Within American naval history, John Paul Jones is one of the more revered Revolutionary War heroes. How esteemed is John Paul Jones in Navy society? Such that his remains are today enshrined at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
Today, it is possible to observe not one but two John Paul Jones. The first Jones is the man who saw in himself a hero and a gentleman, one who, despite his low birth, glorified in his ability to rise to high social rank. While there is little doubt that Jones’s accomplishments in service to the American Revolution were impressive, there was another Jones: arrogant, quarrelsome, immature, rash, and dishonest. As one example, John Paul Jones designed a fake coat of arms to push forward his agenda. He did this by combining the coat of arms of Paul with those of Jones — neither of which he could rightly claim. His crass behavior sullied his reputation. He was not someone to invite to a dinner party; he was inconsiderate, tiresome, and he would likely steal the silverware.
There are two groups of John Paul Jones “experts.” The first consists of those who rely too heavily upon the personal (and deeply exaggerated) stories told by John Paul Jones himself; the second group involves those who believe that the life and times of Captain Jones deserve deeper reflection. As an example, early historians declare John Paul Jones as the father of the American Navy. This claim is altogether untrue — but even worse, it is a claim so often repeated that it serves as an insult to those other early gentlemen who served with equal distinction.
This so-called standard-bearer of the Continental Navy was named John Paul at birth. John had family living in the American colonies. His brother William Paul settled near present-day Fredericksburg, Virginia. When John was thirteen years old, his father apprenticed him to a sea captain named Benson, master of the commercial ship Friendship, which took John Paul to the Americas as part of a circuitous trade route.
Commercial shipping in those days was profitable for ship’s officers and crew because, in addition to the standard pay rate, ship’s owners often paid bonuses as a percentage of the cargo’s profits. Between 1760 and 1768, John Paul served on several commercial ships. In 1764, he served as Third Mate aboard King George. In 1766, while serving aboard Two Friends, Paul advanced to First Mate. In 1768, he abandoned that profitable position and returned to Scotland to seek a new appointment. Later that year, while serving aboard the brig John at sea, the ship’s captain died from Yellow Fever. Paul successfully navigated the ship back to port. The ship’s owners were so pleased that they rewarded John by giving him command of the vessel and a guaranteed percentage of its profits. He made two successful journeys to the West Indies in that capacity.
During the third voyage in 1770, one of the ship’s crew initiated a mutiny over crew wages. Jones, then 23-years old, had the crewman flogged. The flogging was severe, but what killed the man was Yellow Fever. As it happened, the crewman was the son of a wealthy Scottish family. Upon return to port, authorities arrested Paul, and he spent some time in prison until granted bail. Although the crewman died of disease, the flogging incident damaged Paul’s reputation. The incident prompted John Paul to change his name to John Paul Jones.
A second incident occurred while in command of the commercial ship Betsy when a crewman initiated a mutiny over crew wages. Jones killed this crewman, whose name was Blackton, by running him through with a sword. Jones later claimed the killing was in self-defense, but at the time, Jones refused to submit to the authority of an Admiral’s court. Jones instead went to Virginia to help manage the affairs of his brother William, who had died intestate.
With the supporting endorsement of Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Jones successfully applied for a commission in the Continental Navy. Congress offered a lieutenant’s commission to Jones in December 1775; his first assignment was the 24-gun frigate, USS Alfred. After Alfred’s raid in Nassau, the Congresses Naval Committee appointed Jones to command the sloop USS Providence. By the end of 1776, after seizing sixteen British vessels, Jones earned the reputation of a daring and resourceful officer.
USS Ranger was a 116-foot long sloop of war weighing around 314 tons. The Continental Navy first commissioned this ship in 1777 and appointed John Paul Jones to command her. On the ship’s first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean as a packet carrier, carrying messages to Benjamin Franklin in Paris, Jones captured two British vessels and sold them in France. Arriving in France, Ranger was the first American navy ship to receive a salute from a foreign navy vessel.
In 1777, however, the French monarch had not decided to support the rebellious Americans. The United States Minister to France, Benjamin Franklin, may have hedged his bet on the outcome of the American independence movement by establishing regular communications with British Prime Minister Frederick (Lord) North — or he may have initiated correspondence with North for no other purpose than to increase pressure on the French to support American independence. If it was the second reason, it worked. French statesman Charles Gravier, Count Vergennes, concerned that the American rebels and the British might solve their differences, urged King Louis XVI to support the American independence cause. When the French government communicated its intent to help the Americans, Benjamin Franklin assumed (as an extension of his position as America’s foreign minister to France) the role of advanced base force commander.
Jones arrived in France believing that he would command L’Indien, an American ship under construction in Amsterdam. Jones made several efforts to press Franklin on this matter, but he was always put off and instructed to bide his time; he would receive his orders in due course.
