USS Alfred – First to Hoist U.S. Flag

United States - Scott #790 (1936)
United States – Scott #790 (1936)

On December 3, 1775, the warship USS Alfred, formerly a merchant vessel called Black Prince was commissioned into the Continental Navy of what would become the United States of America. During the commissioning ceremonies on the western shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, newly-appointed Lieutenant John Paul Jones has the honor to hoist the Grand Union flag, the first time the banner that is considered to be the first national flag of the U.S. had been raised on a ship. The flag consists of 13 alternating red and white stripes, but with the upper inner corner (canton) being the British Union flag of the time. Commanded by Captain Dudley Saltonstall, Alfred was the flagship of Commodore Esek Hopkins’ Continental Navy flotilla during the remainder of 1775 and the first four months of 1776. John Paul Jones would go on to become the United States’ first well-known naval commander of the American Revolutionary War and is sometimes referred to as the “Father of the American Navy.”

Built in Philadelphia in 1774, the Alfred was originally named for Edward, the Black Prince. No record of her builder seems to have surviced but it is possible that the ship was constructed by John Whartonmay. Black Prince was 140 feet (43 meters) long with a beam of 32 feet (9.8 meters) and draft of 15 feet (4.6 meters). Later, as Alfred, she had a complement of 220 officers and men. Her armament consisted of 20 9-pounder guns and ten 6-pounder guns. She displaced 400 tons (bm). Black Prince was owned by Willing, Morris & Co., a merchant trading firm operated by Thomas Willing and Robert Morris.

John Barry served as the ship’s only master during her career as a Philadelphia merchantman. Launched in the autumn of 1774 as relations between the American colonies and the mother country grew ncreasingly tense, Black Prince was fitted out quickly so that she could load and sail to Bristol on the last day of 1774. The ship did not return to Philadelphia until April 25, 1775, six days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Fearing that American commerce would soon be interrupted, her owners were eager to export another cargo to England, so they again raced to load and provision her. Black Prince sailed on May 7, this time bound for London. She did not reach that destination until June 27. The ship left the Thames on August 10 but encountered contrary winds during much of her westward voyage and finally returned to Philadelphia on October 4.

While the ship had been abroad, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought, the other colonies acting in Congress had pledged to support Massachusetts in its struggle for freedom, and George Washington had taken command of the American Army besieging British-occupied Boston. Moreover, private correspondence between shipowner Morris and his trading partner — Richard Champion of Bristol — was brought from England on Black Prince to members of the Continental Congress. It reported that the British Government was sending to America two unarmed brigs heavily laden with gunpowder and arms.

This intelligence prompted Congress on October 13 to authorize the fitting out of two American warships, of 10 guns each, to attempt to capture these ships and divert their invaluable cargoes to the ill-equipped soldiers of Washington’s army. The United States Navy recognizes October 13, 1775, as the date of its official establishment, the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia that created the Continental Navy. The two ships purchased became Andrew Doria and Cabot. Congress decided, on October 30, to add two more ships to the newly-formed navy, one of 20 guns and the other slightly larger but not to exceed 36 guns. One of the ship’s owners, Morris, was a member of the Marine Committee when that committee acquired the Black Prince. A second ship, also owned by Willing Morris & Co. became the Columbus at the same time.

The Naval Committee purchased Black Prince on November 4, 1775, renamed her Alfred four days later, and ordered her fitted out as a man-of-war. Her former master, John Barry, was placed in charge of her rerigging; Joshua Humphreys was selected to superintend changes strengthening her hull, timbers, and bulwarks as well as opening gunports; andNathaniel Falconer was made responsible for her ordnance and provisions. Soon four other vessels joined Alfred in the Contnental Navy: Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and sloop Providence.

USS Alfred flying the Grand Union Flag
USS Alfred flying the Grand Union Flag.

Esek Hopkins, a veteran master of merchantmen from Rhode Island, was appointed commodore of the flotilla. Alfred was placed in commission on December 3, 1775, Captain Dudley Saltonstall in command, and became Hopkins’ flagship. Alfred became the first vessel to fly the Grand Union Flag (the precursor to the Stars and Stripes); the flag was hoisted by John Paul Jones. This event was documented in letters to Congress, and eyewitness accounts. with most mentioning that it occurred on December 3. However, John Paul Jones didn’t receive his appointment as 1st Lieutenant aboard Alfred until December 7.

