|John Paul Jones
and Asymmetric Warfare
by Bruce L. Brager
John Paul Jones, the "father" of the United States Navy, owes his historical
image to a few hours of fighting, on September 23, 1779. Jones, commanding the USS
Bonhomme Richard, fought and defeated the HMS Serapis , a
somewhat better armed British warship. An unusual aspect to this battle is that
Jones' ship was sunk, that he and his surviving crew, and British prisoners,
sailed back to his base in France on the captured British ship.
Jones' very real contribution to the American Revolution was to give Americans
hope. He was the new nation's most successful naval officer. He was willing to
"go in harm's way," and in fact created that phrase, once writing a French
official who offered Jones' an older ship, "I wish to have no connection with
any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."
Jones had a strategic vision of how the United States Navy might grow and how
it might function. Jones was an early advocate for a professional, merit based
navy. The Revolutionary War American Navy still depended heavily on political
pull for officer appointments and promotions. For the self-centered motive that
this hurt his own promotion, though he still was correct, Jones advocated
meritocratic promotion and appointment.
Jones was also an early advocate and practitioner of what we now call
"asymmetrical warfare." For an oversimplified but quick definition symmetrical
enemies are those with militaries structured basically the same way,
such as the United States and Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Symmetrical
enemies primarily, though not necessarily exclusively, rely on conventional
means to stand up and confront each other.
Asymmetrical enemies use unconventional warfare to strike at another
power's weaknesses. Current examples of asymmetrical enemies of the United
States are Al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq. Asymmetrical warfare, sometimes
called fourth generation warfare,
". . . uses all available networks – political, economic, social, and military
– to convince an enemy's political decision makers that their strategic goals
are either unavailable or too costly for the perceived benefits. It is an
evolved form of insurgency. . . Unlike previous generations of warfare, it does
not attempt to win by defeating the enemy's military forces. Instead. . . it
directly attacks the minds of enemy decision makers to destroy the enemy's
An opponent facing a far stronger enemy is certain to try asymmetry. The United
States faced this situation in the American Revolution. Our primary method of
asymmetry was to seek stronger allies against Great Britain, basically moving
the primary focus from American battlefield weakness to American diplomatic
skill and strength.
John Paul Jones, a prolific letter writer to the Continental Congress, almost
as soon as he got his first officer's commission, began to think of ways the
American Navy might overcome its severe weaknesses in strength and technology.
Jones started to attract the attention of some members of Congress. Robert
Morris, a financial expert from New York, was one of them. In January 1777,
Morris wrote John Hancock, President of the Congress, that Jones "is a fine
fellow and should be constantly kept employed."
Morris appreciated some of Jones' ideas. Morris described Jones' letters as
"always entertaining and in many parts useful." Morris saw that Jones
brought a far broader perspective to naval affairs than most other naval
officers and members of Congress. Jones was interested in Jones, but he was
also interested in the Navy.
On February 5, 1777, Morris wrote to Jones that:
"It has always been clear to me that our infant fleet cannot protect our own
coasts & that the only effectual relief it can afford us is to attack the
enemies' defenseless places and thereby oblige them to station more of their
ships in their own countries or to keep them employed in following ours. . .
either way we are relieved."
Jones had earlier thought along the same lines. Perhaps inspired by this
letter, Jones began to look for innovative ways to most effectively use the
limited American naval resources against the British. Jones came to support
diversionary hit and run raids on the enemy's coast. Public outcry at the raids
would force the British to divert resources from North America to defend their
own homeland. The modern term for what Jones proposed is "unexpected
asymmetry," sudden and unexpected attacks where the opponent has not thought to
Jones wanted to ratchet up the stakes of 18th century warfare – a relatively,
though not always, narrowly focused affair aiming at enemy armies. However,
Jones, along with Morris and others who thought the way they did, did not want
to return to the massively destructive anti-civilian warfare of the past,
particularly the religious wars of the 1600s when thousands of civilians died
from violence, hunger and disease. Jones wanted to panic, even terrorize,
British civilians, but by destroying their property. He would have been
appalled by 21st century terrorism.
Jones would have seen modern terrorism as counterproductive. Of Scottish
ancestry, probably heard family tales of the English brutality in crushing
Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion in the 1740s, not long before Jones was born.
He knew the hatred this engendered in Scotland. Jones would know that such
behavior by Americans towards the British would only add a strong desire for
vengeance to British power. For a modern example, German behavior during its
invasion of the Soviet Union certainly ratcheted up the brutality Soviet troops
showed towards German civilians in 1945.
