Apr 24

John Paul Jones and the North Channel Naval Duel

Tuesday, April 24, 2018 12:01 AM

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Dear reader, have you heard of John Paul Jones? Prior to working at the Naval Institute, I would have an easier time discussing Davey Jones than John Paul Jones. The first time he came up in conversation I could only nod my head and feign understanding, making a mental note to trawl the internet for information later.

Thinking back on all the American History I’ve absorbed in every level of schooling, I cannot recall a single mention of John Paul Jones and that is a detriment to education. Jones is a fascinating character in history. Today, April 24, is the day his remains were interred at the U.S. Naval Academy after a long stay in France. But while the story of his journey back to America after death is interesting, I’d rather talk about something that happened while he was still living, breathing, and taking names. And it’s just my luck that April 24th is not just the day he returned to America, but also the day he led the USS Ranger (1777) to victory against the HMS Drake in the North Channel Naval Duel.

Unfortunately, in the early hours of 24 April 1778, Captain Jones had more on his mind than capturing the Drake. The majority of his crew had joined for self-serving means, which clashed with the ideals and the decisions made by their more high-minded captain. Shortly before the battle, Captain Jones had released prizes captured by the Ranger out of fear that the crew would force him to go to France to sell their hard-earned gains, rather than continue the fight against the British. While this stopped the chant to head for France, it also started new, mutinous grumbles. Even Captain Jones admitted in his memoirs that he feared for his life.

Yet Captain Jones kept his head thanks to a few strokes of luck. First, Jones and his crew learned that the Drake would come to them, saving them the arduous task of fighting the wind and tides to get to the ship. Since the Drake had learned of the Ranger’s planned attack, she sent a reconnaissance vessel to scope out the North Channel, which the Ranger successfully captured by hiding the majority of her guns and crew. These prisoners then told Jones and his crew that their captain was in poor health, the ship was missing her master’s mate, boatswain, and lieutenant, and the majority of the crew were volunteers prepared for close-quarters combat, even though the Drake was short on ammunition.

The USS Ranger and HMS Drake engaged in battle in the North Channel.

The USS Ranger and HMS Drake engaged in battle in the North Channel.

The series of encouraging events and information gleaned about the Drake lifted the spirits of the crew so much that they conveniently postponed their nascent mutiny and rallied with Jones into battle. As the Drake’s list of misfortunes had indicated, the battle did not go the way of the British. Jones kept the Ranger out of reach for close-combat and bombarded the vessel with gunfire until even the young boys who carried gunpowder (more commonly known as “powder monkeys,” which is adorable) refused to run across the Drake’s deck. The duel only lasted one hour and five minutes.

While I crammed as many of the awesome details of this story into this post as I could manage, the resources of the U.S. Naval Institute library have so much more to offer, and I’m so glad that I get to work with them every day. When researching this post, I was able to find Proceedings articles on this battle, the Ranger, and—of course—John Paul Jones himself with just a few clicks on the keyboard. If this story interested you, dear reader, there are even more details (and stories) to discover. In the meantime, I’ll be finding more fascinating stories to share and learn about together.