By the end of 1775, during the first year of the American Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress operated as a de facto war government authorizing the creation of an Army, a Navy and even a Marine Corps. A new flag was required to represent the Congress and fledgling nation, initially the United Colonies, with a banner distinct from the British Red Ensign flown from civilian and merchant vessels, the White Ensign of the King’s Royal Navy, and the British Union flags carried by the King’s army troops on land. The individual colonies had been using their own independent flags with Massachusetts using the Taunton flag and New York using the George Rex flag prior to the adoption of the Grand Union flag.

It is not known for certain when or by whom the design of the American colonist’s Continental Colors was created, but the flag could easily be produced by sewing white stripes onto the British Red Ensigns. The Alfred‘s flag has been credited to Margaret Manny. The flag was used by the American Continental Army forces as both a naval ensign and garrison flag throughout 1776 and early 1777. The Grand Union Flag is also known as the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign.

It was widely believed that the flag was raised by George Washington’s Army on New Year’s Day, 1776, at Prospect Hill in Charlestown (now part of Somerville), near his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts, (across the Charles River north of Boston), which was then surrounding and laying siege to the British forces then occupying the city, and that the flag was interpreted by British military observers in the city under commanding General Thomas Gage as a sign of surrender. Some scholars dispute the traditional account and conclude that the flag raised at Prospect Hill was probably a British Union Flag.

The name “Grand Union” is contemporary to Reconstruction-era historians and was first applied to the Continental Colors by George Henry Preble, in his 1872 History of the American Flag.

The design of the flag is strikingly similar to the flag of the British East India Company (EIC). Indeed, certain EIC designs in use since 1707 (when the canton was changed from the flag of England to that of the Kingdom of Great Britain) were nearly identical, but the number of stripes varied from 9 to 15. That EIC flags could be well known by the American colonists has been the basis of a theory of the origin of the national flag’s design.

The Flag Act of 1777 by the Continental Congress authorized a new official national flag of a design similar to that of the Colors, with thirteen stars (representing the thirteen states at the time) on a field of blue replacing the British Union Flag in the canton. The resolution describes only “a new constellation” for the arrangement of the white stars in the blue canton so a number of designs were later interpreted and made with a circle of equal stars, another circle with one star in the center, and various designs of even or alternate horizontal rows of stars, even the Bennington Flag from Bennington, Vermont, which had the number “76” surmounted by an arch of 13 stars, later also becoming known in 1976 as the Bicentennial Flag. The combined crosses in the British Union flag symbolized the union of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland. The symbolism of a union of equal parts was retained in the new American flag, as described in the Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777, the date later celebrated in American culture and history as Flag Day.

After the ships had been commissioned into the Continental Navy, the new fleet dropped down the Delaware River on January 4, 1776; but a cold snap froze the river and the bay, checking its progress at Reedy Island for some six weeks. A thaw released Hopkins’ warships from winter’s icy grasp in mid-February, and the fleet sortied on February 18 for its first operation. The Marine Committee had ordered Hopkins to sail for Hampton Roads to attack British warships which were harassing American shipping in Virginia waters; then to render similar service at Charleston, South Carolina; and, finally, to head for Rhode Island waters. He was given the discretion of disregarding these orders if they proved impossible and planning an operation of his own.

However, by the time his ships broke free of the ice, growing British strength in the Chesapeake prompted Hopkins to head for the West Indies. Knowing that the American colonies desperately needed gunpowder, he decided to attack the island of New Providence in the Bahamas to capture a large supply of that commodity as well as a great quantity of other military supplies reportedly stored there.

A fortnight after leaving the Delaware capes, on the morning of March 3, 1776, Hopkins arrived off Nassau and captured Fort Montague in a bloodless Battle of Nassau, in which Continental Marines under Capt. Samuel Nicholas joined Hopkins’ sailors in America’s first amphibious operation. That evening, Hopkins issued a proclamation which promised not to harm “. . . the persons or property of the inhabitants of New Providence . . .” if they did not resist. The following morning, Governor Montfort Browne surrendered Fort Nassau but only after he had spirited away most of the island’s gunpowder from New Providence to St. Augustine, Florida.

