Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy
George Gibbs

1 2 3 4 >>
Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy
George Gibbs

George Gibbs

Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy


The writer expresses thanks for their courtesy to the editors of “Lippincott’s Magazine” and the editors of the “Saturday Evening Post,” of Philadelphia, in which periodicals several of these Hero Tales have been printed. He also acknowledges his indebtedness for many valuable historical facts to “Cooper’s Naval History;” “History of the Navy,” by Edgar S. Maclay; “History of Our Navy,” by John R. Spears; “Twelve Naval Captains,” by Molly Elliot Seawell; “American Naval Heroes,” by John Howard Brown; “Naval Actions of the War of 1812,” by James Barnes; and to many valuable works and papers in the archives of the Library of the Navy Department at Washington. Thanks are due the Art Department of the “Saturday Evening Post” and the Art Department of “Collier’s Weekly” for their permission to reprint many of the drawings herein.


August 15, 1899.


In April, 1778, there were more than two-score of French ships-of-the-line within easy sailing distance of the coast of England. They were tremendous three-decked monsters, armed with tier upon tier of cannon, and it took nearly a thousand officers and men to man each of them. They lay at anchor in the harbors of France or sallied forth into the open sea to the southward to prey upon the commerce of Great Britain. But grand as they were, not one of them dared to do what John Paul Jones did in the little Continental sloop of war “Ranger.” By good seamanship, an element of chance, and a reckless daring almost without precedent, he accomplished under the very noses of the gold-laced French admirals what they had been hemming and hawing about since the beginning of the war.

Inaction weighed upon the mind of Paul Jones more heavily than the hardest of labor. He had to be up and doing all the time, or trouble was brewing for everybody on shipboard. So when he reached Nantes, France, and found that the frigate which had been promised him was not forthcoming, he determined, alone and unaided, to do with the little “Ranger” what he was not yet destined to do with a bigger ship. No person but Paul Jones would for a moment have considered such a desperate project as the one he conceived. What the flower of the navy and chivalry of France had refused to attempt was little short of suicide for the mad American. But Jones was not cast in an ordinary mould. When he got to Brest, he made up his mind once and for all, by one good fire of British shipping to put an end to all the ship and town burnings in America.

There was clanking of bit and chain as the anchor was hove up short on the little craft. The officers and men of the great vessels of the French fleet looked over the glistening water, warmed by the afternoon sun of spring, and wondered where their impetuous harbor-mate was off to. A week before, they knew Paul Jones had demanded that the French Admiral salute the Continental flag which the “Ranger” wore for the first time. And they had given those salutes right willingly, acknowledging publicly the nation they had been helping in secret. They knew he was a man of determination, and they wondered what the American was going to do. Some of them – the younger ones – wished they too were aboard the dainty little craft, bound out to sea under a man who feared nothing and dared everything. They heard the whistles and hoarse calls of the bos’n as the men tumbled down from aloft, the sheets flew home, and yards went up to their blocks with a clatter and a rush that showed how willing were the hands at the tackles. The tops’ls caught a fine breeze from the southward and, bracing up, the “Ranger” flew down the harbor and around the point of Quiberon just as the sun was setting behind the purple cloud-streaks along the line of limitless ocean. Up the coast she moved, her bowsprit pointing fearlessly to the north, where lay the Scilly Isles. The Frenchmen left behind in the harbor looked enviously at the patch of gold, growing every moment more indistinct in the fading light, and said “En voilà un brave!”

The next day Jones left the Scilly Isles on his starboard quarter and steered boldly up Saint George’s Channel into the wide Irish Sea. The merchantmen he boarded and captured or scuttled did not quite know what to make of a man who feared so little that he looked into the eyes of the lion sternly and even menacingly when one movement might have destroyed him. These channel-men thought themselves secure, for such a venturesome procedure as that of Paul Jones was contrary to all precedent. They couldn’t understand it at all until their vessels were burned and they themselves were prisoners. Then they knew that they had been taken by a man whose daring far surpassed that of the naval captains of England and France. In plain sight of land he took a brig bound from Ireland to Ostend. He didn’t want to be bothered with prisoners, so he sent her crew ashore in their own boat to tell the story of their escape. Then off Dublin he took another ship, the “Lord Chatham,” and sent her in charge of a prize-crew down to Brest.

