a terrific explosion

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About this time, between half after nine and ten o’clock, a huge black shadow came darting between the moonlight and the two frigates grinding against each other. It was the Alliance once more entering the fray. After running away from the Richard toward the Scarborough and the Pallas, she hovered about until she found that the former had capitulated after a gallant defense against the overwhelming superiority of the French ship. Then Landais headed once more for the Richard and the Serapis. To reach them, he was forced to make two tacks. As he approached, a burning anxiety filled the minds of Jones and the officers who were left on deck with him, as to what Landais would do. They were soon enlightened.

Sailing across the bow of the Serapis, the Alliance drew past the stern of the Richard, and when she had reached a position slightly on the quarter of the latter ship, she poured in a broadside. There could be no misapprehension on the part of Landais as to which ship he was firing into. The Richard was a black ship with a high poop, and the Serapis was painted a creamy white with much lower stern. The moon was filling the sky with brilliant light. Things were as plain as if it were daytime. In addition to all this, Jones had caused the private night signals to be hung upon the port side of the Richard. Shouts and cries warned the Alliance that she was firing upon her own people. These were disregarded. It was the opinion of the Americans that the English had taken the ship and were endeavoring to compass the destruction of the Richard. They could not otherwise explain the astonishing action. Sailing slowly along the starboard side of the Richard, the Alliance poured in another broadside. Then she circled the bows of the American ship, and from some distance away raked her with a discharge of grape which killed and wounded many, including Midshipman Caswell, in charge of the forecastle. It was just before ten o’clock when this happened. Some of the shot from these several broadsides may have reached the Serapis and possibly have done some damage, but the brunt of the severe attack fell upon the Richard. Her men, in the face of this awful stab in the back from a friend, naturally flinched from their guns and ran from their stations.

All seemed hopeless; but Jones was still left, and while he was alive he would fight. He and his officers drove the men back to their guns, and as the Alliance sailed away, for the time being, they forgot her. The fight went on!

It is greatly to the credit of the men that under such circumstances they could be induced to continue the contest. But the men had actually grown reckless of consequences: filled with the lust of battle, the brute in them was uppermost. They fought where they stood, with what they had. When the American guns were silenced, the seamen struck at their British foes over their silent muzzles with ramrods and sponges. Some endeavored to subdue the flames which broke out on every side. Others joined the English prisoners at the pumps. Many ran to the upper deck to replace the decimated crews of the 9-pounders. Some seized the muskets of the dead French soldiers and poured in a small-arm fire. They had grown careless of the fire, indifferent to the progress of the battle, ignorant of the results of the action. There was but one spirit among them, one idea possessed them–to fight and to fight on. Both crews had done their best; both had fought as men rarely had fought before; the battle was still undecided. The issue lay between Jones and Pearson. What was it to be?

Things on the Richard were hopeless, but things on the Serapis had not gone much better. She, too, was on fire–in no less than twelve places at once. The fearful musketry fire from the quarter-deck and forecastle of the Richard, and from the tops, had practically cleared her decks of all but Pearson. By Jones’ orders the men in the American tops had made a free use of their hand grenades. A daring sailor, sent by Midshipman Fanning from the maintop, ran out upon the main yardarm, which hung over the after hatch of the Serapis, and began to throw grenades down the hatchway. On the lower deck of that ship a large pile of powder cartridges had been allowed to accumulate, for which, on account of the silencing of a large number of guns, there had been no demand. With reckless improvidence, in their haste, the powder boys continued to pile up these unused charges on the deck of the ship between the batteries. Nobody cautioned them, perhaps nobody noticed them in the heat of the action. At last a hand grenade struck the hatch combing, bounded aft, and fell into the midst of the pile of cartridges. There was a detonating crash, , which absolutely silenced the roar of the battle for a moment. The two ships rolled and rocked from the shock of it. When the smoke cleared away, the decks were filled with dead and dying. Some twenty-eight men were killed or desperately wounded by the discharge; many others on the decks were stunned, blinded, and thrown in every direction by the concussion. Clothes were ripped from them, and many of them were severely burned. Lieutenant Stanhope, in charge of that gun division, his clothing on fire, actually leaped into the sea to get relief from his agony. Afterward, though frightfully burned, he regained his station and fought on.

It was this last shock that determined Pearson to surrender. He had beaten his antagonist a half dozen times, but his antagonist did not seem to realize it. In the face of such implacable determination his own nerve gave way. He was surrounded by dead and dying, no human soul apparently fit for duty on his decks but himself, the roar of his own guns silenced by this terrific explosion. He had fought through many desperate battles–never one like this. The other American frigate might come back. His consort had been captured. His nerve was broken. He turned and walked aft to the flagstaff raking from the taffrail. To this staff, with his own hand before the action, he had nailed the English flag.[17] With the same hand he seized the drooping folds of bunting, and with a breaking heart tore it from the staff.
“They have struck their flag!” cried Jones, who had witnessed the action. “Cease firing!” His powerful voice rang through the two ships with such a note of triumph as has rarely been heard in the fought-over confines of the narrow seas.