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Unfurling the Flags of John Paul Jones

Sailor-artist William Gilkerson
sets the record straight on Jones

JPJ with FlagFlags, bits of colored cloth, carry awesome emotional power. In the wake of last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, millions of Americans have taken comfort in patriotic flag displays. Images of Old Glory are among the most memorable American icons -- with George Washington at Valley Forge, frozen in the vacuum of the Moon or fluttering from a piece of Japanese drainpipe above the hills of Iwo Jima.

Stories of the earliest American flags are often wrapped in controversy. Did Philadelphia's Betsy Ross really sew the first 13-star flag? Many historians are now dubious. Did a 95-year old Barbara Fritchie of Maryland really protect her Civil War flag by saying "shoot if you must this old gray head" as in the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier? Not likely. Did a bevy of Portsmouth, NH girls really sew the nation’s first Stars and Stripes from their petticoats for the dashing John Paul Jones ? Again, the legend and the facts collide.

Navy Jack

Although he was a Scott, not an American, John Paul Jones is wrapped in the history of our flag. The connection began on December 3, 1775 when at Philadelphia, a young lieutenant Jones raised the first Grand Union flag aboard an American warship ALFRED. Sketches of this event often show Jones, who was not captain of the ship at the time, raising a Revolutionary War "Navy Jack". That early flag shows a slithering rattlesnake with the motto "Don't Tread on Me."

Grand Union

Scholars, however, favor the Grand Union as the most likely image here since it was popular early in the Revolution. The design is really just the British Union flag (a blue "X" combined with a red cross) adapted with 13 red and white stripes. Early revolutionaries, remember, still thought of themselves as Englishmen fighting off unfair taxes.

Jones next flag date was June 14, 1777. On that day the Continental Congress, hoping to promote a sense of unity among a nation of disparate loyalties, adopted an official flag. The order reads -- "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

On that same day, the US Congress named Paul Jones commander of the ship RANGER in Portsmouth, NH. It was an accident of fate, but not for writer Augustus C. Buell. More than a century after the event, in 1900, Buell published his popular two-volume biography of Jones, much of it sheer fabrication.

Betsy Ross Flag

"That flag and I are twins," Buell quotes from a supposed letter by Jones, "born in the same hour from the same womb of destiny. We cannot be parted in life or in death."

It's a thrilling patriotic sound bite. Too bad Jones didn't say it. Historians now agree that much of Buell's biography was simply made up. It was Buell who created the Jones letter describing the qualities of a naval officer. (This letter was memorized by cadets at Annapolis as gospel for decades and helped earn Jones the often-disputed title "Father of the American Navy".) And it was Buell who said the Helen Seavey Quilting Party of Portsmouth sewed the famous Ranger flag "from slices of their best silk gowns". Buell even listed the girls by name, and recounted that one young seamstress even sacrificed her wedding dress to create the red, white and blue. The story, though romantic, has never been substantiated.

Hopkinson Flag

According to Buell, Jones promised the Portsmouth girls that he would return the flag someday, then sailed off to France in RANGER in 1777. But when he returned to Portsmouth in 1782, he explained that the flag went down on his ship BONHOMME RICHARD after a bloody battle off the British Isles. Jones (at least in Buell's vivid imagination) said that he "could not deny to the dead on her decks, who had given their lives to keep it flying, the glory of taking it with them."

"Buell is absolutely untrustworthy," says John Paul Jones historian William Gilkerson. "A lot of the other biographies since have drawn things from Buell and that taints them too."

Gilkerson should know. He is one of America's most respected maritime artists. In his colorful book, "The Ships of John Paul Jones" (1987) Gilkerson illustrated and discussed every single ship associated with Jones' career, right down to the rigging, flags, cannons and mariners’ costumes -- the culmination of a life's research. Now in his 60s, Gilkerson lives in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.

"He has haunted me all my life," the artist and sailor says of John Paul Jones. "But I had the feeling that I did get to know him."

Gilkerson's work on Jones has become the standard for authenticity. In fact, Gilkerson's pictures hang beside John Paul Jones tomb in the crypt below the chapel at Annapolis. Jones, he says, was "your basic warrior."

"He did everything he could for his crew, but he was a very stern commander all the time. He was very hardass," the author says, noting that Jones did not much like the men he worked with in Portsmouth and they did not like him. He compares the vertically-challenged Scotsman to the character played by George C. Scott in the movie version of "Patton", standing in front of a gigantic American flag.

