The first time 21 April 1791 a US ship entered into battle flying the stars and stripes (the US new flag) was in the Belfast Lough. Some local boatmen were on board the US Ranger.
On the 21st he got sight of her, and that night attempted to board her by surprise; anchoring so that the Ranger would swing alongside. This man?uvre failed, because the anchor was not dropped in time. The ship was disguised as a merchantman, and the cable, being instantly cut, seemed to those on board the Drake to have parted. The Ranger, therefore, beat out to sea undetected, but not unsuspected. The British captain, considering her movements doubtful, unmoored his ship next day, and in so doing, lifted along with his own anchor that of the Ranger, together with a length of cable, showing the marks of cutting. On the 24th the strange sail again appeared, and the Drake weighed; but it falling calm, and the wind afterward coming easterly – ahead — she was long in getting clear of the bay. While turning slowly out of the harbour, a lieutenant on shore service came on board, to volunteer in room of the first lieutenant of the ship, who had died two days before. He brought with him a letter from Whitehaven, giving an account of Jones’s attempt there, and of the force of the American vessel, of whose identity with the one in sight little doubt could remain.
Jones’s purpose had been to go in and attack, for which the wind was fair, but he was prevented by a singular incident, which illustrates a class of difficulty he continually encountered. The first lieutenant, who had long been insubordinate, persuaded the crew “that, being Americans, fighting for liberty, the voice of the people should be taken before the captain’s orders were obeyed, and they rose in mutiny. Captain Jones was in the utmost danger of being killed or thrown overboard. Fortunately, the Drake was just then seen to be in movement, and at the same time sending a boat. Jones stood out to sea, moving slowly, that he might be overtaken, but keeping the ship’s stern toward the boat, that the Ranger’s character might not be evident. It thus came alongside and was captured.
Toward sunset the two vessels were within range. A sharp action ensued, lasting, by Jones’s report, one hour and four minutes, when the Drake surrendered. She carried twenty guns; but the principal witness before the court-martial upon the survivors, held eighteen months later, stated that these were 4-pounders, which would make her battery decisively inferior to that of her opponent; and he added that the shot failed to penetrate the enemy’s sides. Her crew numbered 154 to the Ranger’s 123. The general drift of the evidence, by the officer who surrendered the ship, would show that the British vessel was not kept up to the fighting mark. What explanations her captain would have given, had he lived, cannot be surmised. He was killed by a musket-ball in the head, fifteen minutes before the ship struck, and the lieutenant also fell. Though “nominally of equal force,” says an excellent English authority, Professor Laughton, “in reality the Drake was no match for the Ranger; and at this time the crew was mainly composed of newly raised men, without any officers except her captain, and the registering lieutenant of the district, who came on board at the last moment as a volunteer. She had no gunner, no cartridges filled, and no preparation for handling the powder.” Her disadvantages were thus similar to those of our own twice unlucky ship, the Chesapeake, when she was brought-to by the Leopard, and when captured by the Shannon. It is only just, however, to take into account that, though the Ranger was the longer in commission, Jones had to meet exceptional difficulties in maintaining her efficiency, which in fact rested, under most depressing circumstances, wholly upon his own personal ascendancy.
More to follow later.