Paul Jones had one great advantage. Nowadays, when the railway and telegraph have brought all the people of the world closer together, such a cruise would be impossible. The report would be sent at once to the Admiralty, and two fleets, if necessary, would be despatched post-haste to intercept him. But Paul Jones knew the value of the unexpected. And although fortune favors the brave and the winds and waves seem always on the side of the ablest navigators, he had made his calculations carefully. He knew that unless an English fleet was at some point nearer than Portsmouth he would have ample time to carry out his plans.

He made up his mind before burning any shipping to capture, if possible, the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St. Mary’s Isle, and to hold him as a hostage. By this means he hoped to compel England to treat American prisoners with humanity, according to the laws of war. But on the twenty-first of April he picked up a fisherman who gave him information which for the moment drove all thought of the Earl of Selkirk and the shipping from his mind. Inside the harbor of Carrickfergus, where Belfast is, lay a man-of-war of twenty guns, the “Drake,” a large ship, with more men than the “Ranger” carried. He would drop down alongside of her under cover of the night and board her before her crew could tumble out of their hammocks. Such an attempt in a fortified harbor of the enemy would not have occurred to most men, but Paul Jones believed in achieving the impossible. He waited until nightfall, and then, with a wind freshening almost to a gale, sped up the harbor. The “Drake” lay well out in the roadstead, her anchor lights only marking her position in the blackness of the night. Carefully watching his time, Captain Jones stood forward looking at the lights that showed how she swung to the tide. He kept full headway on the “Ranger,” until she could swing up into the wind almost under the jib-boom of the Englishman. By dropping his anchor across the chain of the “Drake” he hoped to swing down alongside, grapple, and board before the crew were fairly awake.

But this time he was destined to fail. Everything depended on the dropping of the anchor at the proper time. His orders were not obeyed, for not until the “Ranger” had drifted clear of the Englishman’s chain did the splash come. Then it was too late. Fortunately the watch on the “Drake” were not suspicious. Had they been wider awake they would have had the “Ranger” at their mercy, and Paul Jones might not have survived to fight them a few days later. As it was, they only swore at the stupidity of the Irish lubber they thought he was. Jones knew that his chance was gone, and as soon as a strain came on the cable it was cut, and he filled away to sea again.

He now returned to his original plan of burning the shipping of some important town. He decided on Whitehaven as his first objective point, and the “Ranger,” sailing leisurely over, dropped anchor in the outer harbor during the following night.

Whitehaven was a town of considerable importance in the Scottish and North of England shipping trade. The inhabitants were for the greater part sailors and others who made their living by the sea, and there was never a time when the docks were not crowded with vessels, of all countries, from the sloop to the full-rigged ship, discharging or taking on cargoes which figured largely in England’s commerce. At one side of the harbor lay the town, and farther around to the left lay the docks where the shipping was. Over two hundred vessels, large and small, lay there or out in the roadstead. Two forts, mounting fifteen guns each, guarded the town. They were adequately garrisoned, and it looked like a piece of desperate folly to make the attempt upon a town directly under their guns.

Paul Jones knew Whitehaven from his childhood. He remembered just where the guard-houses were to be found, and knew how to force the entrance to the barracks. By three o’clock in the morning he was ready to make the assault. Two cutters with fifteen men in each, armed with cutlasses and pistols, were all he took to do the work. With thirty men he went fearlessly and confidently to intimidate the soldiers, spike the guns in the forts, overawe the town, and burn the shipping! Lieutenant Wallingford was given command of one of the cutters. His mission was to burn the shipping to the left. The other cutter Paul Jones commanded himself, and assumed the more hazardous duty of holding with his fifteen men the forts and the town, until such a blaze should illumine the morning sky that all England would know that the burning of Portland, Maine, was avenged.

