Introducing John Paul Jones
While the Revolution was being fought out on the land, important battles were taking place also at sea. Until this war began, the Americans had had no need of a navy because the mother country had protected them. But when unfriendly feeling arose, Congress ordered war vessels to be built. These were very useful in capturing British vessels, many of which were loaded with arms and ammunition intended for British soldiers. Powder, as you will remember, was sorely needed by Washington’s army.
Among the men who commanded the American war vessels were some noted sea-captains, the most famous of whom was John Paul Jones.
He was of Scottish birth. His father, John Paul, was a gardener, who lived on the southwestern coast of Scotland. The cottage in which our hero spent his early boyhood days stood near the beautiful bay called Solway Firth, which made a safe harbor for ships in time of storm.
Here little John Paul heard many sailors tell thrilling stories of adventure at sea and in far-away lands. Here, also, to the inlets along the shore, the active lad and his playmates took their tiny boats and made believe they were sailors, John Paul always acting as captain. Sometimes when he was tired and all alone, he would sit by the hour watching the big waves rolling in, and dreaming perhaps of the day when he would become a great sea-captain.
When he was only twelve, he wished to begin his life as a real sailor. So his father apprenticed him to a merchant at Whitehaven who owned a vessel and traded in goods brought from other lands. Soon afterward John Paul went on a voyage to Virginia, where the vessel was to be loaded with tobacco. While there he visited an older brother, who owned a plantation at Fredericksburg.
For six years John Paul remained with the Whitehaven merchant, and during this time he learned much about good seamanship. After the merchant failed in business, John Paul still continued to follow a seafaring life, and in a short time became a captain. But when his brother in Virginia died, John Paul went to Fredericksburg to manage the plantation his brother had left.
It was now his intention to spend the rest of his life here, but, like Patrick Henry, he failed as a farmer. In fact, it would seem that he was born to be a sailor.
In the meantime he had come to be a loyal American, and when the Revolution broke out he determined to offer his services to Congress. When he did so, he changed his name to John Paul Jones. Just why, we do not know.
Congress accepted his services by appointing him first lieutenant. He proved himself so able that in the second year of the war he was put in command of two vessels, with which he captured sixteen prizes in six weeks.
In the following year he was appointed captain of the Ranger and sent to France with letters to Benjamin Franklin, who was then American commissioner at the French court, trying to secure aid for the American cause.
At that time English vessels were annoying American coasts by burning and destroying property. Jones got permission from Franklin to attack British coasts in the same way, and he was allowed to sail from France in his vessel with that purpose in view.
His plan was to sail along the western coast of England and set fire to the large shipping-yards at Whitehaven, with which harbor, you remember, he had become familiar in boyhood. He meant to burn all the three hundred vessels lying at anchor there. Although he succeeded in setting fire to only one large ship, he alarmed the people all along the coast. The warning was carried from town to town: “Beware of Paul Jones, the pirate!”
An English war vessel, the Drake, was sent out to capture the Ranger. As the Drake carried two more guns and a crew better drilled for fighting, it was thought she would make short work of the American ship in a fight. But it was just the other way, for after a battle of a single hour the English vessel surrendered, having lost many men. The American loss was only two men killed and six wounded.
After this brilliant victory the young captain put back to France. There he found great rejoicing among the people, whose good-will was more with America than with England. And as war had already broken out between France and England, the French King was quite willing to furnish Jones with a considerable naval force.