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How Army Officers Rescued John Paul Jones (2/22/23)

Submitted by Taylor Keith

Edited by Dick Nelson ’64

[Sources:  Wikipedia.org; goordnance.army.milbaltimoresun.comusna.eduhistory.net]

 I know.  You all think that you know everything about “the father of the American Navy,” right?  Perhaps you should go down to the crypt and ask Admiral (Russian Navy) Jones himself who found him, dug him up, and brought him back to the Naval Acadey!  You may be surprised when you learn that all the U.S. Navy did was to provide transportation from France to the U.S.  So, who were his rescuers?

    Col. Sherburne was a retired Army officer and self-styled secret agent in the early 19th century.  He was also a prolific author and had written a well-researched book (published in 1851) entitled, The Life and Character of John Paul Jones.  During his wide-ranging research, he tried to locate the grave of our Naval hero but was not successful.

Brigadier General Horace Porter USA (West Point 1860)

In 1899, General Horace Porter, a Civil War veteran and recipient of the Medal of Honor, began a long search for the grave.  He expressed surprise and dismay that America’s foremost Naval hero had been allowed to fade into obscurity in Europe.  The general decided to do something about it, and he had the wealth and influence to do so.  [Gen. Porter also became the fifth president of the Grant Monument Association in 1892.  He played an instrumental role in the most critical stages of funding and constructing the monument, known as Grant’s Tomb.]

Brigadier General Horace Porter was born in Pennsylvania on April 15, 1837, and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1860 as a Brevet Second Lieutenant of Ordnance.  He served as Secretary to President Grant from 1869 to 1873.  General Porter distinguished himself in combat several times during the Civil War and on June 26, 1902, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 20, 1863.  He was awarded five brevets (field promotions) for gallantry and rose to the grade of brevet brigadier general in 1865.

He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and later colonel of volunteers, and later served as aide-de-camp to Generals Grant and Sherman from 1864 to 1873.  He was briefly assistant Secretary of War in 1869.

General Porter resigned from service on December 31, 1873 to become the Vice President of the Pullman Car Company.  Following his retirement, he served for many years as a railway executive and was active in politics.

He was U.S. Ambassador to France from 1897 to 1905, and finally in a position to solve the Jones mystery.

Why was Jones living in Paris?

Following his forced retirement as a rear admiral in the Russian Navy, Jones’ final years were fraught with frustration, sickness, and solitude amid the chaos of the French Revolution, far from the country he had fought so valiantly to free.  Anticipating that American authorities would transport their legendary naval hero back to the United States, the French laid his body to rest in a lead coffin that was filled with alcohol and sealed to preserve the remains.  This container was then placed in an outer wooden coffin.  

Gouverneur Morris, then the American ambassador to France, displayed his distinct dislike for Jones and shocked French officials with his unwillingness to pay for a proper burial.  Morris wrote: “I had no right to spend money on such follies,” and opined that Jones should “be buried in a private and economical manner.”  He explained that “I did not agree to waste money of which he [Jones] had no great abundance.” [“Gouverneur” is a proper name, not a title.  Morris, a Founding Father, was a classic snob, in spite of his superlative contributions to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, for which he represented New York.]

The French, on the other hand, had great respect for Jones’ contribution to preserving the freedoms so cherished in both America and France.  Only through the influence of two friends—American Colonel Samuel Blackden (a Revolutionary War Army officer) and Major Jean-Baptiste Beaupoil (French Army), a former aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette—did he receive a proper burial.  Frustrated by the parsimonious Morris, Pierre-François Simonneau, the local precinct’s royal commissioner, agreed to pay for the interment.

As a display of religious tolerance in Catholic France, a delegation from the Legislative Assembly was selected to attend the Protestant funeral.  Their presence lent irony to the affair, as Jones’ initial support for the French Revolution had turned to horror as its excesses began spinning out of control.  Jones had admired and esteemed Louis XVI for the invaluable aid he had provided in support of the American struggle for independence.  The king had awarded him the Order of Military Merit and the title chevalier (knight), presented him with a gold-hilted sword, and proclaimed him “the valiant avenger of the rights of the sea.”  But by the time of Jones’ death, although France was technically a constitutional monarchy, Louis was a virtual figurehead.

The Legislative Assembly honored the naval hero with a military escort and procession.  On 20 July the funeral cortege wound its way through the streets of Paris to the Saint Louis Cemetery, led by French grenadiers and followed by the Assembly deputation, representatives of the Protestant community, and Jones’ friends and acquaintances.  Gouverneur Morris did not attend, sending instead a lower-level American attaché.  In the distance, thunder and lightning provided a solemn aura to the journey, as Parisians lined the streets and hung out of windows in respectful silence as the funeral procession passed.

