The Bonhomme Richard engaged the English convoy ship Serapis,by moonlight, on the night of September 23, 1779, off Flamborough Head, England. The annals of the American Navy contain no finer example of courage and leadership than this duel, which Jones finally won by boarding the enemy ship.
Wyeth’s page for the month of August in his series America in the Making shows John Paul Jones (1747-1792), known today as the Father of the Navy, in his most glorious moment. It was also a glorious moment for the American colonies because it was their first major naval victory in the fight to win independence from Great Britain. Wyeth’s illustration for July was the final victory of the Revolutionary War on the land, and Captain John Paul Jones is its most renowned battle on the sea. It was in the thick of this fight that Jones is supposed to have uttered one of the most famous American battle cries, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The battle is important, not only because of the personal
courage Jones displayed in pursuing it, but because it was the first major engagement in
which the Americans had bested the sea power of the British Empire.
As in Washington’s triumph at Yorktown, France played a role in the good fortunes of
the colonies. The ship that Jones sailed, thenBonhomme Richard, was actually a French
vessel built in 1765 and named Le Duc de Duras. To ensure that French sympathy for
the revolution brought forth actual, material support, Benjamin Franklin and other colonial
leaders stationed themselves in Paris, where Jones and the elder statesman became good friends. When he received command of his ship, Jones at once renamed it in honor of Franklin’s pen name for his Poor Richard’s Almanack. Much of Jones’s service during the war was actually in the waters between France and England, where part of his mission was to harass the British along their shores and interrupt their North American supply lines. The battle off Flamborough Head took place within viewing distance of the Yorkshire coast when Jones encountered a British convoy and took on its largest protective vessel, the Serapis.
Born in Scotland, the son of a gardener on a large estate, Jones went off to sea at the
age of thirteen. A place in the Royal Navy would have suited the ambitious young man,
but the sons of gardeners were not likely to be offered a commission. So he entered the
merchant fleet, serving on a variety of vessels. Among the ports of call he visited was Virginia, where his brother had emigrated and where the more egalitarian society appealed to him. His first command came after the captain and first mate of the ship on which he was sailing died, leaving Jones the only person capable of navigating on the high seas. On the safe arrival of the ship back in Scotland, the owners, in gratitude, officially elevated him to Captain in 1769. Over the next years, Jones expanded his sea experience, but his career was adversely affected by his reputation for a volatile temper
and by serious altercations with crew members on two separate occasions. Though he had been cleared in the death of one and likely acted in self defense with the other, he fled
nevertheless. He found his way to Virginia and changed his name, which had been John Paul, to John Paul Jones in 1774.
By the following year, the American Revolution had begun, and Jones offered his services to the Continental Congress as they authorized the establishment of a Navy in 1775. He won his commission as a lieutenant and soon joined the very small American fleet working the waters along the colonial coast and down into the Caribbean. Within a year, he once again rose to the rank of captain and was ordered to France. From there, Jones carried out his mission of harassing the enemy so well that he gained a firm reputation as a pirate for his raids along British coasts. He was commanding a group of
four ships in the North Sea when he confronted the Serapis.