The colonies had nowhere near the resources needed to carry a war onto the
British homeland. But the more far-sighted American leaders wanted to panic
British civilians, and destroy enough of their property so that they would
pressure the Parliament and the government to end the war with America.
Jones got his chance in July 1777. He received orders to take command of a ship
under construction in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Ranger. After
several more months of construction, which Jones supervised, and recruitment of
a crew, Jones set sail on November 1, 1777. His fast ship managed to slip past
the British fleet blockading the American coast, a fleet which managed to
capture most American warships trying to get out into the open ocean. In
addition to resources needed for raiding British shipping, the Ranger carried
the news of the American capture of an entire British army at Saratoga. Though
another ship brought the news to France first, this victory convinced the
French government to openly support the American rebels against the British.
Most of the journey was quiet, until the Ranger was just over the
horizon from the British coast. Lookouts then spied 17 ships in the distance.
The American gave chase, to discover a merchant convoy. They also discovered
the convoy was escorted by a 74-gun British warship. Had the 20-gun Ranger
been spotted, it would easily have been sunk. Direct confrontation with the
Royal Navy ship was out of the question. Unable to slip away, Jones tried
something else. He had hIs ship fall in line with the merchantmen.
An unidentified officer on board ship later wrote home "Our captain took a very
wise step, which was to heave to with the convoy." There Jones stayed until
nightfall, when he was able to slip away. The British warship crew never
noticed. "Had he suspected us to be Americans, we must have been captured."
Jones was not able to capture or sink any of the merchantmen before he left the
convoy. The Ranger arrived at the French port of Nantes on December 2,
The Cruise of the Ranger
The Ranger left the French port of Brest on April 8, 1778. At the slow
sailing speed of the day, it was April 15 before the ship entered the channel
between England and Ireland. (Jones would have seen this as a more direct route
to less defended targets in Ireland and the west coast of England and
Scotland.) The weather that day was windy and overcast. This limited visibility
would have blocked the American's view of potential targets. However, British
warships could not have spotted Jones unless they were very close.
Jones planned to sail to the south coast of Scotland, to the port of
Whitehaven, to burn at least some of the merchant ships in the port. He also
planned to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, whom he considered an important British
nobleman, who lived in the area, and hold him as a hostage to obtain the
release of captive American seamen.
Jones knew the local waters, as this was the area where the captain had gained
his first sea experience. He could serve as his own pilot, to guide the Ranger
close to shore. Jones was also acquainted with the Selkirks. The Earl's father
had been the closest friend of William Craik, and a frequent visitor at Craik's
estate, where Jones' father worked as the landscape designer and Jones grew up.
Jones might even have met the old Earl, his target, himself.
Continental leaders of the time tried to lead, but the men would not always
follow. This was particularly true in the Navy. American sailors demanded a lot
more democracy on their ships, even to the point of endangering the effective
military operation of the vessels. New England sailors, such as those with
Jones, came from perhaps the most democratic area of the country. They saw no
reason why such things as the town meeting tradition, where every man had a say
in what happened in a town, had to be totally forgotten just because they were
at sea and at war.
This stood in stark contrast to the harsh discipline of the British Royal Navy
of the period. Flogging, or worse, punishment followed relatively minor
offenses by common British sailors. American captains, on the other hand,
though in theory they could punish, had to alternate between persuading and
effectively bribing their crews.
The crew of the Ranger was not happy about raiding Britain. They
thought they would be on their way back to America, making prize money on the
way by capturing British merchant ships. Jones sensed pending problems. He
later, though perhaps with some of what came to be known as "20/20 hindsight,"
wrote about "A slow and half obedience I had observed even from the
Just a few days after leaving France, Jones faced a mutiny. Jean Meijer, a
French officer who had volunteered to command the marine detachment onboard
ship when the American marine commander left, was the only officer loyal to
Jones. He tipped Jones off about a pending mutiny. The ship's master, roughly
equivalent to a senior non-commissioned officer in the modern navy, would rush
Jones and take him captive. All other officers would make sure they were not
around when this happened. The ship would then sail for America, with Jones
either in chains or trying to swim back to France.
Jones had no other proof so he decided to wait for something to happen. The
master, David Cullam, rushed Jones, as Meijer had warned, as Jones paced the
quarterdeck – the raised open area at the back of the ship. Jones then pulled
out his pistol and pointed it at Cullam's head. Cullam, and his associates,
then backed off. They might have been shocked at Jones' reaction, or they might
have heard a rumor about what happened the last time someone tried this with
Jones. Jones had run a mutiny leader through with a sword early in his career.
