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Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Hero is Found, then Lost, then Found Again

The patriot and legendary naval commander, John Paul Jones, died 219 years ago in 1792, but many Americans are not familiar with this important revolutionary figure. Born John Paul in Scotland in 1747, he apprenticed at sea at age 13, sailing to the Caribbean. When he was 26 he killed another sailor in self defense during a mutiny. He fled to Virginia and changed his name to John Jones, then later to John Paul Jones.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, he was commissioned in the Continental Navy. He was promoted to Captain at age 29. His war time achievements were extraordinary, continuously seeking out and attacking British ships while commanding a succession of American warships. He became a close associate of Washington, Jefferson, and especially Franklin, his mentor.
In 1778 Captain John Paul Jones decided to take the war to the British. His plan was to raid the coastal areas and take English nobles prisoner so that they could be used in exchanges for American prisoners. Previously, the British considered all captured American navy personnel and privateers as pirates, and refused to hand them over. Although the raids were unsuccessful, the British press branded Jones as an ape-like pirate. This strategy failed as many in the English working class saw Jones as a kind of “Robin Hood” - stealing from the upper class and giving to them. Captain Jones had returned some English fishermen he held and gave them new sails for their boats and some money.
One year later, Jones achieved his most famous victory off the coast of Scotland. He defeated the British ship Serapis in heavy combat. The Serapis was a 50-gun warship with a crew of almost 300. After pounding Jones’ ship, the Bonhomme Richard, the British Captain, Richard Pearson, called out to Jones, “Do you call for quarter?” (in other words are you prepared to give up and surrender your ship?). Jones was believed to have responded, “I have not yet begun to fight.” There is some question as to his actual words though. An eyewitness, Ensign Nathaniel Fanning, recalled Jones’ words to be, “Ay, ay, we’ll do that when we can fight no longer, but we shall see yours (their flag) down first!” While this version is a little wordier, there is no confusion about the meaning.
John Paul Jones maneuvered his smaller and now sinking Bonhomme Richard up next to the Serapis and had his crew lash it to the British ship. The American crew fought hand to hand and after three hours they overwhelmed the enemy. As Jones stepped onto to the deck of the Serapis to accept their surrender, the Bonhomme Richard sank beneath the waves. Many other victories were to come as the small Continental Navy fought against huge odds. America had found a new hero.
While visiting in Paris after the war, John Paul Jones was offered a position as an Admiral in the Russian Navy by Empress Catherine II. He served in the war against the Turkish Navy in the Black Sea from 1788 to 1790.
With his duty completed, Jones returned to Paris, nearly penniless and without prospects, living in obscurity. He died on July 18, 1792, at the age of 45 from a form of jaundice (interstitial nephritis). He was found lying face down on the bed of his small third floor apartment. He had written his will just hours before.
After the French were defeated by the British at Trafalgar, Napoleon is said to have remarked, “Had Jones lived to this day, France might have had an Admiral.”
A friend paid for Jones’ metal coffin. Then a small group accompanied his body to the Saint Louis Cemetery in Paris where Jones was buried in an unmarked grave. There was no service and no clergy presided. Later, the cemetery fell into disrepair. It became a place to dispose of dead animals and where gamblers met to bet on animal fights. For more than 100 years, the remains of John Paul Jones, the Navy’s first hero, remained in the unmarked grave.
In 1899, American Ambassador to France, Horace Porter, began his search for the forgotten grave of John Paul Jones. After six years of tireless work, he was able to locate the gravesite in 1905. Positive identification was possible because the body had been well preserved in that metal coffin. A squadron of American warships was dispatched to France by President Theodore Roosevelt to bring the hero’s body home.
On John Paul Jones’ 159th Birthday in 1906, before 12,000 mourners, his body was ceremoniously interred in a gold and marble crypt in the Chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. The hero had been found, again.
The inscription on the marble floor in front of his sarcophagus reads,

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