This is the story of John Paul Jones and the only attack by the United States on the country of Great Britain. That in itself would be an odd enough thing to write a story about but there are so many little other interesting little twists to the story.
To understand this narrative you need to understand three things
- John Paul Jones – The captain who led the attack
- Uss Ranger – His Ship
- Whitehaven – The town attacked!
John Paul Jones – The Captain
Born John Paul, the son of a gardener, who later added the name Jones to be able to escape law enforcement, was born on the west coast of Scotland on July 6th, 1747.
He began his sailing career at the age of 13 on the ship Friendship under a Captain Benson.
Paul worked his way up through the ranks until on one voyage the captain and the first mate both died of yellow fever. Paul was able to take over the ship, steered to safety and saved the cargo. The Grateful owners made him the new master of the ship.
Rough life at sea
John Paul was known for harsh discipline on his ships. On one voyage he was blamed for the death of a crewman after Paul had had him flogged. Later the crewman’s death was attributed to yellow fever but it left a negative black mark on Paul’s reputation.
Not long after this incident, Paul got into an argument with a crewman named Blackmon who was complaining about wages. The argument got very heated and Paul killed him by running him through with his sword.
Although Paul had claimed this to be self-defense he didn’t want to face a board of inquiry because the first man that he had been accused of killing had a very influential family in the Navy. The ended Paul’s British Naval career and at some point, he left Great Britain for America and now went by the name of John Paul Jones.
Life In America
When the revolution came about Jones volunteered his services and was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant of the newly converted 24-gun frigate Alfred in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775.
Jones had great success has the American Navy but his disagreements with those in higher authority than himself caused him trouble. On December 16th, 1776 he began feuding with a Commodore named Hopkins. Jones believed that Hopkins was holding back his advancement by talking him down to others.
In a sort of backhanded punishment, he was assigned the command of a much smaller ship. A newly constructed vessel named the USS Ranger on June 14th, 1777 coincidentally the same day that the new stars and stripes flag was adopted by the Congress.
USS Ranger – The Ship
Although the ranger was a small ship and a step-down in command for Jones it was more maneuverable and faster than the larger ships he commanded. Jones decided it would make a great raiding vessel.
On the 1st of November 1777, Ranger set sail for France carrying military dispatches to the commissioners of Paris. On the voyage to Paris on two separate occasions, Jones was able to capture two British ships. Captured ships are also known as prizes in naval jargon.
On the 2nd of December, they arrived in France and sold the prizes and John Paul Jones met with Benjamin Franklin.
After his business in France was concluded Jones took towards the Irish sea where he continued to capture more prizes.
It was at this time that Jones decided to attack the city of Whitehaven.
Whitehaven – The Town
Whitehaven is a port town on the west coast of Cumbria, Mostly known for its Merchant shipping and Mining.
This is of course also where John Paul Jones started his Naval career. He knew the town well and knew of its defenses and weaknesses.
The first attempt
On April 17th, 1778 Jones persuaded his crew to mount an assault on Whitehaven. Unfortunately for Jones strong winds forced them to abandon the attempt and instead push the Ranger towards Ireland.
On April 20th, 1778 John Paul Jones learn from captured British Sailors that the HMS Drake was anchored off the coast of Ireland.
According to the diary of the surgeon assigned to the Rangers crew Jones’ first plan was to attack the vessel in broad daylight. However, his crew was unwilling to undertake it. This was not included in Jones’s official report.
The decision was made to attack the Drake just after midnight. However, the sailor responsible for dropping the anchor to halt the Ranger just beside the Drake misjudged the timing. Some say because of the darkness or by some accounts drunkenness. The anchor line had to be cut.
The wind changed direction again and blew the Ranger back toward Whitehaven. The raid was back on!
Burning the ships!
Jones himself led the assault on the town. They took two boats containing 15 men in total. The men set out just after midnight on the 23rd of April 1778. The plan was to set fire or to sink all of the ships at Whitehaven’s harbor. At the time there were around 300 wooden ships in port. Most of these were part of the merchant fleet and many ships were transporting coal. They further planned to scare the townspeople by lighting further fires in the town.
Again the wind started to shift so the journey to the shore was slowed considerably.
Spiking the cannons!
Finally reaching the shore they spiked the town’s big defensive guns to prevent them from being fired.
