Pike & Cutlass: Hero Tales of Our Navy
George Gibbs

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“I can’t hear what you say.”

He wanted all of his broadside to bear on the Englishman.

“What ship is that? Answer, or I shall fire.”

The moment had arrived. For answer Jones leaned far over the rail of the poop and passed the word. A sheet of flame flashed from one of the “Richard’s” after eighteen-pounders, followed by a terrific broadside which quaked the rotten timbers of the “Richard” from stem to stern. At the same time the guns of the “Serapis” were brought to bear, and her side seemed a mass of flame.

On the “Richard,” two of the eighteen-pounders burst at this first broadside, killing their crews, heaving up the deck above, and driving the men from the upper tier. The others cracked and were useless. In this terrible situation Paul Jones knew the chances for victory were against him, for he had thought his lower battery his mainstay in a broadside fight.

But if he felt daunted his men did not know it, for, amid the hurricane of fire and roar of the guns, his ringing voice, forward, aft, everywhere, told them that victory was still theirs for the gaining. He ordered all of the men from the useless battery to the main deck; and it was well he did so, – for so terrific was the fire that the six ports of the “Bonhomme Richard” were blown into one, and the shot passed clear through the ship, cutting away all but the supports of the deck above. No one but the marines guarding the powder-monkeys were left there, but they stood firm at their posts while the balls came whistling through and dropped into the sea beyond. But the fire of Paul Jones’s battery did not slacken for a moment. There seemed to be two men to take the place of every man who was killed, and he swept the crowded deck of the “Serapis” from cathead to gallery.

In the meanwhile, the “Serapis,” having the wind of the “Richard,” drew ahead, and Pearson hauled his sheets to run across and rake Jones’s bows. But he miscalculated, and the American ran her boom over the stern of the Englishman. For a moment neither ship could fire at the other, and they hung together in silence, fast locked in a deadly embrace. Jones’s crew, eager to renew the battle, glared forward at the shimmering battle-lanterns of the Englishman, cursing because their guns would not bear. The smoke lifted, and Paul Jones, who was deftly training one of his guns at the main-mast of the “Serapis,” saw Pearson slowly climb up on the rail. The silence had deceived the Englishman, and his voice came clearly across the deck, —

“Have you struck?”

A harsh laugh broke from the “Richard.”

“Struck!” Paul Jones’s answer came in a roar that was heard from truck to keelson. “I haven’t begun to fight yet!”

A cheer went up that drowned the rattle of the musketry from the tops, and the fight went on. Swinging around again the jib-boom of the “Serapis” came over the poop so that Paul Jones could touch it. Rushing to the mast, he seized a hawser, and quickly taking several turns with it, lashed the bowsprit of his enemy to his mizzen-rigging. Grappling-irons were dropped over on the enemy – and the battle became a battle to the death.

“Well done, lads; we’ve got her now.” And Jones turned to his nine-pounders, which renewed their fire. Both crews fought with the fury of desperation. The men at the guns, stripped to the buff, grimed and blackened with powder, worked with extraordinary quickness. Every shot told. But the fire of the “Serapis” was deadly, and she soon silenced every gun but Jones’s two nine-pounders, which he still worked with dogged perseverance. He sent Dale below to hurry up the powder charges. To his horror Dale found that the master-at-arms, knowing the ship to be sinking, had released a hundred English prisoners. The situation was terrifying. With foes within and without, there seemed no hope. But Dale, with ready wit, ordered the prisoners to the pumps and to fight the fire near the magazine, telling them that their only hope of life lay in that. And at it they went, until they dropped of sheer exhaustion.

The doctor passed Dale as he rushed upon deck. “Sir,” said he to Jones, “the water is up to the lower deck, and we will sink with all hands in a few minutes.”

Jones turned calmly to the doctor, as though surprised. “What, doctor,” said he, “would you have me strike to a drop of water? Here, help me get this gun over.”

The surgeon ran below, but Jones got the gun over, and served it, too.

