Authors: Scott Martelle
The Admiral and the Ambassador
“That night, Porter delivered a previously scheduled speech to the American Club in Paris and talked about his quest to find Jones's body. The tenor of the speech made it sound more political than historical, and it is hard to imagine that he was not counting on the foreign correspondents in attendance to wire his words to their newspapers back home. He detailed for the expatriate business leaders his efforts scouring records to find the cemetery in which Jones was likely buried, the more recent negotiations to obtain the right to dig for the body, and the need for Congress to approve the president's request to pay for the exhumationâ¦.
“âWhile other nations are gathering the ashes of their heroes in their Pantheons, their Valhallas, and their Westminster Abbeys, all that is mortal of this marvelous organizer of American victories upon the sea lies like an outcast in a squalid quarter of a distant city, in a neglected grave, where it was placed by the hand of charity to keep it from the potter's field,' Porter told his fellow Americans. âWhat once was consecrated ground is desecrated by vegetable gardens, a deposit for night soil, and even the burial of dogs. It is fitting that an effort be made to give him an appropriate sepulcher at last in the land of liberty which his efforts helped make free.'”
Copyright Â© 2014 by Scott Martelle
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Martelle, Scott, 1958â
The admiral and the ambassador : one man's obsessive search for the body of John Paul Jones / Scott Martelle.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Jones, John Paul, 1747â1792âDeath and burial. 2. Jones, John Paul, 1747â1792âTomb. 3. Porter, Horace, 1837â1921. I. Title.
Interior design: PerfecType, Nashville, TN
Printed in the United States of America
5 4 3 2 1
For Margaret, of course
in late January 1913, the US secretary of the navy, George von Lengerke Meyer, and Horace Porter, the former US ambassador to France, led a small group of political dignitaries on a thirty-mile train trip from Washington, DC, to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It was an unusually warm, spring-like day, and bright sunshine drenched the countryside as the train glided eastward, arriving a little before 11 A
A small welcoming committee awaited them at the platform. After the dignitaries alit and introductions had been made, academy superintendent Captain John H. Gibbons escorted the group the few blocks to the college grounds for a brief ceremony that would be part funeral and part final chapter of a long and shifting story.
As the dignitaries arrived, the academy's seven hundred uniformed midshipmen were already in place on an expanse of treed parkland between the domed, five-year-old chapel and a ship basin that had been carved into the bank of the Severn River at the northeast edge of the grounds. The grandiose, five-story Bancroft Hall, the cadets' palatial new dormitory, anchored the southeast corner of the park, and once the dignitaries had entered the chapel, a small detachment of midshipmen marched to an open stone courtyard at the foot of the broad staircase leading up to Bancroft Hall's main entrance.
A half dozen of the young men then split off and entered the hall, making their way beneath the grand staircase where they surrounded and carefully lifted a flag-draped coffin from a temporary bier of two sawhorses. The young pallbearers carried the body outside to a small caisson, then fell in behind the navy band and a double line of midshipmen for the short and somber parade to the chapel. While the dignitaries listened to a short service on the main floor, the pallbearers took the coffin down a short flight of stairs to a large room in the middle of the basement where they hoisted it into a massive twenty-one-ton marble-and-bronze sarcophagus supported by bronze dolphins. Workmen then winched the heavy lid into place and sealed the sarcophagus shut.
The ceremony in the church was shortâjust a few comments about the significance of the moment and some accolades for the man whose body was freshly placed in the basement crypt, closed out by a prayer. At its end, the celebrants descended the stairs to the basement, where they became the first tourists to visit the final resting place of Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones. The moment was decidedly anticlimactic, but that shouldn't have been surprising for what was, in effect, Jones's fourth funeral.
