The Revolutionary War’s Most Enigmatic Naval Captain: Pierre Landais


July 17, 2018
by Louis Arthur Norton Also by this Author


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One American Revolutionary War naval captain, Pierre Landais, appeared paranoid and somewhat deranged. Landais was a French merchantman lieutenant who trafficked arms to America for entrepreneur Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.[1] Beaumarchais created a fictitious trading enterprise called Hortalez et Cie that channeled French arms to the Americans via colonial West Indian entrepôrts.[2] Once there, the arms were sold to American agents. When Landais left the smuggling trade, he became an honorary citizen of Massachusetts and subsequently, on June 18, 1778, was given command of the American warship Alliance,named to honor America’s new alliance with France.[3] He and his ship were assigned to an American squadron under the hot-blooded John Paul Jones whose initial impression of Landais was that he was “a sensible and well-informed man.”[4]

John Adams, who had been a commissioner in France, spent a good deal of time in Landais’s company. Adams found him to be an enigma; frustrated in his ambitions, disappointed in love, unable to win the affection of his officers or hold their respect, and consumed by jealousy. An entry in Adam’s diary for May 12, 1779 noted that Landais “is jealous of every Thing. Jealous of every Body . . . he knows not how to treat his officers, nor his passengers, nor any Body else. . . . There is in this man an Inactivity and an Indecisiveness that will ruin him. He is bewildered . . . an embarrassed Mind.” Adams found Landais a mystified man, constantly talking about imaginary plots against him. Adams visited the Allianceand “had the pleasure to restore this ship to peace and harmony,” but predicted that when he left, “all [officers and crew] will become unhappy again.” He further predicted, “Landais will never accomplish any great thing. . . . This man . . . has a littleness in his mien and air. His face is small and sharp so that you form a mean opinion of him from the first sign.”[5]

On August 25, 1779 Landais had his first open disagreement with Jones. They were at sea, and the commodore was troubled because several of his squadron’s small boats were lost in the Irish coast’s dense fog. Landais, aggressive in his hunt for enemy vessels, wanted to chase a prize into these treacherous waters. Jones feared that he might also lose the badly needed Alliance and ordered Landais to stay with the fleet. The Frenchman argued that he had the right to follow his own “opinion in chasing when and where he thought proper and in every other matter.”[6]Jones tried to mollify Landais, expressing his concern about the hazards that faced Alliance in the area’s fog and turbulent seas. Landais then said that the loss of the small boats was the result of Jones’s incompetence. John Paul Jones, in fury, responded that Landais had slandered his superior officer. This enmity produced an affront to the honor of each according to the code of eighteenth century gentlemanly behavior. The piqued Landais then challenged Jones to a duel with swords. The choice of the sword as the dueling weapon would give Landais, raised in the French tradition of swordsmanship, a distinct advantage.[7] Jones was also outraged, but managed to subdue his anger to a higher virtue—the sense of duty when on a mission. Even though both men were hot headed, Jones suggested that they suspend the duel until they were on land.

Crews of most ships during the Revolutionary War period were very international. Neutral ports around the North Atlantic abounded and prizes captured at sea were frequently taken to the nearest port as a guerre de course. Once the ship had been disposed of, the prize crews that sailed them were occasionally left to fend for themselves. They were usually free to sign on to any available ship that might take them to a more desirable port. In this way, a burgeoning population of maritime nomads grew on the high seas with little sense of morality or allegiance. Jones’s flagship, the Bonhomme Richard, had such a multinational crew. They were difficult to control because of divided loyalties and so “a group of rogues guard [each] other.”[8]

On one mission the squadron was in search of British shipping in the Bay of Biscay. The Bonhomme Richard and the Alliance, blinded by a squall, emerged from the turbulent weather on a collision course. Hearing shouts from the Bonhomme Richard’s bow watch, Landais assumed that some of the Bonhomme Richard’s ex-British sailors had become mutinous. Rather than changing course, Landais descended into his cabin to arm himself. The bowsprit of the Bonhomme Richard tore into the Alliance’s rigging and damaged her mizzenmast. Jones happened to be off watch asleep in his cabin. The collision awoke him and he quickly relieved the officer of the deck and too charge. This incident was unintentional, but served to heighten the tension between the two captains.

