- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

It took nearly a century for the body of John Paul Jones, Revolutionary War hero and "Father of the U.S. Navy," to be returned to his adopted country after his death in Paris in 1792. On July 19, 1905, his remains were entombed at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis after having been escorted back to this country by a naval squadron and placed in a brick vault next to Bancroft Hall, the midshipmen's dormitory. Since 1913, his body has lain in an imposing subterranean crypt beneath the academy's memorial chapel.
The Revolutionary War career of Jones is familiar (or once was) to Americans. His legendary victory came while commanding a converted French merchant ship named Bon Homme Richard to honor the author of the popular "Poor Richard's Almanac," Benjamin Franklin. Leading a small raiding force, Jones encountered the heavily armed frigate HMS Serapis off the Yorkshire coast of England. In the bloody engagement, the British captain demanded that Jones surrender Bon Homme Richard, to which Jones famously replied, "I have not yet begun to fight."
Despite the desperate condition of his ship, Jones maneuvered her alongside the British vessel and ordered his crew to board Serapis. A hand-to-hand fight ended with the capture of the British frigate. As Bon Homme Richard sank beneath the sea, Jones sailed his captive ship to a neutral port.
Jones' sea-green Italian marble sarcophagus is a tribute to the memory of the naval leader who is recognized as a major influence in establishing the Naval Academy 15 years before the Civil War, a conflict in which many graduates fought on both sides. He died a half-century before the school's founding, but Jones had been a strong advocate for the professional education of midshipmen at special schools ashore, a concept new in his time.
Like many American Colonists, John Paul Jones was an immigrant. Born in 1747, he arrived in Virginia from his native Scotland, by way of the West Indies, on the eve of the Revolution. An experienced merchant marine captain, he offered his service to the Continental Congress. He was given the rank of lieutenant and command of a small warship. He soon won several victories over vessels of the far superior Royal Navy before the epic fight with Serapis.
Jones remained in the Navy after the Revolution. He eventually became embroiled in bureaucratic disputes over seniority, however. At the time, the grade of captain was the Navy's top rank. Then, as now, the date of appointment was important. When the decision over seniority did not go his way, Jones resigned and went into self-imposed exile in Paris. Eventually, Catherine the Great offered him the rank of admiral in the Russian navy. He saw service in a campaign on the Black Sea against the Ottoman Turks. His disillusionment over court intrigue and rivalry led him to resign and return to Paris.
Not long thereafter, he began to suffer from a kidney ailment that was then untreatable. He died while alone in his apartment on July 18, 1792. His body was discovered by a Revolutionary War friend, Col. Samuel Blackwell, who made final arrangements that included a state funeral and interment in a Protestant cemetery, just outside the walls of Paris.
Blackwell expected that the body of the naval hero eventually would be returned to his adopted country, so he had the remains embalmed and buried in a metallic casket. At the time, that procedure involved immersing the remains in alcohol, possibly rum or brandy, then wrapping it in linen cloth similar to the mummification of the ancient Egyptians.
It would be more than a century before action would be taken to bring Jones' remains back to America. This was accomplished by a private group of prominent citizens, including Theodore Roosevelt. The arrangements proved difficult and time-consuming.
Ambassador Horace Porter, a Civil War general and aide to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, took the lead in France. Finding the Protestant cemetery took time, as the burial ground had long been abandoned. When discovered, the site was found covered with modern construction. This necessitated protracted negotiations with owners and expensive drilling and excavating. Another handicap was the absence of a directory of grave sites.
The search started in 1899, and was not brought to fruition until 1905. Eventually, three metallic caskets were exhumed. Two held the remains of unknowns. The third contained the desiccated corpse of Jones.
The body was examined by French anthropologists and forensic specialists, who reported that the remains were definitely those of Jones. Measurements from the head also were taken for comparison with the bust made from life by the noted sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon. They matched exactly.
Once verification was established, Roosevelt, who by then was president, ordered a squadron of Navy cruisers to France to bring back the remains for burial at the Naval Academy. After a colorful ceremony at Cherbourg, the casket, enclosed in a mahogany case, was placed aboard the USS Brooklyn for Jones' final journey aboard ship.
As the cruisers approached U.S. waters, they were met by an armada of other Navy vessels to proceed up the Chesapeake Bay and anchor off Annapolis. On July 19, 1905, the casket was brought ashore and, following a brief ceremony, temporarily entombed in the brick vault. A more formal ceremony, with Roosevelt the speaker, and witnessed by American and foreign dignitaries and the Brigade of Midshipmen, was held on April 26, 1906.
A delay of seven years followed before Jones would be permanently entombed beneath the Academy's Memorial Chapel. That was in part due to the reluctance of Congress to appropriate the required funding. When that was realized, construction followed and was completed in 1913.
Gil Crandall is a former Maryland director of tourism. He lives in Annapolis.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide