John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography

by Samuel Eliot Morison

read by John MacDonald

Books On Tape, Inc. Library Edition

What an extraordinarily well-written book.  No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize for Mr. Morison.  In addition to what was obviously high-quality research (as would be expected from my Harvard professor in the official historian for the U.S. Navy for World War II, who went with the ships during the war), Mr. Morison also retraced Jones' 18th century sea routes.  Also, as an experienced sailor, Mr. Morison's familiarity with nautical terms, especially those for sailing ships of the 18th century, was evident.  While I am might not understand many of these, they were fascinating to listen to, especially in the wonderful reading voice of Mr. MacDonald.  In fact, the imagery inspired me to want to take a sailing trip in a " tall ship" someday.  And perhaps to add some Patrick O'Brian books to my reading list.

Again, my younger son, Patrick, enjoyed the parts of this book that he heard as he rode with me.  The ending is especially stirring, as Mr. Morison considers and sums up Jones' life.  He compared Jones to his contemporary and counterpart for the British navy, Lord Nelson.  He noted that Jones never had the opportunity to demonstrate his strategic sense like Nelson, but that it was evident in many situations he did face, although it was sometimes not followed due to jealousy or, in some cases, sheer stupidity.

Mr. Morison also notes Jones' personal shortcomings, especially the fact that he seemed mostly incapable of praising or providing credit to those who served under him and was a critical hyper-perfectionist.  As a result, he not only never earned the love and support from his sailor's that Lord Nelson apparently had, but also made very few friends and died basically alone in Paris.

It strikes me that Mr. Morison may have allowed his obvious positive feelings toward from your Jones to cause him to be overly critical at this point.  A critical difference between, toward Jones and Lord Nelson was that Nelson was operating within the British navy, leading naval force in the world at the time.  Commodore Jones, on the other hand, operated in an American navy that he visualized for better and any contemporary, where Congress selected and ranked captains on the basis of geographic loyalties, and where the sailors had virtually no military experience and often acted as though they were in a democratic community entitled to decide for themselves what course to take, who to have as leader, etc.  although Jones had virtually no experience in one navy eater, he seemed to instinctively understand and expect the town of discipline and obedience such an organization requires.  This, when combined with his passion, perfectionism, and strategic sense that sent him after military objectives rather than the "Prize" ships which, he 18th century methods of warfare, would result and substantial rewards to the crews, and the fact that he was viewed that me and some of his early crews as a "foreign Scotsman", said he and up for conflict with those crews that Nelson might not have had to deal with.

Anyway, as he ends the book, Mr. Morison focuses on the famous quote attributed to Jones during his defining battle with Sirapis, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight."  Mr. Morison reflects on how this battle, waged during night within sight of land, in which the clearly inferior ship, both in speed and armament, won due to the tactical skill of its captain and, even more importantly, his sheer determination to emerge victorious.  Mr. Morison notes that Jones is considered the father of the United States Navy, just as Lord Nelson is for the British navy.  He suggests that Jones spirit and words were in the hearts and minds of many American sailors in the dark early days of World War II as they faced the task in front of them thinking, "I have not yet begun to fight."  This line, which ends the book, coming from a man like Morison, who was so intimately involved in the Navy's challenges and successes during World War II, and had documented those in the official Navy history, struck me, with events of 9/11 in my mind, with such force as to send chills down my spine.

It is interesting to note that Jones was, in some ways, fortunate with the crew he had with him during that battle.  Many were American sailors who had been released from English prisons primarily due to the efforts of Jones, and who were therefore more loyal to him than many of his prior crews.  Moreover, they were looking for a chance for some "payback."  Since Jones tactics to overcome the superiority of Sirapis were to close with her, and he ultimately lashed the ships together, it was the skill and willingness of his sailors in close combat that determined the outcome.  The Sirapis continued to fire her heavy cannons into the Bonhomme Richard throughout the battle, ultimately virtually destroy her and forcing Jones to transfer to the Sirapis after the battle and watch as his ship sank. The battle was won primarily by Jones' crew, especially the marksmen in the rigging, by picking off the enemy with small arms fire.  Jones, himself, was never wounded during this or any other battle, and serviced a small cannon on the deck throughout much of the battle.

After reflecting on Jones' personality and penchant for perfectionism, I have wondered if this did not have an effect on the outcome also.  I suspect that, by the time they engaged in the battle, his crew had already learned that Captain Jones was, in addition to being a skilled sailor, a man who would not tolerate failure, showed no fear, and sought nothing short of victory.  That knowledge would have made Jones' actions and orders during the battle entirely comprehensible to his crew and predisposed them to follow.

Finally, as an example of the lack of military discipline and organization, and petty jealousy that seems to have been given free reign in the late 1700's, Jones had another ship in his squadron, commanded by a captain with partisans in Congress who supported him, that actually spent most of the three-hour fight sailing around uselessly, except for at least two occasions when she managed to unload broadsides into the Bonhomme Richard.  Afterwards, this captain claimed he was trying to sink Jones so that he could finish off the Sirapis, and take the glory for himself.  Unbelievable.  And, even more unbelievable, he had members of Congress who were enemies of Jones who continued to support him even after he was court-martialed and dismissed from the Navy.

This book is crammed with wonderful stories, far too many for me to note here, but I will include one more because it shows Jonesí bravery.  During his command in Russia, he was preparing for the first major battles, his fleet and the opposing Turkish fleet were anchored opposing each other at night.  Jones had the oars muffled on a small boat, and had a sailor row him toward and into the Turkish fleet.  After some time reconnoitering the position and number of the enemy's ships he had himself rowed to the rear of a large ship to observe something, and, while actually holding on to it, wrote "to be burned J. P. J." in French.  The ship did end up burning in the next day's battle.  And, interestingly enough since he spoke no Russian, Jones apparently left Russia with the respect, admiration, and loyalty of the Russian sailors.

All in all, this is a very good book, and I suspect it would be as enjoyable to read as it was to hear.

Note written:  July, 2003