This thread was originally written and published in December 2019. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
It was on a day like this 240 years ago, with a west wind howling up the Forth, rattling the window panes and lifting the roof tiles, that Edinburgh and Leith were saved from sacking by the United States Navy.
The year was 1779 and in the middle of the War of Independence, a squadron of American ships appeared in the Forth. Their objective was to disrupt shipping, spread panic and “raise a contribution” to the American war effort of £200k from the good folk of Edinburgh and Leith.
The ships were the 36-gun USS Bon Homme Richard, the 32-gun USS Pallas and the 12-gun USS Vengeance and in command was one John Paul Jones. To the Americans a great hero, a father to their naval service.
To the British, a common pirate. Of course, they would say that, because he beat them at their own game, rattled the establishment to its core and made the mighty Royal Navy look thoroughly impotent.
So who was John Paul Jones? For a start, he wasn’t born an John Paul Jones or an American, he was actually from Kirkcudbrightshire. He was born in 1747 as John Paul to John Paul (senior), a gardener, and Jean Mcduff. In 1760, Jean Paul junior was apprenticed to a sea captain in Whitehaven and took to the seven seas on the merchant ship “Friendship“. He sailed mainly between Britain and the colony of Virginia, where his older brother was settled.
For quite a few years, John Paul plied the Atlantic trade routes, working his way up the ranks to First Mate by 1768. At this point fate begins to intervene to steer his life on a new course; in Jamaica, John Paul decides to abandon his ship and works his passage back to Scotland. Once home, he finds a new ship – the appropriately named John – and is taken on as lower mate. When the master and leading mates unexpectedly die of fever, John Paul takes command and brings the ship and her cargo safely home. In gratitude, the owners raise him to master.
So at the tender age of 23, John Paul finds himself a ship’s master with 10 years experience under his belt; life has worked out well for him. But then some things start to go wrong. On only his seconnd voyage as captain he has someone flogged for insubordination. This was a very common and non-noteworthy act for the time, sailors were kept in check with fairly equal proportions of corporal punishment, alcohol and the promise of the occasional bumper pay packet.
But the flogged man has connections back in Scotland and when he dies (from Yellow Fever), the blame for his death is laid at the feet of John Paul. As a young captain from a humble family, he has little influence himself over matters once he’s off his ship. He finds himself thrown in the Tolbooth at Kirkcudbright to await his fate. But clearly he is not without any friends at all, as he is bailed and given some quiet advice to get far away from Kirkcudbright before the law has its way. Sensible advice, which he follows.
So John Paul quickly leaves Scotland for England and finds a new ship, the Betsy, and spends 18 successful months toing and froing in the Caribbean, before once again he clashes with a subordinate crewmember. This time, he runs the man through with a sword in an argument over wages. He claims this was self defence but having fled from the law before, he must have realised that he can’t go back this time and face the music, so he heads north to the Virginia colony in about 1772. He finds that his brother has died, so takes takes over his affairs there.
And perhaps to cover his tracks, in Virginia he changes his name to John Paul Jones, American folk legend suggests that it was in honour of statesman Willie Jones. JPJ takes to his new home and when war breaks out with Britian, he signs up to fight for his adopted homeland against that of his birth. Whether this was opportunism or patriotism is not clear, but in 1775 he signs up for the newly formed Continental Navy. As an experienced sailor and officer, JPJ’s potential is recognised by founding father Richard Henry Lee and he is appointed 1st Lieutenant of the frigate USS Alfred. Like most US ships of this time it’s a converted merchantman, but that was not that uncommon.
It is apparently Jones who had the honour of hoisting the “Grand Union Flag” – the first “national” flag of the United States, on a US ship for the first time.
JPJ and the Alfred sail to the Caribbean and raid Nassau but after this this point he takes a demotion to a smaller ship, the sloop Providence, as a step on the ladder to commanding a frigate of his own.
Long story short, JPJ rapidly impresses his Continental Navy superiors with a combination of skill, aggression and good luck. By 1778 he is in charge of the new frigate USS Ranger. On February 14th, on the Ranger, he took a salute from a French naval squadron under La Motte Picquet in the Robuste at Quiberon Bay, the first official recognition of the young American state by a foreign government.
JPJ is now sent to take the war to the British on the other side of the Atlantic, however finds his crew – and in particular the officers – completely lacking, unwilling to take risks or to follow his orders. A raid on the sloop HMS Drake fails due to poor seamanship. A raid on Whitehaven, his old home port, fails due to a combination of poor weather and an uncooperative crew who decided to visit the pub instead of set fire to the shiping in the harbour.