    Within three weeks of the funeral, armed Revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis and his family were being held. Many of the 600 Swiss Guards who died defending the king, being Protestants, were tossed into a mass grave adjacent to Jones’ burial site.

    John Paul Jones’ presence in Paris is a story in itself.  Following the American Revolution, he had become disenchanted with the unwillingness of the fledgling U.S. Congress to build the standing navy he passionately believed was necessary for the young nation’s defense.  [Sound familiar?] Restless in peacetime, Jones yearned to return to the sea and warfighting.  Coincidentally, in early 1788, Russia’s ambassador in Paris contacted the naval officer’s friend Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to France, about Jones’ availability.  Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, was waging a sea and land war against the Ottoman Empire and in dire need of naval expertise.  Jones jumped at the opportunity.

    After his arrival in St. Petersburg, Catherine bestowed on Jones the rank of kontradmiral (rear admiral), an honor denied him by Congress for political reasons.  The empress had him believe that he would command a fleet and operate independently against the Turks, but he was misled by the devious ruler.  During the 16 months he served with the Russian navy, Jones participated in two significant sea battles, each critical to the Russian effort to dominate the Black Sea and capture Constantinople.  But his skill and courage during the Liman campaign were downplayed and disparaged by his ambitious Russian naval superiors, who knew how to play palace politics.

    Jones was recalled to St. Petersburg in late 1788 with the expectation of being given command of the Baltic fleet, but during the trip north he aggravated an existing lung condition that resulted in a severe case of pneumonia from which he never fully recovered.  On his arrival in the capital, the admiral became a victim of politics and intrigue at the Russian court and the expressed hatred of ex-pat British naval officers who were serving the empress.  Serving alongside their former naval adversary was too much for them. 

    He left St. Petersburg in August 1789 in the wake of an alleged sexual scandal concocted by his enemies.  After wandering from Warsaw to Vienna, Amsterdam, and London, he retreated to Paris in 1790, where he spent his last years in failing health, awaiting recall to service by either Empress Catherine or President George Washington.  

    Just over a century later, in 1897, Horace Porter—a Civil War brevet brigadier general, Medal of Honor recipient, member of General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, and Grant’s secretary during his first term as president—arrived in Paris.  Two years later he began a quest that would consume six anxious years and great personal expense.  A number of patriotic Americans, distraught that the remains of their early naval hero were residing ingloriously somewhere in a foreign land, had conducted unsuccessful attempts to research and locate Jones’ final resting place. Porter would be ably assisted in his search by Colonel Arthur Bailly-Blanchard, second secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Finding John Paul Jones’ burial location, gaining access to the site, and proving that the recovered remains were those of the admiral proved to be an exercise in detection and persistence that severely tested Porter’s analytical and diplomatic skills.  The search for the burial site began in June 1899 with an exhaustive review of writings about Jones in French newspapers and documents.  The original certificate of burial had been lost when government buildings housing the records had burned during the 1871 Paris Commune.  By careful sleuthing, Porter found a copy of the certificate in an 1859 magazine article written by French archaeologist Charles Read.  The certificate confirmed the fact that Jones had been “buried in the cemetery for foreign Protestants,” specifically the long-since abandoned Saint Louis Cemetery. 

 Other writings and rumors raised doubts about the accuracy of the Read article.  Speculation as to where Jones was interred included Charles Dickens’ claim that he was buried in the “Congressional” cemetery.  An Alexandre Dumas novel located the grave in a cemetery that did not exist at the time of Jones’ death.  There were also claims that Jones had been reinterred adjacent to Lafayette’s tomb in Paris’ Picpus Cemetery.  One account alleged that the body resided in a churchyard in Dumfries, Scotland, near his birthplace.  Porter carefully investigated and refuted each claim.

 The ambassador spent the next several months reviewing hundreds of periodicals and journals to determine if any other Protestant cemeteries had existed in and around Paris.  No mention could be found of other such burial sites.  Porter determined that Saint Louis Cemetery had been established in 1720 at the behest of the Dutch, and no burials had been permitted without an appropriate certificate issued by the Dutch Embassy.  A review of the Church of Saint Louis’ meeting minutes revealed that four pages covering the period of Jones’ death and burial had been torn out.  By searching numerous junk shops and antiquarian stores, Porter was able to track down the sale of the church’s old records to the Society of the History of Protestantism.  The missing pages were found in its possession.  The minutes indicated that the funeral oration for the admiral had been given by a Dutch pastor, Paul Henri Marron, and confirmed that all of Pastor Marron’s burials took place at Saint Louis Cemetery.

    In addition, a bill was found confirming that Commissioner Simonneau had paid 462 francs to bury Jones in an expensive lead coffin and apparently had never been reimbursed.  Porter attempted to locate descendants of the commissioner in anticipation of paying them for their ancestor’s generosity more than 100 years before.  No living relatives were found.

