John Paul Jones in the Russian Navy

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 43-47:

His work for the newly independent United States now finished, [John Paul] Jones traveled eastward to serve as commander of a Russian squadron in engagements with the Ottoman navy. Jones had made his reputation in America through a series of successful attacks on British warships; he is today revered as the founding father of the U.S. Navy, his remains encased in a lavish shrine in Annapolis, Maryland. But Potemkin was unimpressed. “This man is unfit to lead: he’s slow, lacks zeal and is perhaps even afraid of the Turks,” he wrote to Catherine. “He’s new at this business, has neglected his entire crew and is good for nothing: not knowing the language, he can neither give nor comprehend orders.”

Jones had been a brilliantly successful captain in the Atlantic, but his skills were essentially those of a pirate: the ability to lead a small contingent of men aboard a single ship in order to confront a single adversary. His abilities as a commander in a more complex struggle—especially among the haughty, intrigue-ridden, and multilingual European officer corps into which he had place himself—were questionable. “Jones was very famous as a corsair, but I fear that at the head of a squadron he is rather out of place,” wrote Charles of Nassau-Siegen, another foreign officer in Catherine’s employ. Jones reacted petulantly to any perceived slight from his aristocratic brother-officers and spent much of his time in Russia arguing over rank and chain of command. “Never, probably, did any commanding officer commence service under circumstances more painful,” Jones complained. “My firmness and integrity have supported me against those detestable snares laid by my enemies for my ruin.”

Whatever reputation Jones managed to salvage from his Russia years was in large part owed to the good judgment, operational savvy, and decorum of one of his lieutenants, another mercenary name José de Ribas. During the war with the Ottomans, de Ribas proved far more adept than the storied American captain at securing his fortune on the Russo-Turkish frontier, as well as his place in history as Odessa’s true founding father. His mixed background and improvised life were emblematic of the city he helped to establish….

De Ribas was present at one of the most important and most gruesome episodes of the Russo-Turkish conflict, an engagement in which he served alongside the disoriented and indecisive John Paul Jones. In midsummer of 1788, de Ribas was Potemkin’s liaison officer with Jones at the Battle of Liman, an encounter on the Dnieper estuary before the ramparts of two fortresses, Ochakov and Kinburn. The former was held by the Ottomans, the latter by the Russians; the twin outposts faced each other across a narrow water inlet connecting the Dnieper with the Black Sea. Jones was given command of a detachment of oar-powered boats outfitted with small cannons. Their task was not to engage Ottoman warships head-on but to lure them into the shallows, where they would be stuck fast in the mud and offer easy targets to Russia’s heavy guns and incendiary bombs. “Humanity recoils with indignation and horror from seeing so many wretched creatures perish in the flames,” Jones wrote to de Ribas during the fighting….

Despite his role in these events, Jones ended his Russian career in ignominy. After numerous run-ins with Nassau-Siegen and other aristocratic officers, he was transferred from the southern fleet by Potemkin and returned to St. Petersburg. With the war still raging, he was drummed out of Russia altogether, accused of forcibly deflowered a twelve-year-old girl. His defense was not to disown the affair—a matter usually glossed over by American historians—but rather to deny that it was rape. He admitted in a statement to prosecutors that he had “often frolicked” with the girl for a small cash payment, but that “I can assure you with absolute certainty that I did not despoil her of her virginity.” He died in penury in Paris a few years later, a broken man in a faded uniform, still pestering foreign diplomats with plans for new naval campaigns in faraway lands.

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Filed under biography, language, migration, military, Russia, Turkey, U.S., Ukraine, war

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