Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Manning the ‘Serapis’ and the ‘Bon Homme Richard’

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

Jones was very anxious to keep the Richard afloat, and, if possible, to bring her into port, doubtless from the very justifiable vanity of showing how desperately he had fought her. In order to effect this object he kept the first lieutenant of the Pallas on board of her with a party of men to work the pumps, having boats in waiting to remove them in the event of her sinking. During the night of the 24th the wind had freshened, and still continued to freshen on the morning of the 25th, when all further efforts to save her were found unavailing. The water was running in and out of her ports and swashing up her hatchways. About nine o'clock it became necessary to abandon her, the water then being up to the lower deck; an hour later, she rolled as if losing her balance, and, settling forward, went down bows first, her stern and mizzen-mast being last seen.

"A little after ten," says Jones in his report, "I saw, with inexpressible grief, the last glimpse of the Bonhomme Richard." The grief was a natural one, but, far from being destitute of consolation, the closing scene of the "Poor Richard," like the death of Nelson on board the Victory in the moment of winning a new title to the name, was indeed a glorious one. Her shattered shell afforded an honorable receptacle for the remains of the Americans who had fallen during the action.

The Richard was called by Captain Pearson a forty-gun ship, while the Serapis was stated by the pilot, who described her to Jones when she was first made, to have been a forty-four. Jones and Dale also gave her the same rate. The Richard, as we have seen, mounted six eighteen-pounders in her gunroom on her berth deck, where port-holes had been opened near the water; fourteen twelve, and fourteen nine-pounders on her main deck, and eight six-pounders on her quarter-deck, gangways, and forecastle. The weight of shot thrown by her at a single broadside would thus be two hundred and twenty-five pounds. With regard to her crew, she started from L'Orient with three hundred eighty men. She had manned several prizes, which, with the desertion of the barge's crew on the coast of Ireland, and the absence of those who went in pursuit under the master and never returned, together with the fifteen men sent away in the pilot-boat, under the second lieutenant, just before the action, and who did not return until after it was over, reduced the crew, according to Jones' statement, to three hundred forty men at its commencement.

This calculation seems a very fair one; for, by taking the statement of those who had landed on the coast of Ireland, as given in a contemporary English paper, at twenty-four, those who were absent in the pilot-boat being sixteen in number, and allowing five of the nine prizes taken by the Richard to have been manned from her, with average crews of five men each, the total reduction from her original crew may be computed to be seventy men. Eight or ten more escaped, during the action, in a boat towing astern of the Serapis. To have had three hundred forty men at the commencement of the action, as Jones states he had, he must have obtained recruits from the crews of his prizes.

In the muster-roll of the Richard's crew in the battle, as given by Mr. Sherburne from an official source, we find only two hundred twenty-seven names. This can hardly have been complete; still the document is interesting, inasmuch as it enumerates the killed and wounded by name, there being forty-two killed and forty wounded. It also states the country of most of the crew; by which it appears that there were seventy-one Americans, fifty-seven acknowledged Englishmen, twenty-one Portuguese, and the rest of the motley collection was made up of Swedes, Norwegians, Irish, and East Indians. Many of those not named in this imperfect muster-roll were probably Americans.

With regard to the Serapis, her battery consisted of twenty eighteens on the lower gun-deck, twenty nines on the upper gun-deck, and ten sixes on the quarter-deck and forecastle. She had two complete batteries, and her construction was, in all respects, that of a line-of-battle ship. The weight of shot thrown by her single broadside was three hundred pounds, being seventy-five pounds more than that of the Richard. Her crew consisted of three hundred twenty; all Englishmen except fifteen Lascars; and as such, superior to the motley and partially disaffected assemblage of the Richard. The superiority of the Serapis, in size and weight, as well as efficiency of battery, was, moreover, greatly increased by the strength of her construction. She was a new ship, built expressly for a man-of-war, and equipped in the most complete manner by the first of naval powers. The Richard was originally a merchantman, worn out by long use and rotten from age. She was fitted, in a makeshift manner, with whatever refuse guns and materials could be hastily procured, at a small expense, from the limited means appropriated to her armament.

Continued on June 22, 2014

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