After Hopkins stripped the forts of their guns and all remaining ordnance, Alfred led the American fleet homeward from Nassau harbor on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, the same day that British troops were evacuating Boston. On April 4, during the homeward voyage, Hopkins’ ships captured the six-gun British schooner Hawk and the eight-gun brig Bolton. Shortly after midnight on April 6, Hopkins encountered the 20-gun Glasgow. That British frigate — which was carrying dispatches telling of the British withdrawal — put up a fierce and skillful fight which enabled her to escape from her substantially more powerful American opponents. At the outset of the fray, fire from her cannon cut Alfred‘s tiller ropes, leaving Hopkins’ flagship unable to maneuver or to pursue effectively, but after dawn Glasgow disappeared over the horizon and safely reached Newport, Rhode Island.

When Alfred and her consorts put into New London, Connecticut, on April 8, the Americans were at first welcomed as heroes. Still, many of the officers of the American squadron voiced dissatisfaction with Hopkins, and he was later relieved of command. Alfred was inactive through the summer of 1776 for a number of reasons, but high on the list of her problems were want of funds and a shortage of men. On August 7, Captain John Paul Jones, was placed in command of the ship. She departed Providence, Rhode Island, on October 26, 1776, in company with Hampden, but that vessel struck a “sunken rock” before they could leave Narragansett Bay and returned to Newport. Her officers and men then shifted to the sloop Providence accompanying Alfred to waters off Cape Breton Island which they reached by mid-November. There they took three prizes: on the 11th, the brigantine Active, bound from Liverpool to Halifax with an assorted cargo; the next day, the armed transport Mellish, laden with winter uniforms for British troops at Quebec; and, on the 16th, the scow Kitty, bound from Gaspe to Barbados with oil and fish.

Because of severe leaks, Providence sailed for home soon thereafter and Alfred continued her cruise alone. On November 22, boats from Alfred raided Canso, Nova Scotia, where their crews burned a transport bound for Canada with provisions, and a warehouse full of whale oil, besides capturing a small schooner to replace Providence. Two days later, Alfred captured three colliers off Louisburg, bound from Nova Scotia to New York with coal for the British Army and, on November 26 captured the 10-gun letter-of-marque John of Liverpool. On the homeward voyage, Alfred was pursued by HMS
Milford but managed to escape after a four-hour chase. She arrived safely at Boston on December 15 and began a major refit.

Captain Elisha Hiinman became Alfred‘s commandingofficer in May 1777. She did not get underway until August 22 when she sailed for France with Raleigh to obtain military supplies. En route, they captured four small prizes. They reached L’Orient on October 6, and on December 29 sailed for America. They proceeded via the coast of Africa, where they took a small sloop, and then headed for the West Indies, hoping to add to their score before turning northward for home. On March 9, 1778, near Barbados, they encountered British warships HMS Ariadne and HMS Ceres. When the American ships attempted to flee, Alfred fell behind her faster consort. Shortly after noon, the British men-of-war caught up with Alfred and forced her to surrender after a half an hour’s battle.

Her captors took USS Alfred to Barbados where she was condemned and sold. The Royal Navy purchased her and took her into service as HMS Alfred, a sloop of 20 guns. The Admiralty sold her in 1782. Lloyd’s Register for 1789 shows an Alfred, of 400 tons (bm), built in Philadelphia, with master “Delamore” and owner T. Seale. Her trade is listed as London – Jamaica. Unfortunately, there are no readily available interim or later issues of Lloyd’s Register so her history as a merchant vessel is unclear.

Scott #790 was released on December 15, 1936, as part of a series of stamps commemorating heroes of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. Such a set had first been suggested by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt during World War I. From time to time, other organizations had suggested similar stamps but no definite action had ever been taken. Thus, stamp collectors were surprised when the Washington Evening Star reported on March 6, 1936, that:

By request of President Roosevelt, the Post Office Department will bring out a series of postage stamps in homage to the memory of famous soldiers and sailors. The set will be known as the Army and Navy Commemoratives and will be issued this summer.