Spiking was a practice of driving a huge Spike into the hole where the fire was applied to the cannon’s gunpowder to be able to fire the ball. The spikes could be removed but only with great difficulty. It certainly took all the battle-readiness out of the weapon for the short-term.
Does anybody have a light?
The fire to burn the ships was to come from the lanterns on the boats. However, they had gone out on the journey to shore. It is unknown if this was because of the sea or the wind.
Matches were not to be invented for another 60 years. Flint and steel was the common way of starting fires at the time, but it would have been difficult and time-consuming to do so under the circumstances. Both the wind and the need for secrecy prevented this.
So Jones sent two men to raid his old hometown’s public house (a pub!) to secure a lantern or some other means of setting the ships on fire.
Instead of raiding the pub and alerting the town to their presence the two men instead bought drinks, got drunk and did not return until the dawn of the next morning.
A hasty retreat
Jones decided to concentrate the efforts on the coal ship Thompson. The hope was that the flames of the coal ship would spread to the nearby vessels which it all been grounded due to low tide. In the Twilight, one of the crew (possibly one of the men who had gotten drunk the night before and made friends in town) slipped away and alerted the residents of Whitehaven.
The citizens of Whitehaven raised a fire alert and a large number of people came running down to the harbor forcing the Americans to retreat. The residents began to put out the Flames with help with the town’s to fire engines. Yes, no matches but they did have fire engines.
The townspeople tried to sink Jones’s boats but they found the cannons spiked, so Jones and his crew got away.
The Earl of Selkirk
Jones next decided to sail from Whitehaven to Scotland. Now his plan was to kidnap and hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk who lived on Saint Mary’s Isle. The idea was that the Earl could be swapped for American Sailors who had been kidnapped and pushed into service into the Royal Navy.
When he got to the island, the Earl was not at home so his wife entertained Jones and his officers and conducted negotiations. Historians have given credit to the governess for protecting the young heir and to the butler for hiding the family silver in sack half-filled with coal in order to protect it from being stolen from the Americans.
Jones crew was getting restless because they had taken no treasure from the raid on Whitehaven and now they were again turning up empty-handed. Fearing a mutiny, Jones reluctantly allowed the crew to seize a silver plate with the family’s crest on it, to satisfy their lust for treasure. Years later Jones bought the plate himself when it was sold in France and then returned it to the Earl of Selkirk after the war.
The capture of HMS Drake
Jones let the Ranger back across the Irish sea hoping to again make an attempt at the Drake. This time on April 24th, 1778 late in the afternoon the ship’s engaged in combat. Earlier in the day, the Americans have captured the crew of a scouting vessel and from the captured sailors learned that the Drake had taken on dozens of soldiers with the intention of capturing the Ranger.
After an hour-long battle which killed the British captain, the Americans took possession of the Drake.
The effect of the raids
Until the raids on Whitehaven and the capture of the British ships, the people of Great Britain felt safe from the American War. It was something that was going on very far from where they lived. After the raids, British support for the war weakened. Jones’ Service to America helped to ensure a permanent navy.
Death, Burial, and Exhumation
Many years later after the war in 1792, Jones was serving as U.S. console in Paris. He was found dead lying face-down in his bed on the third floor of his Paris apartment he was 45 years old. He was buried at the St. Louis Cemetery which at the time belong to the French Coral family.
4 years later the Revolutionary government which had taken over during the French Revolution sold the property and the cemetery was forgotten.
In the early 1900s historians went looking for Jone’s grave in the hope the American hero could be returned home. After an exhaustive 5 year search, the body of John Paul Jones was found.
The body was exhumed and a post-mortem was performed on the 200-year-old corpse and was photographed.
In 1906 the remains of John Paul Jones were brought by ship to America. The final sea voyage for John Paul Jones. The body was placed in the crypt beneath the Annapolis Maryland Naval Academy. The ceremony was presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The 1999 Pardon of Jones
In 1999, more than 230 years after the attack on the port of Whitehaven, Jones received an honorary pardon from the town. Lieutenant Steve Lyons representing the US naval attachment to the UK was present. The US Navy was awarded the freedom of the port of Whitehaven the only time the honor has been granted in the town’s 400-year-old history.
Statues to John Paul Jones have been erected at the old fort where he spiked the guns.
If you like Naval history you may also be interested in The story of an American ship in North Korea
Cannon Photo by By Humphrey Bolton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9182485
All other images are believed to be in the public domain.