To add to the horror of the situation, just at this moment a ball from a new enemy came screaming just over the head of Paul Jones, and the wind of it knocked off his hat. The carpenter, Stacy, ran up breathlessly.

“My God, she’s firing on us – the ‘Alliance,’ sir!” And the captain glanced astern where the flashes marked the position of the crazy Landais, firing on his own consort.

If ever Paul Jones had an idea of hauling his colors, it must have been at this moment.

He had been struck on the head by a splinter, and the blood surged down over his shoulder – but he didn’t know it.

Just then a fear-crazed wretch rushed past him, trying to find the signal-halyards, crying wildly as he ran, —

“Quarter! For God’s sake, quarter! Our ship is sinking!”

Jones heard the words, and, turning quickly, he hurled an empty pistol at the man, which struck him squarely between the eyes, knocking him headlong down the hatch.

Pearson heard the cry. “Do you call for quarter?” he shouted.

For answer Paul Jones’s nine-pounder cut away the rail on which he was standing.

Then came the turn in the fight. Horrible as had been the slaughter on the “Richard,” the quick flashes from his tops told Paul Jones that his marines had not been placed aloft in vain. He saw the crew on the spar-deck of his enemy fall one by one and men fleeing below for safety. Raising his trumpet, he cheered his topmen to further efforts. In their unceasing fire lay his only hope.

One of them in his maintop with great deliberateness laid aside his musket and picked up a leather bucket of hand grenades. Jones watched him anxiously as, steadying himself, he slowly lay out along the foot-rope of the main-yard. His captain knew what he meant to do. He reached the lift, which was directly over the main hatch of the “Serapis.” There he coolly fastened his bucket to the sheet-block, and, taking careful aim, began dropping his grenades down the open hatchway. The second one fell on a row of exposed powder charges. The explosion that followed shook sea and sky, and the air was filled with blackened corpses. The smoke came up in a mighty cloud, and soon the forks of flame licked through it and up the rigging.

That was the supreme moment of Paul Jones’s life, for he knew that victory was his.

The fire from the “Serapis” ceased as if by magic. The explosion had blown a whole battery to eternity, and, as the smoke cleared a little, he could see the figure of Pearson leaning against the pin-rail, almost deserted, his few men running here and there, stricken mad with fear. Then the English captain stumbled heavily, as though blind, over the slippery deck towards the mizzen, where the flag had been nailed, and with his own hands tore it frantically from the mast.

A mighty victory for Paul Jones it was. But now, as the flames mounted higher through the rifts of smoke, he could see at what a cost. His dead lay piled upon the poop so that he could not get to the gangway. His masts were shot through and through, and strained at the stays at every lift of the bow. The fire, though beaten from the magazine, still burst from the forward hatches, firing the tangled rigging and outlining them in its lurid hues against the black beyond. The water had risen, and the freshening breeze lashed the purple foam in at the lower-deck ports. For hours the men fought against their new enemy; but towards five in the morning their captain decided that no human power could save her. He then began moving his wounded and prisoners to the “Serapis”.

The first gray streaks of dawn saw Paul Jones upon the poop of the “Serapis,” looking to the leeward, where the “Richard” lay rolling heavily. Her flag, shot away again and again, had been replaced and floated proudly from its staff. Lower and lower she sank into the water, mortally wounded, a heavy swell washing in at the lower gun-ports. At length, heaving her stern high in the air, her pennant fluttering a last defiance to the captured “Serapis,” she slowly disappeared, dying grandly as she had lived.

After Pearson’s release, the British government offered ten thousand guineas for Paul Jones, dead or alive. Forty-two British frigates chased him and scoured the Channel; but Jones passed within sight of them, the American flag flying at the mast, and reached France in safety, where he became the hero of the hour. And so long as the Stars and Stripes fly over American war-ships will the men who know hold up as their ideal of a dogged warrior and gallant seaman the hero of Flamborough – Paul Jones.