The battle began around 8:00 in the evening as a full moon was just beginning to rise. Several versions of the inciting conversation between Jones and the captain of the Serapis exist, all of which suggest the bravado and eagerness with which Jones began the engagement. Though his ship was older and outgunned,Jones wanted the opportunity to show his abilities. The ensuing conflict was vicious and in the end, the Bonhomme Richard was sunk, but not before the Americans had taken the British ship and won the battle. The dark blue sky in Wyeth’s painting is lighter than might be expected, possibly to register the flashes and explosions that would have lit up the area around the two ships. Not long after the Americans encountered the Serapis, the other three ships accompanying Jones drew away and on only one occasion (a disastrous one) did
they contribute to the battle.1
As the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis came within shouting distance, the Captains called out to each other, the English trying to learn and the American trying to conceal the identity of the Richard. When Jones’s reply made it clear that he did not intend to back down, the British opened fire with their cannons which, causing immediate serious damage, began “this long and bloody battle.”2 The American ship had six eighteen-pound cannons, but they were old and when fired, half of them exploded killing a number of men. From then on, Jones could use only his smaller cannon, the ones on the quarter deck, to continue the fight, and this desperate situation may be the scene that Wyeth intended to illustrate. The Serapis maintained its bombardment, blasting through the hull from one side to the other, killing and wounding many of the crew and the Marines3. Jones realized, as did his men that the Serapis was “more than our match”4 and that they “had no chance in a cannonade.”5 Therefore, he devised a plan that he hoped would minimize the effect of the cannon bombardment. Over the next hours, Jones maneuvered his ship so close to the Serapis that falling masts and rigging and sails were as likely to land on the decks of the opposing ship as their own. Explaining his strategy, Jones recalled, “In this unfortunate extremity [the guns of the Richard] being no longer in a condition to return the enemy’s fire, I had recourse to a dangerous expedient, to grapple with the Serapis...to render her superiority useless....This maneuver succeeded most admirably, and I fastened the Serapis, with my own hands, to the Richard.”6 Some accounts claim that, with this proximity, each ship threw grappling hooks in attempts to board the other, but neither was successful.7
As the cannoneers kept up as they could and the Marines fired their muskets, the sailors climbed high into the rigging where they could throw grenades and other missiles. The fires that broke out on each ship spread through the tangled rigging and sails to the other so that both ships were on fire. Around this point in the battle, an incident occurred which has gone down in history and may be the scene that Wyeth is illustrating. It is also the source of one of the most famous American battle cries, though it is not clear what exactly Jones said. In all the confusion, a gunner became convinced that Jones and his second in command had both been killed and that their ship was sinking, so he shouted across to Captain Pearson of the Serapis asking for quarter, or to surrender. Jones had been on the other side of the deck manning cannons himself and did not realize what the gunner had done. According to one account, Jones recalled his words to the British captain. “The captain [of the Serapis], on hearing the gunner express his wishes to surrender...instantly addressed himself to me, and exclaimed, ‘Do you ask for quarter? Do you ask for quarter?’ I was so occupied, at this period, in serving the three pieces of cannon in the forecastle, that I remained totally ignorant of what had occurred on deck; I replied, however, ‘I do not dream of surrendering, but am determined to make you strike!” (To “strike” the flag is to bring it down from the mast and present it in submission to the victor.)8 In Wyeth’s painting, the positions of the sailors suggest that they may be firing three cannons, but the smoke of battle makes it unclear.
According to American legend, what Jones shouted back to Captain Pearson was the
heroic phrase, “I have not yet begun to fight.” This exclamation is not in the caption, and
Captain Jones does not appear to be speaking, but since it is the most enduring and popular part of the story, it is likely the artist had it in mind and knew that his viewers would also be familiar with it. Wyeth may have also been thinking about Jones’s description of the English reaction to his taunting refusal. “The English commander, however, conceived some faint hopes...that the Richard was actually sinking; but when he perceived that her fire did not diminish,” he repositioned his men “where they kept up such a tremendous discharge against the Richard, that it at once indicated vengeance and despair.”9 In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, Jones gave this terse account: “The English Commodore asked me if I demanded quarter, and I having answered him
in the most determined negative, they renewed the battle with double fury.”10 Despite the
terrible damage and carnage on both sides, the battle did go on, and Wyeth may be capturing the moment when Jones carries on the fight with renewed determination.
