Today, April 23, 1778: John Paul Jones Daring Raid On England

Who would have ever guessed that a baby boy born in Arbigland, Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, Scotland on July 6, 1747 would have played an important role in the navy of two nations. The baby’s name was John Paul.

At the age of 13, he went to sea to learn the trade. At 21, he was given his first command of the brig John. For the next few years, Paul was a successful merchant captain in the West Indies before immigrating to the American colonies where he took the last name of Jones.

On December 7, 1775, John Paul Jones received a commission as a First Lieutenant in America’s Continental Navy. He was assigned to the Alfred, the flagship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, the only Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. Jones had the honor as being the first person to raise the flag of the Grand Union on a Continental Navy warship.

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In 1777, Jones was given command of the Ranger. On February 14, 1778, Jones sailed into Quiberon Bay in France. As the Ranger passed French Admiral La Motte Piquet, they exchanged a gun salute to each other as a sign of recognition. The Ranger was flying the Stars and Stripes and when Piquet exchanged the gun salute, it was the first official recognition of the American flag by a foreign power.

On April 22, 1778, Jones sailed north on the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain, past the Isle of Man and anchored a couple miles off the coast of the fishing village of Whitehaven, located along the coast of Cumbria.

In the dark of the cold night, the Ranger lowered 2 boats filled with 30 sailors. Led by Jones in one of the boats, they rowed against an outgoing tide with the purpose of destroying several hundred ships anchored in the harbor. Not only was the low tide to Jones’ advantage but the ships were crowded together making them more vulnerable to fire.

They timed their raid to coincide with the outgoing tide which would leave the ships in low waters, making pursuit difficult for the British. However, rowing the two miles against the tide was more difficult than they expected and took them three hours to reach their destination.

Jones and one of his most trusted officers, Lieutenant Meijer, a Swede, was in one boat. His mission was to land on the coast and attack the battery of guns along the shore. US Marine Lieutenant Wallingford and Midshipman Ben Hill commanded the second boat. Their mission was to set the ships ablaze with the hopes that their tight docking would allow the fire to spread from ship to ship.

On this day, April 23, 1778, the Jones’ boats finally made it to the harbor, delayed by the strong tide and winds. The shore was too rocky and sea too rough to allow Jones’ boat to land where he intended forcing him to row pass the battery of guns just as the first hints of daylight peaked over the horizon. He ended up landing near the battery of guns. He was fortunate that the night was bitterly cold as the guards were in the rear of the guardhouse trying to stay warm. Using each other as a ladder, they scaled the wall and surprised the guards, subduing them without firing a shot or any sustaining any casualties.

Unbeknownst to Jones, his crew was a mutinous bunch and had planned return to the boat and return to the ship once Jones had left the boat. However, Meijer was left guarding the boat. Once the mutinous men saw Jones standing on the top of the gun battery and encouraging his men to be heroes, they abandoned their plan and followed him onward.

With the help of Midshipman Joe Green, Jones spiked the guns that protected the harbor. Spiking a cannon meant that they hammered a steel spike, often barbed into the touch hole that was used to ignite the gun powder and fire the cannon. The spikes could be removed but it took time and great effort depending on well the touch-hole had been spiked. This would give Jones’ boats a chance to make it safely out of the harbor.

In the meantime, Wallingford and the crew in the second boat landed at the Old Quay and instead of setting the ships on fire, they went to the local pub and started drinking. Supposedly, they claimed to have gone there to obtain a light (fire or torch) that they could use to set off their incendiary devices.

I found that accounts differed as to what really took place next. They all report that Jones managed to set fire to at least two ships, both loaded with coal. However, some reports say that the fire spread and burnt down the town. Other reports said that the towns people quickly responded to the fires on the ships and using their fire engines, the prevented the fires from spreading to other ships or the town.

Jones and his boats safely returned to the Ranger with three prisoners. From Whitehaven, Jones sailed north to Kirkcudbright Bay in Scotland near where he was born. He went ashore with the intentions of kidnapping the Earl of Selkirk and ransom him for the return of American sailors being held by the British. However, the Earl was not home. Jones and his crew ended up taking all of the Earl’s silver items, including his wife’s teapot which was still full with her morning breakfast tea.

From Scotland, Jones sailed west to Carrick Fergus, Ireland where he captured the British ship, the HMS Drake.

Although his raid on Whitehaven was not nearly as successful as Jones’ intended, it was the first action of the Revolutionary War that took action on British soil. It sounded an alarm through much of Great Britain that they were vulnerable to attack. The psychological affect far more damaging than the actual physical attack.

Jones went on to a stellar career in the Continental Navy and is considered by many to be the father of the US Navy. After the Revolutionary War, Jones went to Russia where Empress Catherine made him a Rear Admiral. During his short service with the Russian Navy, he made a positive impact that helped improve their navy.

In 1790, Jones left the Russian Navy and moved to Paris. On July 18, 1792, Jones died at the age of 45. Jones buried in a cemetery, the St. Louis Cemetery, that was owned by the royal family. After the French Revolution, the cemetery had been sold and basically forgotten.

In 1845, efforts were made by American Col. John H. Sherburne to bring Jones remains back to the US. After six years of negotiations, plans were set to bring America’s naval hero home, but objections from Jones’ relatives in Scotland stopped the plans.

In 1899, US Ambassador launched a search for Jones’ remains as no one at the time knew where they were. It wasn’t until 1905 that Jones’ burial site was discovered. President Teddy Roosevelt sent four cruisers in April 1905 to retrieve the remains. When they returned to the US, they escorted into Chesapeake Bay by seven US battleships.

On January 26, 1913, John Paul Jones was given a full military funeral and was laid to rest in a crypt located in the chapel of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Whenever the chapel allows the public to view Jones’ crypt, it is guarded by Marine guards.


Sources for the above includes: John Paul Jones leads American raid on Whitehaven, England; John Paul Jones burns Whitehaven, England; John Paul Jones: The Raid on Whitehaven in 1778; John Paul Jones’s Whitehaven Raid as reported in Whitehaven; John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven; John Paul Jones A founder of the U.S. Navy.


Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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