, a bit of white paper was fastened to their hats, and they were to shout, ‘The fort’s our own!’ as they entered the works.

The neck of the land leading to the Point was covered by a high tide with two feet of water. The delay in crossing this gave time to the enemy to discover the movement, and fire was opened upon the advancing columns by the pickets. The whole garrison were immediately at their posts. Wayne’s men were more than twenty minutes in scrambling up the steep ascent, under heavy but random firing, climbing over, where they could not tear down, the abatis, but not firing a shot. Shouts came — says a contemporary account — from the fortifications of ‘Come on, ye damn’d rebels; come on!’ — to which the assailants answered, ‘Don’t be in such a hurry, my lads; we will be with you presently.’ Lieutenant-colonel Fleury first scaled the parapet and struck the British colors; the right column poured in after him; Wayne was struck down by a ball in the forehead, but soon recovered, and was carried in by his men. The capture was complete in less than half an hour from the firing of the first shot, with a loss of fifteen killed and eighty-three wounded. Nearly five hundred prisoners, fifteen pieces of cannon, and large quantities of stores and ammunition were the prizes of the victory.

Wayne wrote at 2 A. M. that morning to Washington: ‘The fort and garrison, with Colonel Johnston, are ours. Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.’ The same day Colonel Febiger wrote to his wife: — ‘MY DEAR GIRL: I have just borrowed pen, ink, and paper to inform you that yesterday we marched from Fort Montgomery, and at 12 o’clock last night we stormed this confounded place, and, with the loss of about fourteen killed and forty or fifty wounded, we carried it. I can give you no particulars as yet. A musquet-ball scraped my nose. No other damage to ‘Old Denmark.’ God bless you. Farewell. FEBIGER.’ — [From original MS. in possession of Col. Geo. L. Febiger, U. S. A., New York city.]

The works at Stony Point were destroyed, and the place abandoned, to be again occupied soon after by the British. Preparations to attack the fort at Verplank’s Point, on the other side of the river, were given up, as Clinton moved to its support. These hostile demonstrations, however, and especially so signal an exploit as that of Wayne’s, induced Clinton to postpone indefinitely a movement upon Connecticut, to support which he had moved a portion of his troops to Mamaroneck. Of the danger of leaving so active an enemy behind him, by undertaking any distant expedition, he received another warning the next month by the surprise of the post at Paulus Hook, now Jersey City. Before daylight on the 19th of August, Major Henry Lee, with five companies of Southern troopers, carried the place by assault without firing a shot, — took a hundred and fifty prisoners, and retired in safety, though hotly pursued by reinforcements from New York.

In a naval expedition sent out by Clinton in August, the success was altogether on the side of the English. Massachusetts sent a militia general, Lovell, with a thousand men, to reduce a British post within her territory on the Penobscot. With Lovell went three ships of the Continental navy, three of the Massachusetts navy, with thirteen privateers, altogether carrying three hundred guns, under the command of Commodore Saltonstall. The fort was too strong, or the investment was mismanaged, and reinforcements were sent for. But the delay gave time for aid to be sent to the besieged. Admiral Collier arrived in the bay with five ships, which Saltonstall saw fit to run away from instead of fighting. Several of his vessels fell into the hands of the enemy, but the rest he burned. The troops made their way back to Massachusetts as best they could through the wilderness, and for a while no question was so warmly discussed in that State as which of the leaders, Lovell or Saltonstall, was the more responsible for the disaster, and had more completely covered himself with disgrace.

Within one day of this disaster, John Paul Jones sailed from the coast of France. A month later he fought a battle without parallel in naval history, and, in its consequences, more important than any other event of the year. Hitherto the contest upon the sea had been mainly a predatory warfare of privateers, aimed at the destruction of commerce and the plunder of merchant vessels. The young republic was without a navy proper. ‘To talk of coping suddenly with G. B. at sea, would be Quixotic indeed,’ wrote John Adams in 1775. [From a letter to James Warren, in Warren manuscripts] — ‘The only question with me is, can we defend our rivers and harbors?’ But to the work of forming a navy Congress early addressed itself, and no one more earnestly than John Adams himself.

