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Late afternoon on Thursday, September 23, 1779, found Jones in the waters off Flamborough Head, leading a squadron of four ships—Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, Alliance, and Vengeance—and lying in wait for a large merchant fleet that had sailed from nearby Scarborough. He’d had a busy month, capturing 16 vessels already, and the Royal Navy, suspecting he was in the area (and regarding him as no better than a pirate, albeit a formidable one), assigned two warships to protect the merchant fleet—the 44-gun Serapis and the 22-gun Countess of Scarborough—under the command of Captain Richard Pearson.

The ships sighted each other at about five o’clock, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon. Jones attempted to pass himself off as just another English merchantman looking to join the fleet, but Pearson, aboard the Serapis, was highly suspicious of the newcomers and interposed his ship, along with the Countess of Scarborough, between Jones and his would-be prey.

For the next several hours, as the sun set and darkness fell around them, the two commanders maneuvered beneath the cliffs in a deadly game of cat and mouse, each seeking an advantage. Up on the headlands, meanwhile, a crowd gathered, eager to watch the Royal Navy hand out a first-rate thrashing to the upstart American rebels who’d been badgering British shipping and pillaging the coast.

Finally, at about seven o’clock, in the light of the full moon, the battle was joined. Things began poorly for Jones, to put it mildly. Not only was he at the receiving end of two devastating broadsides from the heavily armed Serapis—massive body blows that killed or maimed scores of his men—but two of his own cannons burst in the opening salvo, adding to the carnage. Worse, one of his own ships, the ironically named Alliance, sailed by and gave him a broadside, holding the Bonhomme Richard below the waterline and blasting away its rudder. When Jones desperately signaled it to cease fire, the Alliance let loose again, and again, and again. (Later, when Jones emerged victorious, the captain claimed it was an accident, an early example of "friendly fire.")

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