American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

FANNING, NATHANIEL (1755-1805). Nathaniel Fanning’s Narrative of the Adventures of an American Navy Officer (1806) is one of the most reliable, graphic, and extensive eyewitness accounts of the famous battle between the Bonhomme Richard* and the Serapis.* Following the four-hour battle, in which both ships were devastated, and half of both crews were killed or wounded, the twenty-four-year-old Fanning realized that something of great consequence had taken place, and over two decades later while preparing his journal for publication he carefully chronicled both the battle and his place in it.

The eldest of eight sons, Fanning was born in Stonington, Connecticut, and went to sea at an early age. When the Revolution broke out, he sailed on several privateers, and on 31 May 1778, he and his ship were captured by the British. Fanning and his shipmates were carried to England, where they were detained at Forton Prison near Portsmouth. After a harsh imprisonment, he was eventually exchanged and sent to France, where he met John Paul Jones* and agreed to sail on the Bonhomme Richard as a midshipman and as the commodore’s private secretary. When the famous battle took place on 22 September 1779, Fanning was captain of the maintop, remaining aloft during the whole battle with four sailors and fifteen marines.

According to Fanning, his marines were responsible for emptying the maintops of the Serapis of marksmen and then for sending those on deck scurrying for cover. Once the two ships were grappled together, one of his men crawled out on a yardarm and dropped a grenade onto the Serapis. Intended for a group of British sailors huddled between the gundecks, the grenade fell through an open hatchway, where it exploded a large quantity of loose powder, killing twenty men and resulting in the American victory.

Fanning sailed with Jones on the Ariel for another year, but in December 1780 he and most of the other officers refused to serve under the commodore’s command any longer. In his narrative, Fanning cataloged a series of Jones’ abuses, including cruelty, corruption, and conceit. His depiction of Jones sharply contrasts the popular mythic figure that became immediately legendary after the battle. Although Fanning documented Jones’ bravery during the encounter with the Serapis, he also described the commodore as kicking his men and cheating them of their prize money. Because his description ran counter to the popular image of Jones, the first 1806 edition of Fanning’s narrative was published anonymously and then withheld from general circulation.

For the rest of the war, Fanning served on several French privateers, becoming a naturalized French citizen and finally a lieutenant in the French navy. While privateering, he was captured by the British three more times but quickly released, and in 1782 he made two trips to England carrying informal peace proposals for the French court. When the war ended, he resigned his commission and returned to America, where he married. Little is known of his life after the Revolution except that he resided in both New York and Stonington and that he continued to follow the sea. Presumably during 1801, after Jefferson and the Republicans came into power, he wrote his narrative from the journals he had kept during the Revolution. On 5 December 1804, Fanning was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was given command of the naval station at Charleston, South Carolina, where he died ten months later from yellow fever.

A year after his death in 1805, Fanning’s narrative was published by his brother Edmund Fanning,* the famous explorer. Three years later, in 1808, Edmund published a second edition, changing the title to Memoirs of the Life of Captain Nathaniel Fanning. The narrative was published four more times during the early nineteenth century and three times in the twentieth century. In addition to its firsthand account of the famous battle and the unfavorable depiction of Jones, the narrative provides remarkable insight into the privateering of the Americans and the French.

Daniel E. Williams