Monday, June 9, 2014

‘Bon Homme Richard’ Damaged and Sinking

Featuring Alexander Slidell Mackenzie from his book “Life of John Paul Jones”, 1841

Previously on “I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight!”

Time: 1779
Place: North Sea off Flambough Head, Yorkshire, Great Britain

About half-past seven the Bonhomme Richard hauled up her courses and rounded-to on the weather or larboard quarter of the Serapis, and within pistol-shot, and steered a nearly parallel course, though gradually edging down upon her. The Serapis now triced up her lower-deck ports, showing two complete batteries, besides her spar deck, lighted up for action, and making a most formidable appearance. At this moment Captain Pearson, her commander, hailed the Bonhomme Richard and demanded, "What ship is that?" Answer was made, "I can't hear what you say." The hail was repeated: "What ship is that? Answer immediately, or I shall be under the necessity of firing into you!" A shot was fired in reply by the Bonhomme Richard, which was instantly followed by a broadside from each vessel. Two of the three old eighteen-pounders in the Richard's gunroom burst at the first fire, spreading around an awful scene of carnage. Jones immediately gave orders to close the lower-deck ports and abandon that battery during the rest of the action.

The Richard, having kept her headway and becalmed the sails of the Serapis, passed across her forefoot, when the Serapis, luffing across the stern of the Richard, came up in turn on the weather or larboard quarter; and, after an exchange of several broadsides from the fresh batteries, which did great damage to the rotten sides of the Richard and caused her to leak badly, the Serapis likewise becalmed the sails of the Richard, passed ahead, and soon after bore up and attempted to cross her forefoot so as to rake her from stem to stern.

Finding, however, that he had not room for the evolution, and that the Richard would be on board of him, Captain Pearson put his helm a-lee, which brought the two ships in a line ahead, and, the Serapis having lost her headway by the attempted evolution, the Richard ran into her weather or larboard quarter. While in this position, neither ship being able to use her great guns, Jones attempted to board the Serapis, but was repulsed, when Captain Pearson hailed him and asked, "Has your ship struck?" to which he at once returned the immortal answer:

"I have not yet begun to fight!"

Jones now backed his topsails, and the sails of the Serapis remaining full, the two ships separated. Immediately after, Pearson also laid his topsails back, as he says in his official report, to get square with the Richard again; Jones at the same instant filled away, which brought the two ships once more broadside and broadside. As he had already suffered greatly from the superior force of the Serapis, and from her being more manageable and a faster sailer than the Richard, which had several times given her the advantage in position, Jones now determined to lay his ship athwart the enemy's hawse; he accordingly put his helm up, but, some of his braces being shot away, his sails had not their full power, and, the Serapis having sternway, the Richard fell on board of her farther aft than Jones had intended. The Serapis' jib-boom hung her for a few minutes, when, carrying away, the two ships swung broadside and broadside, the muzzles of the guns touching each other. Jones sent Mr. Stacy, the acting master, to pass up the end of a hawser to lash the two ships together, and, while he was gone on this service, assisted with his own hand in making fast the jib-stay of the Serapis to the Richard's mizzen-mast.

Accident, however, unknown for the moment to either party, more effectually secured the two vessels together; for, the anchor of the Serapis having hooked the quarter of the Richard, the two ships lay closely grappled. In order to escape from this close embrace, and recover the advantage of his superior sailing and force, Captain Pearson now let go an anchor, when the two ships tended round to the tide, which was setting toward Scarborough. The Richard being held by the anchor of the Serapis, and the yards being entangled fore and aft, they remained firmly grappled. This happened about half-past eight, the engagement having already continued an hour.

Meantime the firing had recommenced with fresh fury from the starboard sides of both vessels. The guns of either ship actually touched the sides of the other, and, some of them being opposite the ports, the rammers entered those of the opposite ship when in the act of loading, and the guns were discharged into the side or into the open decks. The effect of this cannonade was terrible to both ships, and wherever it could be kept up in one ship it was silenced in the other. Occasional skirmishing with pikes and pistols took place through the ports, but there does not appear to have been any concerted effort to board from the lower decks of the Serapis, which had the advantage below.

The Richard had already received several eighteen-pound shot between wind and water, causing her to leak badly; the main battery of twelve-pounders was silenced; as for the gunroom battery of six eighteen-pounders, we have seen that two out of the three starboard ones burst at the first fire, killing most of their crews. During the whole action but eight shots were fired from this heavy battery, the use of which was so much favored by the smoothness of the water. The bursting of these guns, and the destruction of the crew, with the partial blowing up of the deck above, so early in the action, were discouraging circumstances, which, with a less resolutely determined commander, might well have been decisive of the fate of the battle.

Continued on June 11, 2014

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