Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Bonhomme Richard

Sketch of Bonhomme Richard, National Archives

Bonhomme Richard
By Adrian McGrath
Benjamin Franklin was, arguably, the most important man for the cause of American independence during the Revolutionary War, except for George Washington himself. Dr. Franklin was a powerful advocate for independence during the Second Continental Congress. He helped edit Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, injecting the famous phra se “pursuit of happiness” into America’s philosophy and giving future Americans a positive reason for existence. Most importantly, he worked quietly and cleverly as America’s ambassador to France to convince the French royalty to side with the United States -- especially after the American victory at Saratoga -- and to support the rebel cause with French troops, French warships, and French war supplies.

But he did one more thing. He made it possible for America to have a famous naval victory -- easily the most famous ship-to-ship naval victory in all of American history -- against the all-powerful British Royal Navy and helped create the legend of America’s first, and most famous, sea captain, John Paul Jones. Dr. Franklin did this by persuading the French royals to give to Jones a former East Indiaman merchant ship called the Duc de Duras. John Paul Jones, who became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin’s during his time in France, renamed the ship to honor Franklin’s famous publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac -- which in French was called Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.

With this new ship, John Paul Jones could attack British merchant ships on the high seas, raid British ports, and fight British warships.
But he also needed trained soldiers with muskets and small arms. These well armed men could provide general security for his ship and crew, attack enemy ships and crews when at close range, support his own landing parties, repel invaders trying to board his ship, and board enemy ships when grappled to them. In short, John Paul Jones needed Marines.

The French government could not afford to give Captain Jones French Marines (Corps-Royal d’Infanterie de Marine), which France needed for its own fleet. But the French government sent Jones a group of fighting men who, no doubt, were more than happy to have an opportunity to fight against the British. France gave John Paul Jones Irish exiles who were soldiers in the Brigade Irlandaise (Irish Brigade), specifically soldiers from the Regiment de Walsh-Serrant Brigade. This was one of three exiled Irish regiments in the French army. They were Irish soldiers who escaped from British-occupied Ireland and joined a special unit in the French army. (In Irish history Irish soldiers who left British-controlled Ireland and joined the military of foreign powers like France and Spain were called the Wild Geese.) These Irishmen became the American Marines for John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard. Their Marine commander was Edward Stack, who was born in Country Kerry, Ireland. Soon they would go where glory awaited them in the famous sea battle against Her Majesty’s Ship HMS Serapis at the Battle of Flamborough Head.

In August of 1779, leaving a port in France, John Paul Jones was in command of the Bonhomme Richard and led a small but diverse group of seven ships, French and American, some of whom were privateers who would not necessarily follow Jones’ commands or even remain with the squadron. Jones wanted to attack enemy ships near the British coast and possibly raid British ports. Some of the seven ships, it turned out, either did not participate in or actually abandoned Jones’ plans.

Model of Bonhomme Richard, National Archives

Nevertheless, with the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard and a crew of 347, Jones felt confident that he could engage an enemy ship and defeat it especially if grappled with it -- come to close quarters -- and board the British ship with his Irish Marines. His Marines could also defend his own ship from possible enemy attack. (Some of Jones’ sailors and officers were also Irish, so he probably felt confident that his Irish Marines would remain loyal and do their duty.)

After sailing around the British Isles, Captain Jones encountered two British warships near Flamborough Head off the east coast of England protecting a fleet of merchant ships; and the famous battle ensued on September 23, 1779. The British warships, the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, made it possible for the 41 merchant ships they were protecting to escape enemy attack. Then ship to ship battles commenced.

After a great deal of maneuvering, in which some of Jones’ ships pursued their own interests or simply did not obey orders, the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, the main British warship with 44 guns and a crew of 280, fought the famous battle. Serapis had superior firepower and was faster -- having copper plate on her hull which prevented barnacles and other obstructions which would slow down a ship from attaching to the wooden hull. Bonhomme Richard had no copper plate on her hull. The two ships fired their guns and maneuvered, become fouled and unfouled (where the mast rigging of the ships became entangled and attached to each other) until Bonhomme Richard eventually grappled with Serapis. (Grappling was where lines with hooks were thrown on to the enemy ship locking the two ships together.) The advantage Paul Jones had in Marines now proved crucial. Bonhomme Richard had 140 Marines, while Serapis had only 45 British Marines.

