Bonne Homme Richard vs Serapis September 23, 1779

The most remarkable single ship duel of the American Revolution was between the Bonne Homme Richard commanded by John Paul Jones and the HMS Serapis. The duel took place on September 23, 1779. The Serapis was a 50 gun ship that outgunned the Bonne Homme Richard which was barely sea worthy. When the captain of the Serapis hailed the Bonne Homme Richard and demanded surrender, John Paul Jones answered:" Surrender be dammed, I have not begun to fight." The Bon Homme Richard went on the vanquish the Serapis..


By 1779, John Paul Jones had garnered an impressive record against the British at sea. In 1776, Paul led a raid against New Brunswick to try to secure the release of American captives, who unfortunately were no longer there when he arrived. In April 1778, Jones undertook a series of raids around England, while commanding the US Ranger. His raids included two daring landings on the English coast itself. This was the first attack on English soil since a Dutch raid, 115 years before. While the attacks were not militarily significant, they electrified the American people. The attacks also encouraged increased French support, while at the same time making Paul a feared household name throughout England.

In 1779, The French were planning a potential invasion of England. They were interested in creating diversions to keep the British busy. Therefore, the French were happy to arm Jones and give him as much support as possible. Jones was equipped with a small squadron, led by his flagship, which he renamed the Bon Homme Richard. The Bon Homme Richard was slow. It was equipped with 40 guns. Its compliment contained 20 officers, 17 of whom were Americans; and 187 seamen, of which 62 were Americans. In addition, there were 137 French marines on board the ship.

Jones headed out to sea in the Bon Homme Richard. He was accompanied by three other ships; two Frigates and a cutter, as well as two armed merchant ships. Jones departed for L'Orient in mid-August. He sailed around Ireland and crossed into the North Sea between the Shetlands Islands and Orkney Islands.

On September 23rd, a lookout on the Bon Homme Richard spotted ships on the horizon. They saw a convoy of merchant vessels returning from the Baltic. These ships provided a perfect target for Jones and his fleet. The only problem was that the convoy was being guarded by the Serapis, a new frigate armed with 50 guns. Also part of the convoy, was the smaller royal sloop the Countess of Scarborough.

The Bon Homme Richard was no match for the newer and more heavily armed Serapis. That did not deter Jones from entering battle. He called his men to battle stations at 5PM. The sun set a little after 6PM. However, that night the seas were illuminated by the full moon. By 7PM, the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis had drawn close enough together that the men on the ships could hear the orders being given on the enemy ship.

At 7:15PM the first cannon was fired. Both ships fired broadsides, with the Serapis getting off three full broadside, s causing devastation on the decks of the Bon Homme Richard.

Jones concluded that his only chance against a more heavily armed and more nimble Serapis was to try to board her, and gain control in hand to hand combat. Jones' attempt failed. Then Serapis tried to to ram the Bon Homme Richard and failed. As a result, the two ships became entangled. Both fired at each other at point blank range, causing more and more devestation. The Serapis crew tried to board the American ship and failed. At 9:15PM the Alliance, one of Jones' ships arrived on the scene. But instead of hitting the Serapis it hit the Bon Homme Richard. At this point the British commander, Captain Pearson shouted to Jones "ave you struck? ", meaning are you ready to surrender?. The exact words that Jones responded are not known, but he clearly replied, "No". The battle accounts, after the fact, edited his words to the famous phrase: "I have not yet begun to fight", which became immortalized in American military lore.

It looked liked a battle of attrition would continue for hours, when the fighting suddenly came to an end. An American grenade went through a hatch on the Serapis and exploded a series of arms magazines. Captain Pearson had no choice but to strike his colors and surrender. Jones had been successful. The Bon Homme Richard was too damaged to survive. The ship sunk the next day. Jones had control of the Serapis, which was made sea worthy. This allowed him to sail off in victory, with its crew imprisoned.

John Paul Jones and the Serapis Account by Lieutenant Richard Dale On the 23d of September, 1779, being below, was roused by an unusual noise 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? More