John Percival

For other people named John Percival, see John Percival (disambiguation).
John Percival

Captain John "Mad Jack" Percival
Nickname(s) Mad Jack
Born (1779-04-03)3 April 1779
West Barnstable, Massachusetts
Died 7 September 1862(1862-09-07) (aged 83)
Dorchester, Massachusetts
Buried at West Barnstable, Massachusetts
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Navy
Years of service 1809-1862
Rank Captain

John Percival known as Mad Jack Percival (3 April 1779 7 September 1862) was a celebrated officer in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France, the War of 1812, the campaign against West Indies pirates, and the Mexican-American War.


Early life

Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, Percival left home at thirteen to work as a cabin boy on a Boston coaster. He moved to the merchant service, became a second mate, and while at Lisbon, he was impressed by the Royal Navy. First sent to the HMS Victory under Lord Jervis, he soon received an assignment to a prize crew on a captured Spanish merchantman. Benefiting from lax discipline, Percival led an uprising and escaped to the American merchant ship Washington. His homeward journey was interrupted by impressment again - this time by the Dutch Navy. Managing to escape a second time, he decided to enter the U.S. Navy in 1799. Subsequently, he served in the Quasi-War with France as a master’s mate and midshipman. He was discharged in the demobilization of 1801 and went back to the merchant service.

Percival married Maria Pinkerton of Trenton, New Jersey in 1809. The couple did not have children although they informally adopted a relative, Maria Weeks.

War of 1812

In 1809, he returned to the U.S. Navy as a sailing master, assigned to the Syren at the Norfolk Navy Yard. After a leave, he moved to the New York yard under Commodore Jacob Lewis. Placed in command of Gunboat No. 6, he engaged in several skirmishes with British forces plaguing American shipping. As a stratagem, Percival borrowed the fishing smack Yankee on the Fourth of July in 1813, using it to capture the unsuspecting HMS Eagle (1812), the tender of the 74-gun HMS Poictiers (1809). Percival joined the USS Peacock (1813) on 9 March 1814 and made three cruises during which the ship sloop captured nineteen merchantmen and two warships, HMS Epervier (1812) and the East India Company armed brig HMS Nautilus, 12 percent of the total taken by the U.S. Navy during the war.[1] For his gallantry in the capture of HMS Epervier, he was promoted to lieutenant and presented with a special sword by Congress, shown in the accompanying portrait from about 1860.


After the war, the Navy assigned Percival to the Boston Navy Yard. Within weeks, he reported for duty on the USS Macedonian. The captain's clerk, Charles J. Deblois, noted "Lt. P. carries a taught hand, . . .. He goes by the name of Mad Jack." [2] This is the earliest record of Percival's colorful nickname. Apparently tracing to his intense command style, the application of monikers to military and naval officers was common to the time. After a cruise to South America, he returned to serve as executive office at the Boston yard. In late 1823, he transferred to the USS United States on the Pacific station under the illustrious Commodore Isaac Hull. The two New Englanders were close associates and friends throughout their careers. Hull considered Percival "the best sailor I ever saw!" [3]

In 1826, Hull put him in command of the USS Dolphin (1821) and directed him to the far reaches of the uncharted Pacific to track down the mutineers of the Nantucket whaleship Globe. In the Mulgrave Islands, he recovered two innocent crewmen from the ill-fated whaler. The culprits had killed one another or were dispatched by natives. Mad Jack returned by way of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), the first American naval ship to visit the place. His stay proved controversial and provided fodder for writers over the years. American missionaries clashed with the naval officer who challenged their sway over the local civil authorities. Under growing pressure from visiting merchant and whaling crews, the authorities rescinded a missionary-advocated ban on young women swimming out to the visiting vessels. The missionaries blamed their loss of influence on Percival. Their forceful complaints to Washington compelled Percival to eventually ask for a court of inquiry to clear his name. The court absolved him of wrongdoing, while to this day, United States destroyer squadrons based at Pearl Harbor celebrate Mad Jack Percival Day each May 11, the date the Dolphin left the islands in 1826.

Percival next commanded the U.S. schooner Porpoise for an 1830-31 cruise against the troublesome West Indian pirates. While on leave in 1832, the department notified him of his promotion to Master Commandant effective in March 1831. After, in 1834-35, he had the U.S. sloop-of-war Erie on the Brazil station. In 1836, once again, he took over as executive officer in Boston. While assigned this duty, Percival displayed his concern for the welfare of the common sailor. A group of seamen transferring from the Brooklyn yard to Boston were injured, four of them seriously, when their train derailed along the way. The four received a settlement of $12,862. Percival volunteered to administer a trust set up in behalf of the men. He did so over several years with prudence and faithfulness, paying out every cent to the beneficiaries or their survivors. The extensive and detailed record of Percival's careful and honest handling of the matter can be found in his papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (This relatively insignificant episode warrants this brief mention, because a careless writer, relying on insufficient research, wrongly charged that Percival absconded with the funds. From time to time, the misrepresentation is repeated.)