Cullam was not put in chains, which would have been appropriate, but Jones knew
he had to watch his back.
Before Jones, the last time Britain had been raided by a foreign power was in
the 17th century, when a Dutch raiding party had burned a town on the South
East Coast. The British people felt secure that this could not happen again,
that the "wooden walls" of the Royal Navy would protect them. Jones was
determined to prove them wrong. This was dangerous, but not impossible. Well
before the days of radar, when ships too far away to see were effectively
invisible, there would be gaps in any defensive (or blockading) naval screen.
On April 17, the Ranger reached Whitehaven, Jones' first target. Jones
managed to assemble a 30-man raiding party from his crew of 150. But, when the
boats were being lowered into the water about 10 p.m., the wind both shifted
and increased. Heavy waves were now breaking on shore. The landing would now be
far more risky. The Ranger herself now risked either being wrecked on
the rocks or being a sitting duck for any British warship that happened to pass
by. Jones cancelled the raid. He withdrew to the open sea to await a better
chance for success.
The next day Jones ran into a British revenue cutter, the Hussar, on
patrol for smugglers. In a battle that followed, the smaller Hussar was
able to escape the Ranger by sailing into shallow waters close to
shore where the Jones could not follow. Jones realized that once the British
ship made port his "cover was blown." The alarm would go out, and any British
warship in the area would be sent to look for the Americans. Jones had to
quickly find targets of opportunity.
Sailing west, Jones and his men captured a British fishing boat. From the crew
they identified a target. The British sloop Drake, of about the same
size and firepower as the Ranger, lay in a harbor not far from
Belfast, in what is now Northern Ireland. The Drake's officers and
crew were unlikely to have heard that Jones was in the area. Jones' first plan
was to brazenly sail in during daylight and sink or capture the British ship.
However, according to a diary kept by the Ranger 's ship's doctor,
Ezra Green, the "people were unwilling to undertake it." No reason is given,
but refusing orders, particularly if they seemed dangerous, was common.
Jones negotiated an alternative plan with executive officer Simpson. The Ranger
would enter the harbor at night, and surprise the British ship. As the Ranger
crossed the Drake 's bow, the American crew would throw grappling
hooks over the British ship's side, and use small arms to capture the British
ship. Before they could react, the ship would be an American prize.
The plan would have to start with the Ranger dropping anchor at just
the right moment, stopping the ship next to the Drake. The mate in
charge of the anchor detail lost concentration and delayed just long enough for
the Ranger to end up 100 feet in front of the Drake, too far
for the plan to work. Jones ordered the Ranger's anchor cable cut –
ships had several anchors, in anticipation of this method of quickly getting
underway – and the Ranger first drifted and then sailed out of the
harbor. Amazingly, the officers and crew of the Drake had no idea of
the danger they had briefly been in.
Jones wanted to try again, but the tide had shifted and he could not get
back into the harbor. He looked again to a raid on Whitehaven. As the Ranger
sailed back, Jones told his crew of his plans. He would lead a raiding part to
first capture the forts guarding the town, spike their cannon, and then burn
the merchantmen in the harbor. Jones would lead the raid himself. Jones got
what by this point should not have been a surprising reaction.
Officers and crew did not want to follow Jones' plans. Simpson, his unreliable
second in command, led the objections. They signed on for prize money, not
glory of hurting the enemy literarily where the enemy lived. They even told the
captain they were too tired to perform their duties. Surgeon Green raised a
more principled objection, that the mission was dangerous and that they would
be attacking poor people's property. Jones was more responsive to Green, but
was still determined to go ahead with the raid.
The Ranger was behind the optimum schedule. By midnight of April 23,
when he thought the attack would be under way, Jones was still several miles
off shore. After a somewhat too leisurely row ashore, Jones and the 30
volunteers were ashore. But the sun was starting to come up. Jones still wanted
to go ahead. Jones and some of the men headed to the forts. The rest were told
to prepare to burn the shipping, roughly 200 vessels sitting close together.
The raid on the fort went well. Jones and his party quickly and efficiently
slipped into the fort, overcame the guards, and spiked the suns. Spiking
consisted of driving heavy nails into cannon touchholes, used in firing the
guns. The cannon could no longer be fired.
The sun was now coming over the horizon, but Jones still had some surprises
left. He called for the rest of the men to join him. Many of those who did had
gotten drunk. Jones was actually lucky, as they had been planning to leave him
on shore. After a bit of the customary debate, this time over why the ships
were not already on fire, Jones and the men headed out to find fire and get a
candle lit. Jones then found a coal ship, and threw in the candle. Nothing
happened. Jones then had his men pour a barrel full of tar into the hold of the
ship. This worked.