The first of the great American captains to give his life to the cause of liberty was Nicholas Biddle. And the action in which he lost it is the finest example of daring and hardihood in the little known pages of naval history. His part in that glorious action must ever remain unknown as to its details since but five out of his crew remained alive to tell of it, and we are chiefly indebted to the British accounts for the information which has been handed down.

Nicholas Biddle began his naval career by being shipwrecked on a desert shoal at the age of thirteen. But being rescued, with his four companions, at the end of two months, his ardor was so little dampened that as soon as opportunity offered he immediately went forth in search of further adventures on the sea. A war between England and Spain being imminent, he went to London, and succeeded in getting a midshipman’s warrant on the ship of Captain – afterwards Admiral – Sterling.

But just before the declaration of independence of his own country, a voyage of discovery to the North Pole was proposed by the Royal Geographical Society, and this opportunity seemed to hold forth infinitely more possibilities for advancement than the daily port routine of a British frigate of war.

So, Admiral Sterling refusing Biddle’s mild request to be transferred to one of the vessels, the young man took it upon himself to doff his gold-laced uniform and present himself upon the “Carcase” in very shabby sailor clothes, upon which he was forthwith entered upon her books as a sailor before the mast. He was in glorious company, though, for Horatio Nelson – afterwards to be the greatest admiral England has ever known – shared his humble lot as a jacky, although his prospects in the service were more brilliant than Biddle’s. The expedition, having accomplished its purpose, returned to England in 1774, both young Nelson and Biddle having been appointed coxswains for meritorious service.

When hostilities in the United States began, Biddle, of course, resigned from the British navy and offered his services to the Continental Congress. His first commission was the command of the “Camden,” a galley fitted out by the State of Pennsylvania for the defence of the Delaware River. He was then made a captain in the naval service, and took command of the “Andrew Doria,” of fourteen guns and one hundred and thirty men.

Just before Commodore Hopkins’s fleet hoisted anchor, Biddle had an opportunity to show his intrepidity in a very personal way. Two men who had deserted from his vessel had been taken and were placed in prison at Lewistown. Biddle sent an officer and a squad of men ashore to bring them off. But the officer returned to the ship and reported that the deserters had joined with the other prisoners, and barricaded the door, swearing that no man alive would take them. Biddle put on his side-arms and, taking only a young midshipman with him, went at once to the prison. The door was tightly barred from the inside, and the prisoners, led by one of the deserters named Green, shook their fists and pointed their weapons at him. Some of the more venturesome of the townsfolk, who only needed a resolute leader, now smashed down the door at the naval officer’s directions, and Biddle, drawing both his pistols, quickly stepped within the opening. Green stood in front of his ill-favored companions, his eye gleaming villanously down the barrel of his flint-lock. Without moving his eye from the man, and planting himself squarely in the doorway, Biddle said, steadily, —

“Now, Green, if you don’t take good aim, you are a dead man!”

There was a moment’s pause, after which the pistol fell a little, and finally, under the resolute attitude of his captain, the fellow broke down. He was completely awed, and at Biddle’s command dropped his pistol to the floor and allowed himself to be conducted to the ship. Their leader cowed, the remainder of the prisoners permitted the Lewistown militia, who had recovered from their fright, to come in and make them fast again.

This incident had its moral effect upon his men, and never again, when they learned to know him, was Biddle troubled with disaffection among his crew. The fury with which they went into the fights that followed showed how much he was a man after their own hearts.

After Commodore Esek Hopkins’s unsuccessful encounter with the British fleet, the “Andrew Doria” put to sea and cruised off the coast of Newfoundland. Biddle captured a prize laden with arms and ammunition, which he carried to port, where they greatly strengthened Washington’s army, which was badly in need of supplies of all kinds. He captured a transport and four hundred British soldiers, and made a great number of merchant prizes. He would have taken more, but he only had five men left aboard to take the “Doria” back to Philadelphia.