No details have been decided as yet, but it is indicated that the President desires to employ the stamps to show people the history of the military and naval establishments of the government. Patriotism, he believes, must be intelligent, and even the Post Office Department can help in the work of educating the masses to understand the traditions of the armed service.

Mr. Roosevelt, according to authoritative report, was greatly pleased with the results achieved by the National Parks stamp of 1934. West Point and Annapolis would be included among the subject material of the new set, and celebrated forts and ships may be represented….

An official announcement was made on November 22, 1936, giving details for the release of two one-cent stamps, one each for the Army and the Navy, inaugurating an eventual 10-stamp series. The initial Post Office Depatment press release described Scott #790 as follows:

The 1-cent stamp of the Navy series has for the central design, arranged in large ovals that touch the border at the top and sides, portraits of John Paul Jones at the left and John Barry at the right. In the background are depicted naval vessels of that period. On curved panels with white ground at the base of the ovals are the names ‘Jones’ and ‘Barry,’ respectively, in dark gothic. Below the portraits are the inscriptions ‘Bon Homme Richard’ at the left, and ‘Lexington’ at the right, in dark ghothic, representing famous naval vessels that were under their command. On a horizontal line between the ovals at the top of the stamp is the wording ‘United States Postage’ in dark gothic. Within square panels with white edges and dark ground in each lower corner of the stamp is shown the numeral ‘1’ in white roman. At the center of a narrow panel with dark ground at the base of the stamp are the words ‘One Cent’ in white roman with two five-pointed stars in white on either side.

The model for this stamp was prepared by A.R. Meissner and approved on November 19, 1936, by Acting Postmaster General S.W. Purdum. The portrait of John Barry was after an engraving by J.B. Longacre which, in turn, was copied from a painting by Gilbert Stuart. The photograph of the engraving was supplied by Captain Knox of the Navy Department. The portrait of John Paul Jones was from an engraving by L.G. Hatch of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The origin of the original portrait is unknown. For the stamp, the portraits were engraved by L.C. Kaufman, while C.T. Arlt did the frame and lettering as well as the central design. Printing was started on the original order of 75,000,000 on December 9 and the first delivery was made to the Post Office Department the following day. The first sheet was sold on December 15, 1936, by Roy M. North, Acting Third Assistant Postmaster General to Admiral William H. Standley, representing Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson. A sheet was also presented to Mrs. Howard, great-great grand niece of George Washington.

The stamp is perforated 11×10 1/2 and was printed on the Rotary press with shades of green and bright green. Four plates were used: 21604, 21605, 21606, and 21607. In all, 100,000,000 copies of the 1-cent stamp in the Army Navy series was issued.

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale, circa 1781
John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale, circa 1781

John Paul (he added “Jones” in later life to hide from law enforcement) was born on July 6, 1747, on the estate of Arbigland near Kirkbean in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright on the southwest coast of Scotland. His father John Paul, Sr. was a gardener at Arbigland, and his mother was Jean McDuff. His parents married on November 29, 1733, in New Abbey, Kirkcudbright. Living at Arbigland at the time was Helen Craik, later a novelist.

John Paul started his maritime career at the age of 13, sailing out of Whitehaven in the northern English county of Cumberland as apprentice aboard Friendship under Captain Benson. Paul’s older brother William Paul had married and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the destination of many of the younger Jones’ voyages.

For several years, John sailed aboard a number of British merchant and slave ships, including King George in 1764 as third mate and Two Friends as first mate in 1766. In 1768, he abandoned his prestigious position on the profitable Two Friends while docked in Jamaica. He found his own passage back to Scotland, and eventually obtained another position.

John Paul’s career was quickly and unexpectedly advanced during his next voyage aboard the brig John, which sailed from port in 1768, when both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever. John managed to navigate the ship back to a safe port and, in reward for this impressive feat, the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship and its crew, giving him 10 percent of the cargo. He then led two voyages to the West Indies before running into difficulty.