At one point as the American flag accidentally fell down, the British captain, Richard Pearson, called out to Bonhomme Richard, “Are you striking?” This meant: Are you surrendering? John Paul Jones, knowing his Irish Marines probably outnumbered the enemy, gave his legendary reply: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Edward Stack's Irish Marines vs Serapis

Jones sent some of his Irish Marines and some sailors up the main masts of his ship to platforms, called "fighting tops," where they could fire their muskets at the top deck of the Serapis. They could clear the enemy deck of gunners, sailors, and pave the way for the Americans to board the enemy ship. One American sailor carried a sack of grenades to a top mast. (A grenade back then was a primitive type of bomb in the shape a pomegranate with a lighted fuse -- hence the name.) He threw grenades onto the deck of Serapis with little effect until one accidentally fell through a hatch into a compartment where gunpowder was held. Suddenly there was a massive explosion on Serapis. At this point, Captain Richard Pearson saw that it was pointless to continue the fight merely to shed more blood. He had already achieved the main part of his mission by saving his escaping British merchant ships; so, he surrendered honorably.

John Paul Jones had just won a great battle, even though he would eventually have to abandon the badly damaged and sinking Bonhomme Richard and sail away with his English prisoners in the captured but also badly damaged Serapis. Bonhomme Richard sunk and was lost forever, but it went into legend for the United States thanks to a great Scottish sea captain named John Paul Jones -- with the help of some Irish sailors and Irish Marines.

Today the United States Navy has a modern warship called the Bonhomme Richard in honor of the legendary vessel. It is the LHD-6 USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship.
USS Stack, named for the Irish Marine Edward Stack

The US Navy also named another ship in honor of Edward Stack, the Irish born leader of Bonhomme Richard's Marines -- USS Stack DD-406 -- which saw serious action during World War II. More information on this can be found at the US Navy website . It is significant to note that John Paul Jones praised Edward Stack in his report on the battle and said Stack's bravery was a major factor in the American victory.

And one final note which is quite fascinating. The motto of the US Marine Corps is, of course, "Semper Fidelis" which means "Always Faithful." Marines often greet each other with the expression "Semper Fi." Oddly enough the motto for the old Irish Brigade, the Irish Marines on the Bonhomme Richard, was "Semper et Ubique Fidelis." This is Latin for "Always and Everywhere Faithful." Could this be the origin of the motto for the U.S. Marine Corps? It is unclear, but it is an interesting question for research.

Sources and further reading:

Wikipedia article on Irish Brigade (France); Wikipedia article on Bonhomme Richard ; Bonhomme Richard vs Serapis:Flamborough Head 1779 by Mark Lardas, 2012, Osprey Publishing Ltd; Pirates and Patriots of the Revolution: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Colonial Seamanship by C. Keith Wilbur, M.D.The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 1973; Ireland and Irishmen in the American War of Independence, by the Irish Association for Documentation and Information Services, the Academy Press, Dublin, Ireland (a booklet containing copies of original source material from colonial times).
Wikipedia article on Edward Stack at

The Wild Geese: Exploring the Heritage of the Irish World Wide by Joe Gannon, a website at Website for the city of Sligo, Ireland

Both the images above of Bonhomme Richard are from Wikimedia Commons and are from the National Archives and Records Administration. Both are in public domain. The image of Edward Stack's Irish Marines vs Serapis is in public domain from Wikimedia Commons. It is a photo of an original artwork also in public domain referred to at Wikimedia Commons as "Edward Stack's Marines Firin from the rigging of John Paul Jones' Bonnehomme Richard down on the English sailors of the Serapis" by Arman Tateos Manookian, an Armenian American artist, c. 1920's, Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The photo of the USS Stack is from Wikimedia Commons and in public domain as a work of the US Navy.

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