The Congress had authorized the building of several new frigates, and one of these, the “Randolph,” of thirty-two guns, was just off the stocks. Biddle was made commander of her, and set immediately about finishing her and making her ready for sea. He had great difficulty in getting a crew, as privateering, where the prizes were greater and ship actions less frequent, proved more attractive to the adventurous spirits of the day. Congress, however, drafted a number of men from the army, and the crew was completed by the enlistment of volunteers from among the prisoners taken on prizes. After many difficulties with this motley crew, Biddle at last got to sea in February, 1777.

The men of his old crew were with him to a man, but many of the volunteers were shoal-water sailors, and his army recruits didn’t know a sheet from a buntline. So when he ran into a Hatteras gale a few days out, the “Randolph” carried away her masts, and was altogether so uncomfortable a wreck that the volunteers mutinied, and Biddle had a hard time getting into Charleston harbor. He succeeded at last in refitting and in instilling some of the man-of-war spirit into his crew, sailing at last for the West Indies. Then his luck turned for the better, and he sighted the English ship “True Briton,” twenty guns, convoying three merchantmen. Without accident he succeeded in taking them and in bringing all four prizes safe and sound into Charleston harbor. This was the first capture of the navy in the South, and, as the prizes were again liberally supplied with arms, the capture was doubly welcome. So much did Congress appreciate this affair that they had a medal struck off in Biddle’s honor. The British hearing of this exploit of the “Randolph,” sent a fleet south, and succeeded in blockading her at Charleston for a time.

The State of South Carolina got ready a fleet in the hope of raising the blockade, but before they could get to sea the Englishmen had disappeared.

In February, 1778, Biddle went out with a little fleet composed of the “General Moultrie,” 18, the “Polly,” 16, and the “Fair American,” 14, in search of the British squadron. But missing them, they only succeeded in taking a few merchant vessels of the enemy. They boarded a number of Dutch and French ships, and Biddle knew that before long they must fall in with some of the enemy. To Captain Blake, who was dining with him, he said, “I would not be surprised if my old ship should be out after us. As to anything that carries her guns upon one deck, I think myself a match for her.”

On the afternoon of the 7th of March, a sail was made out to windward, and they sailed up to examine her. As she came down with the wind she was made out to be square-rigged; but, bows on, she looked rather like a sloop than a frigate. A short time later she could be made out more plainly a man-of-war, – evidently of the enemy, – coming down speedily, and, from the way she was sailing, able to out-foot any of the squadron. Biddle could see that she stood well out of the water; but a small frigate might do that. And if she was only a frigate of forty guns or under, he promised himself a great battle that day. But if she were a ship of the line, not only the “Randolph” but the smaller vessels were in great danger, for nothing save a craft somewhere near her size could resist the broadsides of the two heavy gun-tiers.

He quickly made his resolution. Signalling to the fleet of cruisers and prizes to go about, he himself took the deck and sent the little “Randolph” boldly down towards the stranger. On she came, bowing majestically over the water, never making a sign until nearing gunshot distance, when the sound of the pipes and the calls on her deck showed that she was clearing ship for action. Biddle had been prepared for an hour. Now, as she came a little closer to the wind, the American captain discovered what he had suspected – two long lines of muzzles running out of her leeward ports.

She was a line-of-battle-ship, then.

He clinched his jaws and looked over his shoulder to where the prizes were scurrying away in the gathering darkness. They at least would be safe. But he did not shift his course a point, sailing on until the canvas of the great ship seemed to tower far above the little spars of his own vessel. The men of the “Randolph” were aghast at the action of their captain. To them an English “Sixty-Four” was the epitome of all that was powerful upon the seas. Biddle thought so, too; but there was nothing of timidity in his voice as he bade his gunners stand by to train upon her. He knew that this battle would be his last, for he resolved in those few moments that he would not give up his ship while one plank of her remained above water. The enemy might blow him out of the water and send him to the bottom, but before she did it he would give them such a lesson in patriotism that the world would not easily forget it.
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