Section 2

Course Work

In this section, the narratives of war continue, this one telling of the Revolutionary War sea battle off the British coast between John Paul Jones’s BonHomme Richard and the British ship Serapis. Whitman’s great-grandfather served under Jones, and Whitman absorbs the account of the battle that his great-grandfather passed on to him through Whitman’s maternal grandmother (he also depends on Jones’s own account of the battle in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, a printed copy of which Whitman kept). Like the Battle of Coleto and the subsequent massacre at Goliad that is the subject of the previous section, this “old-time sea-fight” is part of the series of wars that expanded and unified the growing United States but did so, ironically, at the expense of unity itself, always resulting in death, division, fragmentation, and loss. The story here is of a captain (Jones) who has the courage to persevere when surrender seems the only possible option, but it is also a story of “killing all around”: both the British and the Americans lost over half their crews in the battle.