During his second voyage in 1770, John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, a carpenter, leading to accusations that his discipline was “unnecessarily cruel.” These claims initially were dismissed, but his favorable reputation was destroyed when the sailor died a few weeks later. John Paul was arrested for his involvement in the man’s death, and was imprisoned in Kirkcudbright Tolbooth, but later released on bail. The negative effect of this episode on his reputation is indisputable, although the man’s death has been linked to other causes. The man who died of his injuries was not a usual sailor but an adventurer from a very influential Scottish family.

Leaving Scotland, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel named Betsy, a West Indiaman mounting 22 guns, engaging in commercial speculation in Tobago for about 18 months. This came to an end, however, when John killed a mutineer crew member named Blackton with a sword in a dispute over wages. Years later in a letter to Benjamin Franklin describing this incident, he claimed that it was in self-defense, but he was not willing to be tried in an Admiral’s Court, where the family of his first victim had been influential. He felt compelled to flee to Fredericksburg, Province of Virginia, leaving his fortune behind.

He went to Fredericksburg to arrange the affairs of his brother, who had died there without leaving any relatives; and about this time he assumed the surname of Jones, in addition to his original surname. There is a long-held tradition in the state of North Carolina that John Paul adopted the name “Jones” in honor of Willie Jones of Halifax, North Carolina.

From that period, America became “the country of his fond election,” as he afterwards expressed himself to Baron Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol. It was not long afterward that John Paul “Jones” joined the American navy to fight against Britain.

Jones left for Philadelphia shortly after settling in North America to volunteer his services around 1775 to the newly founded Continental Navy, precursor to the United States Navy. During this time, the Navy and Marines were being formally established, and suitable ship’s officers and captains were in great demand. Jones’s potential would likely have gone unrecognized were it not for the endorsement of Richard Henry Lee, who knew of his abilities. With help from influential members of the Continental Congress, Jones was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant of the newly converted 24-gun frigate Alfred in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775. It was aboard this vessel that Jones took the honor of hoisting the first U.S. ensign over a naval vessel.

After the Alfred‘s cruise to the Bahamas, Jones accepted a commission aboard the smaller Providence. During a six-week voyage, Jones captured sixteen prizes and inflicted significant damage along the coast of Nova Scotia. Jones’ next command came as a result of Commodore Hopkins’s orders to liberate hundreds of American prisoners forced to labor in coal mines in Nova Scotia, and also to raid British shipping. On November 1, 1776, Jones set sail in command of Alfred to carry out this mission. Winter conditions prevented freeing the prisoners, but the mission did result in the capture of Mellish, a vessel carrying a vital supply of winter clothing intended for General John Burgoyne’s troops in Canada.

Despite his successes at sea, Jones’s disagreements with those in authority reached a new level upon arrival in Boston on December 16, 1776. While at the port, he began feuding with Commodore Hopkins, as Jones believed that Hopkins was hindering his advancement by talking down his campaign plans. As a result of this and other frustrations, Jones was assigned the smaller command of the newly-constructed USS Ranger on June 14, 1777, the same day that the new Stars and Stripes flag was adopted.

After making the necessary preparations, Jones sailed for France on November 1, 1777, with orders to assist the American cause however possible. The American commissioners in France were Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, and they listened to Jones’s strategic recommendations. They promised him the command of L’Indien, a new vessel being constructed for America in Amsterdam. Britain, however, was able to divert L’Indien away from American hands by exerting pressure to ensure its sale to France instead (which had not yet allied with America). Jones was again left without a command, an unpleasant reminder of his stagnation in Boston from late 1776 until early 1777. It is thought that during this time Jones developed his close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, whom he greatly admired.

On February 6, 1778, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with America, formally recognizing the independence of the new American republic. Eight days later, Captain Jones’s Ranger became the first American naval vessel to be formally saluted by the French, with a nine-gun salute fired from Captain Lamotte-Piquet’s flagship. Jones wrote of the event: “I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation.”

On April 10, 1778, Jones finally set sail from Brest, France, for the western coasts of Britain.

Jones had some early successes against British merchant shipping in the Irish Sea, then he persuaded his crew on April 17, 1778, to participate in an assault on Whitehaven, the town where his maritime career had begun. Jones later wrote about the poor command qualities of his senior officers (having tactfully avoided such matters in his official report): “‘Their object,’ they said, ‘was gain not honor.’ They were poor: instead of encouraging the morale of the crew, they excited them to disobedience; they persuaded them that they had the right to judge whether a measure that was proposed to them was good or bad.” As it happened, contrary winds forced them to abandon the attempt and drove Ranger towards Ireland, causing more trouble for British shipping on the way.

