Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Richard Dale

Richard Dale


If an example were needed of the superiority of character and courage over intellect, no more fitting person could be named than Commodore Richard Dale,—" that truth-telling and truth-loving officer," as Fennimore Cooper calls him. Nothing is more beautiful than the reverence which Cooper, a man of real genius, had for Richard Dale, whose talents, though good, were not brilliant; and in this Cooper shows to lesser minds that intellect should ever pay tribute to character. Dale had nothing more than good, sound sense, but by the courage and constancy of his nature, by his justice, gentleness, and probity, he attained a standing of which a great intellect might have been proud. He was Paul Jones's first lieutenant during two years of daring adventure, and, like Cooper, Paul Jones, the man of genius, loved and admired Dale, the man of excellence. The affection between the two was deep, and in Dale's old age he spoke of his old commander, then no more, affectionately as "Paul,"—a strong testimony in the great captain's favor.

Dale was born near Norfolk, in Virginia, in 1756. His parents were respectable persons, but not very well off, and Dale appears to have had but few advantages of education in his boyhood. He was, by nature, a daring and reckless speller, and the ingenuity and simplicity with which he could twist the letters of the alphabet into forms never before seen, was truly comical. In a letter to Paul Jones, describing some work he was doing on the bowsprit, he says, "the bowsprit was something dificoult in biting out." But no doubt the bowsprit was smartly handled, and got out all right. And when "tow french voluntairs" deserted, Dale says he "made haist" to send the "golly-boat" after them, and certainly got them, if it were possible to do so. But in spite of his spelling, he was educated in all the courtesies of life, his manners were polished, his person was handsome, and he was a daring and capable sea-man. Paul Jones said he always found Dale ready and willing to execute the most hazardous duty; and this willingness to do his duty was the distinguishing characteristic of his whole life.

When he was twelve years of age, he entered the merchant service and made a voyage with an uncle of his, a sea-captain. Then began his career of hard knocks; and few men who sail blue water ever had more. He began by falling down the hold of his ship, and breaking most of his bones except those of his back and neck; then followed experiences of being knocked overboard and battling in the sea an hour before being picked up; of being struck by lightning and remaining unconscious for hours. From the time he joined the navy of the colonies, he never was in action without being either wounded or captured and sometimes both. Three times was he badly wounded, five times was he taken prisoner; yet he managed to be in active service during a great part of the war, and at last died peacefully in his bed, at a good old age.

Almost as soon as war was declared, Dale, then a fine young fellow of nineteen, enlisted in the feeble naval forces of the colonies; and the very first time he smelled powder, in 1776, he was captured by the British and taken to Norfolk. There he was put on board a prison ship, where he found among the officers an old friend of his, a young Virginian, Bridges Gutteridge. Gutteridge was a royalist, and, being a plausible fellow, he used his friendship with Dale to persuade him that he was wrong in being in rebellion. Dale, who was young and inexperienced, was beguiled by his friend into turning royalist too, and actually enlisted upon a small British vessel. The first action in which he was engaged—a fight with American pilot boats Dale met his usual fate, and was severely wounded. He was carried back to Norfolk, and in the long days of illness and convalescence he began to see his conduct in its true light, and bitterly repented of having fought against his country. He went to work upon his friend Gutteridge, and succeeded in converting him, after once having been converted by him, into a patriot. Dale then quietly bided his time to get back into the American navy, and, as he said, "I made up my mind if I got into the way of bullets it should never again be the bullets of my own country."

It is indicative of the simple honesty of the man, that he never attempted to belittle or disguise this early lapse of his, and always expressed the deepest sorrow for it, alleging what a nature less fine would never have admitted, "I knew no better at the time."

As soon as he was recovered, he managed to get aboard a merchant ship; to go to sea was the first step toward returning to the continental navy, which was the desire of his heart. He was captured as usual. But this time it was just the very sort of a capture that Dale desired, his ship being taken by the Lexington, a smart little cruiser under the command of Captain Barry, a brave officer, with whom Dale's life was afterward much connected. Dale lost not a moment in enlisting as midshipman on the Lexington, and the first time she backed her topsails at a British vessel she was captured, and Dale was a prisoner for the third time.

An officer and a prize crew were thrown on the Lexington, and her captor, the Pearl, frigate, directed the prize to follow her. In the night the Americans rose on their captors, and retook the brig, carrying her into Baltimore. Soon after that, Dale was exchanged, and in January, 1777, he found himself again on the Lexington, as master's mate. In March, the brig sailed for France, under Captain Henry Johnson, and cruised boldly in European waters.

One night, in September, 1777, Captain Johnson found himself close under the quarter of a well-armed British cutter. The two gallant little vessels opened fire with great spirit, and the Americans were getting decidedly the better of it, when their shot gave out. Dale and the other officers collected every scrap of iron about the ship that could be found or wrenched from its place to fire in the place of shot, but the unequal fight could not last long; the brig was given up after several of her officers and men had been killed, and Dale was a prisoner for the fourth time before he was twenty-one years old.

