Sailing Under John Paul Jones: The Memoir of Continental Navy Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning


June 8, 2020
by George Kotlik Also by this Author


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Sailing Under John Paul Jones: The Memoir of Continental Navy Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, 1778-1783, edited by Louis Arthur Norton. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019)

Contrary to popular narratives, the American Revolution was not restricted to fighting in the Americas. The war was fought on many fronts including India and Europe. Nathaniel Fanning reminds us of this in his memoir which focuses on the European front. Edited by Louis Arthur Norton, professor emeritus from the University of Connecticut, Sailing Under John Paul Jones provides students of early American history with a glimpse into the life of an eighteenth century North American mariner and his adventures in Europe during the American Revolutionary War. The significance of Sailing Under John Paul Jones lies in Norton’s ability to provide scholars with a readable version of Nathaniel Fanning’s memoir. Thanks to Norton’s editorial work, the book is a helpful reference for scholars who would otherwise need to rely on the primary source itself which can be confusing to follow.

The memoir offers students of history many valuable nuggets of information pertaining to eighteenth century life including: how the American Revolutionary War was waged on the sea, how the war was waged in Europe, how war-time politics shaped relations between European nations, how prisoners of war were treated by the British, how naval warfare was conducted during the late 1770s and early 1780s, how privateers helped the Continental war effort, what eighteenth century French society looked like, and insights into the character of John Paul Jones. An introductory chapter provides readers with a maritime history of the American Revolution. This is exceptionally helpful for people without a background in maritime history.

The first five chapters cover Fanning’s service under the infamous patriot John Paul Jones. It outlines Fanning’s time as a prisoner of war, revealing the horrible conditions seamen faced at the hands of British shackles. While placed under British irons, Fanning was brought to Britain on the same ship that carried British Gen. William Howe. After a prisoner exchange brought Fanning to France, he enlisted aboard a ship captained by John Paul Jones. Under the direction of Jones, Fanning plundered ships around the British Isles. Occasionally they would wreak havoc on coastal towns. Fanning also goes into detail describing the famous battle between Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, a battle he took part in. After the battle, Jones prepared for a trip to the Americas. Fanning chose to remain in France to become a French privateer.

The second half of the book examines Fanning’s adventures sailing around western Europe. He continued to raid British vessels and coastal towns. Near the end of the war, Fanning became captain of his own ship. Eventually he met Benjamin Franklin at his home in Passy. Fanning had great admiration for Doctor Franklin. On his return home to North America, Fanning met St. John Crevecoeur, the author of Letters of an American Farmer. A chapter at the end of the journal examines Fanning’s observations of French society.

Overall, Sailing Under John Paul Jones is a relevant work in Revolutionary War history. Not only does it offer valuable insights into the life of an eighteenth-century privateer, but it also provides scholars with a sound reference work that is easy to read. For those interested in this book but who lack a background in Revolutionary War history, an introductory chapter provides the necessary background needed for reading and understanding Fanning’s memoir. Apart from a few grammatical errors that are not from Fanning, Norton does a fine job of providing an edited edition of Fanning’s adventurous life during a very tumultuous and often understudied aspect of the American Revolution.

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  • The US Navy recognized Fanning’s career in naming a destroyer (DD-385) for him. It served in the Pacific Theater of World War II for the duration of the war.

  • The author mentioned that the American Revolution was fought in India. What are some sources where I could read about that!?

  • In the search window at the top of this page (the right side of the red bar at the top of the Journal of the American Revolution page), type in the word:
    You’ll find several JAR articles on the subject, and the citations in those articles will take you to more information.

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