John Paul Jones in 1781
John Paul Jones is remembered by Americans as a naval hero of the Revolutionary War and the founder of the American Navy.
He then had a remarkable short second career in the service of the Empress Catherine the Great in Russian’s conquest of Crimea.
He was born John Paul, the son of a poor gardener in Scotland, in 1747. He went to sea at age 13 and was a captain by age 21.
In 1773, he was put on trial in Tobago in the West Indies for allegedly running a would-be mutineer through with his sword. He fled to Virginia instead and changed his name to Jones.
When the Revolutionary War began, he took service in the new United States Navy, and quickly rose to the rank of captain. On his first command, he captured 16 British ships in six weeks.
He was sent to French waters in 1778 to take the war to the British, which he did. As captain of the Ranger and later of the Bonhomme Richard, he raided British ports, captured British merchant ships and defeated British warships in British waters.
This was astonishing achievement. The American rebels had no navy or naval ships at the outbreak of the Revolution, and the British Navy was regarded as invincible at sea.
John Paul Jones’ most famous battle was in September, 1779, when he commanded a squadron that attacked a British merchant fleet protected by British ships of war.
He sailed directly for the lead British warship, the H.M.S. Serapis. They fired broad-sides at each other at close range, and within an hour or so, the two ships were actually lashed together.
Captain Pearson of the Serapis asked Jones, who was getting the worst of it, if he wanted to surrender. Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight”—or words to that effect.
Jones personally fought with a pike to help repel a boarding party from the Serapis. Then one of his crew threw an exploding grenade at one of the hatches of the Serapis, igniting gunpowder that lay along the deck and slaughtering many of the British crew. The British captain surrendered soon after that.
The Bonhomme Richard sunk, but Jones sailed back to port in possession of the Serapis.
After the war ended, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy. Jones took service with Catherine the Great of Russia in 1787 under the name Pavel Ivanovich Jones.