Jones's arrival at his ornate crypt came more than 120 years after his death in Paris in 1792. France at that time was in the throes of its own revolution, and Jones's deathâof natural causesâwas quickly noted and even more quickly forgotten, an ignominious end for the man many people consider to be the father of the US Navy. Were it not for Horace Porter, one of the men on the Annapolis outing on that January day, Jones's body would likely still be buried deep beneath modern Paris instead of tucked into the basement of the Annapolis Chapel. How Porter found the hero's remainsâwhich involved something of a historical detective storyâis the subject of this book.
Jones was most famous for words he never uttered. According to legend, “I have not yet begun to fight” was his response to a demand that he “strike his colors”âsurrenderâby a British navy captain with whom his barely floating
was engaged in a deadly sea battle. What Jones actually said was closer to “I have not yet thought of it, but I am determined to make you strike!” Not quite as resonant or poetic, though equally emblematic of Jones's preternatural stubbornness and drive.
Over generations, such embellishments to Jones's life have helped create a legend that exceeds the scope of the man, which is fine; that is the nature of heroes and hero worship. The real Jones, though, was a fascinating figure without the embellishments. At times petulant and easily offended, at other times a masterful and intuitive naval strategist, Jones cut a wide swath through Revolutionary America and the salons of Europe. He liked womenâespecially, it seems, those already married. He liked receiving accolades. And he hungered for fame and acceptance from the rich and the powerful, an understandable character trait for the ambitious, lowborn son of a Scottish gardener.
In the course of his short life, Jones achieved much. He became a successful sea captain and expert navigator, a self-taught and prolific letter writer, a murderer, and a war hero. He was received at the courts of royalty in Paris and Saint Petersburg, was fluent in French, and counted among his friends and acquaintances a roster of America's founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.
He was the first American naval commander to receive a salute from a foreign powerâFranceâwhile flying the new American flag, the Stars and Stripes, and showed through his cleverness, bravery, and will, that the eighteenth century British navy was not as formidable as it might have seemed. While Jones never acquired the kinds of riches he sought, he did amass a fortune large enough to make most men comfortable in that time.
Jones's story has been well chronicled in many splendid (and some not-so-splendid) biographies, led in 1959 by Samuel Eliot Morison's Pulitzer Prizeâwinning
John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography,
and followed more recently by Evan Thomas's well-turned
John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy
in 2003. Jones biographies invariably end with a full or partial chapter on how Jones's body went missing after his death, tacked on like an appendix, as though the author is saying, well, I've told you a story about this fascinating man and I guess I should tell you that here at the end of his life another little drama took place.
It's that last story that fascinates me most. There is something poignant about Jones's earthly afterlife. It speaks to our national impulse to elevate heroesâparticularly military onesâbut also our collective short memory and disregard for history. The genesis of this book was my chance encounter
with an article, “Home Is the Sailor,” by historian Adam Goodheart, in the April 2006 issue of
magazine. The piece explored lingering uncertainty about whether the body in that Naval Academy crypt is indeed that of Jones. I believe it is and that the questions are more of the “what if” variety than serious doubts.
But the article introduced me to the man responsible for finding the body, Horace Porter, who achieved significant fame during his life but who has since faded into the shadows of history. Curiosity piqued, I began poking around to learn more about Porter and the obsession that led this confidante of presidentsâhimself a decorated Civil War hero who attained the rank of brigadier generalâto spend several years and a small fortune trying to find the body of a man long dead.
As I worked, it became clear that the lives of Porter and Jones, taken together, were inextricably linked to some of the most significant events in the first half of the nation's history. Through them, we can see on a human scale the evolution of a nation from its birth in revolt against the British through the patriotic fervor and burgeoning militarism and imperialism that would make the twentieth century the American Century.
So this book begs a bit of indulgence. It proceeds largely chronologically and focuses primarily on Porter, but it also detours a bit into wars and assassinations, international exhibitions, and the frailties of human endeavors and egos. While this is not a biography of Jones or Porter, understanding who these men were and the times in which they lived is crucial to understanding why their deeds mattered. In some ways, it is a story of obsession, of small acts committed in times of great upheaval, and of lives dedicated both to personal success and to the well-being of the nation.