The following short extract appeared in 'The life of Paul Jones' By John Henry Sherburne 1825
On the morning of the 23d a fleet of forty-one sail appeared off Flamborough Head, bearing N.N.E. Jones now called back a pilot boat which he had manned, under the command of a lieutenant, in pursuit of a brigantine, and hoisted the signal for a general chase. When the fleet discovered the American squadron bearing down, all the merchant ships crowded sail towards the shore. The two ships of war that protected the fleet immediately steered from the land, and made disposition for battle.
These ships were the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough. Jones now crowded every possible sail, and made the signal for the line of battle, to which the Alliance showed no attention. With all possible exertion Jones could not reach the English commodore's ship until seven in the evening.
And now commenced an engagement, the parallel of which is not to be found in the naval annals of any nation.
The Serapis, 44 guns, was one of the finest frigates in his Majesty's navy, and had been off the stocks only a few months. Her crew were picked men, and she was commanded by Captain Richard Pearson, an officer celebrated even in the British navy for his undaunted courage and exemplary conduct.
The Bon Homme Richard was an old ship with decayed timbers, and had made four voyages to the East Indies. Many of her guns were useless, and all were ancient. - Her crew consisted partly of Americans, partly of French, partly of English, and partly of Maltese, Portugueze and Malays; and this crew was weak also in numbers, for two boats' crews had been lost on the coast of Ireland; and to add to accumulated misfortunes, Jones's first lieutenant and eighteen men in the pilot boat did not join the Bon Homme Richard in time for battle.
Before the engagement commenced, there was not a man in the Bon Homme Richard who was ignorant of the superiority of the Serapis, both in metal and in men. The Portugueze and the other foreigners could speak neither French nor English, and, chattering in their native tongues, without ceasing, added not a little to the difficulties which presented themselves. The American commander had nothing to trust to but his own undaunted courage and extraordinary skill.
The position of the Bon Homme being to windward of the Serapis, the Bon Homme passed a-head of her, and the Serapis came up on the larboard quarter of the American.
The action commenced abreast of each other, and the broadsides were almost simultaneous. The Serapis, however, passed a-head of the Bon Homme with the intention of gaining distance sufficient to rake, but this manoeuvre failed, from want of distance; and to avoid being boarded by the Bon Homme, Captain Pearson sent his helm a-lee. This movement brought the two ships in a line, and the Bon Homme ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis.
The English now hailed the Bon Homme, to know whether they had struck. Jones himself answered, "that he had not yet begun to fight." But the truth was, that the broadsides of the Serapis had already produced an effect. The Bon Homme, before eight o'clock, had received several eighteen-pounders under water, and leaked very much. Jones received no assistance from his squadron: the Pallas was engaged with the Countess of Scarborough, the Vengeance held off at a distance, and the Alliance declined interfering altogether. The position in which the two contending frigates were now placed was most favourable to Jones, for not a gun could take effect on either side, and he thus gained some moments for consideration, which the American commander stood much in need of. Besides her superior force, he had already perceived, that the English was the much more manageable ship of the two.
The Bon Homme now backed her top-sails, and those of the Serapis being filled, the ships separated. The bowsprit of the Serapis now came over the Bon Homme's poop by the mizen mast. Jones darted like a cat upon his prey and immediately grappled. The action of the wind on the enemy's sails forced her stern close to the Bon Homme's bow, "so that the ships lay square alongside of each other, the yards being all entangled, and the cannon of each ship touching the opponent's side."This was a bold way of saving a sinking ship and preventing the effect of eighteen pounders under water!
"The battle,"to use Jones's own words, was fought with unremitting fury."The rammers were run into the respective ships to enable the men to load. The Serapis now fought with the actual view of sinking the enemy, and her broadsides were incessant. The battery of twelve pounders, on which Jones had placed his chief dependence, which was commanded by his only lieutenant, and manned by Americans, was entirely silenced and abandoned; of the six old eighteen pounders that formed the battery of the lower gun deck, most burst, and killed almost all the men who were stationed to manage them.
At the same time, Colonel Chamillard, who commanded a party of twenty French volunteers on the poop, abandoned his station, after having lost nearly all his band. There were only two nine pounders on the quarter deck, that were not silenced.
The purser, who commanded the party that worked these guns, was shot through the head; and Jones, in this critical moment, when he almost required the faculty of ubiquity, was obliged to fill the purser's place. With great difficulty he rallied a few men, and shifted over one of the lee quarter deck guns; these three nine pounders played well, but not one of the heavier cannon of the Bon Homme was fired during the rest of the action.
