Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
This woodcut print depicts the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the H.M.S. Serapis.
On this date, the Continental Congress unanimously voted to award a Congressional Gold Medal
to Captain John Paul Jones for his “valor and brilliant services” during the Battle of Flamborough Head eight years earlier. Jones became the first and only Continental Navy officer to receive this distinction for his service during the American Revolution. On September 23, 1779, around five o’clock in the afternoon off the coast of Great Britain, Jones, aboard the Bonhomme Richard
—a 25-year-old refitted merchant ship named for Benjamin Franklin
’s Poor Richard’s Almanac
—was leading a squadron of American and French vessels when he encountered a British convoy escorting 44 merchant ships from Scandinavia to England. After exchanging cannon-fire, the wind died and Jones used the opportunity to board H.M.S. Serapis
, the lead warship captained by Sir Richard Pearson. At one point during the five-hour battle, Pearson thought he heard Jones ask for quarters. When asked if he surrendered, Jones famously replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” By 10:30 that night, Jones had captured the Serapis
, long after much of the British convoy had escaped. In 1787, Congress instructed Thomas Jefferson
, then minister to France, to design the medal with Jones’ help, have it cast in Paris, and have it delivered to Jones who was traveling to Russia to join Catherine the Great’s navy. After his brief career as Rear-Admiral in the Russian navy, Jones retuned to Paris in 1790, where he died two years later.