However, the town was now awake. One of Jones' seamen had enlisted in New
Hampshire for the sole purpose of getting home to Britain. He was now banging
on doors to warn the town of their danger. Citizens ran towards the docks to
see what was happening. As Jones later described it:
"The inhabitants began to appear in thousands and individuals ran hastily
towards us. I stood between them and the Ship of Fire with a pistol in my hand
and ordered them to retire which they did with precipitation. The flames had
already caught the rigging and began to ascend the main mast. The sun was a
full hour's march above the horizon, and as sleep no longer ruled the world, it
was time to retire."
This time his men put more effort into rowing back to the Ranger .
Jones knew that he and his men had put on a dramatic show, but they had not
done very much practical damage. Only one ship had been burned. Jones decided
to go ahead with the second part of his plan, going after the Earl of Selkirk.
He ordered to ship 20 miles across the Firth of Solway. The entrance channel
was tricky, but Jones had sailed it before. By noon, Jones' landing cutter was
on the beach. Twelve armed men accompanied him, include Master Cullam. Jones
and his men headed up the hill towards the Selkirk house.
On the way there, they ran into Lord Selkirk's gardener. Jones told the
gardener that he and his men were a Royal Navy press gang. They had come ashore
to draft men for the navy. The gardener immediately warned all young men on the
estate, who fled "naval service" and any chance to resist the Selkirk
kidnapping. Unfortunately, the gardener also said that Selkirk was not at home.
Disappointed, Jones turned to head back to the ship. He was stopped by Cullam
and the other officer. They were not going back without something. They were
sure that there was treasure in the house, and demanded that Jones let them go
collect the treasure. Jones now had a dilemma. If he said ok, he had no way of
controlling his men and the damage they might do. If he resisted, they would
probably kill him and do the damage anyway. Jones compromised. The men would
wait outside while the two officers went to get the Selkirk silver plate –
basically, expensive dinning room plates, silverware, cups and saucers. Jones
decided to stay with his men.
Most of the women and children in the house fled to the top floor. Lady Selkirk
went to meet the two officers, and acceded to their demands. She was not
impressed with them, but later wrote her husband "Upon the whole, I must say
they behaved civilly."
Jones' would have been more concerned for his reputation if he had read another
paragraph in Lady Selkirk's letter. She had been told by one of the officers in
her home that the captain of their ship was Jones. The letter states that:
"It was immediately known that this Paul Jones is one John Paul, born at
Arbigland, who once commanded a Kirkcudbright vessel belonging to Mr. Muir and
others, a great villain as ever was born, guilty of many crimes and several
murders by ill usage, was tried and condemned for one, escaped, and followed a
piratical life, til he engaged with the Americans."
Jones and the Ranger quickly left the area, but headed back to
northern Ireland. Jones was unhappy about the results of the main phases of his
cruise. He wanted one more try at capturing, or sinking, the Drake.
Lieutenant Simpson was making another effort to stir up the crew when the Ranger
arrived at northern Ireland. Before the Ranger 's crew realized it,
the ship had drifted into Carrickfergus Harbor. "The tide and what little wind
there was had imperceptibly carried us in so far that they was very little
chance for an escape."
This time the crew of the Drake was more alert. The British ship was
unfurling her sails, in case she had to challenge the intruder. But, first a
boat came out to investigate. Jones was flying a British flag and trying to
appear as a merchantman. Jones ordered the Ranger 's helmsman to keep
her stern towards the longboat, to keep the British from counting the Ranger's
cannon, and even seeing that the Ranger had cannon. The Drake's boat came
alongside. Jones, wearing a uniform identical to that of a British naval
officer, greeted the British officer. He then informed the officer he and his
men were prisoners of the United States.
The American and British ships slowly maneuvered their way out of the harbor.
Jones wanted to fight in the open sea, where he would have more room to
maneuver. Both ships were pretty evenly matched as to size and armaments. But
the Drake had more men, an advantage if the ships got close enough for
boarding. The Drake also had a more experienced crew. Jones would also
have realized that the British crew was almost certainly better disciplined
than his own men.
When the ships drew close enough to each other, and with the sun going down,
the fighting began. Formal challenges were called out from both sides, the
custom in single ship combat of the time. Jones sent Marines up into the masts,
to shoot down any British crewmen on deck. When the Ranger crossed the
Drake's bow, Jones ordered his men to open fire. The nine guns on the
side of the Ranger , the ship's broadside, opened fire. Grapeshot,
anti personnel ammunition consisting of small iron balls, sliced down the
Drake's deck. When the small iron bulls hit wood, they sent splinters flying,
adding a dangerous indirect shrapnel effect.
