Jones began his naval career by hoisting with his own hands, 3 December 1775 [he helped fit out Alfred in November 1775], our first national flag (the Grand Union flag) — the first time it was ever hoisted — on board the first ship of the Continental Navy, the Alfred, lying off Philadelphia in the Delaware River, to which ship he had been ordered as First Lieutenant. Jones hoisted this flag about a month before it was hoisted by Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, over his headquarters 2 January 1776, at Prospect Hall, at the siege of Boston.
Jones took part in several gallant actions in the early stages of the war off the North American continent. On 10 May 1777, he was ordered to his first command, the Providence. Later he commanded a squadron with the Alfred as his flagship.
On 14 June 1777, Congress appointed Jones to command the Ranger, building at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He sailed for France 1 November, arriving at Nantes 2 December [capturing two ships en route].
The first recognition of the American flag by a foreign government occurred in Quiberon Bay, France, on 14 February 1778, when Vice Admiral La Motte Picquet, Commander of the French Fleet, returned the Ranger’s salute of 13 guns with 9 guns.
Following this Jones conceived the bold plan for an invasion [more of a hit-and-run raid on an important port] of England and raids on the coasts — in order to bring the war home to the British with the hope that their naval forces off the North American shores would be withdrawn, thus relieving the pressure against Washington’s sea supply lines. The Ranger sailed from Brest, 11 April and boldly headed for the Irish Sea, taking prizes en route. On 22 April Jones landed at Whitehaven, spike the guns at the fort and set fire to the shipping. The following day he made another surprise landing at St. Mary’s Isle with the plan to seize the Earl of Selkirk as hostage that he might be exchanged for the American seamen imprisoned in England, but Earl was absent. On the 24th the Ranger fell in with the British warship Drake and after a bloody fight lasting one hour and four minutes the enemy surrendered. The Drake was the first man-of-war to surrender to a Continental warship and thus the present Stars and Stripes had its baptism on the ocean with John Paul Jones. The Ranger returned to Brest with her prize and Jones became a hero to the French.
Jones was not permitted to enjoy being a hero very long. He had trouble not only with the three American Commissioners at Paris, but the French authorities as well. He could not get for his men the prize money they had won; his draft for the food and clothing of his crew was not honored. Official red tape was partly responsible. Finally the Ranger was sent home to the States and he was promised a large vessel and squadron to make further incursions of the British coast. Little did he know what was ahead of him. Promise after promise made to him by the French Minister of Marine was followed by as many disappointments. Never before or since has any naval officer tried so hard to get a ship and to get to sea! When it became known that Jones had prepared a letter to the King setting forth all the broken promises and that he had a plan whereby the letter would reach Louis XVI personally, action came quickly [this is a simplistic explanation; there is no evidence of this blackmail]. By the King’s order a ship was eventually found — an old and rotten, poor-sailing East Indianman [Jones chose the vessel as the best available one; it was not forced upon him]. Jones’ efforts to convert this old ship into a man-of-war were truly heroic. Various parts of France were searched for suitable guns; sails, spars and rigging had to found, to say nothing of collecting a crew — forbidden to enlist Frenchmen, a motley lot eventually was got together. Jones begged, borrowed and took where he could to find the articles needed to get to sea. His squadron of seven ships finally sailed from the anchorage in the roads of L’Orient on 14 August 1779.
Ill luck continued to haunt him. By the time he had sailed around the British Isles, circling Ireland to the westward and north about Scotland, and had arrived at the next to the last rendezvous all but two ships had deserted him [in reality, two ships were detached and later rejoined Jones]. His rendezvous was the waters off Flamborough Head, a promontory on the east coast of England near the Scottish border. John Paul Jones arrived there on 23 September 1779, only eight days before the cruise was to end at Texel and the expected Baltic fleet of merchantman had not been encountered. The crisis of Jones’ life had arrived.
On this day John Paul Jones’ luck changed; he rose to supreme distinction. Sighting the superior British frigate Serapis convoying a fleet of forty-odd merchant ships around Flamborough Head; Jones stood directly for her and engaged as soon as possible. He captured his opponent after his own vessel had been practically shot out from under him and she later sank, despite the pumps and every effort to save her.
This action beginning at sunset, with the full moon just rising, lasted nearly four hours, the two vessels being lashed together, starboard side to starboard side. Not only was it the most brilliant sea fight of the war, but one the most remarkable single ship actions in history. Finally, with the Bonhomme Richard’s hold filled with 4 to 5 feet water, gaining despite the pumps, in a sinking condition; with all her guns out of action except 3 nine-pounders; with her hull holed in many places and decks all but shot away; with half of crew killed or wounded; including several officers; with fire raging in many places and fast approaching the magazines; with rudder and much of the rigging shot away, lying helpless to maneuver — the Captain of the Serapis hailed Jones: “Do you surrender?” Captain Pearson immediately had his reply twofold over the roar of the battle as Jones and his men boarded the Serapis shouting his immortal words: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!” [It is questionable that he used these exact words. Although he said something similar to his well-known quote, he said it much earlier in the battle, not near the end of the fight.].