Paul Jones's Victory [Laws A4]
DESCRIPTION: John Paul Jones's [Bonhomme] Richard encounters two British ships. Despite being outgunned, Jones manages to capture the larger of the British ships.
EARLIEST DATE: before 1839 (broadside, Bodleian Johnson Ballads 247)
KEYWORDS: navy war ship battle
Sept 23, 1779 - Battle between the Bonhomme Richard (40 guns) and the British Serapis (44 guns) and Scarborough (20 guns)
FOUND IN: US(MA,SE) Britain(England(South)) Canada(Mar) Ireland
REFERENCES (23 citations):
Laws A4, "Paul Jones's Victory"
Forget-Me-Not-Songster, pp. 24-25, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
Williams-Wiltshire-WSRO Gl 109, "Paul Jones"; Williams-Wiltshire-WSRO Ox 231, "Paul Jones" (2 texts)
Purslow-TheConstantLovers, p. 66, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Brown/Belden/Hudson-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore2 220, "Paul Jones" (2 texts)
Brown/Schinhan-FrankCBrownCollectionNCFolklore4 220, "Paul Jones" (1 excerpt, 1 tune)
Creighton/Senior-TraditionalSongsOfNovaScotia, pp. 225-226, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mackenzie-BalladsAndSeaSongsFromNovaScotia 78, "Paul Jones" (2 texts)
Ranson-SongsOfTheWexfordCoast, p. 51, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell-FolkSongsOfRoanokeAndTheAlbermarle 24, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-TheBalladBook, p. 713, "Paul Jones' (1 text)
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 290, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
Cazden/Haufrecht/Studer-FolkSongsOfTheCatskills 8, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Thompson-APioneerSongster 47, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
Warner-TraditionalAmericanFolkSongsFromAnneAndFrankWarnerColl 153, "Paul Jones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Warner-FolkSongsAndBalladsOfTheEasternSeaboard, p. 67, "John Paul Jones" (1 text)
Scott-TheBalladOfAmerica, pp. 81-83, "Paul Jones's Victory (Poor Richard and the Serapis and Alliance" (1 text, 1 tune)
Logan-APedlarsPack, pp. 32-38, "Paul Jones (Paul Jones the Pirate)" (1 text)
Henry-SongsSungInTheSouthernAppalachians, p. 233, (third of four "Fragments from Maryland") (1 fragment, consisting solely of the words "Paul Jones had a frigate"; I file it here because it looks more like this than the other John Paul Jones songs)
Leach-HeritageBookOfBallads, pp. 135-136, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
Colonial-Dames-AmericanWarSongs, pp. 24-26, Paul Jones' Victory" (1 text)
DT 359, PAULJONE PAULJON2
ADDITIONAL: Maud Karpeles, _Folk Songs of Europe_, Oak, 1956, 1964, p. 259, "Paul Jones" (1 text)
ST LA04 (Full)
Bodleian, Johnson Ballads 247, "Paul Jones" ("An American frigate, call'd the Richard by name"), J. Catnach (London), 1813-1838; also Johnson Ballads 2804, Harding B 11(2974), Harding B 11(1906), Firth c.13(59), Firth b.26(273), Harding B 11(4314), Firth b.25(275), Harding B 11(2973), "Paul Jones"; Firth c.13(55), "Paul Jones the Pirate"
LOCSinging, as110810, "Paul Jones' Victory," Leonard Deming (Boston), 19C; also as111860, "Paul Jones"
Murray, Mu23-y1:061, "Paul Jones," James Lindsay (Glasgow), 19C
cf. "Paul Jones, the Privateer" [Laws A3] (subject of John Paul Jones)
cf. "The Yankee Man-of-War (III)" (subject of John Paul Jones)
NOTES [1553 words]: The following biography has been heavily revised from that in earlier versions of the Ballad Index. I no longer know what references I originally consulted. I do know that Samuel Eliot Morison accuses earlier biographers of simply forging large parts of the Jones story, which makes me feel a little better.
John Paul Jones (1747-1792) was born in Scotland with the name John Paul (Morison, pp. 1, 3). The fourth of five children (Cordingly, p. 193), he went to sea at age 13 (Morison, p. 9), initially serving aboard merchant ships (Morison, p. 10), including time aboard a slaver (Morison, p. 13).