With the ships lashed together, the combat was close, and the clouds of smoke in Wyeth’s picture may well express the confusion from all of the explosions. As he shows, smaller cannon kept up and other guns fired, but in the end the battle was finished by the men in the “tops,” or up amidst the sails and rigging. In Wyeth’s painting, the battered, shot-through sails in the upper left corner are probably intended to represent the Serapis and to demonstrate how close the two ships were to each other. One of the Americans fighting from his position above the deck threw a grenade which landed among some casks of gunpowder on the Serapis. The resulting blast created such casualties and
damage that Captain Pearson was forced to surrender his ship and strike his colors. The
battle had gone on past midnight, bringing a terrible toll on both sides: 150 American dead
from a crew of 322, and 130 from the British crew of 284. In a letter to Benjamin Franklin,
Jones observed, “Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and lament that war should produce such fatal consequences.”11 An additional casualty was the Bonhomme Richard itself, which was so badly damaged that it sank the next morning. Jones, his crew, and the captured British sailed back to port in the Serapis.
Jones’ costume of a blue coat with red trim and light-colored waistcoat and breeches was the official uniform of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War period. When the service was established in October of 1775, the Continental Congress wished to have a plainer uniform that was not as ornate as those of officers in the Royal Navy. American officers, however, insisted upon having golden trim, August Captain John Paul Jones 57such as the epaulets on Jones’s shoulders and the buttons of the coat. The Congress had little money to spend on uniforms in any case, and it is likely that many officers supplied their own clothing. Like most ordinary seamen of the time, crews on American ships were generally not issued uniforms, but wore whatever they could
find, as Wyeth’s depiction of the cannoneers shows; ordinarily these sailors went barefoot when on board ship.12
Wyeth depicts Jones holding a sword and a speaking trumpet. As noted, the battle was
mainly fought through cannon blasts and then with hand grenades thrown onto the deck
of the Serapis. As the crews of both ships attempted to board the enemy during the
course of the battle, hand-to-hand combat would have also been an element in which
personal weapons such as swords and knives were likely employed. The sword of the
commander, whether ever actually used or not, was the symbol of surrender, and when
Captain Pearson gave up his ship, his sword was presented to Jones, just as Cornwallis’s would be offered to Washington at Yorktown.13 The speaking trumpet was used to project the captain’s voice in hopes that all combatants could hear his orders over the noise of battle. It was a common object used to broadcast commands for daily shipboard proceedings and for shouting across to other ships. At least two contemporary accounts refer to Jones’s use of his speaking trumpet. One incident occurred just after Jones and his group sailed from France in August of 1779. He grew angry with his junior officers who, he felt, had inefficiently pursued an escaping ship and, “struck several
of his officers with his speaking trumpet” and sent them below decks. Typical of Jones,
his temper quickly subsided, and he soon invited them to dine with him in his quarters.14
Another incident shows the role the speaking trumpet played in communications between
vessels engaged in battle, and Jones’ battle specifically. The Bonhomme Richard drew up close to the Serapis, but Jones wanted to keep his ship’s identity (and intention) secret as long as possible. One of the crew recalled, “While we were still bearing down upon the enemy, she hailed us in these words: ‘Hoie! The ship a-hoie’ Our Captain, with a large trumpet in his hand, made no answer. The enemy again cried, ’The ship a-hoie!’ Jones then in a very loud voice said: ‘I can’t tell what you say.’ The enemy again replied: ‘Tell me what ship that is directly or I will sink you.’ Jones then answered: ‘Sink and be damned!’”15 In the course of this battle, shouted commands, requests, and declarations
were exchanged on several occasions, as the fighters struggled to determine who was
striking their colors, who was not, and how the actions should be directed.
During his own lifetime, Jones’s fame was such that he was portrayed by one of the
most prominent portraitists of the time. A group of French admirers commissioned
from Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) a bust of Jones showing him in his naval uniform.
Houdon created portrait sculptures of many of the preeminent figures of his day, including
famous images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Jones was so pleased with the sculpture that he had replicas made and presented them to friends, including Thomas Jefferson. Wyeth’s studio contained a cast of Houdon’s sculpture, and he surely referred to it for this picture.16 He had already depicted Jones in his 1926 mural, The Apotheosis of Franklin, where he held a prominent position among the Revolutionary heroes in the front row, just aside from Washington himself. In 1928, Wyeth contributed fourteen illustrations to Drums, a novel of the Revolutionary War, in which the young hero actually fought on board the Bonhomme Richard.17 Wyeth also included Jones in a 1944 wartime calendar depicting him raising the first American flag on his ship in 1774.
