John Paul Jones and the Irish Marines
"I wish to have no connection with any ship that does
not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way."
John Paul Jones
On September 23, 1779, as John Paul Jones, captain of the Bonhomme
Richard, prepared to face two British ships off Flamborough Head on the
coast of England, he had some very interesting allies on board his ship.
The 137 marines serving on the ship with Jones were members of the
Infanterie Irlandaise (the Irish Brigade of France), Regiment de Walsh-
Serrant. These men were "Wild Geese," members of a brigade that had
existed in the French army for almost a century at that point. Made up
of Irish exiles, some recent and some the descendants of men who had
gone to France over the last hundred years, the Irish Brigade had
compiled a proud and valiant history in service to the French monarchy
over the years.
Jones was docked in L'Orient on the French coast, in May of 1779 when
John Adams, American Commissioner to France came to visit. After a
dinner for Adams, hosted by Jones, both men were lead on a review of the
Irish Brigade Marines by Captain McCarthy, of the Irish Brigade. Adams
later noted that the members of the Irish Brigade in France dressed in
red, just like the British army. This they did to remind the English
that they, the Jacobites, supporters of the legitimate monarchs of
England, the Stuarts, had more right to wear those colors than did those
supporting George the Elector of Hanover.
Always eager to confront the English oppressors of their people where
ever they could find them, the Irish Marines, who had been serving on a
French ship, jumped at the chance to transfer to the Bohomme Richard
when given the opportunity. No doubt, the Irishmen expected Jones to be
heading out to sea in search of fight soon; they were not disappointed.
Jones had begun to establish his reputation as a fighter just over a
year before, on April 24, 1778, when he became the first American to
capture a British warship. While commanding the U.S.S. Ranger he beat
the H.M.S. Drake off Carrickfergus on the Irish coast and took it to the
continent as prize. Now he was in command of the Bohomme Richard, a
converted French merchant ship formerly called Duc De Duras, a ship that
was somewhat less than state of the art. This did not dissuade him,
however, and on August 14 they set sail for English waters.
On the 23rd of September the Irish Marines got their chance to confront
their ancient enemies on the high seas. There, off the English coast,
Jones and the Bonhomme Richard engaged the English ships Serapis and
Countess of Scarborough. The ensuing sea battle was one of the most
memorable in American history. In the middle of the battle, with the
ships so close it was possible to communicate between them, the English
captained asked Jones if he was striking his colors. Jones reply is one
of the most well known in naval history, "I have not yet begun to fight."
Jones, and his Irish Marines, as well, was as good as his word. Soon
the Richard and the Serapis were lashed together exchanging broadsides.
The fight continued for almost four hours. Both ships were heavily
damaged during the battle. Finally a grenade thrown by one of the Irish
Marines exploded in an ammunition magazine on the Serapis, set her
gundeck on fire and the ship, still lashed to the Bonhomme Richard, was
surrendered to Jones. Unfortunately, although the British had
surrendered, Jones' ship was in even worse condition than theirs. Jones
was forced to transfer all his men over to the Serapis. The Bonhomme
Richard sank shortly and Jones and his victorious Irish Marines sailed
their prize to Holland. The Countess of Scarborough had also been
captured by the other ships in Jones' small fleet and sailed in along
with the Serapis.
To this day it remains one of the most memorable victories in the
history of the US Navy. From that day forward, John Paul Jones position
in American history was secured. Not so well known, unfortunately, is
the story of the contribution of those Irish Marines to that memorable
victory at sea which contributed so much to the cause of American
Independence. Who could say what the final outcome of that battle may
have been were it not for the strong right arm of one Irishman.
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