On September 23, 1779, in the North Sea off Flamborough Head, England, the American squadron came across the 44-gun Serapis, her consort the Countess of Scarborough, and a convoy of forty-four small merchant vessels that were carrying naval stores. The poorly armed merchantmen hastily headed for the nearest British port. As evening approached, a bright full moon rose from the sea. Jones made a lantern signal to the Alliance to join the Bonhomme Richard in the upcoming battle so that they would have a numerical advantage, but Landais stayed his course, ignoring Jones’s order. The Serapisfired first, blasting the Bonhomme Richard with a broadside. The Serapis’s greater weight of shot wounded or killed many members of the Bonhomme Richard’s gun crews, thereby taking away much of its firepower. In addition, the Bonhomme Richard’s hull was breached in several places and her rudder badly damaged. The moon illuminated the battle scene as the Alliance finally sailed into the fray. The warship rounded the stern of the Bonhomme Richard and the bow of the Serapis and fired a broadside of grapeshot that struck both vessels. Most of the damage, however, was done to the Bonhomme Richard. The Alliance then changed course, returned to the two stricken ships and discharged another grapeshot broadside into the bow of the Bonhomme Richard wounding many Americans on deck or in the rigging. In desperation Jones ordered identity signal lanterns hoisted aloft to sway the Alliance from firing again. In spite of the highly visible lanterns, around ten o’clock the Alliance closed once again to engage the two ships that were locked in combat. Landais ordered yet another grapeshot broadside to be indiscriminately fired.

The commander of the Serapis was appalled at the slaughter onboard the American vessel and knew that the Bonhomme Richard was in danger of sinking. Yet in battle the line between bravado and desperation can be thin. With the two ships literally locked together in combat, sharp shooting marines fired from the Bonhomme Richard’s fighting tops, raking Serapis with gunfire and devastating the vulnerable British sailors on deck. Jones and his crew continued to fight tenaciously, even as their ship was sinking beneath them. Finally, the British Union Jack of the Serapis struck and the ship capitulated. The next morning the American ensign could be seen flying from both the Bonhomme Richard and the vanquished Serapis. As the rest of the American squadronrejoined Jones, they likely heard a few choice comments about what had transpired during the battle. From the bloodstained deck of the Serapis, the survivors of both the American and British vessels watched the sea finally engulf the Bonhomme Richard. “After the battle Landais confided to one of the French colonels that his intention was to help Serapis sink the Richard, to capture and board the British frigate and emerge victor of the battle. Later he had the impudence to claim that his broadsides forced [the Serapis] to strike.”[9]

John Paul Jones, left, and Pierre Landis, right. (Library of Congress/Find A Grave)

Jones stated in his memoir, “Captain Landais, a man of the most unhappy temper, not only behaved with disrespect to the commander, but soon assumed to act as he pleased, and as an independent commander, refusing to obey the signals of the Commodore, giving chase where or how he thought fit, and availing himself of any pretext to leave the squadron which he finally did.”[10]

Once ashore in the Netherlands Jones accused Landais of incompetence for his haphazard firing of grapeshot that ravaged the crews of both contesting vessels. Landais was unapologetic and unremorseful for his actions. Later, at a chance meeting with Jones in an Amsterdam tavern, Landais reminded the commodore that they had agreed to a duel once they were onshore. Jones again avoided the challenge by saying their differences would be appropriately settled in a court-martial in the United States. Meanwhile Jones had Landais relieved of command of the Alliance, assuming command of his antagonist’s ship. The loss of command further infuriated Landais. Jones felt that the morale on the Alliancewas in disarray. The crew was disorderly and officers were continually drinking grog. This led to subordination and neglect of the vessel.

Impressed by Jones’s exploits over the British, King Louis XVI of France conferred the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Militaire on Jones, an honor also coveted by Landais. Meanwhile Landais became obsessed with forcing a duel with Jones, pursuing him on the streets of L’Orient, his sword readily at hand. This proved to be more of an annoyance than a provocative.

In another effort to aggravate Jones, Landais endeavored to reassemble his former officers and crew of the Alliance to regain his lost command and sail back to America. The men of the Alliance were split between those who were loyal to Landias and others loyal to Jones. Benjamin Franklin, United States Minister to France, intervened between the contending factions by jesting, “Capt. Jones loved close fighting, Capt. Landais was skillful at keeping out of harm’s way, and that therefore you thought yourselves safer with the latter.”[11] Franklin, however warned Jones that Landais would be very troublesome as long as they were in the same place. Jones responded, “The general conduct of Landais was that of a malignant madman, as much incited by the prevailing influence of frenzy as actuated by deliberate villainy.”[12]

Not long after this Franklin suspended Landais’s commission as a consequence of Captain Jones’s complaint about Frenchman’s cowardice and bad conduct. Landais was ordered to Paris, but before he set out he sent a written challenge to a duel to Captain Cottineau, commander of one of Jones’s American Squadron ships the Pallais. Cottineau accepted the encounter and they went on shore with their seconds for a swordfight. Landis was the victor, leaving Cottineau seriously wounded.

