Monday, June 22, 2015

The Serapis Flag

So, There I was….* Driving home from work last Monday, and passing a small non-denominational Church, I notice they’ve got the Flag flying.  Remembering that it was Flag Day, I give a quick “Good on ‘em” thought as I notice another flag flying beside it.  White with a green tree on it and the words “An Appeal to Heaven” on it.  Ok, well it IS a church, so I file that away in my brain under church fundraising.  

I’m at lunch a couple of days later and I see a guy wearing a tee shirt with a number of different Revolutionary War Flags on it.  I recognized the Gadsden Flag and a couple of others, but the “Appeal to Heaven” Flag was also on it. 

Having an interest in Military History, (Not a Sarge level interest mind you, but then again, who does?) I decided to pull up my old pal Google and see what there is to see.  Having done that, I discovered this site  and there went the rest of my Saturday.
That sounds kinda tragic, but actually, it was fairly warm and very humid with periods of torrential downpours.  Working outside was pretty much a waste of time.  Did I mention mosquitos also?

Digression warning “Stay on Target…Use the Force Luke Juvat! These words are not the words you’re looking for” (My son is playing a Star Wars game on his tablet with the volume turned up, I have no Idea where that came from.)

So, the Appeal to Heaven Flag was also known as Washington’s Cruiser Flag and was flown over six ships commissioned, supposedly by Washington personally, as the beginning of a Navy.  Source 

Google also pointed me to this article  and this one which shed a little light on why a church might be flying that flag now.

But as I scrolled through the flag site, I came to one that had an interesting blurb that expanded my knowledge  on an incident I knew a little about.  In the days of my Ute, I remember reading about John Paul Jones and his famous quote “I have not yet begun to fight!” from the battle between the CNS Bon Homme Richard and HMS Serapis. 
Source: Wikipedia

Time for a Juvat pop quiz.  What does CNS stand for? 
1. Central Nervous System
2. Catholic News Service 
3. Continental Navy Ship 
4. Chicken Noodle Soup

Answer: Yes.

Anyhow, back to the fight.  The Navy’s website is a little tame in the description of the fight.  This one, however, has a much more Sarge-like rendition of the fight.
A 1781 painting of John Paul Jones by Charles Willson Peale.

"In late September, 1779, Jones was in the North Sea in the Bonhomme Richard in command of a commerce raiding squadron consisting of the corvette Alliance, with 36 guns, the French frigate Pallas, 32 guns, the brigantine Vengeance, 12 guns, and the Bonhomme Richard, with 40 guns. After six weeks at sea his ships had seized a few enemy prizes but Jones was hungry for significant action. On September 22 he assembled his squadron off Flamborough Head on England’s east coast hoping to snag merchant ships coming and going from local ports. At about 2 PM on September 23 the Richard’s lookouts spotted the sails of a 41-ship British convoy to the northeast and its Royal Navy escorts, the frigate H.M.S. Serapis, 44 guns, and the armed sloop Countess of Scarborough, 22 guns. “That is the very fleet which I have been so long cruising for,” Jones told his officers on the quarterdeck. He signaled his ships to intercept the convoy. The Richard and Serapis closed on each other at about 7:00 PM. The skies were darkening, the wind was light and the sea was calm. For various reasons, possibly tactics, miscommunication, or animosity with Jones, the Alliance and Pallas took differing courses. Jones sailed the Richard to “within pistol shot” of the Serapis, intending to get the ships as close as possible before opening fire. Capt. Pearson realized that the ship nearing him was American, and broadsides ripped from both ships.“The battle being thus begun was continued with unremitting fury” Jones recalled. After about an hour and much maneuvering the ships were side by side, actually lashed together “so close fore and aft, that the muzzles of our guns touched,” wrote Capt. Pearson, and still blasting away at each other. Both ships were on fire but with several holes beneath the waterline and its hull shattered, the Richard took the worst of it." 

So, Jones has his ship lashed to the enemy, has holes below the waterline and leads a boarding party over to the Serapis.  A crewman manages to throw a grenade near enough to some powder storage to start a fire on board the British ship and the Captain surrenders.

The Bon Homme Richard subsequently sinks.  Jones sails his prize to the neutral Dutch port of Texel.  The British raised a diplomatic stink over the ships, wanting the crews tried as Pirates since the ship flew no recognized flag.  
Texel Netherlands

Ben Franklin, the Ambassador to France at the time, was asked to describe the flag for what would become the United States.  Based on that description, a painting of the flag was made and France recognized it.  Copies were distributed and one made its way to Jones.  He had a flag made and sailed back to America under it, avoiding the Piracy charge.  The flag became known as the Serapis Flag (or alternatively the Texel Flag). 

The author postulates that the “not yet begun to fight” quote was added several years after the fact, but IMHO that’s somewhat irrelevant.  Clearly, Jones belongs to the Never Give Up, Never Surrender school of warfare.

That post also described how and why Jones, a Scot, came to be in the budding US Navy.  Evidently, while on Tobago, he ran a man threw with his sword.  The man was fomenting a mutiny on Jones’ ship, so the incident may have some self-defense issues, but Jones fled the island for the colonies and was commissioned in the Continental Navy. I thought the details in the two posts really brought John Paul Jones to life for me.

Plus a classic line from a classic movie!



  1. John Paul Jones, early American bad-ass and hero.

    I wonder how he would fare in today's climate? Due to his fondness for the ladies, I'm sure he would run afoul of the PC crowd sooner or later.

    1. 1779: "I have not yet begun to fight."

      2015: "Please excuse my white male privilege and any microaggression offense you may have encountered by any racist grapeshot fired in your direction. Perhaps we could meet over tea and crumpets and discuss our mutual interests while our ships sink around us."

    2. Revisionist! Doesn't mean you are not right.

    3. "Activate the Omega 13 Anti Professional Victim Device!"

  2. Well, he kept Catherine the Great of Russia er, satisfied for a substantial period of time, and ended up (perhaps therefore?) as an Admiral in the Russian Navy. Now THAT's a sailor!

    1. That was probably a more danger fraught experience than any sea battle he fought.

    2. It takes a real sailor to get in those kind of situations!

  3. How many twenty-first century Americans have heard of the Zuider Zee? Or that the Revolution was more than cold feet at Valley Forge and a patriotic block party in Philly? Who knew?

    Thanks Juvat. Fun stuff!

    1. The more I've read about the Revolution recently, the more I've come to realize that it was a more closely run race than the History books of my day and age let on. A couple of small changes in luck or a different decision here or there and things might have been entirely different.

  4. After David Farragut, JPJ is at the top of my list of favorites.
    Edward Preble is up there, too.

    1. Arleight Burke is in the list, too.
      Tin Can sailor, ya know.

    2. Skip, this is my surprised face.

      (What tin can sailor would not have old 31-knot Burke on their list?)

    3. Even I know who Arleigh Burke is!


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