Five frigates and a number of smaller vessels were built or bought, in the course of four years, by Congress, but two of the frigates never were sent out to sea, being burned in port to save them from the enemy; each province had a squadron of small vessels, and, though they could none of them cope with the heavier British ships, they were always ready to meet those of their own weight of metal. The foreign commerce of the country was destroyed by the war, and capital and men sought remuneration for its loss in privateering. How successful they were in helping, in this way, both themselves and their country, is shown by the commercial reports. Thus, two hundred and fifty British vessels in the West India trade, with cargoes of the aggregate value of ten million dollars, were captured by the American cruisers before the 1st of February, 1777. In the course of that year the number taken was four hundred and sixty-seven; of the two hundred engaged in the African trade, only forty escaped; thirty-five only were left of the fleet of sixty vessels that traded directly between Ireland and the West Indies; and in Martinique, where many prizes were carried, the market was so overstocked that silk stockings could be bought for a dollar a pair, and Irish linen at dollars the piece.

Paul Jones was one of the most daring of these cruisers. He had made many prizes in British waters, and his name was a terror all along the coast. Among the earliest recollections of Sir Walter Scott was the excitement aroused by the entrance of Jones by night into the harbor of Whitehaven, seizing the sentinels and spiking the guns of the fort, burning some of the shipping, while a fleet of more than two hundred colliers escaped destruction only by chance. To the ‘pirate Jones’ — as the English called him for retaliating, in a mild way, on the coast of England, the atrocities committed on the coast of America — the King of France gave an old Indiaman, to be fitted out as a man-of-war. In compliment to Dr. Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard,’ Jones called her the Bon Homme Richard, and in her put to sea on the 14th of August.

After a cruise of more than a month along the west coast of Ireland and the north of Scotland, on the 22d of September, the Richard, with two consorts, the Alliance and Pallas, came in sight of a fleet of merchantmen under convoy of the frigate Serapis, of fifty guns, and the Countess of Scarborough, of twenty-two, off Flamborough Head, on the coast of Yorkshire. Jones gave signal for pursuit, though his own men were diminished by drafts to man prizes, and his prisoners on board were two thirds as numerous as his crew. Landais, the commander of the Alliance, who throughout the cruise had been insubordinate and regardless of the Commodore’s orders, intimated that their duty was to escape. Speaking the Pallas, he told her commander that if the English vessel were a fifty-gun ship they had nothing else to do. The Serapis was a new frigate, built that spring. She was rated at forty-four guns, but carried fifty. She had twenty guns on each of her decks, main and upper, and ten lighter ones on her quarter deck and forecastle. The Richard had six ports on each side of her lower deck, but only six guns there, which were intended to be used all on the same side. On her proper gun-deck, above these, she had fourteen guns on each side — twelves and nines. She had a high quarter and forecastle, with eight guns on these. She was of the old-fashioned build, with a high poop, and was thus much higher than the Serapis, so that her lower deck was but little lower than her antagonist’s main deck.

It was an hour past sunset, under a full moon, when the Richard came within hail of the Serapis. Captain Pearson spoke her twice. Jones did not answer, but opened fire, to which the Serapis instantly replied. At the first fire of the Richard, two of the heavy guns on her lower deck burst. The men on this deck who were not killed by the explosion went up to the main deck, and the guns on the lower deck were not fought afterward.

After his first broadside, Jones caught the wind again, and closed with the Serapis, striking her on the quarter just after her second broadside. He grappled their vessel, but, as he could not bring a gun to bear, he let them fall off. Captain Pearson asked if he had struck. Jones answered, ‘I have not begun to fight!’ The English sails filled, Jones backed his top-sails, and the Serapis wore short round. As she swung, her jib-boom ran into the mizzen-rigging of the Richard. It is said that Jones himself then fastened the boom to his mast. Somebody did, and it did not hold, but one of her anchors caught his quarter; and so they fought, fastened together, each ship using its starboard batteries.

On board the Serapis, the ports were not open on the starboard side, because she had been firing on the other. As they ran across and loosened those guns, the men amidships found they could not open their ports, the Richard was so close. They therefore fired their first shots through their own port-lids, and blew them off.

The fire from the eighteen-pounders on the main deck of the Serapis, though it was probably that which sank the Richard the next day, passed for nothing so far as immediate execution went, for there was no one on the lower deck of the Richard, and her main deck was too high to be in danger. The main deck was a match for the upper deck of the Serapis, and her upper guns did execution, while those of the Serapis had too little elevation. On the quarter deck, Jones had dragged across a piece from the larboard battery, so that he had three nine-pounders almost raking the Serapis. There was very little musket-practice in the smoke and darkness.

