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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Frontier, Ocean, and South > War on the Sea

Let us now take a glance at the naval operations. The United States at first had no navy, but many private vessels were employed as privateers, and the destruction of British merchant shipping was enormous. From nearly all the states privateers were sent against the enemy, Massachusetts leading with over five hundred, Pennsylvania following with nearly that number. It is estimated that seventy thousand Americans were at one time engaged on the sea against the enemy.1 In 1775 Congress ordered the building of a national navy, and the following year thirteen vessels were completed. Some of these never succeeded in getting out to sea; most of the rest were captured or burned before the end of the war, but not until after they had done great service for the country.

The men who achieved the greatest success for America were: Lambert Wickes, who made many prizes off the Irish and English coasts, and who was himself drowned off the coast of Newfoundland; Gustavus Conyngham, whose bold captures in the English Channel astonished everybody; and John Paul Jones, who alone of all the naval heroes of the war has left a permanent and conspicuous name in our history.

John Paul Jones Jones 2 was a native of Scotland and a resident of Virginia. He became the hero of one of the most famous naval duels in history. With a squadron of three ships led by the Bonhomme Richard3 he met Captain Pearson with the Serapis and Scarborough convoying a fleet of merchant vessels off the coast of Flamborough Head, Scotland, and at once the two flagships engaged in a desperate conflict. It was the evening of September 25, 1779, when the battle opened, and during the long hours of the night the boom of cannon rolled across the waters. In the midst of the battle Jones ran his vessel into her antagonist and ceased firing for the moment, when Captain Pearson called out, "Have you struck your colors?" "I have not yet begun to fight," was the now famous answer of Jones.

At length the two ships were lashed together by the commander of the Richard, and the bloody fight went on until the decks of both were covered with dead and dying. The crisis came about ten o'clock, when a hand grenade from the Richard was thrown into the hatchway of the Serapsis, where it ignited a row of cartridges, and in the frightful explosion that followed twenty men were blown to pieces. Still the two commanders doggedly continued the battle until both ships were on fire, and half their crews were dead or wounded, when at last the Serapis surrendered.4 Both vessels were ruined, and the Bonhomme Richard sank the next morning. Meantime the Pallas had captured the Scarborough, and the American victory was complete. The news of the victory made a profound sensation on the continent, as it was told and retold in every language in Europe. Nothing before, except the surrender of Burgoyne, had called the world's attention to the rising nation in the West as did this signal victory in sight of the British coast.

The American privateers did immeasurable damage to British shipping, in any hundred merchantmen being captured. After the alliance with France the powerful navy of that nation was employed in the patriot cause, and to this was added the navy of Spain, for Spain declared war against England in the summer of 1779. This action of the Spanish goverment was not taken out of love for the Americans and their cause, nor did Spain make a treaty with the United States. Indeed, a self-governing people in North America would forever be a menace to the peaceful possession of Mexico and South America by Spain; nor had the Spaniards the slightest sympathy with the spirit of religious freedom that prevailed in the United States. Spain declared war in the hope of regaining possession of Gibraltar, and from a feeling of revenge cherished for two hundred years against the island kingdom that had robbed her of her proud eminence as mistress of the seas.

Still another was to be added to the enemies of England. Late in the year 1780 war was declared between that country and Holland, and henceforth the Britons had to fight three of the great European powers in addition to America. It was not possible for England to win against such odds, nor to regain her colonies in America, but the courage the British displayed must elicit the admiration of the world.


1Sloane, p. 373. [return]

2His name was John Paul and he added the name Jones in honor of General Jones of North Carolina. After the Revolution he entered the service of Russia, became an admiral, and was knighted. He died in Paris in 1799. His burial place is unknown. [return]

3French for "Poor Richard" of Franklin's almanac. [return]

4The Bonhomme Richard carried forty guns and the Serapis forty-four. Jones towed his prize to Holland. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIV p. 294-296. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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