On 16th January 1778, Benjamin Franklin summoned Jones to Paris. Among Jones’s instructions, Franklin ordered him to equip his ship (Ranger) and prepare for operations against the British mainland. As opportunity presented itself, Jones would assault British shipping and coastal settlements as a means of creating havoc among “enemies of the United States,” by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war.
Franklin further directed Jones that since France was still a neutral power, he must avoid returning to France upon completion of his mission. Franklin knew that the United States and France had reached an alliance agreement, but ratification of the accord was still pending. Franklin and Silas Deane then sternly admonished Jones to give no offense to the subjects of France or any other neutral power lest he destroys any pendant diplomatic framework.
John Paul Jones, having accepted the views of Robert Morris, believed that effective use of the American navy entailed sending ships against an unsuspecting British enemy, to surprise them, to divert the enemy’s attention away from America’s seacoast, and force them to defend their coastal ports and settlements. This, too, appears to have been the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane in Paris.
It was several more weeks before Ranger was ready to sail. The ship, although only recently commissioned, required new sails. Shipwrights mounted Swivel guns in the fighting tops, altered bow ports to allow firing over the bow, and reprovisioning.
But Captain Jones did not command a happy ship. Ranger‘s officers were tired of Jones’s dalliances in Nantes and Loire, and they had no confidence in their captain’s “crazy schemes.” Jones’s officers believed that his poorly contrived ideas would only bring them into mortal danger without the benefit of any subsequent prize money. While still in Portsmouth, as part of his recruiting campaign, Jones promised his officers that they would make a fortune from seizing ships and selling them. Still, so far in the Atlantic assignment, the crew had not received a single farthing after taking two enemy ships.
There was another problem, as well. The Naval officers serving aboard USS Ranger thoroughly detested the Marine commanding officer, Captain Matthew Parke. Captain Parke intended to enforce the observance of proper decorum among the ship’s company. He insisted, for example, on being addressed by his rank. Ship’s officers complained, “Since no captain of Marines is allowed to any ship or vessel under twenty guns, we take it as hardship peculiar to us, that a person in his capacity should remain in the ship to take the fourth part of the three twentieths which are the shares belonging solely to us (as lieutenants and master of the ship) of any prize money to be divided for her Officers and men.” The navy officers wanted to dispose of Parke and so requested that Captain Jones do so.
Captain Parke, fully aware of this animosity, submitted his resignation to Captain Jones, who, although disgusted with his lieutenants, accepted Parke’s resignation “with regret.” When Ranger arrived in Brest, Jones discharged Parke and replaced him with an army lieutenant named Jean Meijer.
When asked to explain his operational plan to Lieutenant Général le Comte d’Orviliers (Commander of the French Fleet at Brest), Jones proposed to descend upon some part of England, destroy merchant shipping, and kidnap a member of the nobility as a means of guaranteeing the lives (or possible exchange) of imprisoned Americans in England. Shortly afterward, Jones received orders to move Ranger to the Bay of Brest where the crew might enjoy liberty ashore and partake of French allurements. Several of the crew, including Marines, took this opportunity to abandon naval service.
As Ranger made final preparations for sea, Marine Second Lieutenant Samuel Wallingford drilled the Ranger’s Marines in small arms proficiency. The ship sailed on 8 April 1778. On the 10th, Jones captured a brigantine carrying flaxseed, seized the cargo, and sank the vessel. On the 17th, he seized a merchantman. He detailed a prize crew to return the cargo ship to Brest. A British revenue vessel challenged Ranger the next day but quickly withdrew when Jones went to battle stations. Ranger’s surgeon later criticized Jones for not employing his Marines to fire into the cutter, as in his opinion, Jones could have quickly taken the enemy vessel.
On 19 April, Captain Jones seized a schooner and a sloop near the entrance of Firth of Clyde. When Jones decided to sink both ships, his officers threw a tantrum. The next day, while operating offshore from Carrickfergus, Jones learned from a fishing vessel that HMS Drake, a 20-gun sloop, was anchored nearby. Jones decided to target Drake for a cutting out — but his officers refused. They consented, instead, to surprise the British ship by entering the lough and anchoring to her windward side, which would expose the ship to Jones’ musketry. Owing to poor weather, Jones decided to abandon his Plan B.
Whitehaven, England — on the northwest coast — was a small, insignificant port town. A man like Stephen Decatur Sr. would never think of attacking Whitehaven. On the other hand, Jones knew the British Isles like the back of his hand, and Whitehaven was the place from which he first began his maritime career.
By 22nd April, with the understanding that several commercial ships were at anchor at Whitehaven, Captain Jones prepared to execute a raid. His officers, however, saw no point in the attack because it promised neither prize money nor naval advantage. Navy lieutenants Thomas Simpson and Elijah Hall fomented rebellion among the crew. Jones later observed that these men were inferior officers, for rather than building morale, they excited the men toward disobedience to orders. Simpson and Hall managed to convince the crew that Ranger was a voting precinct, with the right to judge for themselves whether the captain’s plan was a good one. Jones contributed to these officer’s further insubordination by failing to press the matter.
