John Paul Jones and the Serapis
Account by Lieutenant Richard Dale.
On the 23d of September, 1779, being below, was roused by an unusual no~se upon deck. This induced me to go upon deck when I found the men were swaying up the royal yards, preparatory to making sail for a large fleet under our lee. I asked the coasting pilot what fleet it was?
He answered, "The Baltic fleet under convoy of the Serapis of 44 guns and the Countess of Scarborough of 20 guns."
A general chase then commenced of the Bon Homme Richard, the Vengeance, the Pallas and the Alliance, the latter ship being then in sight after a separation from the squadron of nearly three weeks, but which ship, as usual, disregarded the private signals of the Commodore. At this time our fleet headed to the northward with a light breeze, Flamborough Head being about two leagues distant. At 7 P.M. it was evident the Baltic fleet perceived we were in chace from the signal of the Serapis to the merchantmen to stand in shore. At the same time the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough tacked ship and stood off shore, with the intention of drawing off our attention from the convoy. When these ships had separated from the convoy about two miles, they again tacked and stood in shore after the merchantmen.
At about eight, being within hail, the Serapis demanded, "What ship is that? "
He was answered, "I can't hear what you say."
immediately after, the Serapis hailed again, "What ship is that? Answer immediately, or I shall be under the necessity of firing into you."
At this moment I received orders from Commodore Jones. to commence de action with a broadside, which indeed appeared to be simultaneous on board both ships Our position being to windward of the SerApis we passed ahead of her, and the Serapis coming up on our larboard quarter, the action comrdoced abreast of each other. The Serapis soon passed ahead of the Bon Homme Richard, and when he thought he had gained a distance sufficient to go down athwart the fore foot to rake us, found he had not enough distance,and that the Bon Homme Richard would be aboard him, put his helm a-lee, which brought the two ships on a line, and the Bon Homme Richard, having head way, ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis.
We had remained in this situation but a few minutes when we were again hailed by the Serapis, "Has your ship struck?"
To which Captain Jones answered, "I have not yet begun to fight!"
As we were unable to bring a single gun to bear upon the Serapis our topsails were backed, while those of the Serapis being filled, the ships separated. The Serapis bore short round upon her heel, and her jibboom ran into the mizen rigging of the Bon Homme Richard In this situation the ships were made fast together with a hawser, the bowsprit of the Serapis to the mizen- I mast of the Bon Homme Richard, and the action recommenced from the star- I board sides of the two ships. With a view of separating the ships, the Serapis | let go her anchor, which manoeuver brought her head and the stern of the Bon Homme Richard to the wind, while the ships lay closely pressed against each other.
A novelty in naval combats was now presented to many witnesses, but to few admirers. The rammers were run into the respective ships to enable the men to load after the lower ports of the Serapis had been blown away, to make room for running out their guns, and in this situation the ships remained until between 10 and 1l o'clock P.M., when the engagement terminated by the surrender of the Serapis.
From the commencement to the termination of the action there was not a man on board the Bon Homme Richard ignorant of the superiority of the Serapis, both in weight of metal and in the qualities of the crews. The crew of that ship was picked seamen, and the ship itself had been only a few months off the stocks, whereas the crew of the Bon Homme Richard consisted of part Americans, English and French, and a part of Maltese, Portuguese and Malays, these latter contributing by their want of naval skill and knowledge of the English language to depress rather than to elevate a just hope of success in a combat under such circumstances. Neither the consideration of the relative force of the ships, the fact of the blowing up of the gundeck above them by the bursting of two of the 1 8-pounders, nor the alarm that the ship was ~nh ing, could depress the ardor or change the determination of the brave Captain Jones, his officers and men. Neither the repeated broadsides of the Allic~ce, I given with the view of sinking or disabling the Bon Homme Richard, the frequent necessity of suspending the combat to extinguish the flames, with several times were within a few inches of the magazine, nor the liberation by the master-at-arms of nearly 500 prisoners, could charge or weaken the purpose of the American commander. At the moment of the liberation of the prisoners, one of them, a commander of a o-gun ship taken a few days before, passed through the ports on board the Serapis and informed Captain Pearso that if he would hold out only a little while longer, the ship alongside would I either strike or sink, and that all the prisoners had been released to save their I lives. The combat was accordingly continued with renewed ardor by the Serapis.
The fire from the tops of the Bo?. Homme Richard was conducted withso much skill and effect as to destroy ultimately every man who appeared upon the quarter deck of the Serapis, and induced her commander to order the survivors to go below. Nor even under the shelter of the decks were they more secure. The powder-monkies of the Serapis, find no officer to receive the 18-pound cartridges brought from the magazines, threw them on the main deck and went for more. These cartridges being scattered along the deck and numbers of them broken, it so happened that some of the hand-grenades thrown from the main-yard of the Bon Homme Richard, which was directly over the main-hatch of the Serapis, fell upon this powder and produced a most awful explosion. The effect was tremendous; more than twenty of the enemy were blown to pieces, and many stood with only the collars of their shirts upon their bodies. In less than an hour afterward, the flag of England, which had been nailed to the mast of the Serapis, was struck by Captain Pearson's own hand, as none of his people would venture aloft on this duty; and this too when more than 1500 persons were witnessing the conflict, and the humiliating termination of it, from Scarborough and Flamborough Head.
Upon finding that the flag of the Serapis had been struck, I went to Captain Jones and asked whether I might board the Serapis, to which he consented, and- jumping upon the gun-wale, seized the main-brace pennant and swung m~self upon her quarter-deck. Midshipman Mayrant followed with a party of men and was immediately run through the thigh with a boarding pike by source of the enemy stationed in the waist, who were not informed of the surrender of their ship.
I found Captain Pearson standing on the leeward side of the quarter-deck and, addressing myself to him, said, "Sir, I have orders to send you on board the ship alongside." The first lieutenant of the Serapis coming up at this moment inquired of Captain Pearson whether the ship alongside had struck to him, To which I replied, "No, Sir, the contrary: he has struck to us."
The lieutenant renewed his inquiry, "Have you struck, Sir?"
"Yes, I have."
The lieutenant replied, "I have nothing more to say," and was about to return below when I informed him he must accompany Captain Pearson on board the ship alongside. He said, "If you will permit me to go below, I will silence the firing of the lower-deck guns."
This request was refused, and with Captain Pearson, he was passed over to the deck of the Bon Homme Richard. Orders being sent below to cease firing, the engagement terminated, after a most obstinate contest of three hours and a half.
Upon receiving Captain Pearson on board the Bon Homme Richard, Captain Jones gave orders to cut loose the lashings, and directed me to follow him | with the Serapis. Perceiving the Bon Homme Richard leaving the Serapis, I I sent one of the quartermasters to ascertain whether the wheel-ropes were cut I auay, supposing something extraordinary must be the matter, as the ship
would not pay off, although the head sails were aback, and no after sail; the quartermaster, returning, reported that the wheel-ropes were all well, and the helm hard a port. Excited by this extraordinary circumstance, I jumped off the binnacle, where I had been sitting, and hlling upon the deck, found to my astonishment I had the use of only one of my legs. A splinter of one of the guns had struck and badly wounded my leg without my perceiving the injury until this moment. I was replaced upon the binnacle, when the sailing-master of the Serapis coming up to me observed that from my orders he judged I must be ignorant of the ship being at anchor. Noticing the second lieutenant of the Bon Ho?mne Richard, I directed him to go below and cut away the cable, and follow the Bon Homme Richard with the Serapis. I was then carried on board the Bon Homme Richard to have my wound dressed.