During this hot work the American commander was fully convinced that sooner or later his ship must sink, yet Commodore Dale, one of the most eminent of the American officers now living, and who was Jones's first lieutenant during the engagement, says, that Jones never once flinched during the whole conflict; and that even during the greater horrors which are to follow, "nothing could depress his ardour, or change his determination."
Jones, however, had well lined his tops, and these seconded the exertions of his little battery. He directed the fire of one of the three cannons against the mainmast of the Serapis with double-headed shot, while the two other were equally well served with grape and cannister to silence the enemy's musketry and clear her decks. The fire from the tops of the Bon Homme was conducted with such skill and effect, that, ultimately, every man who appeared on the deck of the Serapis was immediately disposed of.
Captain Pearson then ordered the survivors to keep below. Here they were not more secure. The powder monkies of the Serapis finding no officer to receive the eighteen pound cartridges, which it was their duty to supply, threw them on the main deck and then went off for more. These cartridges being scattered along the deck, and many of them being broken, it so happened, that some of the hand grenades thrown from the fore-yard of the Bon Homme, which was directly over the main hatch of the Serapis, fell upon this powder and produced a most awful explosion.
The effect was terrific; more than twenty of the English were blown to pieces. Pearson, as he afterwards acknowledged, was now on the point of surrendering, when the cowardice of three of the under officers of the Bon Homme induced them to call out "quarter!" The English commander personally demanded of Jones whether he surrendered ; the American commander personally answered in the most decided negative.
The action now commenced with redoubled fury; Jones still succeeded in keeping the enemy's deck clear; but the fire of their cannon, especially of the lower battery which was formed of eighteen pounders, was incessant. Both ships were now on fire in several places. The Bon Homme was several times under the necessity of suspending the combat to extinguish the flames, which were often within a few inches of the magazine. The water also gained upon them. "I had two enemies to contend with,"said Jones, "besides the English, - fire and water!"
At this moment the Alliance appeared, and Jones now thought the battle was at an end; but, to his utter astonishment, Landais discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Bon Homme. The crew cried to him, "for God's sake to forbear firing into the Bon Homme Richard,"but Landais passed along the offside of the ship, and continued his firing. There was no possibility of his mistaking the Bon Homme for the Serapis, for there was the most essential difference in their appearance and construction; it was full moonlight too, and the sides of the American were all black and of the Serapis yellow. For
greater security, Jones gave the signal of reconnaissance, but nothing availed: the Alliance passed round, firing into her commodore's ship's head, stern, and broadside, and by one of her vollies killed several men and wounded a valuable officer. "My situation,"say Jones, was now really deplorable."
The Alliance at last, sailed off; not, however, without giving the Bon Homme several shots underwater. This was perfect destruction. The leak gained ground on the pumps, and the fire increased so much on board both ships, that some officers advised Jones to strike, "of whose courage and good sense he entertained the highest opinion."
It was a grand scene that the Channel witnessed that night. A numerous fleet had taken refuge under the walls of Scarborough castle; the Bon Homme and Serapis, joined in an encounter almost unparalleled for its fierceness and duration, finely contrasted with the picturesque and shattered appearance of the Pallas and the Countess of Scarborough, now both silenced; and the moon, which was extremely bright and full, lighted up, not only this magnificent scene, but Flamborough Head, and the surrounding heights covered with the inhabitants of all the neighbouring towns.
While the American commodore appeared to be hesitating, whether he should follow the advice of his officers, his master at arms, who was frightened out of his wits, suddenly let loose all the prisoners, amounting to nearly five hundred, telling them, "to save themselves as the ship was going to sink."
This last misfortune seemed to be decisive. One prisoner jumped over to the enemy, and told them, that if they held out a moment longer the enemy must strike. "Our rudder,"says Jones, in his letter to Franklin, was entirely off; the stern-frame, and transoms were almost entirely cut away; the timbers by the lower deck, especially from the mainmast to the stern, being greatly decayed by age, were mangled beyond every power of description; and a person must have been an eye-witness, to have formed a just idea,of the tremendous scene of carnage, wreck and ruin that every where appeared.
"Yet, notwithstanding this state, - notwithstanding that the prisoners were loose, - that the ship was on fire in many places, and that there was five feet of water in the hold, Jones determined to fight on. He observed what his affrightened crew had overlooked - he saw the mainmast of the Serapis shake, and his practised ear told him, that "their firing decreased."He took care that his own should immediately increase; and at half past ten, in the sight of thousands, the flag of England, which had been nailed to the mast of the Serapis, was struck by Captain Pearson's own hand. Her mainmast at the same time went overboard.
Had Napoleon commanded the British frigate, he would have said, that he "ought to have won."Very probably the brave English captain thought the same.
Before any thing, except the wounded, could be removed, the Bon Homme Richard sank. The Countess of Scarborough had previously struck to the Pallas.