Quietly they pulled up towards the great stone dock, where the shipping-houses were. The tide was very low as they moved past the schooners and brigs in the harbor, many of them careened far over on their sides, waiting for a rise in the tide to pull down to more comfortable moorings. But the boats went by without challenge or notice, and Wallingford’s cutter had slipped away like a gray shadow in the darkness. The first violet streaks of dawn were just beginning to throw the shore-line to the east in hazy silhouette when they reached the landing-place.

The dawn was coming up quickly now, and Paul Jones led his fifteen men at a run to the nearest fort. With cutlass in one hand and pistol in the other, they dashed upon the first sentry. There was no time for stealth, so they bore him down by sheer weight. The next one saw them coming, but Jones locked him and the rest of them in the guard-house. Then he proceeded to spike the guns. So quick was the work that not a shot was fired. They were running towards the second fort before the soldiers were quite sure what had happened. Even then they were too terrified to follow in pursuit. As the gallant band ran towards the other fort they got a clear view of the harbor, a glimmering sheet of orange and violet, under the morning glow. But strain his eyes as he might, their captain could get no sign of Wallingford or his work. They dashed as desperately at this fort as at the other and were equally successful, intimidating the garrison and spiking every gun they could find.

But what could be the trouble with Wallingford? Still seeing no blaze or even spark among the shipping to the eastward, Paul Jones felt that the main object of his descent upon the town was to prove a failure. So he dashed down the street from the fort towards the dock, pistol in hand, followed by his crew, who rolled along grinning at the ease with which they had accomplished their work. One of them had a bad cut over the head and the blood was staining his shoulder, but he didn’t seem to mind it in the least. To their surprise as they passed the houses the people began coming out of their doors shaking their fists at and cursing them. They grinned no longer, for they knew that some one had betrayed them. Jones looked around for the fifteenth man. The fellow with the cut wiped some blood from his cheek and said, —

“Dave Freeman, sir, he’s gone!”

Freeman was the traitor, then.

But there was no time for parley or revenge. The mob was collecting in the street they had left and soon would be down on the dock. Though Wallingford failed, Paul Jones would not. He dashed into a house on the dock, and seizing a burning brand went aboard one of the largest vessels of the fleet. He hastily pulled together some straw and hatchway gratings and soon had a roaring blaze. Then one of his men spilled a barrel of tar in the midst of it to make the destruction more sure.

He had been so intent upon his work that he had not noticed the mob that had gathered on the dock. The place seemed black with people, and their number was increasing every minute. Then, leaving the work of destruction to the others, he went down alone to face fifteen hundred infuriated people with a single flint-lock pistol! Dave Freeman had done his work well, for they seemed to pour from every street and doorway. But Paul Jones was determined that the work should be finished, and took a position where he could command the boat-landing and retreat of his men. The people came down in a body to within twenty paces of Paul Jones and then – stopped. There was something in the look of the man and the menacing black barrel that moved from one to the other that made them quail and fall over each other to get out of range. Those in the background swore and pushed gallantly, but the front rank was a line of straw, and Paul Jones moved it with his old flint-lock as though a Biscay wind-squall was striking it. For fifteen minutes and longer he stood there, immovable, the master of the situation, the picture of the intimidating power of one resolute man over a mob. Such another instance is hardly to be found in history.

When the black smoke rolled up from half a dozen vessels of the fleet, Paul Jones’s crew retreated in an orderly manner to the cutter. Jones walked down the steps into the boat, covering the crowd the while. Then his men leisurely rowed away, not a shot having been fired. It was not until the cutter was well out into the bay that some of the bewildered soldiers recovered sufficiently to load two cannon that Paul Jones had overlooked. These they brought to bear upon the cutter dancing down in the sunrise towards the “Ranger” and fired. The shot whistled wide of the mark, and Jones, to show his contempt of such long-range courage, fired only his pistol in return.

