September 23

This Day in History

American Revolution

Sep 23, 1779:

John Paul Jones wins in English waters

During the American Revolution, the U.S. ship Bonhomme Richard, commanded by John Paul Jones, wins a hard-fought engagement against the British ships of war Serapis and Countess of Scarborough, off the eastern coast of England.

Scottish-born John Paul Jones first sailed to America as a cabin boy and lived for a time in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where his brother had a business. He later served on slave and merchant ships and proved an able seaman. After he killed a fellow sailor while suppressing a mutiny, he returned to the American colonies to escape possible British prosecution. With the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, he traveled to Philadelphia and was commissioned a senior lieutenant in the new Continental Navy. He soon distinguished himself in actions against British ships in the Bahamas, the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel.

In August 1779, Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard and sailed around the British Isles. On September 23, the Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough, which were escorting the Baltic merchant fleet. After inflicting considerable damage to the Bonhomme Richard, Richard Pearson, the captain of the Serapis, asked Jones if he had struck his colors, the naval signal indicating surrender. From his disabled ship, Jones replied, "I have not yet begun to fight," and after three more hours of furious fighting it was the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough that surrendered. After the victory, the Americans transferred to the Serapis from the Bonhomme Richard, which sank the following day.

Jones was hailed as a great hero in France, but recognition in the United States was somewhat belated. He continued to serve the United States until 1787 and then served briefly in the Russian navy before moving to France, where he died in 1792 amidst the chaos of the French Revolution. He was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1905, his remains were located under the direction of the U.S. ambassador to France and then escorted back to the United States by U.S. warships. His body was later enshrined in a crypt at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

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