At 11 p.m. on this day in 1778, Commander John Paul Jones leads a small detachment of two boats from his ship, the USS Ranger, to raid the shallow port at Whitehaven, England, where, by his own account, 400 British merchant ships are anchored. Jones was hoping to reach the port at midnight, when ebb tide would leave the shops at their most vulnerable.
Jones and his 30 volunteers had greater difficulty than anticipated rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They did not arrive until dawn. Jones’ boat successfully took the southern fort, disabling its cannon, but the other boat returned without attempting an attack on the northern fort, after the sailors claimed to have been frightened away by a noise. To compensate, Jones set fire to the southern fort, which subsequently engulfed the entire town.
Commander Jones, one of the most daring and successful naval commanders of the American Revolution, was born in Scotland on July 6, 1747. He was apprenticed to a merchant at the age of 13 and soon went to sea from Whitehaven, the very port he returned to attack on this day in 1778. In Virginia at the onset of the revolution, Jones sided with the Patriots and received a commission as a first lieutenant in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775.
After the raid on Whitehaven, Jones continued to his home territory of Kirkcudbright Bay, where he intended to abduct the earl of Selkirk, then exchange him for American sailors held captive by Britain. Although he did not find the earl at home, Jones’ crew was able to steal all his silver, including his wife’s teapot, still containing her breakfast tea. From Scotland, Jones sailed across the Irish Sea to Carrickfergus, where the Ranger captured the HMS Drake after delivering fatal wounds to the British ship’s captain and lieutenant.
In September 1779, Jones fought one of the fiercest battles in naval history when he led the USS Bonhomme Richard frigate, named for Benjamin Franklin, in an engagement with the 50-gun British warship HMS Serapis. The USS Bonhomme Richard was struck; it began taking on water and caught fire. When the British captain of the Serapis ordered Jones to surrender, Jones famously replied, I have not yet begun to fight! A few hours later, the captain and crew of the Serapis admitted defeat and Jones took command of the British ship.
Jones went on to establish himself as one of the great naval commanders in history; he is remembered, along with John Barry, as a Father of the American Navy. He is buried in a crypt in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, Maryland, where a Marine honor guard stands at attention in his honor whenever the crypt is open to the public.