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Continental Navy

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Overview of the Continental Navy
Washington's Navy: April 1775-March 1776
War at Sea: John Paul Jones at Flamborough Head
Naval Force on Lake Champlain, 1776
Yorktown and the Battle of the Capes

War at Sea: John Paul Jones at Flamborough Head

While the British navy was too formidable to be attacked by the meager American navy, Britain's commercial shipping was vulnerable. American merchants in privately owned vessels wreaked havoc on English trade. These privateers, as the ships and their crews were known, prowled the trade routes in search of prizes. Operating in the North Atlantic, they often put in at French ports for refitting and supplies. Though she was
A 1777 call for sailors. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
legally a neutral nation until 1778, France turned a blind eye to the
presence of American privateers in French
Captain John Paul Jones. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
ports. After the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, the French signed an alliance with the Americans, and privateers as well as ships of the Continental Navy began openly using French ports.

Among the most successful of the commerce raiders of the Continental Navy was John Paul Jones. In 1778, after bringing news to the French about the British defeat at Saratoga, he invaded Great Britain's home waters in his sloop Ranger. Sailing through the Irish Sea, he launched a series of raids along the west coast of England before sailing north, where he defeated the British sloop of war Drake in ship-to-ship action. He then circumnavigated Ireland and returned to France, where he petitioned the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, to urge the French to provide him with a new ship. In August 1779, Franklin managed to obtain an old French East Indiaman for Jones.
Battle between the Ranger and the Drake. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Battle between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Renaming her the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Franklin (author of Poor
Battle between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Richard's Almanac
), Jones set sail with a squadron of French and American ships to the western edge of Ireland, where he captured twelve British merchant vessels. The squadron dispersed at the Firth of Forth, and Jones set his sights on capturing the city of Leith for ransom. However, a storm struck the firth, and as the swells grew, Captain Jones was forced to abandon his plan. Heading south with three vessels on September 23, 1779, the Americans encountered a convoy of British ships off Flamborough Head.

At the approach of the American ships, the British merchantmen made for the coast while two of the Royal Navy escorts remained to face Jones. Jones engaged the British frigate Serapis while a French frigate attacked the other British escort. Initially, Jones fought the Serapis at long range with his eighteen-pound cannon. However, one of the guns burst early in the battle. Fearing that others might be faulty, Jones engaged
John Paul Jones as a pirate. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Serapis at close range. As the ships touched sides, Jones lashed his crippled ship to the British frigate. After a battle that raged through the night, British commander Richard Pearson asked Jones if he'd had enough. Jones reportedly replied, "I have not yet begun to fight!" Finally, a fire broke out on Serapis. As fire neared the powder magazine, Captain Pearson was forced to strike his colors. Meanwhile, the Bonhomme Richard had been battered nearly to splinters. With his vessel leaking badly and beyond repair at sea, Jones reluctantly abandoned ship and transferred his crew to the captured Serapis. He then sailed to the Dutch port of Texel, proudly displaying the American flag above the captured ensign of the Royal Navy.

John Paul Jones's raids along the English coast brought the war home to British citizens in a way few other incidents had. Continental Navy raiders and privateers succeeded where conventional land warfare could not. Their highly publicized actions helped turn the tide of popular British opinion away from the war, forcing the government to sue for peace.

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Naval Force on Lake Champlain, 1777

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