A few years ago, while walking the streets of Paris, I chanced upon an historic apartment building. A gentlemen walking with my group shared the apartment was the place where John Paul Jones, the American naval commander during the country’s revolution, died of kidney failure in 1792.
Jones is remembered as an epic leader and a pirate; raiding English shipping during the American Revolution and sacking the British ability to bring as many supplies to the colonies for war. He is most noted for his leadership during the famous battle of Flamborough Head off the coast of England. Jones and his crew proved their metal in a nearly four-hour long battle against an up-and-coming English sea commander, Richard Pearson.
As night fell on Sept. 23, 1799, Jones, commanding the Bonhomme Richard, a former French vessel renamed in honor of Ben Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanack, moved to broadside against the Serapis. The English vessel had more guns than Jones’s Richard. In fact, during the beginning moments of the battle, some of Jones’s older cannons exploded when fired and tore chunks out of the Richard’s hull. The cannon fire from the Serapis caused a lot of destruction across the decks of his ship and nearly destroyed Jones’s private cabin.
People are also reading…
The fighting was fierce. Jones sent sharpshooters high into the rigging of his own ship and gave them orders to shoot anyone on the deck of the Serapis. Other sailors, armed with grappling hooks, slung them over into the rigging of the Serapis and attempted to board the ship. The English sailors began cutting away the hooks and rope in an attempt to protect their own vessel.
Two hours or more into the battle, the decks of both ships were awash with debris such as bits of rope, sail, burning wood from cannon and grenade, and human blood and waste.
Jones, for most of the entire battle, concentrated cannon on the 3-foot wide mainmast of the Serapis. While his own ship began to sink and stall below the water line, he kept plugging away. Eventually, the remaining crew of the Richard boarded the Serapis after American grenades managed to destroy a few crucial enemy guns. After three and a half hours, the English surrendered their ship and the Bonhomme Richard sunk.
Jones, who desired another command in the American navy, unfortunately never had another sweeping victory like Flamborough. To his dismay, he held no other important command in the navy. He served for a time in the navy of Catherine the Great in Russia, but was eventually ousted from the position. He returned to Paris, his adopted home, and began to drink heavily. He died while waiting for a commission in the American navy.
He was given a small funeral and his casket was placed in a cemetery for foreign Protestants. Jones always hoped he would eventually be given some American honors and provided special instructions for his body to be covered in alcohol for preservation.
In the early 1900s, a former soldier and U.S. Ambassador to France, Gen. Horace Porter, began what amounted to a six-year expedition in Paris to find the grave of the great commander. Porter knew he had been buried in the Protestant cemetery in two coffins, one of which was lead, in order to preserve the body. The trouble was other buildings and a parking lot had been built on top of the cemetery site. No one could be sure if a coffin was found, it would contain his remains.
On the last day of March 1905, Porter and his crew found a possible match for Jones’s remains. They opened the two coffins and noticed the face had been well preserved as a result of the alcohol. Using measurements of the body’s face and crossing them with suggested measurements and facial representations of Jones, Porter concluded the body lying in the alcohol-laden casket was John Paul Jones.
On April 24, 1906, Jones’s remains arrived at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. Amid national celebrations and fanfare, the hero of the Battle of Flamborough was reburied in a crypt beneath the chapel at the academy.
When Jones’s body was discovered in Paris just over a century ago, several disputed Porter’s claim. Some historians and archeologists still fault Porter for the techniques he used to identify the body. However, more recent scholarship supports Porter’s conclusions.
As the story goes, the night of Sept. 23 1779, as the Bonhomme Richard was sinking, the English naval captain asked Jones if he wanted to surrender his vessel and break off the engagement. Jones shouted, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and CCC&TI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.