The Sad Story of Pierre Landais, Part Un

The rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies drew the Marquis de Lafayette from France, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben from Prussia and Casimir Pulaski from Poland and many others who wanted to help our Founding Fathers. The war also attracted its share of men of dubious character such as Pierre Landais.

Early in the American Revolution, Landais was an officer on French merchantmen chartered by the shell company Hortelez et Cie (See blog post of April 26th, 2020) that was smuggling munitions for the Continental Congress. After the French joined the war on our side in March 1778, Landais was made an honorary citizen of Massachusetts and given command of the new 36 gun frigate Alliance.

Future president John Adams who was, at the time, the chairman of the Continental Congress’ Marine Committee was not in favor of the commission. He wrote in his diary on May 12th, 1779 that Landais “is jealous of every thing. Jealous of every body. He knows not how to treat his officers, nor his passengers nor anybody else.”

Alliance was assigned to John Paul Jones’ squadron that was a mix of Continental and French Navy Ships. To those who witnessed their relationship saw there was no love lost between them. Landais thought he should have been given command of the squadron and from the beginning, openly disobeyed orders from Jones. Several times, Landais challenged Jones to a duel but the Scotsman refused.

On September 23rd, 1779, Jones’ five ship squadron met the fourth-rate ship of the line, Serapis along with and the lightly armed Countess of Scarborough that were escorting a convoy of 41 ships. Serapis carried 50 guns (twenty 18-pounders, twenty-two 9-pounders and eight 6-pounders) and was bigger and more heavily armed than any of Jones’ ships.

Jones’ five ships should have been able to overwhelm Serapis. Alliance with eighteen, long 18-pounders and twelve 9-pounders was the best and most modern ship in Jones’ squadron. The ship had been built from the keel up as a frigate designed to take on Royal Navy ships of the same size.

Jones’ flagship, Bonnehomme Richard, was a converted merchant ship armed like a frigate with six 18-pounders, twenty-eight 12-pounders and eight 9-pounders, but didn’t have a warship’s stout hull. Pallas was a small French Navy frigate with twenty-six 9-pounders. Vengeance, a converted merchant ship was equipped twelve 6-pounders and the small cutter Cerf had 4-pounders would play no role in the battle.

Jones signaled his intentions to the squadron on how he wanted to engage Serapis from both sides. Landais ignored Jones’ orders and sailed off on his own taking Pallas, Vengeance and Cerf with Alliance. Pallas broke off from Alliance and fired ineffectually at Serapis from long range. Bonnehomme Richard was a battered, sinking hulk, but still fighting when Landais crossed the stern of Serapis and Bonnehomme Richard. Landais ordered his men to fire at both, but primarily at Jones’ ship. He raked both Serapis and Bonnehomme Richard not once, but twice, killing many Continental Navy sailors.

After the battle Landais confided to a French officer that his intention was to help Serapis sink the Bonnehomme Richard so he could capture Serapis as a prize. He claimed that his broadsides were the ones that cause Serapis to strike.

Jones in the captured Serapis led his squadron to Amsterdam where relieved Landais. What happened next could be the plot of a novel because it is a mix of politics, treachery, animosity and determination and is the subject of next week’s post.

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