“I have not yet begun to fight!” - John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head
On the night of September 23, 1779, the most storied American naval battle of the Revolutionary War took place as the 40-gun Bonhomme Richard under the daring Commodore John Paul Jones squared off against the 50-gun Serapis led by Captain Richard Pearson off Flamborough Head on the northeast coast of England. Leading up to the engagement, Jones had forged a reputation as the most feared sailor in the American service by terrorizing Crown shipping in British home waters and his raids on England’s shore. At the Battle of Flamborough Head, he achieved his greatest triumph of all, cementing his immortal place atop the pantheon of American naval heroes.
The three-and-a-half-hour battle ultimately became very up-close and personal as the Richard and Serapis collided and blasted away at each other. Richard suffered such heavy damage and appeared to be such a hopeless wreck that Captain Pearson called out, “Have you struck? Do you call for quarters?” In response to the enemy’s inquiry about his intention to surrender, Commodore Jones reportedly replied with the immortal words, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Despite the condition of the Richard, the tide of the battle turned when one of Jones’s sailors successfully lobbed a baseball-sized grenade through an open hatch on the Serapis. As historian John Ferling explains, “It detonated, setting off a series of devastating explosions. The grenade had touched off powder cartridges that littered the areas where the soot-faced gun crews worked.” Shaken by the bloody reversal, Captain Pearson called for quarter and ultimately surrendered.
“Few actions at Sea have demonstrated such steady cool determined Bravery,” said Benjamin Franklin in a fitting tribute of Jones’s gallantry at the Battle of Flamborough Head. Unwilling to give up the fight in a desperately bloody struggle, Jones had indeed won a victory that solidified his place as the most celebrated American sailor of the Revolution.
Jones did not forget the price of his victory, writing, “Humanity cannot but recoil from the prospect of such finished horror, and lament that which should produce such fatal consequences.” As Ferling calculates, “Fully half of the nearly six hundred men who had been in the battle were dead or wounded….” The Richard sustained such heavy damage that it was abandoned and Jones subsequently transferred his flag and crew to the Serapis. Other vessels in Jones’s task force managed to capture the British warship Countess of Scarborough during the battle. Around 504 British sailors were also taken prisoner and the victorious Americans eventually made it to safety in the Netherlands.
Photo Credit Header: John Paul Jones at the Battle of Flamborough Head. (Credit: U.S. Naval Institute)
Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.
Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by Benson Bobrick.
National Park Service: John Paul Jones.
Naval History and Heritage Command: John Paul Jones.