NEWS | May 21, 2013

Historic naval letters resurface in Charleston

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

It has been more than 200 years since Navy Capt. John Paul Jones sailed the seas as a Continental Navy officer during the American Revolution. Jones' courage and professionalism laid the groundwork for many of today's U.S. naval traditions. And, like the captain's historic legacy, his personal letters have also survived the test of time.

Relics of yesterday's American history are on display at the Charleston Library Society, downtown Charleston, S.C., where Jones' handwritten letters, can be found.

"The importance of the Navy in Charleston dates back hundreds of years," said Hartley Porter, lifelong Charleston Library Society member. "Some may be surprised to know that downtown on King St., you can find crucial elements to the foundation of what is today the United States Navy."

Jones, a founding father of the U.S. Navy, penned the 13 pages and they are currently being adopted by members of the Charleston Commandery, the local chapter of the Naval Order of the United States - a group dedicated to preserving maritime history. One of the letters was even addressed to Benjamin Franklin. The group plans on restoring the pages for future generations of history enthusiasts.

"The letters are an intimate look into the personal beliefs of a proficient Navy leader," said David Porter, husband of Hartley Porter and retired Navy commander. "Reading them made me feel as though I was in the room, sitting at the table as he was writing them. It brings American history to life in a way a history book cannot, because it's the personal thoughts of a historical figure."

One of the letters, written in 1777, includes a ranked list of 18 other captains, the highest naval rank at the time, with Jones' name at the bottom. Jones' disdain for this was expressed by dishing his opinions of those senior ranking officers.

In Jones' own words, he describes that the officers "superior merits and accomplishments abilities on the list were at best presumptive." In other words, he wasn't impressed with his peers out-ranking him, due to the self-deserving regard he had toward his own accomplishments. He brashly expressed his views to Joseph Hewes, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Navy Secretary at the time. His emotions were fueled by the chance to pick what ship he commanded, because selections were given by the precedence of the captain.

In the end, Jones' commanded the sloop Ranger, though according to David Porter, he would have preferred a larger ship.

"As a retired Navy commander, I couldn't imagine making such statements about senior ranking individuals," said David Hartley.

In addition to the brash remarks and lobbying for command, Jones' proposes lineal questions of the Navy by highlighting efforts and accomplishments and notes taken during meetings. One page even includes doodles from one of America's founding fathers and chief of staff to Gen. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton .

The letters are scheduled to be on display for maritime history enthusiasts at the upcoming annual conference for the Naval Order of the United States, with the theme "From John Paul Jones to Nuclear Power."

The Charleston Library Society is located at 164 King St., Charleston, S.C., and admission is free. The letters are often on display, but if they are not, a researching fee is available. In addition, the library is working to digitalize the letters to be available online by visiting www.charlestonlibrarysociety.net.