In 1768, John Paul saw both the master and mate of his ship die of fever. The only man aboard who could navigate, he brought the ship home and was given command of the John (Morison, pp. 13-14). He was 21. He served well in this role for five years (Morison, p. 20).
Then he killed one of his sailors.
It wasn't the first time he had been charged with brutality. In the course of a voyage in 1769-1770, Jones had had a sailor named Mungo Maxwell brutally flogged (Morison, p. 17). There had been some doubt about who was at fault in the Maxwell case; there was no question about this one. Calling at Tobago, John Paul had refused to pay his men an advance on their wages (which, we note, they had already earned, but which were not due until the ship returned to Britain). Several men apparently wanted to desert. John Paul stopped the mutiny by killing "the ringleader" (Morison, pp. 22-23). Legally, he was in the right, and would presumably have been cleared in court (Cordingly, p. 193) -- but it was definitely not a smart thing to do.
It is not clear what happened next, but somehow John Paul ended up in the colonies and started calling himself by the surname "Jones" rather than his birth name of "Paul" (Morison, pp. 23-24).
When war broke out with Great Britain, Paul Jones joined the navy, apparently being the senior lieutenant in the entire service (Morison, p. 29). (We should probably add that "lieutenant" was, in effect, a higher rank then than now -- the approved ranks were captain, lieutenant, master, and midshipman. Thus a lieutenant was the equivalent of a "commander" today, ranked high enough to command a sloop or even a small frigate though not a ship of the line.)
Not that the continental navy was a very impressive service at first; Pratt, p. 11, reports that "At the time the troubles broke out in Boston in 1775, there were not a few officers of the Royal Navy who came from the colonies, but... these officers stayed with the flag rather than join persons in revolt against due authority. A few men were available for the Continental Navy who had served with the Royal Navy earlier in their careers, but only one man is reported to have left the King's service to join the colonists in revolt, and his name has not survived."
The appointment process didn't help. According to Bryant, p. 79, "Never was the creation of a corps of naval officers handled with more regard for the political weight each aspirant carried; the commissions were frankly awarded on the basis of political expediency, and little regard for the appointees' abilities as leaders and marines." Pratt, p. 24, comments that the initial naval commands "were distributed on the combined principles of geography and nepotism, modified by political maneuver." Of the first batch of officers in the United States Navy, Bryant apparently considers Jones to be the only "happy choice," but such were this politics of the time that he would soon be known as the "North Carolina Captain."
He was first appointed to the Alfred, of 20 guns, as first lieutenant (Cordingly, p. 194), although the Alfred, called the first ship in the Continental Navy "was regarded as a dull sailer, and was almost useless as a warship." The British would capture the converted merchantman later in the war (Millar). Jones, however, was long gone, having served on several ships in 1775-1776 (Cordingly, p. 194).
In 1777, Jones was given command of the ship Ranger (Cordingly., p. 195), which he sailed with some success (see "Paul Jones, the Privateer" [Laws A3]). This was all the more impressive because, according to Bryant, p. 96, he had only one set of sails (and only one cask of rum, if you can believe that). But -- in one of those typically idiotic acts of the American congress -- he was deprived of command and put on the beach. (On the other hand, Pratt, p. 44, reports that he kicked one of his junior officers in the pants, which is hardly the way to win friends and influence people.)
He seems to have already been a romantic figure; at least, Cordingly, p. 195, claims he had an affair with a rich Frenchwoman while the Ranger was being repaired, and on p. 198 mentions other woman sniffing after him.
He (or, rather, the French) finally scrounged up the Bonhomme Richard, a converted merchant ship with forty guns so badly worn as to be rather dangerous. Bryant calls her a "floating antique with a castellated poop," and says that the former Duc de Durac was "worm-eaten, crank, her old timbers exuding a heardy aroma of arrack, cloves, and tea" -- a reminder of her days trading to the East Indies (Bryant, p. 97). Hendrickson, p. 189, declares that "Some of her timbers were rotten, and many of her 40 guns were condemned."