Porter had become convinced that Saint Louis Cemetery was the site of Jones’ burial.  Using old maps, the ambassador explored the section of Paris called “le Combat,” famous as the location of cock, dog, and other animal fights.  The government had sold the old cemetery to private interests in 1796, and the ground was subsequently regraded.  The graves lay approximately eight feet below ground level, beneath a courtyard, shacks, and buildings. 

 Under French law, abandoned cemeteries were required to transfer remains to the Catacombs of Paris.  Whether the deceased had been removed from Saint Louis Cemetery prior to its being covered was unknown.  A check of the Catacombs registry revealed that only one body had been exhumed from Saint Louis, that of Lady Alexandra Grant, a Scottish citizen.  Given the wartime chaos in France for nearly 25 years following Jones’ interment, no significant effort to remove other remains had occurred.  A further concern was the possibility that lead coffins had been dug up during the 1793–94 Reign of Terror and, like many lead statues, melted down to make bullets for the French Republic’s army.

Because the cemetery where Jones was believed to have been buried lay about eight feet below ground level, beneath buildings, sheds, and a courtyard, finding the naval officer’s remains required extensive excavation.  Workers sank five shafts, from which they extended galleries by cross-timbering.  

 The next step in finding Jones’ remains posed political, economic, and technical challenges for Porter.  Loose soil, poor drainage, and damaged buildings would complicate the project, as would noxious odors and poor ventilation.  Only by digging shafts and tunnels supported by elaborate timber shoring could the graveyard be searched.

 To proceed with excavation, Porter was required to obtain individual agreements with each proprietor and tenant, and according to the ambassador, “This was altogether the most discouraging episode in the history of the undertaking.”  Speculation abounded that the United States was willing to pay exorbitant sums to gain the right to tunnel, which ironically, was far from the truth.  Given the unrealistic monetary demands of the owners and occupants of the various properties, Porter decided to allow the “excitement to subside,” waiting two years before restarting negotiations.

 Using an appeal to public sentiment and assurance that the U.S. government had not allocated funds for the project, he obtained permission to proceed with the subterranean excavations in early 1905.  The agreement strictly limited access to the grounds to three months.  Porter secured the services of Paul Weiss, an accomplished mining engineer, whose professional skill and devotion to the delicacy of the task proved well beyond the ambassador’s expectations.

 Meanwhile, under the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (USNA 1859) seapower writings, President Theodore Roosevelt had launched an ambitious campaign to strengthen the U.S. Navy.  Colorful naval reviews, elaborate ceremonies, and exercises were the order of the day, culminating in the around-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet in 1907–9, a blatant display of the growing reach of American military might.  Aware of Porter’s efforts and anticipating the public-relations value of the project to his crusade for a more powerful American Navy, Roosevelt approached Congress for an appropriation of $35,000 for the recovery.  Ironically, indifference to John Paul Jones’ cause lingered into the 20th century, as Congress took its time reacting to the president’s request.  The ambassador decided to avoid further delay and personally advanced the money with no expectation that he would ever be reimbursed.

    The first shaft was sunk on 3 February 1905 to a depth of 18 feet.  The immediate discovery of many skeletons confirmed that few, if any, remains had been removed from the cemetery.  The corpses in this section were not in separate graves, leading to the conclusion that they were the remains of destitute individuals buried in inexpensive wooden coffins that had long since rotted away.  Porter suspected that very few lead coffins like the one in which Jones’ body had been encased were present, given the expense of such containers.  In all, five shafts were sunk, and horizontal subterranean galleries extended out from the shafts in various directions.  To locate the lead coffins, soundings were made between the galleries using long iron tools. 

As the excavation continued, a mass grave of skeletons was discovered.  This was apparently the trench section where the bodies of the Swiss Guards (who had defended the monarchy during the Revolution) had been tossed.  The first lead coffin was discovered on 22 February.  An encrusted inscription plate required the skills of a restorer of ancient art objects to decipher the name of the deceased.  The nameplate as well as one found on a second lead coffin ruled out either occupant as being John Paul Jones.

On 31 March a third lead coffin was found.  It lacked an inscription plate but according to Porter was “superior in solidity and workmanship” to the first two.  The decision was made to open this coffin.  Typical of those in use in France at the time of Jones’ death, the mummy-shaped coffin was narrow at the feet, widening to the shoulders, and rounded at the head.  

A preliminary examination determined that the corpse was approximately 5 feet, 7 inches, the exact height of the admiral.  The remains were taken to the Paris School of Medicine for examination.  For six days and in the presence of a dozen French and American officials, several renowned French anthropologists would perform tests and comparisons to definitively identify the body.