Thus the firing went on for two hours, neither side trying to board, till an incident occurred to which both Jones and Pearson ascribed the final capture of the Serapis. The men in the Richard‘s tops were throwing hand-grenades upon the decks of the Serapis, and one sailor worked himself out to the end of the main-yard, carrying a bucket filled with these missiles, lighted them one by one, and threw them down her main hatchway. Here, in the centre of the deck, stretching the whole length of the ship, was a row of eighteen-pounder cartridges, which the powder-boys had left there when they went for more. One of the grenades lighted the row, and the flash passed fore and aft through the ship. Some twenty of the men amidships were blown to pieces. There were other men who were stripped naked, leaving nothing but the collars of their shirts and their wristbands. Farther aft there was not so much powder, perhaps, but the men were scorched and burned more than they were wounded.

Soon after this an attempt was made to board the Richard. About ten o’clock, an English officer, a prisoner on board the Richard, scrambled through one of the ports of the Serapis. He told Captain Pearson that the Richard was sinking; that they had had to release all her prisoners from the hold and spar-deck, himself among them, because the water came in so fast; and that if the English could hold on a few minutes more the ship was theirs, — all of which was true excepting this last.

On this news, Pearson hailed Jones again, to ask if he had struck. He received no answer, for Jones was at the other end of his ship, on his quarter, directing the fire of his three nine-pounders. Pearson then called for boarders; they formed hastily, and dashed on board the Richard. But she had not struck, though some of her men had called for quarter. Her crew were ready under cover. Jones himself seized a pike and headed them, and the English fell back again.

This was their last effort. About half-past ten Pearson struck. His ship had been on fire a dozen times, and the explosion had wholly disabled his main battery, which had been his chief strength. But so uncertain and confused was it all, that when the cry was heard, ‘They’ve struck!’ many in the Serapis took it for granted that they had taken the Richard. In fact, Pearson had struck the flag with his own hands, as the men, half of whom were disabled, would not expose themselves to the fire from the Richard‘s tops. For his victory Jones was largely indebted to the ability of his subordinate officers, especially Lieutenant Richard Dale, who was severely wounded, but kept his post to the last, and at one time was left entirely alone at the guns below.

When Pearson delivered his sword to Jones, he is reported to have said, ‘I cannot, sir, but feel much mortification at the idea of surrendering my sword to a man who has fought me with a rope round his neck.’ To which Jones, returning the sword, replied, ‘You have fought gallantly, sir, and I hope your king will give you a better ship.’ Afterward, when Jones heard that Pearson had been knighted for his gallant though unsuccessful action, he remarked, ‘He deserved it! and if I fall in with him again, I will make a lord of him.’

The morning after the battle, the Richard was found to be in a horrible condition. She was still on fire, and wherever her antagonist’s main battery could reach she had been torn to pieces. There was a complete breach from the main-cast to the stern. For the Serapis, the jib-boom had been wrenched off, at the beginning, the main-mast and mizzen-top fell as they struck, and at daybreak the wreck was not cleared away. First, all the wounded were removed to the Serapis, then all the crew, and at ten the Richard went to the bottom.

While this desperate fight was in progress, the Pallas had engaged and taken the Countess of Scarborough. Landais in the Alliance had occupied himself between both vessels. Once and again her shot wounded men on board the Richard, so that some of her people supposed the Alliance was in English hands. It was even charged that she had deliberately poured more than one broadside into the Richard. Jones took his prize into Holland, when the Serapis and Scarborough were transferred to the French government. In order to relieve the Dutch from diplomatic difficulties, Jones took command of the Alliance, and went to sea. Landais subsequently sailed in the Alliance for America, but on his return was deposed from his command for insanity, and afterward was expelled from the navy. Jones also returned to America in the Ariel; and, after an absence of three years, reached Philadelphia on the 18th of February, 1781. Congress had given him a vote of thanks, and the King of France had presented him with a sword.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Archive, “Scribner’s Popular History of the United States, Volume 3,” by William Cullen Bryant, Sydney Howard Gay, Noah Brooks, C. Scribner’s sons, 1896. (top) Image courtesy of The Roger Sherman House on Instagram, “‘BONHOMME RICHARD and SERAPIS,’ a stained glass window presented as a gift to the Union League Club of New Haven by its president, George B. Martin,” photo by Arthur Mullen, March 7, 2020

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