But that was not the end of this remarkable cruise. Having failed to find the Earl of Selkirk on St. Mary’s Isle, Paul Jones squared away to the southward, hoping to pick up another full-rigged ship off Dublin or to meet with the “Drake” again. He knew that by this time the Admiralty was well informed as to his whereabouts, and that before many hours had passed he would be obliged to run the gauntlet of a whole line of British fire. But he hated to be beaten at anything, and since the night when he failed to grapple her had been burning to try conclusions yard-arm to yard-arm with the “Drake.”

On the twenty-fourth of April, just two weeks after sailing from the harbor of Brest, he hove to off the Lough of Belfast, where within the harbor he could plainly see the tall spars of the Englishman swinging at his anchorage. Paul Jones was puzzled at first to know how he was to lure the “Drake” out to sea, for a battle under the lee of the land in the harbor was not to be thought of. So he went about from one tack to another, wearing ship and backing and filling, until the curiosity of the English captain, Burdon, was thoroughly aroused, and he sent one of his junior officers out in a cutter to find out who the stranger was. Jones ran his guns in and manœuvred so cleverly that the stern of the “Ranger” was kept towards the boat until he was well aboard. The young officer was rather suspicious, but, nothing daunted, pulled up to the gangway in true man-o’-war style and went on deck. There he was met by an officer, who courteously informed him that he was on board the Continental sloop of war “Ranger,” Captain Paul Jones, and that he and his boat’s crew were prisoners of war.

In the meanwhile Captain Burdon, finding that his boat’s crew did not return, got up his anchor, shook out his sails, and cleared ship for action. He was already suspicious, and too good a seaman to let unpreparedness play any part in his actions. There was not very much wind, and slowly the “Drake” bore down on the silent vessel which lay, sails flapping idly as she rolled, on the swell of the Irish Sea. As the afternoon drew on the wind almost failed, so that it was an hour before sunset before the “Drake” could get within speaking range. Hardly a ripple stirred the surface of the glassy swells, and the stillness was ominous and oppressive.

When within a cable’s length of the “Ranger” Captain Burdon sent up his colors. Captain Jones followed his lead in a moment by running up the Stars and Stripes.

Suddenly a voice, looming big and hoarse in the silence, came from the “Drake,” —

“What ship is that?”

Paul Jones mounted the hammock nettings and, putting his speaking-trumpet to his lips, coolly replied, —

“The American Continental ship ‘Ranger.’ We have been waiting for you. The sun is but little more than an hour from setting, and it is time to begin.”

Then he turned and gave a low order to the man at the wheel, and the “Ranger” wore around so that her broadside would bear. Paul Jones always believed in striking the first blow. When they came before the wind the word was passed, and a mass of flame seemed to leap clear across the intervening water to the “Drake.” The “Ranger” shuddered with the shock and felt in a moment the crashing of the other’s broadside through her hull and rigging. The battle was on in earnest. Yard-arm to yard-arm they went, drifting down the wind, and the deep thundering of the cannonade was carried over to the Irish hills, where masses of people were watching the smoke-enveloped duel. The sun sank low, touching the purple hilltops, a golden ball that shed a ruddy glow over the scene and made the spectacle seem a dream rather than reality. Still they fought on.

It was a glorious fight – and as fair a one as history records. The “Drake” pounded away at the “Ranger’s” hull alone, while Jones was doing all he could with his smaller pieces to cripple his enemy’s rigging. First the “Drake’s” fore-tops’l yard was cut in two. The main dropped next, and the mizzen gaff was shot away. For purposes of manœuvring, the “Drake” was useless and drifted down, her jib trailing in the water and her shrouds and rigging dragging astern. She was almost a wreck. As she heeled over on the swell, the gunners on the “Ranger” could see human blood mingling with the water of the division tubs that came from her scuppers. The first flag was shot away, but another was quickly run up to its place. In a moment that too was shot away from the hoisting halyard and fell into the water astern, where it trailed among the wreckage. But still she fought on.