In most of these revolutionary encounters the ships engaged were of trifling force, but the attack and defence were gallant and spirited in the highest degree, by both the Americans and the British, and no ship was given away on either side.

The Lexington's  officers and men were carried to England and thrown into Mill Prison, where they underwent the agonies of famine and privation. Dale always spoke of those dreadful days with horror, and told of being driven by hunger to kill a stray dog, which he, with the other prisoners, cooked and ate.

The story of their sufferings got abroad and excited the indignation of many persons in England, who were jealous of the honor of their country. They raised sixteen thousand pounds for American prisoners in England, and relieved all their material wants. But the Americans longed for liberty, and Dale and a few others determined to have it. They found a place under the prison walls through which a hole could be dug, and they began the almost impossible task of scooping out enough earth that they might crawl through to the other side. They could work only while exercising in the prison yard, and had to put the dirt in their pockets as they scooped it up. Nevertheless, after working for weeks at it, on a dark night in February, 1778, Captain Johnson, Dale, and several of the Lexington's  crew crawled through, and found themselves free at last of the prison walls.

It is strange that men who could accomplish this should have been so unwise as to stay together, but for a week the whole party wandered about the country at night, half starved and half clothed, in the worst of wintry weather. At last they concluded to separate, and Dale and a young midshipman cast their lots together. Their character was soon suspected by people they asked for food and shelter, and pursuers were put upon them. They doubled on their tracks and got to London. They were still hunted for, and the house in which they were concealed was raided. Dale and his friend escaped, into a shed close by, and lay concealed under straw for hours, until the pursuing party had left. They then slipped down to the docks, and were entered as hands on a vessel for Scotland. But Dale's usual ill-fortune followed him. The British navy, wanting able seamen, sent a press gang to the Scotch vessel, and Dale and his friend, unluckily attracting notice by their stalwart appearance, were impressed. In a little while they were found out to be American officers, and were sent back to Mill Prison. Forty days in the black hole of the prison followed. When this was over, Dale earned another forty days in it by singing rebel songs. He continued to sing his songs, though, while in the black hole. After a whole year in prison he made his escape under circumstances which he never revealed to the day of his death, except that he had on a complete suit of British uniform. How he got it remains a mystery, and from that day until his death, forty-seven years afterward, Dale kept the dangerous secret of the person who risked so much for him. It is supposed that he was provided liberally with money, and even with a passport, for he got out of England quickly and went to France. Here, at L'Orient, he found Paul Jones, then fitting out the Bon Homme Richard, in which both the commander and Dale were to win immortality.

Dale was then an active, handsome young fellow of twenty-three, and had seen more hard service than many officers of the highest rank. At the first glance Paul Jones saw his steadiness, coolness, and splendid qualities as a sea officer, and soon made him first lieutenant on the Bon Homme Richard. A deep attachment sprang up between these two kindred souls, and it is enough for Dale's reputation to know that he was a man after Paul Jones's own heart.

In the summer of 1779 the Bon Homme Richard, old, crazy, and weakly armed, but carrying as much valor as any ship afloat, started upon her daring cruise in the narrow seas of Great Britain. Every day showed Paul Jones more and more the admirable character of his young first lieutenant, and in all the hazardous enterprises of that bold cruise Dale was the man who was always Paul Jones's right arm of strength. On the 23rd of September, 1779, was fought the celebrated battle between the Bon Homme Richard  and the Serapis. Dale was not only the first, but the only sea lieutenant on board, and proved himself altogether worthy to serve under the great captain who took the Serapis. He commanded the main deck, and, although his wretched and defective guns soon became disabled, his activity did not cease for a moment.

At the most critical stages of the battle, when the leaking, burning, and helpless Bon Homme Richard  seemed in extremity, the master-at-arms let loose more than a hundred prisoners, who came crowding up into the magazine passage. Dale, running below, with his pistol cocked, faced the mob, and, under Paul Jones's orders, set them to work at the pumps. He then returned to the deck, and so carried away was he with the ardor of battle that when, with his invariable fortune, a shot struck him in the leg, he was quite unconscious of it. As soon as Captain Pearson hauled down his flag, Dale claimed his right to go aboard the Serapis  and receive her surrender. The mainyard of the Serapis  hung cock-a-bill over the Bon Homme Richard's  poop. A line hung from the torn rigging, and Dale, seizing it, swung himself over, and landed alone on the Serapis'  deck. The Serapis'  officers and people did not all know the colors had been struck, and there was some fighting on the deck afterward. The Serapis'  first lieutenant ran up just as Captain Pearson surrendered, and cried out, "Has she struck?" meaning the Bon Homme Richard. Captain Pearson remained silent, and Dale replied, "No, sir, the Serapis  has struck."

The lieutenant, ignoring Dale, repeated his question to the captain, who shook his head. The lieutenant after a moment asked that he might go below and stop the firing that had not altogether ceased; but Dale, who was not taking any chances of losing the ship, politely refused, and at once passed the captain and his first lieutenant aboard the Bon Homme Richard.

