John Paul Jones and Whitehaven
By: Garland Davis
The perception by the public that the United States was losing the war in Viet Nam caused the politicians to end the war to the detriment of the country at a time when the Vietnamese communists were contemplating an action to sue for peace.
It is said that Walter Cronkite declared on the Six O’clock news, during the TET Offensive in 1968, that the U.S. was losing the war in Viet Nam and Lyndon Johnson believed him. Vietnamese Commanding General Giap said that the American media functioned almost as another division in the field.
Something similar happened that caused the British public to believe that the Royal Navy was overwhelmed by the, almost non-existent Colonial Navy. This perception by the public fanned by the press and rumor led to the loss of the Revolutionary War against the American Colonies.
After sunset on April 22, 1778, the USS Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul jones, hove to about two miles off the unsuspecting town of Whitehaven. It was a clear and cold night. Two boats were dispatched, manned by about thirty sailors armed with pistols and cutlasses. Jones took command of one boat with his Swedish second in command, Lieutenant Meijer. the other boat was commanded by Marine Lieutenant Wallingford and Midshipman Ben Hill. The two boats rowed against the tide for three hours to reach the harbor. Jones planned to destroy hundreds of ships by setting fire to them as they lay stranded by low tide.
The plan came unstuck because of delays by a near mutinous crew and poor winds. They failed in their first attempt to land at a point where they could attack one of the two shore batteries protecting the port but the sea was too rough and the shore too rocky. They then just rowed past the battery and into the harbor as first light was appearing over the hills behind Whitehaven on April 23, 1778.
The intention was for Wallingford’s men to burn the ships in the northern half of the harbor as Jones led a raid on the fort to spike the guns. This was vital to secure escape after their mission as the guns of the fort covered the harbor entrance and could have blasted the small boats as they made their retreat. John Paul Jones landed first, near the battlements. As it was a cold night, the guards had gone into the guardhouse at the back of the fort to keep warm. According to Jones, he himself led the surprise attack. By climbing on each other’s shoulders, they managed to silently scale the walls, enter the fort, burst into the guardhouse and secure the surprised guards without bloodshed.
He left Lieutenant Meijer guarding his boat, which was wise, as according to the Swede the rest had concocted a plan to take the boat and leave Jones behind had he not been successful. In fact, it was not until John Paul Jones himself stood on the battlements, gave his men reassurance and encouraged them to become heroes, that they plucked up courage to join his mission.
Having secured the fort Jones took Midshipman Joe Green to spike the guns at the Half-moon Battery which lay on the shore, 250m from the fort. This probably contained 32-pounders that could fire over a mile and it was thus vital to the escape that these were incapacitated. He sent the rest of his men to burn the shipping in the southern part of the harbor.
While Captain Jones was disabling the guns, Lt Wallingford, and his men landed at the Old Quay slip and headed straight to a pub and got drunk. [I’ll bet the new Marine recruits don’t hear this story of Marine daring and success in boot camp]. He later told Jones that they stopped at the pub to get a light for the incendiaries, but they did get drunk.
It was now full daylight. Jones and his crew managed to fire two ships laden with coal. On the largest ship they threw down a barrel of tar and as the fire took hold they made their retreat. Among all the confusion, one of Jones men slipped away and warned the townspeople that fires had been started in the ships and could spread to the town. There were many warehouses on the quay loaded with items like tobacco, rum, and sugar.
The town, aware of the dangers of fire was equipped with fire engines and were able to extinguish the flames before they reached the ship’s rigging which would have spread the fire throughout the ships moored there.
Thus ended the attack on Whitehaven of 1778. Despite having the advantage of surprise and Jones’s inside knowledge of the port and town, the attack was a bungled failure. This seems to have been due largely to the American crew’s reluctance to “destroy poor people’s property” as Wallingford had put it. However, the shock waves, that it sent throughout the country were completely out of proportion with the mere few hundred pounds’ worth of damage actually caused and turned John Paul Jones into an infamous pirate to the English and a hero to Americans because of subsequent successes against the Royal navy.
The Parliament and Royal Navy were crucified in rumors and the press that sewed the seed of unpopularity of a war with colonies on the other side of the Atlantic, while their traditional enemy, the French, lay just across the English Channel.
The unpopularity of the war and the unrest caused by the belief that the Royal Navy was bested by the Colonial Navy was instrumental in the English succumbing after Cornwallis’ surrender.
Not unlike results during the war in Viet Nam, the attitude of the British populace likely played a strong part in the creation of the United States
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A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.