On April 20, 1778, Jones learned from captured sailors that the Royal Navy sloop of war HMS Drake was anchored off Carrickfergus, Ireland. According to the diary of Ranger‘s surgeon. Jones’s first intention was to attack the vessel in broad daylight, but his sailors were “unwilling to undertake it” (another incident omitted from the official report). Therefore, the attack took place just after midnight, but the mate responsible for dropping the anchor to halt Ranger right alongside Drake misjudged the timing in the dark (Jones claimed in his memoirs that the man was drunk), so Jones had to cut his anchor cable and run.

The wind shifted, and Ranger recrossed the Irish Sea to make another attempt at raiding Whitehaven. Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men just after midnight on April 23, 1778, hoping to set fire to and sink all Whitehaven’s ships anchored in harbor, which numbered between 200 and 400 wooden vessels and consisted of a full merchant fleet and many coal transporters. They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by lighting further fires. As it happened, the journey to shore was slowed by the still-shifting wind, as well as a strong ebb tide. They successfully spiked the town’s big defensive guns to prevent them being fired, but lighting fires proved difficult, as the lanterns in both boats had run out of fuel. To remedy this, some of the party were sent to raid a public house on the quayside, but the temptation to stop for a quick drink led to a further delay. Dawn was breaking by the time they returned and began the arson attacks, so efforts were concentrated on the coal ship Thompson in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels, all grounded by the low tide. However, in the twilight, one of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a harborside street. A fire alert was sounded, and large numbers of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat, and extinguishing the flames with the town’s two fire-engines. However, their hopes of sinking Jones’s boats with cannon fire were dashed because of the prudent spiking.

Jones next crossed the Solway Firth from Whitehaven to Scotland, hoping to hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St Mary’s Isle near Kirkcudbright. The Earl, Jones reasoned, could be exchanged for American sailors impressed into the Royal Navy. The Earl was discovered to be absent from his estate, so his wife entertained the officers and conducted negotiations. Canadian historian Peter C. Newman gives credit to the governess for protecting the young heir and to the butler for filling a sack half with coal, and topping it up with the family silver, in order to fob off the Americans. Jones claimed that he intended to return directly to his ship and continue seeking prizes elsewhere, but his crew wished to “pillage, burn, and plunder all they could”. Ultimately, Jones allowed the crew to seize a silver plate set adorned with the family’s emblem to placate their desires, but nothing else. Jones bought the plate himself when it was later sold off in France, and returned it to the Earl of Selkirk after the war.

The attacks on St. Mary’s Isle and Whitehaven resulted in no prizes or profits which would be shared with the crew under normal circumstances, although their effect was significant on British morale and allocation of defense resources. Throughout the mission, the crew acted as if they were aboard a privateer, not a warship, led by Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, Jones’s second-in-command.

Nevertheless, Jones now led Ranger back across the Irish Sea, hoping to make another attempt at the Drake, still anchored off Carrickfergus. This time, late in the afternoon of April 24, 1778, the ships, roughly equal in firepower, engaged in combat. Earlier in the day, the Americans had captured the crew of a reconnaissance boat, and learned that Drake had taken on dozens of soldiers, with the intention of grappling and boarding Ranger, so Jones made sure that did not happen, capturing Drake after an hour-long gun battlewhich cost the British captain his life. Lieutenant Simpson was given command of Drake for the return journey to Brest. The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize, leading to a conflict between Simpson and Jones. Both ships arrived at port safely, but Jones filed for a court-martial of Simpson, keeping him detained on the ship.

Partly through the influence of John Adams, who was still serving as a commissioner in France, Simpson was released from Jones’s accusation. Adams implies in his memoirs that the overwhelming majority of the evidence supported Simpson’s claims. Adams seemed to believe Jones was hoping to monopolize the mission’s glory, especially by detaining Simpson on board while he celebrated the capture with numerous important European dignitaries.