JPJ next hatches a plot to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk on St. Mary’s Isle for ransom. But this is foiled as the Earl is away; the Americans are instead cordially entertained by the Earl’s wife and they leave after helping themselves to some silverwear. (He would later buy the silverwear back at his own expense and return it to the Selkirks). Ultimately his raiding around the Solway is fruitless and the crew are restless from the lack of prize money which they feel they should rightfully have a share of.
The effect on British morale and general public alarm was much more significant however. Here were American rebels acting with impunity not just in British waters but also on the land. It was a national scandal.
JPJ sails the Ranger back across the Irish Sea and finally catches up with his previous quarry, the sloop HMS Drake, off of Carrickfergus. A roughly equal fight on paper, JPJ deploys a ruse to get the initial jump on Drake and then betters her with skilfull gunnery. Five of the British crew including their captain and the first lieutenant were killed in the gunfight and after an hour the Drake surrendered; another national scandal for the Royal Navy at the hands of the young man from Kirkcudbright.
He has Drake sailed to Brest to be sold to the French as a prize. This is a great victory for the fledgling Continental Navy but there is much acrimony between him, his 2nd in command Lt. Simpson (who he tries and fails to have court-martialled) and the crew. In France, JPJ is given a bigger ship, the merchantman Duc de Duras, which has been gifted to the US Navy by a sympathiser. On conversion to a 40 gun warship, JPJ has her named USS Bonhomme Richard after Ben Franklin, who used the pseudonym “Poor Richard” to publish his almanac in Paris
JPJ assembles a little fleet and prepares for war in Lorient in June 1779, but is forced back from his initial cruise by bad weather and for repairs. A second attempt is made in August. USS Bonhomme Richard, Pallas and Vengeance are accompanied by the French nav cutter Le Cerf and two privateers, Monsieur” and Granville. Monsieur falls out with JPJ only days out of port and leaves the fleet – falling out with his subordinates is quickly becoming something of a hallmark for JPJ’s expeditions.
The Royal Navy are better prepared this time and attempt to chase the Americans, but he leads them on a merry dance around the north of Scotland and shakes them off. On his way, despite ongoing squabbles with other officers, they take 16 merchant ships as prizes.
And so it was on the 16th September 1779 that there is great alarm on both banks of the Forth when John Paul Jones and his 3 remaining ships (the others had returned to France by this time), appeared in the Firth, intent on sailing up it and doing as they pleased.
A panic spreads through Edinburgh and Leith. The moneyed classes secure their goods and flee the city for their estates. The banks are locked up, the garrison barricaded themselves in Edinburgh castle, the church bells were rang and “neither a carriage nor a horse [was] to be seen” . Leith’s fortifications, the great Marian walls and the Cromwellian citadel are decrepit. They were partially slighted but the best of the stonework has long been carried off over the centuries to build the town. A bigger problem is that they were never designed to offer defence from the seaward but from the landward.
But the enterprising folk of Leith try to mount a defence of sorts. Three spare old cannon were retrieved from the Naval Victualling Yard on Constitution Street and manhandled along to the Citadel.
Although it was never meant to defend the town from the sea and although its walls are largely demolished, the citadel does at least provide something of a raised platform to cover the mouth of the harbour. This battery was “extremely perilous to those who worked it“. Edinburgh sent down a couple of old cannon and gunners from the castle which were posted near Newhaven (which ships had to pass to enter the harbour channel) and arms were handed out to the Incoporated Trades of Leith. With this meagre defence, the town battened down the hatches and awaited its fate.
But the folk of Kirkcaldy on the opposite shore of the Forth take an alternative approach to defence. They are lead down to the see by their minister, the Reverend Robert Shirra, and begin to pray for almighty intervention.
Now deer Lord, dinna ye think it a shame for ye to send this vile piret to rob our folk o Kirkcaldy; for ye ken they’re puir enow already, and hae naething to spaireShirra’s sermon against John Paul Jones
And the almighty happened to be listening, for no sooner had Kirkcaldy prayed than, in the words of John Paul Jones, “a very severe gale of wind came on, and being directly contrary obliged me to bear away after having in vain endeavoured for some time to withstand its violence“.
As the wind blew up, JPJ’s ships were not yet in the safety of Leith Roads where they could ride out the storm and despite being “in a cannon’s shot of the town” were obliged to follow the wind back out to sea. In the process, the ship Friendship taken in prize was sunk . JPJ’s fleet is blown straight out of the Forth and down the east coast. Edinburgh, Leith and Kirkcaldy have been saved by divine intervention.
