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Eyewitnesses Describe The Battle

July 2024
4min read

“I have not yet begun to fight”

The bloody encounter between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis is one of the best-documented actions in the history of the United States Navy. From the available eyewitness accounts we have selected three: that of Jones himself; of his young first lieutenant, Richard Dale: and of one of his midship?nen, Nathaniel Fanning. These have been excerpted and arranged at riglit to give a running account of the greatest battle of Jones’ career.

LIEUTENANT DALE : At about eight, being within liail, the Serapis demanded, “what ship is that/” Hc was answered, “I can’t hear what you say.” Immediately alter 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 the action with a broadside, which indeed appeared to be simultaneous on board both ships. The action commenced abreast of each other. The Serapis soon passed ahead of the Bonhomme Richard, and when he thought he had gained a distance sufficient to go down athwart the forefoot to rake us, found he had not enough distance, and that the Bonhomme Richard would be aboard him, put his helm a-lee, which brought the two ships on a line, and the Bonhomme Richard, having headway, ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis.

MIDSHIPMAN FANNING : Jones, at the same time cried out, “Well done, my brave lads, we have got her now; throw on board the grappling-irons, and stand by for boarding": which was done, and the enemy soon cut away the chains, which were alfixecl to the grapplingirons; more were thrown on board, and often repeated. And as we now hauled the enemies’ ship snug along side of ours, with the tailings to our grapplingirons; her jib-stay was cut away aloft and fell upon our ship’s poop, where Jones was at the time, and where he assisted Mr. Stacy [the sailing master] in making fast the end of the enemies’ jib-stay to our mi//en mast. The former here checked the latter for swearing by saying, “Mr. Stacy, it is no lime lor swearing now, you may by the next moment be in eternity; but let us do our duty.” . . .

It seems that a report was at this time, circulated among the crew between decks, and was credited among them, that Captain Jones and all his principal officers were slain: the gunners were now the commanders of our ship: that the ship had four or five feet of water in her hold; and that she was then sinking: they therefore advised the gunner to go upon deck, together with the carpenter, and master at arms, and beg of the enemy quarters, in order, as they said, to save their lives. These three men being thus delegated, mounted the quarter-deck, and bawled out as loud as they could, “Quarters, quarters, for God’s sake quarters! our ship is a-sinkin!” and immediately got upon the ship’s poop with a view of hauling down our colours. … The three poltroons, finding the ensign, and ensign-stalt gone, they proceeded upon the quarter-deck, and were in the act ol hauling down our pendant, still bawling for “quarters!” when 1 heard our commodore say, in a loud voice, “what cl___d rascals are them—shoot them—kill them!” He . . . had just discharged his pistols at some of the enemy. The carpenter, and the master at arms, hearing Jones’s voice, skulked below, and the gunner was attempting to do the same, when Jones threw both of his pistols at his head, one of which struck him in the head, fractured his skull, and knocked him clown, at the foot of the gang-way ladder, where he lay till the battle was over. . . .

LIEUTENANT DALE : We had remained in this situation [ i.e. , the two ships lashed together] but a few minutes when we were hailed again by the Serapis, “Has your ship struck?” To which Captain Jones answered, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

JONES : At last, at half past nine o’clock, the Alliance appeared, and I now thought the battle at an end: .but, to my utter astonishment, he [Landais] discharged a broadside full into the stern of the Bon Homme Richard. We called to him for God’s sake to forbear firing into the Bon Homme Richard: yet they passed along the off side of the ship, and continued firing. There was no possibility of his mistaking the enemy’s ship for the Bon Homme Richard, there being the most essential difference in their appearance and construction. Besides, it was then full moon light, and the sides of the Bon Homme Richard were all black, while the sides of the [ Serapis ] were all yellow. Yet, for the greater security, I showed the signal of our reconnaissance, by putting out three lanterns . . . Every tongue cried out that he was firing into the wrong ship, but nothing avaUed . . . and by one of his volleys killed several of my best men . . . My situation was really deplorable; the Bon Homme Richard received various shot under water from the Alliance; the leak gained on the pumps, and the fire increased much on Ixxird Ijoth ships. Some officers persuaded me to strike, of whose courage and good sense I entertain a high opinion. .... 1 would not, however, give up the point. The enemy’s main-mast liegan to shake, their filing decreased fast, ours rather increased, and the British colours were struck at half an hour past ten o’clock.

LIEUTENANT DALE : Upon finding the flag of the Serapis had been struck, I went to Captain Jones, and asked whether 1 might board the Serapis? to which he consented; and jumping upon the gunwale, seized the main-brace pennant, and swung myself upon her quarter-deck. Midshipman Myrant followed with a party of men, and was immediately run through the thigh with a boarding-pike by some of the enemy stationed in the waist, who were not informed of the surrender of their ship. I found Captain 1'earson 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 lias struck to us.” The lieutenant renewing his inquiry, have you struck, Sir? was answered, “Yes, I have.” The lieutenant replied, "1 have nothing more to say” . . . and with Captain Pearson 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.

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