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This Day in History: American naval hero John Paul Jones

On this day in 1792, American naval hero John Paul Jones dies in Paris. He has been called one of the founders of the American Navy. Of him, Teddy Roosevelt once said:

“Every officer in our Navy should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones. Every officer in our Navy should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.”

Jones may be most famous for a battle that he fought on September 23, 1779, while commanding the USS Bonhomme Richard.

That battle was fought against the HMS Serapis. The British quickly gained the upper hand. Two of Jones’s 18-pounders exploded early in the battle, tearing a hole in the side of his ship. The incident left Americans at an early disadvantage. One of the midshipmen later wrote that the British ship, Serapis, “made a dreadful havock among our crew. . . . our men fell in all parts of the ship by the scores.”

Amazingly, Jones managed to move his crippled ship close to Serapis, binding the two ships together. The two sides continued to fire upon each other. The American ship was especially battered and the crew occasionally had to stop fighting in order to fight fires aboard the ship. The hold of the ship was filling with water and the ship was sinking. The British captain yelled to Jones, asking if he was ready to surrender. Jones reportedly replied: “I have not yet begun to fight!” Others remembered him saying: “I may sink, but I’m damned if I’ll strike.”

Maybe it is not so hard to believe that Jones eventually got the upper hand and won that battle?

Unfortunately, Jones did not handle his victory well. He returned to Amsterdam where he “was treated as a conqueror,” but his desire for glory got the best of him. He tried to play to the attention, giving interviews and otherwise helping to publicize his account of the battle. After a while, his efforts at self-promotion became excessive. Moreover, his fellow officers felt that he was slow to give credit to others, when due. One officer griped: “Ungrateful to his crew, he makes it seem that he alone did everything.” Even Benjamin Franklin admonished him: “Criticising and censuring almost every one you have to do with, will diminish friends, encrease Enemies, and thereby hurt your affairs.”

When Jones died, he was living in Paris, largely alone. He was buried, but the location of his grave site was forgotten until the U.S. Ambassador to France began a search for him in 1899. Even then, it took years to find his remains, which were buried under a laundry just outside Paris.

In 1905, his remains were finally returned to the United States government. They were eventually re-interred in an ornate crypt at the United States Naval Academy (see picture).

Jones may have been a flawed hero, but he was a hero nonetheless. And he finally received an appropriate burial.

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