Bonhomme Richard-Serapis Engagement

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Bonhomme Richard-Serapis Engagement

BONHOMME RICHARD-SERAPIS ENGAGEMENT. 23 Sept. 1779. At 2 p.m. p.m. on this day John Paul Jones sighted British merchantmen rounding Flamborough Head on the North Sea coast of Yorkshire. When Jones ordered his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, and the others in his squadron, Alliance (36 guns), Pallas (32 guns), and Vengeance (12 guns), to give chase, the British merchantmen fled and the convoy commander, Captain Richard Pearson, positioned his ship, the Serapis (40 guns) and her escort, the Countess of Scarborough (20 guns), between the attackers and their prey. At around 6:30 p.m., the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard, both flying British colors, came within hailing distance, and Pearson demanded that Jones identify his ship. Jones responded "The Princess Royal" but, seeing that Pearson was not fooled by his ruse, Jones ran up an American flag, and the two ships exchanged virtually simultaneous broadsides. For an hour the ships exchanged fire as each maneuvered to rake the other.

During the first or second broadside, two of Jones's eighteen-pound cannons burst, putting the rest of the guns on the Bonhomme Richard's lower deck out of commission. After the initial exchange of broadsides the Serapis moved ahead of her adversary and on the leeward side. Not being able to gain enough distance to cross in front of the Bonhomme and rake her with cannon fire, the Serapis lost headway in executing a turn and was rammed near the stern. Jones ordered his men to lash the ships together, and personally tied a loose forestay from the Serapis to the Bonhomme Richard's foremast.

A desperate battle raged more than two hours longer. At one point, when the American ensign was shot away, British Captain Pearson is alleged to have hailed Jones asking, "Do you ask for quarter?" to which Jones is reputed to have replied with the immortal, "I have not yet begun to fight." The fighting continued as the grapeshot from two nine-pound cannon and small arms fire from marines and sailors in the tops of the Bonhomme Richard swept clear the upper deck of the Serapis. Meanwhile, cannon fire from the Serapis blew huge holes through the Bonhomme Richard and turned its lower decks into a death house for American seamen. Neither side gained an overall advantage until an American grenade fell through a hatchway on the Serapis and ignited powder charges on the deck below, killing dozens of British sailors. Moments later the Serapis's mainmast began to quiver, and Pearson, fearing destruction of his ship, finally struck his colors. Two days later it was the Bonhomme Richard that could not be saved, so Jones transferred his flag, surviving crewmen, and British prisoners to the Serapis. During the engagement the treacherous, if not yet mad, Pierre Landais had ordered his ship, the Alliance, to fire into the Bonhomme Richard, inflicting nearly as many casualties as did the British.

On October 3 1779, Jones sailed the jury-rigged Serapis into The Texel, in neutral Holland, accompanied by the Alliance, the Pallas, and the Countess of Scarborough, which the Pallas had taken while the Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis. During one of the hottest single-ship actions of the age of sail, each side suffered seventy to eighty men killed and an equal number of wounded. Years later, Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning recalled seeing "the dead lying in heaps [on the Serapis], the entrails of the dead scattered promiscuously around, [and] the blood over ones shoes."

Hoping to use Jones's victory to distract public opinion from the failed attempt to invade England, French officials lionized Jones. King Louis XVI knighted Jones and gave him a gold-hilted sword, and Benjamin Franklin capitalized on Jones's fame to help mend strained Franco-American relations.

SEE ALSO Jones, John Paul; Landais, Pierre de.


Bradford, James C. "The Battle of Flamborough Head." In Great American Naval Battles. Edited by Jack Sweetman. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Commager, Henry Steele, and R. B. Morris. Spirit of '76: The Story of the American Revolution, as Told by Participants. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs Merrill, 1958.

Gawalt, Gary, ed. John Paul Jones' Memoir of the American Revolution. Washington, D.C.: American Revolution Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979.

Schaeper, Thomas J. John Paul Jones and the Battle off Flamborough Head: A Reconsideration. New York: P. Lang, 1989.

Walsh, John Evangelish. Night on Fire: The First Complete Account of John Paul Jones's Greatest Battle. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

                              revised by James C. Bradford