The raid on Whitehaven may have been audacious, but it was poorly executed and its result embarrassing. As Ranger approached Solway Firth, the wind died away, and the ship was left to languish in swells. At midnight, still, several miles away from Whitehaven, Jones ordered two boats lowered. He would command one, with Lieutenant Meijer serving as his assistant; Second Lieutenant Wallingford would command the other boat, with Midshipman Benjamin Hill as his second. In total, thirty men manned the boats. It took several hours for both boats to arrive at the outer pier.
By then, dawn was just breaking. Without any noticeable concern about his discovery, Jones sent Wallingford’s boat to the northern end of the harbor with orders to set fire to the estimated 150 merchant ships at anchor. Jones and his men scaled the port’s southern battery walls, spiked the guns, and apprehended four sentinels found asleep on post. When Jones returned to his boat, he expected to see dozens of ships on fire — there were none. Wallingford explained that he had lost his “fire” to light the ships. Jones managed to set one ship on fire before realizing that the town was now up and about, and, as a deserter alerted the town that a raid was in progress, defenders began assembling along the water’s edge.
Captain Jones decided it was time to withdraw his raiders. As the American navy rowed back to Ranger, the townspeople fired cannon at them and an occasional pistol, causing no damage to the raiding party. Jones and his weary men arrived back aboard the ship at around 0700.
The second stage of Jones’s plan was to sail across to St. Mary’s Isle, where he hoped to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk and carry him to France as a hostage for the better treatment of American prisoners. The landing party included Jones, Wallingford, Ship’s Master David Cullam, and a dozen Marines and sailors. After assigning one man to guard the boat, Jones led his party toward the Selkirk manor.
Jones led his party ashore with Wallingford, Ship’s Master David Cullam, and a dozen sailors and Marines. After posting a sentry to guard the boat, Jones led his party toward the Selkirk manor. En route, Jones learned from the gardener that the Earl was away from home. His mission a failure, Jones turned about intending to return to the ship. Master Cullam objected, however, arguing that he and his crew should be allowed to loot the house. Jones acquiesced, insofar as the sailors would be allowed to steal the silver, but nothing more.
Lady Selkirk handed over her silver upon Cullam’s demand. In her later testimony, Lady Selkirk described Master Cullam as a disagreeable-looking man with the look of a blackguard. On the other hand, she was quite impressed with Marine lieutenant Wallingford. She characterized him as “…a civil young man, in a green uniform, an anchor on his buttons, which were white,” and “he seemed naturally well-bred and not to like his employment.” After filling several sacks of silver, Cullam and Wallingford accepted Lady Selkirk’s offer of a glass of wine, and they returned to the ship.
The Whitehaven raid was barely a footnote in history; the value of damage to enemy ships, cannon, and Lady Selkirk’s stolen silver was minuscule. The operation did qualify as an early land action involving Continental Marines, but it was nothing worth remembering.
Conversely, the effects of Jones’s raid were tremendous. The London Chronicle reported the raid stating, “A number of expresses have been dispatched to all capital seaports in the kingdom where any depredations are likely to be made; all strangers in this town are, but an order of the magistrates, to be secured and examined; similar notices have been forwarded through the country and, in short, every caution taken that the present alarming affair could suggest.”
Jones’s Whitehaven raid so aroused England that the Admiralty was forced to recall ships operating off the American seacoast to patrol the United Kingdom’s lengthy coastline — as Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane knew it would.
- Feld, J. John Paul Jones’s Locker: The Mutinous Men of the Continental Ship Ranger and the Confinement of Lieutenant Thomas Simpson. Washington: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017.
- Hill, F. S. Twenty-six Historic Ships: The story of certain famous vessels of war and of their successors in the navies of the United States and of the Confederate States of America from 1775-1902. New York: Putnam, 1903.
- Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
- Griffiths, J. The 1778 Whitehaven Raid. United Kingdom History (online), 2015.
- U. S. Continental Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. W. C. Ford & Gaillard Hunt, eds. Library of Congress, 1904-37.
 Esek Hopkins, John Burroughs Hopkins, Abraham Whipple, Stephen Decatur, Sr., and Nicholas Biddle.
 Indien, later commissioned South Carolina was captured by the British in 1782.
 A farthing was valued at one-quarter of a penny.
 The poor treatment of Americans under lock and key in England was well known to American sailors. Jones apparently hoped to change Britain’s neglect of humanitarian treatment of its prisoners.
 As a demonstration of varying perspectives about the same event, British historians claim that on their way to the port, Jones’s men became distracted by the strong allure of the nearby public house. It was here that this half of the crew became intoxicated and were unable to complete their mission. American historians of the same period argue that heavy rain and gales stopped the operation in its tracks. The weather conditions were so bad that none of the men were able to strike a light to set the ships on fire.