in the USS Ranger and saluted the French fleet
anchored there. A nine-gun salute was given in return. A
gun salute given to a revolutionary government was a
signal of that countrys recognition. France became one
of the first foreign powers to recognize the struggling
government of the American Colonies. (In 1776, the
Dutch had given recognition to an American flag [not
the Stars and Stripes] at St. Eustatius, an island in the
West Indies belonging to Holland.)
In 1779, John Paul Jones took command of an old,
decaying French merchant ship that he renamed the
USS Bonhomme Richard, honoring Benjamin Franklin.
It carried 42 relatively light guns (some in doubtful
condition). Jones headed for the coast of Ireland,
capturing some ships and destroying others. On
September 23, 1779, Jones met the British warship
Serapis (with 50 guns), and a furious battle ensued near
the headland of Flamborough Head. As Jones wrote
Every method was practiced on both sides
to gain an advantage, and rake each other; and
I must confess that the enemys ship, being
more manageable than the Bonhomme
Richard, gained thereby several times an
advantageous situation, in spite of my best
endeavors to prevent it.
The two ships, lashed together with grappling
hooks so neither could escape, pounded away at one
another. The USS Bonhomme Richard began taking the
worst of the beating. The ship began to fill with water
and fire broke out in several places. According to one
story, a gunner in a state of panic was about to strike the
colors when Jones hurled his pistol at him, striking him
down. The battle continued and the fighting was furious.
The outcome was uncertain until the end. The highlight
of the battle came when, after being asked if he had
struck colors, Jones replied, Struck, sir? I have not yet
begun to fight! These words inspire Sailors to this day.
What turned the tide of victory for Jones? It was his
forces aloft. Armed with muskets and climbing along
the interlaced rigging of the two ships, Joness men kept
the deck of the Serapis clear by shooting and dropping
chains and other material down on the enemy. A
member of Jones crew climbed to the Serapis maintop
and managed to drop a hand grenade on to the gundeck,
which ignited the gunpowder and scattered cartridges.
In that man-to-man sea battle, the British were finally
forced to surrender. The battle of the USS Bonhomme
Richard versus the Serapis went down as one of the
great naval battles in history.
By the time the war was over, the official
Continental Navy operated some 56 vessels at one time
or another. However, it only managed to reach a peak of
27 ships, averaging 20 guns, that operated at the same
time. This tiny Continental Navy, hurriedly assembled
when the Colonies declared their independence, served
not only to inflict damage on the proud ships of the
Royal Navy but also to lift American morale with each
of its victories. John Paul Jones, Gustavus Conyngham,
and Lambert Wickes were among those who brought
the battle to the British on their own waters. The news of
daring raids and victorious battles at sea was acclaimed
in the 13 youthful Colonies of the United States.
American privateers harassed British shipping over
lengthy sea-lanes. At first, ships of all types were
converted for harassment purposes. Later, ships were
specially built to do this job. These ships were fast and
reasonably well armed. Men from all walks of life
signed up to serve on these ships. Private financing to
arm and fit the vessels was needed, but that was rarely a
problem because a share in a privateer could mean a
fortune almost overnight.
The British Navy began a system of convoys to
protect its merchant shipping, but it was far from
foolproof. The moment a merchantman dropped
behind, it was in immediate danger because a warship
couldnt leave the convoy to protect just one ship. Then,
too, convoys could protect only so many ships.
Its estimated that Congress issued more than 1,600
commissions for privateers during the Revolutionary
War. The privateers operated not only along the
American coastlines, but also far out into the Atlantic
and even into the English Channel and the Irish Sea.
According to one reasonable estimate, the British
were said to have lost some 2,000 merchant ships,
manned by crews totaling 16,000, to the American
privateers. The merchant ships captured as prizes were
manned by prize crews from the privateers and sailed to
a friendly port where the ships and cargo were sold.