In 1838, he received command of the second-class ship sloop Cyane and headed to the Mediterranean to again serve under Hull. A principal ancillary duty involved educating and training young midshipman. It was a task Percival undertook with zeal and passion. Prominent men and fellow officers with midshipmen sons commonly asked for their youngster to be placed under the stern tutelage of Mad Jack. The young men did not always appreciate it at the time, but many went on to notable careers. As one example, Gustavus V. Fox chafed under Percival's disciplined approach on the cruise, but went on to become Lincoln's assistant secretary of the navy. Others distinguished themselves in combat. John L. Worden, a Cyane midshipman, became an admiral and is remembered as a hero of the Battle of Hampton Roads. One of the most irksome midshipmen on the cruise, nonetheless, recognized an appreciated their skipper. Henry A. Wise summarized the almost universal feeling in the service when he noted: "There is not a better sailor in the world than Cap. Percival or a man of better judgement in the qualities requisite for a Seaman. . .. One would suppose from his impatient & passionate temper, that in case of danger he would lose all command of himself. On the contrary no one is cooler or more able to fulfill the duties of his station. To give the devil his due - I would rather trust my life to his charge in case of emergency at Sea than any other man in the United States Navy." [4]

Percival left the Cyane late in 1839 due to poor health. While waiting for an assignment, he received promotion to captain in September 1841, the highest U.S. Navy rank at the time.

Circumnavigation voyage

He began the most memorable chapter of his life in November 1843. The frigate USS Constitution presented a major concern to the department. In disrepair, the venerable old ship served as a mere receiving (barracks) ship at Norfolk. Naval Constructor Foster Rhodes figured it would cost $70,000 to fit her out for sea. But the department did not have the money. Acting Secretary David Henshaw, from Massachusetts, knew about Mad Jack's reputation for seamanship and frugality. He told Percival to take a look. Percival reported he could do the work for $10,000. Despite widespread doubts about Percival's findings, Henshaw gave him the task.

By mid-January 1844 Percival informed the secretary he "unhesitatingly" determined the ship ready for "a two or even a three year cruise." And he was prepared to stake "his life and reputation" on his assessment.[5] Accordingly, Henshaw told the captain to get his ship ready for sea. Percival found it necessary to sail to New York to complete his 447-man crew. Percival's orders directed him to carry the first U.S. ambassador to Brazil, proceed to the east coast of Africa and on to the China seas, making his best way back to the United States. He left New York at the end of May 1844. Before the voyage ended in Boston 495 days later, the ship sailed 52,370.5 miles, circumventing the globe for the only time in her illustrious career.

A number of members of the crew kept detailed journals of the cruise, and one officer even sketched entertaining watercolors of scenes and incidents along the way. Added to official correspondence, the result is a well-documented trip. One episode stands out above all others. In early May 1845, the ship anchored in Touron Bay, Cochin China (now Vietnam). On the second day, Percival received a note from a French missionary, Bishop Dominique Lefevere, saying the local authorities had him under arrest and condemned him to death. Within an hour, Mad Jack led eighty well-armed men ashore. Percival left a letter for the king of Cochin China demanding the bishop's release. To make his point, he returned to the ship with three mandarins held as hostages. The next day, Percival pressed the issue by capturing three junks belonging to the king, and moved his warship closer to the local forts. On the following day, the prize junks attempted to escape, but were recovered after a brief skirmish. Percival, as well as the Cochin Chinese themselves, denied the gunplay resulted in any casualties. Nonetheless, a rumor of fatalities continued into the 20th century when the confrontation became known as the first armed intervention by a Western nation against present-day Vietnam. In any event, a short while later Lefevere gained his freedom and the French credited the American effort for saving his life. King Louis Philippe intended to reward officers and crew. But political turmoil interfered. Since the king "took a hurried journey from his capital, . . . no recognition of their services was ever received by the American tars." Their compensation went "over the walls of the Tuileries gardens" as Louis Philippe escaped to London.[6]

Later life

After the return of the Constitution from her epic voyage, Percival was placed in command of the Boston Navy Yard. He was among the first group of officers placed on the reserved list when it was established in September 1855. He was 76 years old at the time. The department established the list to create de facto retirement for officers who were viewed as no longer being able to perform their duties at the expected level. Often described as colorful, Mad Jack attracted the attention of famed authors such as Hawthorne, Melville, and Michener and is covered to this day by writers of less note. And his legendary status is enhanced by the fact his first naval ship, the HMS Victory and his last, the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship and the oldest commissioned warship afloat, remain national shrines.

In his last years, he gave silver cups to a few people close to him. One, given to the son of his attorney, offered a brief summary of his career. As well as anything, the inscription explains the man. Percival wrote: "This Cup, with the Donor, has made three cruises to the Pacific, one to the Mediterranean, one to the Brazils, two to the West Indies, and once around the world, a distance of about 150,000 miles. Has been 37 years in service and has never refused duty." [7]


Captain Percival died at the age of 83 on 7 September 1862 in Dorchester, Massachusetts and is buried near his birthplace in West Barnstable's Ancient Cemetery.[8]


Source - Mad Jack Percival. James H. Ellis. Naval Institute Press. 2002.


Two ships have been named USS Percival for him. Percival Drive in West Barnstable, MA.


This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
  1. Ellis, James H. Luminaries of Early West Barnstable: The Stories of a Cape Cod Village (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), p. 97.
  2. Journal of Charles J. Deblois, Captain's Clerk aboard the USS Macedonian, 1818-19, n.p., n.d., National Archives, Microfilm Publication M876
  3. Stevens, Benjamin F. Isaac Hull and American Frigate Constitution (Boston: Bostonian Society, 1890), p. 17
  4. Private Journal of Henry A. Wise, U.S.N. on the USS Cyane, n.p.,n.d., in NA, RG 45
  5. Percival to Henshaw, 16 January 1844, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Captains, 1805-61, 1866-85, National Archives, Microfilm Publication M125.
  6. Stevens, Benjamin F. A Cruise on the Constitution. (New York, 1904), p. 58.
  7. Westcott, Allan, Captain Mad Jack Percival U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 61 (March 1935), p. 319.
  8. Ellis, James H. (2002). Mad Jack Percival: Legend of the Old Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
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