Military Wiki
John Percival
Captain John "Mad Jack" Percival
Nickname Mad Jack
Born (1779-04-03)3 April 1779
Died 7 September 1862(1862-09-07) (aged 83)
Place of birth West Barnstable, Massachusetts
Place of death 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 legendary 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.


Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, Percival left home at thirteen to work as a cabin boy on a Boston coaster. He later served in the U.S. Navy in the Quasi-War as a master’s mate and midshipman. He was discharged in the demobilization of 1801 and then entered the merchant service. He was impressed by the Royal Navy and sent to HMS Victory under Lord Jervis. When placed on a Spanish prize, Percival led an uprising and escaped to the American merchant ship Washington.

In 1809, he returned to the U.S. Navy as a sailing master and was assigned to the Syren, part of the New York flotilla under Captain Jacob Lewis. He commanded Gunboat No. 6 and borrowed the fishing smack Yankee on the Fourth of July in 1812, using it to capture HMS Eagle, the tender of the 74-gun HMS Poictiers. Percival joined the USS Peacock on 9 March 1814 and made three cruises with her capturing nineteen merchantmen and two warships, HMS Epervier and Nautilus. 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.

In 1826, he sailed the USS Dolphin into the far reaches of the uncharted Pacific to track down the mutineers of the whaleship Globe. He returned by way of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), the first American naval visit to that location. Promoted to captain in 1841, he first saved and restored the USS Constitution and then sailed the fabled warship around the world in 1844-46, Old Ironsides' only circumnavigation.

Percival married Maria Pinkerton of Trenton, New Jersey in 1809. The couple was childless. He died with the rank of Captain 7 September 1862 in Dorchester, Massachusetts and is buried near his birthplace in West Barnstable.[1]


Percival's legendary reputation is enhanced by the fact that his first naval ship - the Victory - and his last naval ship - the Constitution - remain commissioned and national shrines in Britain and the U.S., respectively. Herman Melville and James Michener based characters in their novels on this colorful skipper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about him. One of his admiring midshipmen, Henry A. Wise, using the pen name Harry Gringo, embellished the legend by publishing the fanciful "Tales for the Marines." Percival appears as the book's central figure under the nom de guerre "Jack Percy." Percival was known by the nickname of Mad Jack, sometimes Roaring John (attributable to his intense command style). The folk band Schooner Fare wrote and performed "The Ballad of Mad Jack", which relates incidents from his life. Despite his gruff nature, he nurtured in a fatherly manner a generation of midshipmen who rose to prominence in the U.S. Navy of the American Civil War era. Influential fathers of young midshipmen often requested their sons be assigned duty under Percival. As to seamanship, he was without a peer.


  • Cabin Boy - c. 1793
  • 2nd Mate in Merchant Service - c. 1797
  • Impressed into Royal Navy - 24 February 1797
  • Escapes from Royal Navy - April 1797
  • Masters Mate, USN - July 1799
  • Midshipman, USN - 13 May 1800
  • Discharged from USN (returns to merchant service) - July 1801
  • Sailing Master, USN - 6 March 1809
  • Lieutenant, USN - 9 December 1814
  • Master Commandant, USN - 3 March 1831
  • Captain, USN - 8 September 1841
  • Reserved List - 13 September 1855
  • Died 17 September 1862

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. (2002). Mad Jack Percival: Legend of the Old Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).