Paul Jones sailed her anyway, with a scrounged-up crew (Pratt reports that only 79 of his initial crew of 227 were Americans; Hendrickson, p. 189, says that the others consisted of 174 French and 59 British), naming her Bonhomme Richard after Benjamin Franklin's French rendering of "Poor Richard" (Paine, p. 67). She sailed with an assortment of five even more ill-favored consorts (Marrin, p. 168).
Even though two of his ships had to return to France, Jones commanded a squadron of four ships, 124 guns, at the time of this battle (the whole flotilla financed by the French), although only the Bonhomme Richard was completely engaged in the fight; his second-in-command, the French officer Pierre Landais, refused to take part. (Some even accuse him of firing on Jones, e.g. Cordingly, p. 197).
Jones won the battle by using his marines: He lashed his ship to the big 44-gun Serapis, and -- having made his famous remark "I have just begun to fight" when called upon to surrender -- continued the struggle until the British gave up. (The alternate version of Jones's line, which frankly sounds more likely, is "I'll sink, but I'm damned if I'll strike" [i.e. surrender]; Paine, p. 68).
The Richard had, however, been reduced to a sinking condition (among other things, several of those worn guns had blown up -- on only their second salvo, according to Paine, p. 68), and only vigorous work at the pumps kept her afloat long enough to take the Serapis. Indeed, Jones would never have been able to board had not the Serapis been so mis-handled as to bump into the Richard (Marrin, p. 172).
This time, Jones's brutality paid off: Some of his men, with their ship's guns silenced, the ship itself full of holes, the deck falling in, had tried to surrender. Jones knocked one of them unconscious and kept up the fight. You could make the case that he won because his men were too afraid to give in.
In any case, he succeeded only because of the British attitude toward prizes. Had the British navy paid sailors decently, and had a doctrine of just *sinking* the enemy, rather than capturing them, the Serapis would have won the fight and John Paul Jones would be a guy who sank with his ship. The Richard proved past saving and went down on September 24; had Jones not won, he would have been either a prisoner (possibly even regarded as a deserter, given that he was Scottish) or dead.
Plenty of his men were already dead. Paine, p. 68, says that 140 of his 322 crewmen were killed or mortally wounded. And the Serapis was damaged enough that Jones could not even reach France; he had to hole up in the Netherlands (Cordingly, p. 197).
(I can't help but think how much this sounds like it could have inspired the Stan Rogers song "Barrett's Privateers," only Rogers gave it the ending it deserved.)
Even this noteworthy success didn't got Paul Jones the influence he wanted; when the new ship America was finished, the command did not go to Jones (Cordingly, p.199). This marked the functional end of his career in the American navy. He wanted, and did not get, an admiral's commission (it would not be until the end of the Civil War that the American navy started commissioning admirals), so he went to Russia (Cordingly, p. 200). Then, in 1789, he was charged with having sexual relations with a ten-year-old.. Even in Tsarist Russia, that was enough to cause him to leave the country (Cordingly, pp. 200-201). He died in 1789, at the age of 45, having been driven out of two countries and having abandoned the third.
In recent years, some attempts have been made to find the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard. As far as I have heard, the attempts have failed.
Laws classified this as an American song, and it probably was so in origin -- but it will be seen that it was found in British and Scottish broadsides at least. - RBW
In the Bodleian broadsides, the frigate is named Percy, Rachel or Richard. The opposing ship, if named, is Caraphus, Ceraphus or Percy. - BS
Last updated in version 6.1
- Bryant: Samuel W. Bryant, The Sea and the States: A Maritime History of the United States, Crowell, 1947
- Cordingly: David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, Random House, 2001 (I use the undated, but later, paperback edition)
- Hendrickson: Robert Hendrickson, The Ocean Almanac, Doubleday, 1984
- Marrin: Albert Marrin, The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution, Athenaeum, 1988
- Millar: John Fitzhugh Millar, Ships of the American Revolution, with illustrations by Gregory Irons, Bellerophon, 1988. N.B. This book does not have a pagination; you just have to look through it until you find the page for the particular ship.
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison,John Paul Jones, 1959 (I use the 1981 Time-Life edition)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2021 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.