After midnight, the 30 men began paddling the two miles to shore. Then the wind died, and just before sunup, Capt. John Paul Jones set foot once more on Whitehaven, the first and only time American forces ever attacked the British Isles.
Jones — the Revolutionary War hero most famous for the vow “I have not yet begun to fight!” — had grown up there, on the west coast of England. He was an apprentice at sea by age 13, and captain of a merchant vessel at 21. By 23, he’d escaped British authorities who wanted him for murder. By 30, he commanded The Ranger and her crew of 140 American sailors.
The ship’s mission: antagonize the British. The Ranger launched from New England in 1777 to deliver news of the British surrender at Saratoga to France with hopes the victory would persuade King Louis XVI to lend troops to the cause of American liberty.
On the voyage, The Ranger sunk a brig loaded with flax seed, a schooner with barley and oats and a merchant sloop from Dublin filled with beer. On clear days, Jones sailed along the friendly French coasts of the English Channel. Spoiling for a fight, he sailed into the Irish Sea.
That’s where he hatched his plan to take the American Revolution to Britain’s shores. He summoned all hands to hear his scheme.
The Ranger under the cover of darkness would anchor at sea and launch two dinghies into Whitehaven harbor, where 200 odd ships sat docked at low tide. One crew would storm the British garrison nearby and spike the cannons. The other would set fire to the ships and the town. Both boats would slip back into the water before sunrise.
The British, already fighting an unpopular war, would finally feel the cost at home, Jones told the crew, which he later recounted in his journals.
Immediately, his top lieutenants protested. Ezra Green, the surgeon on board, argued, “Nothing could be got by burning poor people’s property,” he wrote in his diary.
Jones, who is buried in an elaborate crypt on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy, was not a particularly popular captain. He’d once flogged a sailor so brutally, the man died weeks later. In Tobago in 1772, he shot a mutineering crewman, and ran away to his home in Fredericksburg, Va., to avoid a trial.
He spent the day on board The Ranger pressing 30 men — none of them his top lieutenants — into the raid. The boats launched at 3 a.m., April 23, 1778, and landed two hours later. Jones insisted he be the first ashore. In the name of the United States Navy, he’d invade his hometown.
Jones’ crew took the British fort without incident, wrote local newspaper The Cumberland Chronicle and Whitehaven Public Advertiser. The second boat, sent to the harbor to raze the ships, veered off course.
The men from the second dinghy broke into a tavern. When Jones arrived, they were already drunk, and staggered back aboard their boat. One crewman, Daniel Freeman, escaped his comrades and ran through the village to alert the fire brigade of the impending destruction.
The groggy-eyed townspeople of Whitehaven surrounded the docks where a coal ship smoldered, the only boat ablaze in the harbor. Jones posted guards at the end the dock, and threw extra “candles,” pine cones covered with canvas, soaked in brimstone and set alight, in the cargo hold.
If the coal caught fire, it would spread, Jones wrote in his journal. He stood with his pistol drawn at the dock as the crew piled into the dinghy and paddled in the morning daylight to the awaiting Ranger, taking cannon fire from townspeople while in retreat.
“The fire on board […] was speedily extinguished, without damaging any other vessel; thus were the malicious attempts of those daring Incendiaries frustrated,” wrote Lloyd’s Evening-Post newspaper.
The raid was a failure intolerable to Jones. Townspeople had recognized him while ashore. In the colonies, Jones was a social climber embraced by the likes of Benjamin Franklin. On the British Isles, he was a foul-tempered merchant marine of working class upbringing. He was a nothing, and so was his raid.
He sailed The Ranger north to Selkirk, home of the local Lord whom he planned to kidnap, drafted a smaller posse of sober crewmen and rushed ashore before noon the same day. But Lord Selkirk was neither important — Jones had confused him with another British nobleman — nor home. Instead the crew was greeted by a pregnant Lady Selkirk, who calmly handed over the estate’s silver and tea set.
The raid and kidnapping plot were failures so grand that Jones narrowly avoided a mutiny, Green documented in his diary. The ship’s first and second mate had plotted to maroon their captain in Whitehaven and sail back to New England. When Jones found out, he requested a court-martial for the first lieutenant, Thomas Simpson. The Navy denied the request citing a lack of qualified officers.
But the operations ravaged public opinion of the war in Britain, according to Tim McGrath, a revolutionary war naval historian and author of “Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea.”
British generals assured Parliament the British mainland was safe from the likes of France and Spain, McGrath said. Then some pesky American buccaneer landed in England.
“The papers were furious,” McGrath said. The London Public Advertiser and London Public Chronicle published illustrations of Jones, who stood barely 5-foot-5, as a hulking Blackbeard-esque pirate.
“This guy came to shore,” McGrath said. “There’s a lot of angst in the newspapers of ‘What the hell are we doing?’ The act itself didn’t help win the war, but the reaction helped end the war.”