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This Day in History: John Paul Jones & his daring attack on Whitehaven

On this day in 1778, American naval captain John Paul Jones leads an attack on the British—on English soil!


You may or may not know who Jones was. Born in Scotland, he moved to America in the 1770s, just as tensions were mounting between the colonies and Britain. Jones had a long (if checkered) history of service aboard vessels, and he was an apt seaman. He soon volunteered to serve in the Continental Navy, which was just then being formed.


Jones is perhaps best known for a battle that he fought in September 1779 against two British warships. In that battle, he managed to move his ship close to one of the British ships, 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 famously replied: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

With such an attitude, perhaps it is not hard to believe that Jones won that battle in the end?!


The attack led by Jones on April 23, 1778 was not quite as successful, but it did serve an important purpose: It let the British people know that the American Revolution could reach them at home.


At the time, Jones had just been given command of the “Ranger,” and American commissioners in France had given him orders to proceed “in the manner you shall judge best, for distressing the Enemies of the United States by Sea, or otherwise . . . .” This worked for Jones. He generally believed that harassing defenseless British ports could be a good strategy for dividing and conquering the powerful British Navy. He explained:


“[I have always] been persuaded that small Squadrons could be employed to far better Advantage on private expeditions and would distress the Enemy infinitely more than the same force could do by cruising . . . . We cannot yet Fight their Navy as their numbers and Force is so far Superiour to ours – therefore it seems to be our most natural Province to Surprize their defenceless places and thereby divide their attention and draw it off from our Coasts.”


He decided to launch one of these attacks on Whitehaven. It was a crowded port, with hundreds of ships lying together. He thought he’d have an advantage at Whitehaven because he’d served his naval apprenticeship there. He was familiar with the port and could thus navigate his way in and out at night. His plan was to disable the cannons in the forts, then set fire to the ships.


On the night of the 22nd and the morning of the 23rd, he put his plan into action.


Unfortunately, Jones was contending with uncooperative weather and a semi-mutinous crew. The crew was upset that its orders were to destroy ships. They much preferred to take ships as prizes (because of the pay day associated with such captures). Indeed, some of the crew reached shore and ignored the task at hand. They went drinking at a local tavern! Another traitorous crew member began pounding on doors, warning the British about what was going on.


In the end, some of the cannons were disabled and some ships were set afire, but the mission was not nearly as successful as hoped. Yet Jones and his men managed to get in their boats and get away.


Primary Sources:

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