Now Jones' ship was vulnerable. It would take his men one or two minutes to
reload. The Drake's broadside could open up on the back, the stern, of
the Ranger . This could particularly endanger the officers, including
Jones, standing by the helm near the stern of the ship. Custom of the day did
not allow the officers to take cover. Jones knew this, and ordered a quick
turn. Both ships were now broadside to broadside.
Jones decided to make an effort to capture, rather than sink, the Drake.
As the two ships sailed almost side by side, the Ranger's broadside
angled upwards. Cannon shots would damage the Drake's masts and spars.
The Drake's cannon angled downwards. Normally this might risk sinking
the Ranger, but the Drake 's cannon were smaller caliber, meaning they
fired smaller and less powerful balls.
The ships bashed away at each other for an hour. By this time, the Drake
's masts and spars were nearly wrecked. Even worse, the captain and first
lieutenant had been seriously wounded and could no longer exercise command. The
sailing master realized he would have to surrender. For the first time in
history, a United States Navy ship had won a single ship combat with a Royal
Despite the relatively fierce combat, the British lost four dead and nineteen
wounded, the Americans three dead and five wounded.
Jones had surprisingly little problem getting back to France, at least from the
British. After the Drake was repaired enough to sail, Jones put Simpson and a
prize crew on the ship to get her back to France. At the first opportunity,
Simpson tried to sail off. Jones caught up with, and finally could take action.
Simpson had disobeyed a direct written order to keep the Drake near to
the Ranger . Simpson was placed under arrest. One had to wonder if
Jones expected Simpson to try to desert, and was looking for an excuse to
arrest his disloyal number two officer.
Jones was not too happy with the end results of his cruise. After a series of
mishaps resembling low comedy, he had burned one coal ship, captured a warship
and few merchantman, not to mention some plates and silverware. But he had also
made the British public think. The newspaper The London Advertiser wrote
"When such ravages are committed all along the coast, by one small privateer,
what credit must it reflect on the First Lord of the Admiralty?" Jones had
accomplished something with the cruise of the Ranger , making the
British people worry. This was before he sailed his way into history.
On the night of October 7-8, 2001, the USS John Paul Jones, a
powerfully armed Burke-class destroyer in the United States Navy, joined in
firing the first missiles, among the first shots in the War on Terrorism at
targets in Afghanistan. This ship is a very modern ship, and a very fast ship.
She is fully able to in go harm's way, but missiles increase the Jones'
value by letting her "stand off" in relative safety and put the enemy in harm's
way. Armed with missiles, guns and torpedoes, the John Paul Jones could
likely sink every warship that sailed in the days 225 years ago when its
namesake became one of the first American naval heroes. John Paul Jones would
have appreciated the latest of six United States Navy ships named after him. He
would certainly have appreciated the large size and ability to project power of
the navy of which his namesake ship was a part. Jones had foreseen the day, or
at least hoped for the day, when the United State Navy would dominate the
This essay is adapted from:
Bruce L. Brager
John Paul Jones: America’s Sailor
Greensboro, North Carolina: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Inc. 2006
John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
. John Paul Jones to Jacques-Donatier Leray de Chaumont, November 16, 1778,
quoted page 182, Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography
, Boston: An Atlantic Press Monthly Book, Little Brown and Company, 1959.
. Colonel Timothy X. Hammes (USMC, Ret.), The Sling and Stone , St.
Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2003, page 2.
. Morris to Hancock, January 16, 1777, Naval Documents of the American
Revolution, William Bell Clark, Editor, Washington, DC: Naval Historical
Center, 1964-1996, , vol 7, page 972.
. Quoted Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones , New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2003, 78.
. Thomas, page 78.
. Extract, December 5, 1777, NDAR, Volume 10, page 1069.
. Quoted Thomas 114.
. Diary of Ezra Green, April 21, 1778, page 21. Ezra Green, Diary of Ezra
Green, M.D. , George Henry Preble and Walter C. Green, editors,
Boston: 1875, page 21..
. Thomas 123.
. Lady Selkirk to Lord Selkirk, April 27, 1778. Mrs. Reginald De Koven, The
Life and Letters of John Paul Jones , New York: Scribner’s, 1930,
Volume I, page 309.
. Green Diary, April 24, 1778, page 20.
. London Public Advertiser , May 2, 1778.
Copyright © 2006 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 06/08/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.