"I don't think he (Jones) was particularly patriotic to the United States at all. In fact, he really liked France. He liked being known as a commander who was skillful…but he needed a flag to wave and a reason to go fight somebody."

Gilkerson defines Jones driving attitude throughout his career as: "Give me a chance, point me in the right direction, and let me show you what I can do."

Jones got that chance in November 1777 when he sailed with 140-something men from Portsmouth to Europe aboard RANGER . What flag the ship carried, Gilkerson says, no one knows -- though it likely followed the design set by Congress months before.

It was aboard RANGER early the following year that Jones made his next historic date with the American flag. On February 14, 1778 as he sailed toward his historic raid on Britain, Jones convinced the French fleet to salute his ship. This moment is generally regarded as the first time that a foreign power officially recognized the American flag. Jones then went on capture the British ship DRAKE in its own home waters. This and his bloodless attack on the ports near his birthplace earned him the reputation as "pirate", "traitor" and "terrorist" in the United Kingdom.

Serapis Flag

The last chapter is the most mysterious for flag enthusiasts. With the RANGER on its way back to Portsmouth, Jones and his mentor Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, convinced the French to loan him another ship – renamed the BONHOMME RICHARD. In one of the goriest sea battles in naval history, Jones returned to England and defeated the British ship SERAPIS on September 23, 1779 . But the BONHOMME was so badly damaged that it sank two days later with its colors flying.

According to Jones own report, the US flag was shot away. Ironically a flag purported to be from the BONHOMME turned up in the Smithsonian Institution where it hung for decades until it was withdrawn as a fake in 1942. Now comes the fascinating part.

Jones, and what was left of the two crews, limped into the neutral Dutch board of Texel a week later. The British Ambassador there insisted that Jones be arrested as a pirate, since he represented no known country -- and carried an unknown flag. Being no friend of the British, as the story goes, a Dutch official quickly sent an artist to sketch the United States flag flying from the captured SERPIS. The Dutch official slipped the sketch into his record books in the nick of time, proving the ship was indeed an American prize -- and Jones won the day.

The SERAPIS flag in the Dutch records has never been seen before or since. It is an odd duck. It contained red, white and BLUE stripes in no particular order, and instead of five points -- the 13 stars have eight points. Historians attribute the design of this flag to Benjamin Franklin, since he described a similar one in a letter to a French official. Jones, who had named the BONHOMME in honor of Franklin, most likely went along with his mentor's flag design as well. Gilkerson, who has long studied the subject agrees and depicts this flag on the RANGER. Whatever flag Jones brought from Portsmouth, he says, he likely swapped it in France for Franklin's unique design. In a recent issue of flag stamps, the US Postal Service referred to this design as the "John Paul Jones Flag."

A second American ship, the ALLIANCE, accompanied Jones into the battle and returned with the SERAPIS to Texel. Its flag, except for the same eight-pointed stars, looks very much like the American flag we know today.

"It’s significant to the story that the ALLIANCE flew one kind o flag and the BONHOMME flew another," Gilkerson says. "Standardization is a modern concept that just didn't exist then. Modern historians are always looking for the quintessential item for a certain age -- and there really isn’t one."

That standardization did not exist until 1912, when the United States officially specified the precise details of the flag we know today – with the addition of many stars since.

"The flags were very much more important in battle situations than they are now," Gilkerson concludes. "It was a rallying point and the epicenter of morale. You wanted to keep your colors at all costs."

The BONHOMME was a Dutch ship, purchased by the French and captained by a Scott -- but it bore an American flag. That made it an American ship. The fact that British Captain Pearson of the SERAPIS was forced to strike his colors in defeat and surrender to Jones, set off shock waves in the United Kingdom. The realization that Americans were desperate or capable enough to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and strike at the heart of the Royal Navy on its home turf -- that scared people.

The BONHOMME flag reappeared, miraculously, during the Civial War, but it tirned out to be a hoax. The flag hung in the Smithsonian Museum until World War II, when it was finally removed. Jones himself, meanwhile, had returned.  Though his death in 1792 was largely ignored in America, his body turned up in Paris in 1905. It was  transferred to the United States by a fleet of escort ships. Jones coffin was put on public display, wrapped in his old friend -- the American flag.

Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Copyright (c) 2001 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Serapis Flag

SOURCES: The History of the United States Flag by Milo Quaife, Melvin J. Weig and Roy E. Applemann (1961); John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography by Samuel Morison (1959); The Ships of John Paul Jones by William Gilkerson (1987) and John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard by Jean Boudriot, illustrated by William Gilkerson (1987). 

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