Although Jones was justified in his complaint to Franklin, the political climate made it unwise to take disciplinary action in France against a French officer, even though he held an American commission. The Frenchman was not cashiered from naval service and he had the brashness to insist that Jones return the command of the Alliance to him even though Franklin had given the ship to Jones. Some political intrigues and feuds among the American commissioners in France—Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane—helped Landais get away with this misadventure.

Despite ample evidence of Landais’s instability, incompetence, and possible perfidy, Lee, who had a long-standing dispute with Deane and Franklin, supported the Frenchman’s claim to the command of the Alliance. Lee informed Jones that Franklin had no authority to relieve Landais of the command of a frigate assigned to him by Congress.

With Lee’s reassurance and his intense envy of Paul Jones, Landais plotted to get his warship back. On June 13, when he learned that Jones had gone ashore, he boarded the ship in L’Orient Harbor. He mustered the officers who had previously served under him on the quarterdeck while all Jones’s officers were below at dinner. After rallying them, Landais was greeted with loud huzzas. Jones’s former officers were summoned on deck where Landais read them the commission issued to him by Congress. He then ordered ashore officers of the late Bonhomme Richard who did not acknowledge his authority. Landais did not, however, allow any of the crew to leave. Some of Jones’s former men seemed happy about the upheaval. They were dissatisfied with Jones because he delayed in distributing prize money from recent ship captures and was also a notorious martinet. Those who were displeased with Landais’s usurpation of command were put in irons and thrown in the hold with the rats and ballast.

Jones became furious when he learned he had been outfoxed. Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, a former Jones officer wrote, “his passion knew no bounds; and in the first paroxysm of his rage he acted more like a madman than a conqueror.”[13] Once he regained his composure, Jones behaved with circumspection. Instead of confronting Landais he chose to travel to Paris to obtain official authorization to regain command of the Alliance from both the American and French governments. Franklin provided him a written directive explicitly ordering Landais to immediately vacate the ship and the French Minister of Marine, M. de Sartine, issued a Royal Warrant for Landais’s arrest.

Landais did not remain idle. When Jones returned from Paris on June 20, he found that the Alliance had been moved from L’Orient to nearby Port Louis. Jones called upon the captain of the port with his two orders to prevent Alliance’s escape. A chained log-boom was promptly moved across mouth of the harbor blocking Landais’s exit. In addition, a gunboat armed with three 24-pounders was ordered to stand by to prevent his escape. The commander of the harbor’s citadel that comprised two forts was also to fire on the frigate if Landais attempted to pass. To physically retake the Alliance, Jones was provided with a small flotilla of three row galleys, about one hundred soldiers from the garrison, and some one hundred marines.

Curiously the usually aggressive Jones refrained from joining the expedition. When Landais was called upon to yield the frigate, he replied: “If you come within reach of my cannons I will sink you.”[14] Apparently intimidated, the task force withdrew and returned to port. Accusing the officers of the port of acting more like women than men, surprisingly, John Paul Jones acquiesced, reversing the order to fire upon the Alliance and having the boom removed. He later justified his change of heart by saying he did not want to be responsible for bloodshed between allied subjects of France and America.

Not all officers aboard theAlliance enthusiastically supported Landais’s seizure of power. Leading the defiance was Capt. Matthew Parke, commander of the ship’s marines, who agreed to defend the ship but objected to the way command of the ship had occurred. Landais regarded this as defiance of his authority and ordered the purser, Nathaniel Blodget, to keep a watch on Captain Parke and if he displayed disloyalty to the captain, he was to run his sword through him. Blodget considered this order bewildering and told Landais he would not obey it. Still feeling threatened while in Port Louis, on June 21 Landais had Parke confined in his quarters with the intention of releasing him once the ship was at sea.On July 8 the boom was removed allowing Alliance to slip out to sea, but disorder soon appeared.

Landais grew restless and slept very little while at sea. He was distrustful of his own officers, and gave them a good deal of anguish by continuously creating unnecessary difficulties and stirring up imaginary ones. Nobody aboard ship was exempt from his mercurial moods including the five passengers, most prominent of whom was Landais’s staunch supporter Arthur Lee. The returning American envoy had taken along a private cargo of goods for his personal profit, but at government expense. One day at dinner Lee complained about Landais’s ungentlemanly conduct at the dinner table. He responded that in essence that he was captain of the ship and would do as he pleased.That response confounded Lee. He said that he never disputed Landais as captain of the ship, but he was not used to being so mistreated. Landais however resorted to threats once again. He said that when they reached shore Lee should have his pistols loaded, implying that Lee should be prepared to have a duel with the Frenchman.

