Revolutionary War Historical Article

The Captain and the Countess

By Donald N. Moran

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the April 1988 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter. Colored photo is from the Spring 2008 Edition of the California Compatriot Magazine.

On April 9th, 1778, John Paul Jones set sail from Brest, France, in his new command, Ranger, an eighteen gun Sloop-of-War. His mission was to intercept, capture, or destroy British shipping, thereby disrupting the British war effort. He had hoped to accomplish this by raiding British shipping close to their own shores. If successful, the Royal Navy would have to increase the number of warships patrolling their own coastline.

Captain Jones was the very man to accomplish this mission. He was very familiar with the west coast of England, Ireland and Scotland. He had sailed those waters for several years.

He also hoped to resolve the problem of captured American Sailors being treated as criminals rather than legitimate prisoners of war.

The Captain did have problems. He was dissatisfied with both his ship and crew. The Ranger was built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and manned by a crew from that American seaport. The crew wanted to participate in the privateering, which would provide them with excellent profits. Some of the Officers, all of whom were also from Portsmouth, resented Jones's Commission. The Ranger itself was not the best handling ship in the Continental Navy. It had a tendency to heel too far over on her sides. In eighteenth century naval warfare this could be a fatal flaw. It gave an enemy the opportunity of piercing her hull well below the waterline, insuring her sinking. Jones had the masts, which were too heavy, moved further aft for better balance. His New England crew numbered less than 150, including Marines. His main armament was 18 nine pounders, mounted nine to a side. But, owing to the lack of gun powder, the crew was not permitted to fire live ammunition, but rather simply went through the motions.

As imperfect as the crew and the 110 foot Sloop-of-War was, Jones was determined and set sail from Brest for the promising Irish Sea. Four days out, the Ranger captured the brig Dolphin which was transporting flaxseed from Ostend to Wexford. To save having to deplete the size of his crew by sending some back to Brest with the prize, John Paul Jones ordered the brig Dolphin scuttled. Off Wicklow, the Ranger captured the Lord Chatham, 250 tons and loaded with a hundred hogsheads of English port. Jones placed Lt. John Seward in command of the prize crew and ordered him to sail for Brest.

Off the Northern cape of the Isle of Man, the U.S. Ranger was challenged by H.M.S. Hussar. Captain Gurley of the Hussar thought the Ranger looked suspicious and ordered her to stop for boarding. At that point, Captain Jones ordered Gurley to surrender and ran out his starboard batteries. Gurley, seeing that he was completely outgunned decided to try and outrun the Ranger. In the attempt, he proved himself an able seaman by only sustaining three hits. One hit the stern and two-holed the Hussar's main mast. With the escape of the Hussar, the Royal Navy would soon be aware of the presence of the Ranger and be looking for her.

John Paul Jones decided that he would continue his plan and attack the port of Whitehaven, England. Enroute Jones encountered a scottish schooner, took the crew prisoner and sank the vessel. A fishing boat was stopped and from the fisherman Jones learned that the H.M.S. Drake, a 20-gun Sloop was moored in Belfast Lough. Jones decided to attack her in broad daylight, but his crew had little stomach for such a battle. They did agree to make the attempt to capture the warship that night. Unfortunately the the Ranger overshot the Drake and made the attack all but impossible. Jones called off the action before he was detected.

The two war ships were destined to meet another day. On April 22 Jones entered the Whitehaven harbor. His plan was for a fast "hit-and-run" attack, burning the shipping there in the harbor. He did not plan to "Invade England" as some historians have claimed. Again Jones had crew problems. The value of such an attack was wasted on his men. All they were interested in was prize money. Jones prevailed and a landing party was sent ashore, but not until after a near mutiny. After successfully spiking the guns of both defensive batteries, Whitehaven was in American hands. The mutinous nature of his crew and a traitor named David Smith, an Irishman, who ran off and warned the towns people, ruined his plans. Jones had the ship Thompson burned. Jones then left Whitehaven, having led the first attack on English soil since 1667, when the Dutch burned the coastal town of Sheerness.

Although John Paul Jones thought his attack on Whitehaven a complete failure, the effects were far reaching. All over coastal England, the militia was called out. The Whitehaven newspaper published a special edition detailing the 'Invasion'. The entire story as reprinted in the London Morning Post. Charges were leveled at the Government for laxness and leaving the coast defenseless. The Royal Navy was told to protect the coast at all cost.