We do not know how Wyeth decided on what incidents he would illustrate in America in the Making or if it was even his choice. He was well acquainted with the history of America and, as an illustrator he was particularly adept at isolating scenes that would infuse drama and insight into the stories. Wyeth’s choice of John Paul Jones may have been influenced by his regard for Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who was responsible for seeing that Jones was enshrined at the United States Naval Academy as a hero of the first rank. Wyeth had long admired Roosevelt and Roosevelt approved of Wyeth’s illustrations of virile, outdoor exploits. When the two met in 1913, Wyeth described it as “awe-inspiring,” and his regard for “the Great Roosevelt” did not waver for the rest of his life.18 As President, Roosevelt was concerned that the country was insufficiently maintaining the Navy, and as part of his campaign to upgrade that force, he rehabilitated the reputation of John Paul Jones. After his great victory off Flamborough Head, Jones was celebrated in both Paris and America, but his fortunes were affected by his
personality, in which many people found faults. In addition, the Navy was disbanded after the Revolutionary War (and not re-established until 1798). When Jones died in Paris in 1792, he was buried in a local cemetery and the location forgotten. President Roosevelt learned that the burial place of Jones had been rediscovered in 1905, and he set in motion a complicated sequence which led to the excavation of the body and its transportation back to America, accompanied by an honorary squadron of U.S. Navy ships (including the Iowa). When the body was re-interred in a grand ceremony at the Naval Academy in 1906, President Roosevelt was the main speaker, and he used the opportunity to insist upon the importance of maintaining a first-rate Navy for American defense. “Every officer in our Navy,” he told the crowd, “should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones.”19 As the country neared World War II, Wyeth may have been thinking about Theodore Roosevelt, his support of the Navy, and America’s first hero of the sea.
1 This situation at least partly reflects the bad relations between Jones and some of the other officers, and it may also demonstrate insubordination in the recently established American Navy. Sources on Jones are full of reports of difficulties resulting from his
temperament. He had a particularly bad relationship with the captain of the one of the larger ships in his group, the Alliance. At a fairly late and desperate point in the battle, the Alliance reappeared and began firing, but most of its shots fell on the Bonhomme Richard. According to Jones’s logbook, the Alliance “rak’d us fore and aft,” and a crew member later related that it “began a heavy and well-directed fire into us....It was in vain that...they were told that they were firing into the wrong ship; it was in vain that they
were told that they had slain a number of our men.” This sailor also recalled how, as the Alliance began its assault, “The moon at this time, as though ashamed to behold this bloody scene any longer, retired behind a dark cloud.” Fanning’s Narrative, Being the Memoirs of Nathaniel Fanning, an Officer of the Revolutionary Navy, 1778-1783, edited and annotated by John S. Barnes, New York: Naval History Society, 1912, 36. Fanning’s Narrative is one of several accounts written some years after the battle took place. http://www.archive.org/details/fanningsnarrative00navyrich. The darkness may have accounted for the Alliance’s mistake, but it may also have been intentional. Jones’s
logbook can be accessed on the website of the United States Naval Academy: http://www.usna.edu/Users/oceano/pguth/website/shipwrecks/last_day/bhr_log_
2 Fanning’s Narrative, 36.
3 The Marine Corps was established by the Continental Congress in November of 1775 in Philadelphia, just shortly after the Navy was founded. The duty of Marines on board navy ships is to carry out combat related to naval engagements, including the landing
and occupation of enemy land.
4 Fanning’s Narrative, 39.
5 Cooper, James Fenimore, Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846, 24. This article and other useful materials on Jones can be found on the website of the Naval Historical Center. http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/jones_jp_cooper.htm.