A week later the Royal Navy finally encounters JPJ off Flamborough Head when he runs into a convoy of merchant ships protected by the Royal Navy and a somewhat scrappy and confused battle takes place. In the course of the action, the Bonhomme Richard is damaged so heavily that she will sink the next day, but JPJ in return manages to capture the British flagship HMS Serapis and takes her instead.
The outcome of the battle is still hotly debated; JPJ and the Americans can claim another embarrassing Royal Navy scalp, in sight of British soil and once again they have failed to stop JPJ. But the merchant convoy – the real prize – has slipped away unharmed. However that is a somewhat hollow strategic victory for the Royal Navy. Once Again, the Americans press have their hero and the British their villain.
After the battle, JPJ wants to head for France, but his subordinates insist they follow orders and head for the neutral Dutch island of Texel in the United Provinces. A tricky diplomatic incident then ensues as JPJ had lost the Continental Navy’s flags when Bonhomme Richard went down, and he couldn’t fly the Royal Navy’s ensigns, so he was technically operating under no flag and the British claimed he was a pirate.
So, based on only a written description, (“colors should be white, red, and blue alternately to thirteen… [with a] blue field with thirteen stars… in the canton“) JPJ had his men run up a new – and rather unconventional – Continental Navy flag. The Dutch dutifully checked that the flag matched the description (the didn’t actually know what the flag of an American warship should look like as they’d never seen one) and entered it with a sketch in their records to make it official.
With its 8-pointed stars and irregular groupings of red/white/blue tricolour stripes, the “Serapis flag” is unique, the true work of a sailor handy with needle and thread and not someone versed in the rigid conventions of vexilology. John Paul Jones’ wacky flag saved him from charges of piracy and takes pride of place on the coat of arms of the US warships that have taken his name.
Back in Leith, plans were immediately drawn up for a new artillery fort to protect the port and the city of Edinburgh behind from the sea. These were drawn up by local celebrated architect James Craig – who laid out Edinburgh first New Town – despite him having no background in military engineering.
It’s a fairly straightforward defensive structure, a half-moon battery of 8 cannon facing out to sea, protected by a perimeter ditch, low masonry wall and a large earthen glacis heaped up infront of it to seeward. To the landward there is a a blockhouse with corner bastions to protect it from rear assaults. The Fort’s battery of guns covered the navigable channel of the approach to the port of Leith.
The fort and the land on which it was built were provided “at the expense of the citizens of Edinburgh and Leith“. It was armed with 8 x 24-pounder (i.e. firing a 24 pound shot) naval cannon, some of which were on “traversing frames” (i.e. could swivel from side to side); A 13 inch siege mortar (of the same type made famous by Buster Keaton in the General); an 18-pounder gun mounted “en barbette” (that is, behind a rotating armoured screen) and finished off with a 68-pounder “Carronade“.
The Carronade was named after the famous Carron foundry at the head of the Forth, where it was developed, and was a short barrelled gun with a very large calibre and heavy shot, deadly at close range. Coincidentally the Carron Company had a small foundry in Leith and there’s a Carron Place on that spot today.
I’m not sure how much of the Fort’s full armament was ever fitted. Certainly within a few decades the battery was more of an ornamental garden and parade ground for gentlemen volunteers than a place of warfare. After that the Fort was progrssively expanded and remodelled for the use of the Royal Artillery, rather than act as a fixed defence. But the history of Leith Fort is a story for another day.
So there you have it, the tale of the lad from Kirkcudbrightshire who the Royal Navy couldn’t sink, who tried to capture the Earl of Selkirk, who put the willies up the good folk of Edinburgh and Leith, who rocked the vexilogical world but who could not overcome a Scottish fire and brimstone preacher and the weather. Oh, and how this modern street on the site Leith Fort got its name.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] In 1779, Leith and Edinburgh had been threatened by the squadron of the American John Paul Jones during the War of Independence, and the city had responded to the threat from the sea by building Leith Fort to guard the harbour entrance. The Fort was never entirely satisfactory, and for most of its life was used as an ordnance depot and a drill barracks for artillery volunteers. In 1807 the Board of Ordnance proposed a 32 foot high Martello tower on the rocks at the mouth of the entrance to the Port of Leith to improve defences. […]
[…] in the Thames Estuary but within months is back in Leith Roads in a hurry, hot on the heels of the American swashbuckler John Paul Jones, in the USS Bonhomme Richard, who was rumoured to have just invaded Newcastle upon […]
[…] Fort had been built in something of a panic after Leith and Edinburgh had been threatened by the squadron of the American John Paul Jones in 1779 during the War of Independence. A temporary battery of cannon was emplaced in North Leith […]