Wrapped in a winding sheet, the body was surrounded by straw.  The alcohol that had originally filled the coffin had externally embalmed the remains, which were remarkably well-preserved.  The head had been turned slightly to the right and the nose bent, due to the placement of too much straw beneath the head prior to the casket being closed.  A linen cap and ruffled linen shirt were the only items of clothing.  On the cap was an embroidered letter “J” with a very pronounced loop.  When the cap was reversed, the letter appeared to be a “P”.  Anthropometric measurements of the head and facial features were performed and compared to a three-quarter-size bust by famed French sculpture Jean-Antoine Houdon that Jones’ contemporaries had regarded as extremely accurate, and to a profile of the naval commander on a congressional medal.  A peculiar-shaped earlobe and all other facial measurements were consistent with the features displayed on the bust.

Among the unofficial onlookers present while the remains were being measured soon after their removal from the coffin had been John Stone, Ambassador Porter’s 11-year-old nephew.  Nearly 60 years later, retired Navy Captain Stone, a 1917 Naval Academy graduate, recalled that “there was a feeling of awe in the room.”  Approaching the corpse, “Uncle Horace said I could feel his hand, I think it was his right one. . . . With some reluctance (really a great deal) I held the hand.  It was soft and pliable.  I did not hold it long!”  Stone added that “When first seen J. P. J. seemed alive.  No photograph was made until about 2 days later—by that time his face had changed due to exposure.”

    An autopsy revealed that the left lung displayed signs of the pneumonia Jones had been diagnosed as having in late 1788.  Distinct indications of kidney disease were consistent with symptoms the admiral had displayed just prior to death.  The absence of scars or other evidence of battle wounds was also consistent with the belief that Jones had never been seriously wounded in any of his many engagements.  Formal documents concurring with lead anthropologist G. Papillault’s conclusion that “the body examined is that of Admiral John Paul Jones” were signed by all in attendance.  Notified of the panel’s definitive findings, President Roosevelt immediately dispatched a squadron of four cruisers to escort the admiral home.

    The body was placed in a new lead container that was soldered closed, affixed with seals of the American Embassy, and placed in an outer oak casket adorned with eight silver handles.  The lid was secured using 16 silver screws and the casket then draped with the American flag.  Placed on a French artillery caisson ornamented with flags, it was escorted to a Paris train station by 500 American Bluejackets, two companies of U.S. Marines, and French cuirassiers, horse artillery batteries, infantry, and military bands.  

The casket was transported to Cherbourg, where it was placed aboard the armored cruiser Brooklyn for the 13-day journey across the Atlantic. [USS Brooklyn had RADM Charles Dwight Sigsbee (USNA 1864) aboard as squadron commander, leading the operation.  He had been the captain of the ill-fated USS Maine when she was sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898, beginning the Spanish-American War.]

After receiving Jones’s remains, the American squadron departed Cherbourg on the evening of 8 July flying the American ensign at the fore and the French ensign at the main.  Arriving at Chesapeake Bay on the morning of 22 July, the squadron was joined by seven battleships that would accompany the cruisers on the final leg of the journey to Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Naval Academy.  As the Brooklyn passed, four of the battle wagons fired a 15-gun salute. 

On 24 April 1906, the anniversary of his victory over the sloop-of-war HMS Drake, John Paul Jones was ceremoniously honored by President Roosevelt and fellow countrymen, including Ambassador Porter, at the Naval Academy.  Atop his flag-draped coffin sat a wreath of laurel, a spray of palm, and the gold-hilted sword presented to him by Louis XVI after the capture of HMS Serapis.  He was temporarily interred in a special crypt constructed below the entrance to Bancroft Hall.  [Notice the shed-like structure in which Jones was temporarily interred.  Given the many changes in the layout of the Yard, it's difficult to say exactly where this location was.  The only descriptions place it "near the entrance to Bancroft Hall," the Midshipmen's dormitory, which was just being completed in its first phase in 1906.]

 Final interment in an elaborate crypt beneath the transept of the Naval Academy Chapel took place on 26 January 1913.  Modeled on the tomb of Napoleon, the marble sarcophagus is surrounded by eight black and white Pyrenees marble columns.  Etched in bronze on the floor are the names of Jones’ major commands and flagships: the Providence, Alfred, Ranger, Bon Homme Richard, Serapis, and Ariel.  All except the Vladimir, his flagship during the Russian campaign against the Ottomans, are inscribed for posterity to recall. 

    John Paul Jones was described by Empress Catherine as a rogue; by Rudyard Kipling as a pirate; and more graciously by Winston Churchill as a privateer.  And as if those descriptions were true, his remains lay unmarked and forgotten for more than a century.  His final resting place, however, befits his status as the spiritual “father of the U.S. Navy,” even if he died as a retired Russian admiral!

     It is embarrassing that it took a distinguished West Pointer (and several other former Army officers) to locate and identify John Paul Jones instead of our own Navy doing the job, and then paying for the operation out of his own pocket.  However, Jones probably doesn’t care---he’s simply glad to be home.

“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way.”---- John Paul Jones