Landais’s eccentricities kept the ship in a constant turmoil. As an example, before Alliance sailed from Boston for France on their initial voyage, the officers had insured a supply of fresh meat for the long journey by using their own funds to purchase swine as their own property. Once at sea Landais bizarrely demanded that one half of the pigs belonged to him because he owned the boar that fathered them. His officers were then ordered to abstain from killing any of them without his permission.

On the trip back to America Landais became increasing more abusive and tactlessly reprimanded his officers before the crew. On the night of July 13, Landais appeared on the quarterdeck and gave the ship’s first officer, Lt. J. A. Degge, a public scolding for not keeping the ship with the wind astern. Before that Degge had been a loyal Landais supporter, but now visibly upset by the abuse, the lieutenant ordered the men to cut off all the weather braces. Landais disliked the tone of his voice and ordered Degge to go below, but the lieutenant refused, responding that he would had rather be in hell than sail with a man he could not please.This produced what must have been a bizarre scene of Landais chasing Degge around the deck. The Frenchman instructed Captain Parke of the marines to arrest the lieutenant, but Degge armed himself, went into the wardroom and stayed below.

It was not long before the passengers, officers and crew grew dismayed with the captain and a series of calamities developed. The first occurred on the morning of August 5 when many of the ship’s company came to the quarterdeck and asked why had he had ordered sail taken up since the wind was fair that morning. Shortening sail did not seem the best way to get to the Grand Banks. Was he not proceeding to America? Landais was shocked by the insubordinate attitude of the crew and asked the men whether or not they intended to obey him. They responded that they would as long as he immediately proceeded to America. The Captain stubbornly gave no such order, so the men went forward and began to hoist as much sail as they could. Enraged at their rebelliousness, Landais shouted to his third lieutenant to lower the foretopsail that had been hoisted. The officer tried to obey the order, but the crew prevented him from doing so.

Then Landais ordered his marines put under arms at once to enforce his orders. Captain Parke, a consistent anti-Landais stalwart, called the roll of marines, but not a single man came aft. This meant that a state of mutiny now existed with the crew in control of the ship. The officers and passengers grew exceedingly apprehensive and Landais became indecisive. An officer asked the captain what to do when so many were against him. Landais did not know the answer so he went below, thus allowing the crew to make sail and take charge of the ship.

The next day, at 10 A.M., the Alliance sounded bottom at thirty-five fathoms. That meant they were on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. The crew had been provided with fishing tackle so they could supplement the ship’s rations with fresh fish and the men threw their lines overboard to catch as many as they could. Landais ascended onto the quarterdeck and ostensibly out of shear contrariness ordered all the fish that had been caught thrown back into the sea and to make sail once again. That evening Samuel Guild, the ship’s surgeon, protested, pointing out that the stores for the sick were nearly exhausted and that a number of them needed nourishing food. Landais argued in turn that if the men stopped to fish the trip would be delayed and thus they would consume more of the precious stores. Guild pointed out that since they were off the Grand Banks, the crew needed just two hours to catch a supply sufficient for the remainder of the voyage. Landais curtly replied that he would stop for nothing. Landais returned to his cabin, feigning sickness; he threw himself on his bunk and pretended to sleep.

The officers of the Alliance now encountered increasing difficulty getting the crew to perform their duty. They requested Landais to head for the nearest American port, but he refused, insisting that his orders were to go to Philadelphia. With increased muttering several crewmen proposed to the officers that they change the ship’s course to Boston. When the officers refused, a large part of the ship’s company assembled on deck and declared that if they encountered an enemy ship, they would not fire a single broadside against the challenger if the Alliance would not sail to Boston, warning that they would spike the ship’s guns should a hostile ship come alongside. During this mutinous altercation Landais did not come on deck.

At about dawn the next morning the officers composed a carefully written report on the dangerous condition of the ship. They presented it to Landais in his cabin, but he refused to have the paper read. He only cried out that he had orders to go to Philadelphia and that is where he intended to go. The officers progressively looked upon the captain as having relinquished his command. Since he refused to assist them, they thought that it was time to think about choosing somebody else to take command. The officers then wrote out and signed a statement that attested to the alarming situation aboard the frigate. The discontent of the people had become most serious. Landais declined to receive any communication from his officers and shouted at any delegation that entreated him.

The officers now held a meeting and stated that they would rather be hanged for bringing the ship into any safe port than be taken by an inferior foe’s force and conveyed to the enemy’s port. The passengers then gave their opinion that a competent officer should be designated as commander to conduct the ship to the United States.

