Engagement Between the ‘Bonhomme Richard’ and the ‘ Serapis’ off Flamborough Head Artist: Richard Willis.
The courses of the opponents up to the moment just before the first sighting, early afternoon, 23 September 1779.
The campaigns of George Rogers Clark and John Sullivan gave cause for cheer among the patriots, even though the war in the eastern theater did not seem to be getting off dead center. At the same time, the exploits of the fledgling American navy represented a source of some rejoicing. With trepidation, the Continental Congress ventured into naval affairs during the fall of 1775. John Adams was among the few enthusiasts who had grand visions for a respectable American fleet, especially in challenging British war vessels sent out to blockade the coast- line and harass commercial carriers and port towns. Other delegates, however, feared the costs associated with a massive naval building program.
On October 30, 1775, Congress partially side stepped the issue by establishing its navy committee (later called the marine committee). Within severe financial constraints, the delegates authorized the committee to find and outfit armed vessels for defending the provinces. By January 1776, Congress had pur- chased eight ships and ordered the construction of 13 new frigates. (Frigates were smaller but normally faster and more maneuverable than ships of the line. The latter could carry as many as 120 guns and crews of up to 1,000; the former rarely held more than 50 pieces of ordnance and 300 sailors.) Worried about bankrupting the rebel cause, Congress gave support to what may fairly be described as a modest naval program throughout the war.
The rapid advent of various state navies, as well as privateering vessels, also militated against the need for a sizable Continental navy. All told, combined state navies never had more than 40 craft at their disposal. By comparison, over 2,000 American privateers entered the fray before 1783. Anyone with a ship who had secured a letter of marque (a license to raid enemy craft) from one of the states or Congress could join the ranks of these privately owned vessels to prey upon enemy commerce. Any prize coming from a captured and condemned vessel would be turned over to owner, captain, and crew, according to proportions of investment and crew rank on the craft. Many privateers made fortunes for their owners during the war, as long as they were not caught or destroyed by British war vessels trying to blockade the American coastline.
Privateering was nothing more than a form of legalized piracy in time of war, and its long and well-developed tradition ably served the American cause. Estimates vary as to how many enemy vessels, quite often carrying vital supplies to the British army, were taken. One figure credits American privateers with 600 prizes, with another 200 going to the American navy. On the other hand, David Syrett, in his detailed study of British transport activities, Shipping and the American War, 1775–83, points out that overseas trading operations in 1775 involved 6,000 British vessels (including American-owned bottoms). Of these, 3,386 fell into enemy hands, with 495 being recaptured and 507 ransomed back to their original owners. Permanent seizures, which also would have involved French, Spanish, and Dutch maritime exploits, amounted to 2,384 vessels. If this number is even close to accurate, total privateering and naval operations had a far more profound impact on Britain’s long- distance supply problems than has usually been conceded, even if the British transport service held up well for most of the war.
Whatever the outer limits of vessels seized and condemned, privateering “throttled development of a navy” in Revolutionary America, as Howard H. Peckham has stated. Also inhibiting the process were the many mariners who preferred privateering duty. One key reason was that all the prize money went to owners and crew, whereas Continental naval vessels had to turn over at least half of all proceeds from condemned vessels to Congress. Another was that discipline was often less rigorous on privateering ships, even though American naval regulations (like the army’s Articles of War) were not as harsh as those of European navies, befitting a virtuous citizenry-in-arms. Floggings, the standard form of discipline, could include as many as 1,000 lashes for British mariners; the American code permitted a maximum of 12 stripes, unless the crime was so severe that formal court-martial proceedings exacted a higher penalty—and then only with the approval of the naval commander in chief.
The gentlemen-sailors who commanded the American navy, beginning with phlegmatic Commodore Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, did little to distinguish themselves or the cause of muscular naval forces, relative to more aggressive privateers. What claim to dash and élan the Continental navy earned has focused on boisterous, free-wheeling John Paul Jones, a man whom sailors considered a rigid disciplinarian but extraordinary seaman. Born John Paul in Scotland, the future “father of the American navy” went to sea at an early age and eventually took the surname Jones to cover his identity after killing a mutinous sailor. He soon joined the Continental navy and, early in the war, took many cargo prizes along the Canadian coastline. Then, at the beginning of 1778, Jones appeared in France with the 18-gun sloop of war Ranger. His timing was excellent. The completion of the Franco-American alliance guaranteed patriot naval and privateering captains outfitting privileges in French ports. Even before then, the American commissioners had urged Congress to send patriot war vessels across the Atlantic to harass British commercial carriers in the North Sea and Baltic areas—and even to raid enemy ports. Now guaranteed refitting privileges, Jones was about to gain infamy for his seagoing ventures around Britain.
In April 1778, Jones sailed north into the Irish Sea toward Scotland and raided the English port town of Whitehaven, while attacking British merchant vessels along the way. In the immediate shadow of the French alliance, an intrepid patriot-mariner had carried the war into the vitals of the parent nation. “For the first time in more than one hundred years,” as historian William M. Fowler, Jr., has remarked (Rebels under Sail), “a British port had actually come under close attack by an enemy.” Jones’s raiding expedition helped unnerve a civilian population heretofore isolated from the war and spurred a wave of antiwar protest in Britain. It also underscored the important harassing role that the American navy, however limited in strength, could play. With the French alliance, the allies could strike the extended British empire at almost any point, inflicting nasty wounds from the Caribbean islands to India. After 1778, the global maneuver- ability of allied naval and privateering fleets made the newly defined British military task of protecting the vitals of a far-flung empire that much more of a perplexing challenge.
Jones’s raid was a symbolic warning of the plight facing the British war machine. In 1779, the commander boldly issued a second manifesto. After his Irish Sea activities, Jones returned to France, dallied with a number of French women, and sought a better vessel with which to carry on further seafaring ventures. The French government finally offered him an old merchant hulk. Jones transformed this craft into a 40-gun warship, calling it the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac character “Poor Richard.” On September 23, 1779, while sailing in the North Sea, the American commander engaged the Royal navy’s better-armed (50 guns) frigate Serapis off Flamborough Head. What followed was one of the most memorable naval confrontations of the war. The outgunned Richard nearly sank under withering fire but somehow stayed afloat as Jones and his mariners finally forced the Serapis to capitulate (the Richard sank two days later). The Serapis had been taken within sight of England, some 3,000 miles from North America, which certainly fed fears among English subjects, especially in light of the rumored French invasion, that the war could easily spill over into their homeland.
The Bonhomme Richard against the Serapis was a major capstone to American naval action during the Revolution and represented, as historian James C. Bradford has written, “one of the few glimmers of hope” for the patriot cause “in an otherwise dark year for the young United States.” Certainly, too, isolated, small-scale ship battles on the high seas, especially after the French alliance, exacerbated the problems faced by Great Britain in its attempt to supply its armies and reconquer the North American continent. The unremitting harassment provided by Continental, state, and especially privateering vessels made the Royal navy’s blockade of the American coastline even more paper thin. The Continental fleet was never strong enough to become a truly menacing force, since Congress lacked the resources to underwrite a comprehensive naval program. That is just one more reason why the French alliance was so important in buttressing the rebel cause. Along with critical troop reinforcements on land, the French provided significantly expanded naval capacity, both of which played an indispensable part in bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the American patriots.