Even with the wealth of perspectives, including the commander’s, it is difficult if not impossible to tell exactly what occurred. It is clear, however, that the crew felt alienated by their commander, who might well have been motivated by his pride. Jones believed his intentions were honorable, and his actions were strategically essential to the Revolution. Regardless of any controversy surrounding the mission, Ranger‘s capture of Drake was one of the Continental Navy’s few significant military victories during the Revolution, and was of immense symbolic importance, demonstrating as it did that the Royal Navy was far from invincible. By overcoming such odds, Ranger‘s victory became an important symbol of the American spirit and served as an inspiration for the permanent establishment of the United States Navy after the revolution.

Serapis and Bonhomme Richard
Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

In 1779, Captain Jones took command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard (or as he preferred it, Bon Homme Richard), a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On August 14, as a vast French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, he provided a diversion by heading for Ireland at the head of a five ship squadron including the 36-gun USS Alliance, 32-gun USS Pallas, 12-gun USS Vengeance, and Le Cerf, also accompanied by two privateers, HMS Monsieur and Granville. When the squadron was only a few days out of Groix, Monsieur separated due to a disagreement between her captain and Jones. Several Royal Navy warships were sent towards Ireland in pursuit of Jones, but on this occasion, he continued right around the north of Scotland into the North Sea, creating near-panic all along Britain’s east coast as far south as the Humber estuary.

Jones’s main problems, as on his previous voyage, resulted from insubordination, particularly by Pierre Landais, captain of Alliance. On September 23, 1779, the squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire. The 50-gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22-gun hired ship Countess of Scarborough placed themselves between the convoy and Jones’s squadron, allowing the merchants to escape.

Shortly after 7 p.m. the Battle of Flamborough Head began. Serapis engaged Bonhomme Richard, and soon afterwards, Alliance fired, from a considerable distance, at Countess. Quickly recognizing that he could not win a battle of big guns, and with the wind dying, Jones made every effort to lock Richard and Serapis together (his famous, albeit possibly apocryphal, quotation “I have not yet begun to fight!” was uttered in reply to a demand to surrender in this phase of the battle), finally succeeding after about an hour, following which his deck guns and his Marine marksmen in the rigging began clearing the British decks. Alliance sailed past and fired a broadside, doing at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis. Meanwhile, Countess of Scarborough had enticed Pallas downwind of the main battle, beginning a separate engagement. When Alliance approached this contest, about an hour after it had begun, the badly damaged Countess surrendered.

With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it seems that her ensign was shot away; when one of the officers, apparently believing his captain to be dead, shouted a surrender, the British commander asked, seriously this time, if they had struck their colors. Jones later remembered saying something like “I am determined to make you strike,” but the words allegedly heard by crew-members and reported in newspapers a few days later were more like: “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.” An attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard was thwarted, and a grenade caused the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder onSerapis‘s lower gun-deck.

Alliance then returned to the main battle, firing two broadsides. Again, these did at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis, but the tactic worked to the extent that, unable to move, and with Alliance keeping well out of the line of his own great guns, Captain Pearson of Serapis accepted that prolonging the battle could achieve nothing, so he surrendered. Most of Bonhomme Richard‘s crew immediately transferred to other vessels, and after a day and a half of frantic repair efforts, it was decided that the ship could not be saved, so it was allowed to sink, and Jones took command of c Serapis for the trip to neutral (but American-sympathizing) Holland.

In the following year, the King of France Louis XVI, honored him with the title “Chevalier”. Jones accepted the honor, and desired the title to be used thereafter: when the Continental Congress in 1787 resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of his “valor and brilliant services” it was to be presented to “Chevalier John Paul Jones”. He also received from Louis XVI a decoration of “l’Institution du Merite Militaire” and a sword. By contrast, in Britain at this time, he was usually denigrated as a pirate.

In June 1782, Jones was appointed to command the 74-gun USS America, but his command fell through when Congress decided to give America to the French as replacement for the wrecked Le Magnifique. As a result, he was given assignment in Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due his former hands. At length, this too expired and Jones was left without prospects for active employment, leading him on April 23, 1787 to enter into the service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia, who placed great confidence in Jones, saying: “He will get to Constantinople.”