Acting with considerable caution and recording every move they made, the officers chose Lieutenant Degge to take over the command. Degge was the only officer commissioned by Congress on board except for Landais. With understandable reluctance the lieutenant accepted, but only after the other officers on board gave him their orders in writing.Captain Landais never left his cabin after that time, only to reappear when the ship came in sight of land.

When the Alliance reached Boston, the Navy Board for the Eastern District directed Captain Parke to deliver a letter ordering Landais to leave the ship and to turn over his cabin and furniture to Capt. John Barry, the ship’s new commander. When Parke attempted to carry out the order, Landais threatened to shoot the marine officer. Finally, a sergeant and two men broke into the cabin and hauled the captain off the ship.

Once ashore, Landais filed formal charges of mutiny against the officers and passengers who supported their mutinous behavior. The Marine Committee of Congress instructed the Navy Board in Boston to hold a court of inquiry into Landais’s conduct from reassuming command of the Alliance at L’Orient until his arrival in Boston. The commissioners also directed the board to identify the mutiny’s ringleaders for a probable court-martial.

The verdict of the court was a foregone conclusion. Parke was acquitted, but Landais was judged guilty of four charges. His sentence was to have his commission revoked and be declared unqualified for service in the American navy.

Postscript: After the American Revolution Landais returned to Revolutionary France and was given command of a warship in 1792. Mutinies broke out among the crews of his assigned fleet forcing Landais to put into Brest. His commission was revoked on October 26, 1793. In November 1797 he returned to New York topress his claims for prizes captured by the Alliance in 1779. In 1806 Congress paid him four thousand dollars, but his bid for further remuneration failed in the Senate in 1815. He spent his remaining years impoverished in New York City.


[1]Michael Crawford, ed. Naval Documents of the American Revolution,(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996), 10: 961-2. Note: The name Landais is spelled variously as Lundy, Landai and Landi in documents of this period.

[2]Beaumarchais was a French Renaissance man who, during his extraordinary life, was a satirist, playwright, musician, publisher, watchmaker, inventor, diplomat, spy, arms dealer, financier, revolutionary and botanist/horticulturist.

[3]Landais’s French 20-gun ship was the Heureuxwhose name was later changed to the Flamand.

[4]John Paul Jones to Benjamin Franklin, May 14, 1779, Benjamin Franklin Papers, American Philosophical Society: Philadelphia, PA., XIV, 110.

[5]Lyman Hyman Butterfield, Leonard C. FaberWendell D. Garrett, eds.

Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 2:368.

[6]Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones,Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy(New York Simon and Schuster, 2003), 170.

[7]According to the formal dueling code the challenged person, if he accepts, has the choice of weapons. Since Jones essentially refused the challenge by putting it off, the sword issue may only have been Landais’s way of continuing his threat to Jones.

[8]Gerard W. Gawalt, John R. Sellers, eds., John Paul Jones’ Memoir of the American Revolution Presented to King Louis XVI of France (Washington, DC: American Revolutionary Bicentennial Office, Library of Congress, 1979),29.

[9]Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones:A Sailor’s Biography(Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959), 235.

[10]John Paul Jones, Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Paul Jones(London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1830), 1: 163.

[11]Franklin to the Officers of the Alliance,June 12, 1780, in William B. Wilcox and Barbara B. Oberg, eds. Benjamin Franklin Papers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 32: 508.

[12]Jones. Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Paul Jones,1: 192.

[13]Nathaniel Fanning, Fanning’s Narrative: The Memoirs of Nathanial Fanning 1778-1778(Bedford, MA: Applewood Books; originally published 1913), 76.

[14]Ibid., 77.


  • Louis, I enjoyed your well written and researched article. For accuracy sake, however, I would like to note that Beaumarchais was not an “entrepreneur” but an agent of the French Government heading a cover company specifically established to funnel covertly military aid to the Continental Army.

    This fact is often overlooked as are many aspects of intelligence activities related to the war.

    1. Yes and no. Beaumarchais was an independent commercial contractor (to use modern terms) working on behalf of the French and Spanish crowns who provided him start-up funds for his covert company, but he was NOT an agent of the French government.

  • Louis,
    Thank you for this article; I couldn’t put it down. I was astounded by all the outrageous things that Landais got away with, even as it made me want to gnash my teeth…! I’m guessing it illustrates pretty well how desperate the Continental Navy were for commanders, since had he been a British Navy captain they likely would have shot him on his own quarterdeck.

  • Larrie, I do not know how you care to define various terms, but from an intelligence perspective Beaumarchais functioned as an agent of the French Government. And, your term “independent commercial contractor” in the intelligence world would not describe the role he played.

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