As soon as the Americans had possession of the Serapis, Dale sat down on the binnacle, overcome with exhaustion, after nearly ten hours of maneuvering and fighting, two hours of the time the ships having been lashed together. He gave an order, and, rising to see it executed, measured his length on the deck. Then for the first time he knew that he was wounded. He managed to keep the deck, however, and his wound proved to be trifling.

In all the accounts of the compliments showered upon Paul Jones and his officers at the Texel and afterward at Paris, Dale seems to have kept modestly in the background. His worth, however, was not overlooked, and his testimony that Captain Landais of the Alliance had acted treacherously toward the Bon Homme Richard  during the fight with the Serapis  was of weight in securing Landais' dishonorable discharge from the continental navy.

While Paul Jones was enjoying the charms and splendors of Paris, Dale, who had little taste for such things, was "keeping ship" so well that the captain's absence was not felt. Like Paul Jones, he ardently longed to put to sea in a fine ship; but both were doomed to disappointment when the Ariel was the best to be had. In her he sailed, with Paul Jones, for America, in 1781. Off the French coast they met with a storm so terrific that Dale always declared he considered they were in more danger than at any time during the fight with the Serapis. In speaking of Paul Jones's coolness in such desperate straits, when every moment they seemed about to go to the bottom, Dale said: "Never saw I such coolness in such dreadful circumstances as I saw in Paul Jones then." To the amazement of all, they escaped with their lives, although the Ariel was so crippled that they had to return to port, and it was many weeks before they could sail again.

On reaching America, Paul Jones desired Dale to accompany him to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the government directed him to superintend the building of a fine frigate then on the stocks. But Dale preferred active service, and joined the Trumbull frigate, going through with his usual experience, a hot fight with a British ship and a severe wound. This time he varied the performance by being captured for the fifth time. He was soon exchanged, however, and the war ended shortly after.

The navy of the United States ceased practically to exist at the close of the Revolution, and Dale went into the China trade. He made a modest fortune, came ashore, and married a beautiful girl, the ward of his old commander Captain Barry. In 1794 the navy was reorganized, and Dale was the first captain who got afloat under the United States flag. He made several cruises, and in 1801 was made commodore of a fine squadron sent to the Mediterranean. His flag-ship was the President, and it was a sad coincidence that upon this very ship, in the war of 1812, his son, a gallant young midshipman, received his death wound.

The fine appearance of the American ships and the smartness of their officers and crews were generally admired, and Dale himself made friends and admirers by his manly and modest bearing. He spelled no better than ever, but his seaman-ship was beyond reproach. Once, on coming out of Port Mahon, the President  struck upon a rock, and was in imminent danger of pounding herself to death. Commodore Dale was below when she struck. He instantly came on deck, assumed command, and by his coolness, nerve, and judgment, saved the ship. He had her temporarily repaired, under his own directions, at Port Mahon, but went to Toulon to have her put in dry dock. When the water was pumped out, and her hull exposed, the French naval officers were lost in admiration at the ingenious way in which, with crude appliances and materials, Dale had contrived to repair the damage.

The great Nelson, while observing the maneuvering of this fine squadron under Commodore Dale, remarked: "Those American ships can, if they wish, make trouble for the British navy."

Dale returned home, expecting to spend the rest of his active life in the navy. But in those days it seems to have been a common practice to treat the most distinguished and deserving officers without the least consideration of their rights or feelings. This happened to Commodore Dale. An affront being offered him by the head of the navy, he promptly resigned. He had two gallant sons who remained in the navy, however; and one of these, his namesake, lost his life while gallantly fighting in the war of 1812. Dale retired to Philadelphia, and spent the rest of his days in honorable retirement. His old friend Captain Barry had come into possession of the splendid gold sword given Paul Jones by the King of France, and which Paul Jones's relatives had given to Robert Morris, and from him Captain Barry got it. On Captain Barry's death he left this sword, most worthily and appropriately, to Dale, the great captain's first lieutenant.

Dale never lost his interest in sailors and all who live by the sea. He was a deeply religious man, and organized a mariners' church, which he urged all sailors to attend. Every Sunday afternoon for thirty years he went to this humble little chapel, and, besides joining in the service, would go about among the sailors who were present, gently inquiring into their wants, and never failing to do a kindness for them when possible. It is said that no man was ever heard to speak a word against him. He died peacefully, after a short illness, in 1826. The United States named for him a fine sloop of war, which, like Dale himself, saw much service and had many vicissitudes. She is still in existence, and when, a few years ago, her timbers were examined, they were found as sound and whole, in spite of all her years of service, as they ought to be in a ship named for a man like Richard Dale. In her main gangway a memorial plate is placed, recalling Commodore Dale's services in the fight between the Bon Homme Richard  and the Serapis, and quoting the never-to-be-forgotten words of Paul Jones, when he was asked, in his almost helpless ship, if he had struck,—"I have not yet begun to fight."