Jones then hit upon a plan to release many of the U.S. seaman held in English prisons as sea bandits rather than as prisoners of war. He would sail north and kidnap the Earl of Selkirk. We do not know why he decided on this venture, nor why he selected a minor nobleman like the Earl for his hostage scheme. We can assume that Jones had an inflated image of the importance of the Selkirk Earldom. Jones had been born in a cottage at Arbigland, Scotland, only thirty-five miles from the Selkirk estate. When growing up, the Earl would have been the most important nobleman that young John Paul (he later added the Jones) would have come in contact with. Scotland in the mid seventeen hundreds was still closely tied to the feudal system.

On April 23rd. the U.S. Ranger sailed into Kirkcudbright Bay. By 11:00 A.M. ,the Ranger's cutter, fully manned, including Captain Jones, was beached on the narrow peninsula that was Saint Mary's isle.

Immediately under Captain Jones was Crewmaster David Cullam and Lieutenant of Marines Samuel Wailingford and an assortment of seaman, all armed to the teeth. The Captain encountered one of the estate's gardeners and learned that the Earl was not at home. On receiving this unwelcome news, Jones turned his second invasion party around and started back to his waiting cutter. His two junior officers recommended that they at least be allowed to take the valuables from the manor house. This was an acceptable practice in 18th century warfare. Jones agreed, on condition that only the officers enter the Earl's residence, harm no one, damage nothing and take only the silver. Cullam and Wallingford agreed to the restrictions and returned to the house. Captain Jones returned to the waiting cutter.

The two officers entered the manor house and found it occupied by Lady Helen, the Countess of Selkirk, her eight year old son and his seven younger sisters, Mrs. Mary Elliot, the children's governess, Mrs. Wood, widow of the late governor of the Isle of Man and her three young daughters, Daniel the butler and several other domestic servants. The Countess saw some "horrid-looking wretches" fully armed and surrounding the house. She, at first thought they were pirates, As a precaution she sent Mrs. Wood, all of the children and the maid servants to the upper floor of the manor, while she, Mrs Elliot and Daniel the butler faced the intruders.

The next day, the Countess wrote to the Earl and described the day's events. She wrote that the two officers identified themselves as being "from the frigate Ranger, Captain Paul Jones Esq. Commanding, and that they were instructed to carry away her household silver. If she complied they would neither search the house nor make any further trouble." The Countess controlled her emotions and did as they wished. Daniel the butler attempted to hide some of the silver, but the Countess reprimanded him sternly. She went on to write her husband that the senior of the two officers "had a a vile blackguard look, still kept civil as well he might." Of Lieutenant Wallingford she wrote: "was a civil young man in a green uniform, an anchor on his buttons which were white, and wore a blue greatcoat. He seemed naturally well bred and not to like his employment."

After gathering up the family silver, Jones's men left the house and returned to the Ranger. On the return trip the Ranger fought a deadly sea battle with the H.M.S. Drake, forcing the British twenty gun man-of-war to unconditionally surrender. In that action Lieutenant of Marines Samuel Wallingford was killed.

The USS Ranger Engaging the HMS Drake

When John Paul Jones was told by his men how the Countess of Selkirk conducted herself during the "raid", he apparently felt remorse. He wrote a letter to her, obviously with great care and no doubt several drafts, dating it May 8th, 1778, and showing it as having been written at Brest, France. He then dispatched the letter to the Countess. This letter is so characteristic of the romantic streak in the famed Captain's character, that it must be read in its entirety to fully appreciate Jones's conception of the war.

 

RANGER, BREST, 8th MAY, 1778

MADAM : - -

It cannot be too much lamented that in the profession of Arms, the Officer of fine feelings, and of real sensibility, should be under the necessity of winking at any action of Persons under his command, which his heart cannot approve : -- - but the reflection is doubly severe when he finds himself Obliged, in appearance, to countenance such Action by his Authority.

This hard case was mine when on the 23d of April last I landed on St. Mary's Isle. Knowing Lord Selkirk's interest with his King, esteeming as I do his private Character ; I wished to make him the happy Instrument of alleviating the horrors of hopeless captivity, when the brave are overpowered and made Prisoners of War.

It was perhaps fortunate for you Madam that he was from home; for it was my intention to have taken him on board the Ranger, and to have detained him till thro' his means, a general and fair exchange of Prisoners, as well in Europe as in America had been effected.

