We usually think of the American Revolutionary War as being fought strictly in North America, but naval battles were also fought in European waters both by American forces and by their French and Spanish allies. The Continental Navy was dwarfed by the size and strength of the Royal Navy, and was primarily tasked with harassing merchant and cargo ships to disrupt British commerce and supply lines.
After some success at this in the North Atlantic and the Irish Sea, though, an American captain named John Paul Jones decided on a bold plan: he would sabotage the English port of Whitehaven, in what would be the only direct attack on the British mainland during the war.
Jones chose Whitehaven not because it was particularly valuable—though it did host a few hundred supply ships—but because he used to sail from it as a child and knew he could find his way into, around, and out of it in the dark. The plan was to burn British ships that would be moored close together and stuck in low tide in Whitehaven’s harbor.
In the early morning of April 23, 1778, Jones split 30 volunteers between two boats and rowed from his ship, the Ranger, to the forts that guarded the north and south ends of the harbor. Each crew—armed with pistols, swords and combustible “candles” made of canvas dipped in brimstone—was to capture a fort and then begin to set the nearby ships ablaze.
Strong tides and shifting winds slowed their journey in and the boats didn’t reach the harbor until almost dawn, giving them little time to work under the cover of darkness. Jones and his crew scaled the walls of the southern fort by climbing on each other’s shoulders, captured the guards, and spiked the cannons so they couldn’t be used against the raiders during their retreat.
Meanwhile, the other crew’s lanterns ran out of fuel by the time they reached the north fort and they were unable to light their candles. Instead of securing the fort, they raided a nearby public house to find a light, but reportedly got distracted and “made very loose with the liquor” they found there. Some of the men would later claim they failed to take the fort because they’d been scared off by strange noises.
As Jones left the south fort and headed toward the docks, he was dismayed to find that none of the ships were on fire yet, and his own crew’s lantern had also gone out. With the sun coming up and the townspeople beginning to stir, the captain decided to concentrate his efforts on the largest ship in the harbor, the Thompson, which was full of coal bound for Ireland. After finding a light at a house, the saboteurs lit their candles and tossed them into the ship’s holds, and set fire to a barrel of tar that had been spilled on its deck.
The fire began to grow nicely, but the earlier confusion at the north end of the harbor put another kink in Jones's plans. One of the sailors, an Irishman who had only enlisted in the Continental Navy to get back across the Atlantic to home, had snuck away while the crew was occupied at the pub and began going house to house banging on doors to warn people that buildings and boats were going to be burned by “pirates.”
The townspeople rushed to the harbor, putting out the fire on the Thompson and forcing the Americans to retreat. Jones and his men, minus the traitor, ran toward their boats with three prisoners—including a man they had found doing some early morning fishing from a pier—and headed back to the Ranger.
Once aboard the ship, Jones decided to sail to Kirkcudbright, Scotland and kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, hoping he could exchange the earl and his other prisoners for Americans who had been captured by the British. When they arrived, the earl was away in London, so the crew settled for stealing his silver tableware—including a teapot still wet from breakfast—before heading back to sea (Jones eventually returned the stolen items to the earl after the war).
In the end, the raid did little physical damage. Whitehaven’s citizens were able to extinguish the fire on the Thompson before the flames could spread to the other ships or the harbor buildings, and estimates of the damage ran from 250 to 1250 pounds. But the psychic blow was greater, and the British were rattled by the thought that the American rebels could reach them at home and increased the fortifications along their shores.
Jones eventually retired to Paris and died there in 1792. In 1906, the U.S. ambassador to France recovered Jones’s body and returned it to America for re-burial at the United States Naval Academy. For his exploits during the Revolution, Jones was celebrated at home as one of the “fathers of the American Navy,” but remembered as a mere pirate in England. Whitehaven did get over his attack, though, and at the inaugural Whitehaven Maritime Festival in 1999, the harbor commissioners proclaimed an official pardon for Jones’s “act of gross aggression” and offered to waive the fees for the use of the harbor for one American Navy vessel once a year.