On the “Ranger” the loss had been comparatively slight. Lieutenant Wallingford and one other man had been killed and there were five or six wounded men in the cockpit. Jones seemed to be everywhere, but still remained uninjured and directed the firing until the end. He saw that the sharpshooters in his tops were doing terrific execution on the decks of his adversary, and at last he saw the imposing figure of Captain Burdon twist around for a second and then sink down to the deck. Another officer fell, and in a moment above the crash of division firing and the rattle of the musketry overhead he heard a cry for quarter.

The battle was at an end in a little over an hour. It was almost as great a victory as that of the “Bonhomme Richard” over the “Serapis.” Paul Jones’s ship carried eighteen guns; the Englishman carried twenty. The “Ranger” had one hundred and twenty-three men; the “Drake” had one hundred and fifty-one and carried many volunteers besides. The “Ranger” lost two killed and had six wounded; the “Drake” lost forty-two killed and wounded. Against great odds John Paul Jones still remained victorious.

The people on shore heard the cannonading cease and saw the great clouds of gold-tinted smoke roll away to the south. There they saw the two vessels locked as if in an embrace of death and a great cheer went up. They thought the “Drake” invincible. The gray of twilight turned to black, and the ships vanished like spectres in the darkness. But late that night some fishermen in a boat came ashore with a sail from the store-room of the “Drake.” They said it had been given them by John Paul Jones. The people knew then that the “Drake” had been captured.

When the “Ranger” returned with her prizes to Brest, and his people told the tale of Paul Jones’s victory, France was electrified. Neither in France nor in England would they at first believe it. France made him her hero. England offered ten thousand guineas for his head.


Never, since the beginning of time, has there been a fiercer sea-fight than that between the “Bonhomme Richard” and the “Serapis.” No struggle has been more dogged – no victory greater.

Three – four times during the night-long battle any other man than Paul Jones would have struck his colors. His main-deck battery and crews blown to pieces – his water-line gaping with wounds – his sides battered into one great chasm – still he fought on. His prisoners released – his masts tottering – his rudder gone – his ship afire below and aloft, his resistance was the more desperate. The thought of surrender never occurred to him.

After taking the “Drake” in a gallant fight, burning Whitehaven, and terrorizing the whole British coast, Paul Jones went to Paris, where a commission to the converted East Indiaman, the “Bonhomme Richard,” awaited him. Putting her in the best shape possible, he boldly steered across for English waters. Paul Jones thirsted for larger game.

When Captain Pearson, with the new frigate “Serapis,” on a fine September afternoon in 1779, sighted Paul Jones, he signalled his merchant convoy to scatter, and piped all hands, who rushed jubilantly to quarters. The opportunity of his life had come, for the capture of the rebel frigate meant glory and a baronetcy. But he reckoned without his host.

Across the oily waters came the cheery pipes of the boatswain’s mate of the “Richard” as Jones swung her up to meet her adversary, and Pearson knew his task would not be an easy one. The wind fell so light that the sun had sunk behind the light on Flamborough Head before the ships drifted up to fighting distance, and it was dark before they were ready to come to close quarters. On the “Bonhomme Richard,” Jones’s motley crew, stripped to the waist, were drawn up at the guns, peering out through the ports at the dark shadow on the starboard bow they were slowly overhauling.

The decks were sanded, the hammocks piled around the wheel, and there at the break of the poop stood the captain, trumpet in hand, turning now and then to give an order to Richard Dale or his midshipmen, quiet and composed, with the smile on his face men saw before the fight with the “Drake.” The clumsy hulk rolled to the ground-swell, and the creaking of the masts and clamping of the sheet-blocks were all that broke the silence of the night. No excitement was apparent, and the stillness seemed the greater for an occasional laugh from the gunners, or the rattle of a cutlass newly settled in its sheath.

Then close aboard from out the blackness came a voice, —

“What ship is that?”

Paul Jones moved to the lee mizzen-shrouds and slowly replied, —
1 2 3 4 >>