John Paul Jones
As one of the “fathers of the American Navy”, one would think that John Paul Jones would be far from an unsung or unknown hero. However, many people have never heard of the brave sailor, possibly due to Jones’s reputation as a pirate or the fact that he ended his career working for Catherine II of Russia, making his service as an American patriot more difficult to celebrate than Washington or Adams as they followed their revolutionary service with service as presidents.
John Paul Jones perhaps deserves some of his uneasy reputation; his birth name was simply John Paul as the “Jones” was added later in life as he fled from the law. When a twist of fate killed off the captain and first mate of the ship he was serving on with yellow fever, Jones found himself a captain. On one of his earliest voyages, Jones flogged a man who later died. The man happened to be the son of an influential Scotsman, and the repercussions would forever stain Jones’ reputation.
When Jones finally got an American command, he would be one of the first to hoist an American flag over a navy vessel. Sailing from Canada to the Bahamas, Jones fought small battles and largely disrupted British shipping. Capturing British ships was a massive economic swing for the Americans as they now had more ships and whatever supplies that they could find on the captured ships.
Eventually, Jones was sent to disrupt shipping around Britain, with support from the French. With a few ships at his disposal, Jones raided British lands and shipping as best he could. After a few failures, Jones and crew ran into a British escort force and a small but symbolic naval battle erupted. British pride was at stake as the most powerful navy had to prove that they could keep their seas safe.
Jones, commanding aboard the 42-gun converted merchant ship the Bonhomme Richard, faced off against a 44-gun fifth-rate, the Serapis. Outgunned, the Bonhomme Richard was torn to shreds and hundreds killed or wounded in the mostly one-on-one duel as other ships skirmished around them. Jones and his men put up quite a fight and nearly severed the mast of the Serapis.
After long stretches of fighting the Bonhomme Richard was close to sinking and filled with dead and dying, Jones apparently among them as he was slumped over a railing. As the captain of the Serapis called to surrender, Jones perked up, as he had only been resting, and said “I have not yet begun to fight”, with several possible variations but the same intent.
Jones and the Bonhomme Richard held together and even beat back a Serapis boarding party until other American ships could bombard the Serapis, now entangled with the Bonhomme Richard. The battle was over soon after with the Serapis captured and the crew of the Bonhomme Richard working around the clock to pump water out. By all accounts, the Bonhomme Richard should have sunk or surrendered, but they persevered and proved that the American navy, even when acting similar to pirates, were not ones to be trifled with.