Historic Events: John Paul Jones’ Whiteraven Raid

John Paul Jones

On this day, 244 years ago on April 10, 1778, John Paul Jones set sail aboard the USS Ranger from Brest, France on mission to harass British ships near the mainland. John Paul Jones was commissioned as a first lieutenant with the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775. His crew on the USS Ranger, however, was comprised of many privateers who did not share loyalty to the United States. This would complicate the mission, as it turned out, as the hired guns concerned themselves more with revelry and riches than honor and duty. Still, John Paul Jones was renowned for the operation and went onto other great successes afterward.

The Plan for the Raid

Jones and his crew sailed into the Irish Sea and arrived near the port of Whiteraven on the 22nd. The target was the 400 merchant ships in the harbor. The tides were strongest at night and kept the ships anchored. Jones planned to take a small group of men on rowboats into the harbor under the cover of darkness and set the ships ablaze. With them closely tied together, the fire would spread easily among the ships. Setting only one on fire would be enough to destroy the entire fleet.

However, the entrance to the harbor was guarded by two forts. Their sentries would see the ships burning, and their cannons would rip Jones and his men to shreds when they attempted to escape. If the rebels were to infiltrate the harbor, destroy the merchant ships, and leave without being pinned down, they would need to eliminate those forts first. The group would split into two teams and each take over a fort. Then, they would converge on the merchant fleet and set it ablaze before returning to the USS Ranger for extraction. If all went well, the operation would be quick, and the men would be sailing away before sunrise.

The Trouble With Mercenaries

Jones took a group of 30 men in two rowboats, just as planned. However, due to the strength of the tide, the journey to the forts took several hours longer than planned and the waters were difficult to navigate with row boats. Also, the men under Jones’ command were not loyal to the Continental Navy and were more akin to traditional pirates. They had no loyalties other than to themselves and to their next payday. The second team Jones sent to commandeer the northern fort decided to abandon their objective. They claimed they diverted from the fort because of a strange noise they heard, while other reports indicated they went to a nearby tavern and got drunk. By the time they awoke from their drunken stupor, it was sunrise and they returned to the USS Ranger without taking the fort or burning any ships.

Meanwhile, Jones led the first team and successfully captured the southern fort guarding the harbor. Only a small force operated each fort and was quickly subdued. The cannons were then sabotaged to prevent further use. Then, Jones led his team into the harbor and boarded a ship called the Thompson. They had lost the fire from their torches and needed to acquire a torch from a nearby house. They took the crew prisoner and set the ship ablaze. Jones and his team also tried setting matches and throwing them onto other ships during their escape, but those matches did not catch fire. Adding even more to the misfortune of John Paul Jones on this day, a traitor among his crew conspired to warn the townsfolk of Whiteraven about the rebel operation, and the fire raging on the Thompson was put out before it could spread. Tactically, the mission was a complete failure.

Attempting to Salvage the Operation

After retreating from Whiteraven and realizing the mission was a failure, Jones was eager to still make something of the operation. He gathered his crew and sailed to Kirkcudbright, Scotland. The new plan was to abduct the Earl of Selkirk and use him as leverage to negotiate the release of American prisoners. However, the Earl was not there at the time. To let the Earl know he and his men were there, they stole silverware from his estate. After that, the operation ended and the USS Ranger set back out to sea.

The raid turned out to be strategically insignificant due to the failure of the fire to spread among the merchant fleet and the absence of the Earl. However, had the fire spread and the Earl been captured, it would have been an astronomical blow to British operations, and thus, the message the raid ended up sending was clear. The British mainland, the heart of the Empire, was not safe from the American rebels overseas. Thus, the raid was successful in striking the fear of war into the hearts of the British people and forcing them to shift some of their forces to bolster domestic security, and consequently away from the American colonies.

The Value of Honor and Loyalty

There is only so much a great leader can do if those under his command are noncommittal at best and treasonous at worst. The team under Jones’ direct command during the raid succeeded with their objectives. However, their efforts were thwarted by traitors in the ranks. Also, the second team abandoned their objectives altogether in favor of getting drunk. Had the crew of the USS Ranger been committed to the cause, it is likely the operation would have been a resounding success with all targets destroyed. However, the dishonorable crew of privateers was unconcerned with the mission of the Continental Navy. Not even the legendary John Paul Jones could lead such a crew to victory. Fortunately, his time to shine would come soon enough.

The botched Raid on Whiteraven teaches us about the importance of loyalty, honor, and duty. Hired muscle may be cheaper due to their ability to self–organize and operate independently. However, there is tremendous risk is trusting pirates, mercenaries, and other soldiers of fortune to carry out the military objectives of a nation. Those who are not part of our nation, born of its bosom, and raised by its peoples to fight for its survival and freedom will not be eager to rise up with blade and gun in hand to face down her enemies. Those who stand for money rather than honor with falter at even the simplest of tasks, let alone the most harrowing.

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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