6 This account of Jones’s life, supposedly based onhis own memoirs and letters, appeared in 1812. “Paul Jones,” [sic], The Niles’ Weekly Register, 44 (4 July 1812); the Niles account was serialized in the magazine and is organized by date. The entire
series of articles can be found on the website of the Naval Historical Center: http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/jones_jp_niles.htm#2. In his telling of Jones’s career, the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper reports that “with his own hands he [Jones] lashed the enemy’s bowspirit to the Richard’s mizzenmast.” Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, 18. August Captain John Paul Jones 597 One such account is Kilby’s narrative in which he tells of Jones tying the two ships together and then exclaiming “’Now we’ll hold her fast by this until one or the other sinks.’ During this time, you may be sure, neither ship’s guns nor any of the implements of war were idle. We hove on board the enemy at least fifty grappling irons. They made several attempts to
saw and cut them away, but we continued to fling more on board. At last the British commander cried out for his boarders when the brave Jones cried out ‘Come on. I am ready to receive you.’ They mounted and attempted to enter our gang-way but we beat
them off.” “Narrative of John Kilby, Quarter-Gunner of the U.S. Ship ‘Bon Homme Richard,’ Under Paul Jones [sic],” Scribner’s Magazine, vol.XXXVIII, July-December 1905, 22-41, 31. http://www.usna.edu/Users/oceano/pguth/website/shipwrecks/last_day/
10 Lewis, Charles Lee, “Notes and Documents: “I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol.22, no.4 (March 1942), 229-237. There are numerous studies on Jones’s cry and when it came to be remembered as “I have not yet begun to fight. A recent synopsis of the various sources for the phrase can be found in Thomas, Evan, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. It seems likely that the exact phrase was contained in an account of the battle by Captain Richard Dale found in an 1825 biography: Sherburne, John Henry, Life and Character of John Paul Jones, New York: Wilder and Campbell.
By the time Cooper wrote his biography in 1846, the phrase had been incorporated into the legend.
11 Callo, Joseph, John Paul Jones; America’s First Sea Warrior, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006, 93.
12 For a history of the Navy’s uniforms and other information related to Naval operations since the Revolutionary War, see http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/uniform_history.thm#en1.
13 In recognition of his victory, King Louis XVI of France presented Jones with a commemorative sword. This sword and one supposedly carried by Jones during
the Revolutionary War were illustrated in a substantial book published at the time that Jones’s body was interred at the United States Naval Academy in 1906. John Paul Jones, Commemoration at Annapolis, April 24, 1906, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907; 20, 138. It is not known if Wyeth knew of either of these swords, though he might certainly have known about the book. His tax records indicate that he traveled to the Wilmington Institute Library where he might have consulted this volume. These records indicate that he also traveled to Philadelphia to study models of ships.
14 Fanning’s Narrative, 24.
15 ”Narrative of John Kilby,” 31.
16 See the curatorial comments for this painting in Podmaniczky, 677, C 122 (281), which states that “a cast of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Captain Jones that was in the studio must have been acquired prior to this commission.” In addition, references in a letter date this painting to June of 1938, suggesting it was one of the earliest completed in the series.
17 In addition to the fourteen full color illustrations, Wyeth also created forty-seven line drawings for the book. The three color illustrations having to do directly with the life of John Paul Jones are The Mother of John Paul Jones, On the Sea Wall with John Paul Jones, and a scene of the battle entitled The Fight in the Foretop. Boyd, James, Drums, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928.
18 For references to Wyeth’s regard for Theodore Roosevelt, see Michaelis, David, N.C. Wyeth: A Biography, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1998, especially 228 and 268.
19 Roosevelt’s speech and information related to Jones, particularly the rediscovery and relocation of his remains back to America, is found in the 1906 commemorative volume. In addition to documents related to Jones’s life, the book contains photographs of the excavation in Paris and even of the head of the