Jones avowed his intention, however, to preserve the condition of an American citizen and officer. As a rear admiral aboard the 24-gun flagship Vladimir, he took part in the naval campaign in the Dnieper-Bug Liman (an arm of the Black Sea, into which flow the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers) against the Turks, in concert with the Dnieper Flotilla commanded by Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen. Jones (and Nassau-Siegen) repulsed the Ottoman forces from the area, but the jealous intrigues of Nassau-Siegen (and perhaps Jones’s own inaptitude for Imperial politics) turned the Russian commander Prince Grigory Potemkin against Jones and he was recalled to St. Petersburg for the pretended purpose of being transferred to a command in the North Sea. Another factor may have been the resentment of several ex-British naval officers also in Russian employment, who regarded Jones as a renegade and refused to speak to him. Whatever motivated the Prince, once recalled he was compelled to remain in idleness, while rival officers plotted against him and even maliciously assailed his private character through accusations of sexual misconduct.

In April 1789, Jones was arrested and accused of raping a 12-year-old girl named Katerina Goltzwart. The Count de Segur, the French representative at the Russian court (and also Jones’ last friend in the capital), conducted his own personal investigation into the matter and was able to convince Potemkin that the girl had not been raped and that Jones had been accused by Prince de Nassau-Siegen for his own purposes; Jones, however, admitted to prosecutors that he had “often frolicked” with the girl “for a small cash payment,” only denying that he had deprived her of her virginity. Even so, in that period he was able to author his Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman.

On June 8, 1788, Jones was awarded the Order of St. Anne, but he left the following month, an embittered man.

In 1789, Jones arrived in Warsaw, Poland, where he befriended another veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kosciuszko. Kosciuszko advised him to leave the service of the autocratic Russia, and serve another power, suggesting Sweden. Despite Kosciuszko’s backing, the Swedes, while somewhat interested, in the end decided not to recruit Jones. In May 1790 Jones arrived in Paris. He still possessed his position as Russian rear admiral with a corresponding pension, which allowed him to remain in retirement until his death two years later, although he made a number of attempts to re-enter the service in the Russian navy. At this time his memoirs have been published in Edinburgh. Inspired by them, James Fenimore Cooper and Alexandre Dumas later wrote their own adventure novels. John Paul Jones also appeared as a cameo in Herman Melville’s book Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile.

In June 1792, Jones was appointed U.S. Consul to treat with the Dey of Algiers for the release of American captives. Before Jones was able to fulfill his appointment, however, he was found dead (aged 45) lying face-down on his bed in his third-floor Paris apartment, No. 19 Rue de Tournon, on July 18, 1792. The cause of death was interstitial nephritis. A small procession of servants, friends and loyal family walked his body the four miles (6.4 km) for burial. He was buried in Paris at the Saint Louis Cemetery, which belonged to the French royal family. Four years later, France’s revolutionary government sold the property and the cemetery was forgotten. The area was later used as a garden, a place to dispose of dead animals and where gamblers bet on animal fights.

In 1905, Jones’s remains were identified by U.S. Ambassador to France General Horace Porter, who had searched for six years to track down the body using faulty copies of Jones’s burial record. Thanks to the kind donation of a French admirer, Pierrot Francois Simmoneau, who had donated over 460 francs, Jones’s body was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin “in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified.” Porter knew what to look for in his search. With the aid of an old map of Paris, Porter’s team, which included anthropologist Louis Capitan, identified the site of the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants. Sounding probes were used to search for lead coffins and five coffins were ultimately exhumed. The third, unearthed on April 7, 1905, was later identified by a meticulous post-mortem examination by Doctors Capitan and Georges Papillault as being that of Jones. The autopsy confirmed the original listing of cause of death. The face was later compared to a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Jones’s body was ceremonially removed from interment in a Parisian charnel house and brought to the United States aboard the USS Brooklyn (CA-3), escorted by three other cruisers. On approaching the American coastline, seven U.S. Navy battleships joined the procession escorting Jones’s body back to America. On April 24, 1906, Jones’s coffin was installed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall, presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt who gave a lengthy tributary speech. On January 26, 1913, the Captain’s remains were finally re-interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.

One thought on “USS Alfred – First to Hoist U.S. Flag

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.