When I was informed by some men whom I met at landing, that his Lordship was absent; I walked back to the Boat determineing to leave the Island: by the way, however, some Officers who were with me could not forbear expressing their discontent; observing that in America no delicacy was shown by the English; who took away all sorts of moveable Property, setting Fire not only to Towns and to Houses of the rich without distinction; but not even sparing the wretched hamlets and Milch Cows of the poor and helpless at the approach of an inclement Winter. That party had been with me, as Volunteers, the same morning at White Haven; some complaisance therefore was their due. I had but a moment to think how to gratify them, and at the same time do your Ladyship the least Injury. I charged the Two Officers to permit none of the Seamen to enter the House, or to hurt anything about it -- To treat you, Madam, with the utmost Respect to accept of the plate which was offered -- and to come away without making a search or demanding anything else.

I am induced to believe that I was punctually Obeyed; since I am informed that the plate which they brought away is far short of the Inventory which accompanied it. I have gratified my Men; and when the plate is sold, I shall become the Purchaser, and I will gratify me own feelings by restoring it to you, by such conveyance as you shall be pleased to direct.

Had the Earl been on board the Ranger the following Evening he would seen the awful Pomp and dreadful Carnage of a Sea Engagement both affording ample subject for the Pencil, as well as melancholy reflection for the contemplative mind. Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror, and cannot but execrate the Vile promoters of this detested War.

For they, t'was they unsheath'd the ruthless blade,
And Heav'n shall ask the Havock it has made.

The British Ship of War, DRAKE, mounting 20 guns, with more than her full complement of Officers and Men, besides a number of volunteers, came out from Carrickfergus, in order to attack and take the American Continental Ship of War RANGER, of 18 guns and short of her complement of Officers and t1en. The Ships met, and the advantage was disputed with great fortitude on each side for an Hour and Five minutes, when the gallant Commander of the DRAKE fell, and Victory declared in favor of the RANGER, his amiable Lieutenant lay Mortally wounded. A melancholy demonstration of the uncertainty of human prospects, and of the sad reverse of fortune which an hour can produce. I buryed them in a spacious grave, with the Honors due to the memory of the brave.

Tho' I have drawn my Sword in the present generous Struggle for the rights of Men; yet I am not in Arms as an American, nor am I in pursuit of Riches. My Fortune is liberal enough, having no Wife nor Family, and having lived long enough to know that Riches cannot ensure Happiness. I profess myself a Citizen of the World, totally
unfettered by the little mean distinctions of Climate or of Country, which diminish the benevolence of the hearts and set bounds to Philanthropy. Before this War began I had at an early time of life, withdrawn from the Sea service, in favor of 'calm contemplation and Poetic ease.' I have sacrificed not only my favorite scheme of life, but the softer Affections of the Heart and my prospects of Domestic Happiness: -- And I am ready to sacrifice Life also with cheerfulness if that forfeiture could restore Peace and Goodwill among mankind.

As the feelings of your gentle Bosom cannot be congenial with mine let me entreat you Madam to use your soft persuasive Arts with your Husband to endeavour to stop this Cruel and destructive War, in which Britain can never succeed. Heaven can never countenance the barbarous and unmanly Practices of the Britons in America, which savages would Blush at; and which if not discontinued will be soon retaliated in Britain by a justly enraged People. -- Should you fail in this, (for I am persuaded you will attempt it; and who can resist the power of such an Advocate?) Your endeavours to effect a general exchange of Prisoners, will be an Act of Humanity, which will afford you Golden feelings on a Death bed. I hope this cruel contest will soon be closed ; but should it continue I wage no War with the Fair. I
acknowledge their Power, and bend before it with profound Submission; let not therefore the Amiable Countess of Selkirk regard me as an Enemy. I am ambitious of her esteem and Friendship, and would do anything consistent with my duty to merit it

The honor of a Line from your hand in Answer to this will lay me under a very singular Obligation; and if I can render you any acceptable service in France or elsewhere, I hope you see into my character so far as to command me without the least gain of reserve.

I wish to know exactly the behavior of my People, as I determine to punish them if they have exceeded their Liberty.

I have the Honor to be with much Esteem and with profound Respect,


Madam,


Your most Obedient and most humble Servant


Jn. P. Jones

Back to Index of Revolutionary War Events

Back to Historical Archives

link to aboutus