5 September 1781, off the Virginia Capes, the French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse with 24 ships of the line saw off a British squadron of 19 line-of-battle ships under Thomas Graves in a tactical more or less inconclusive engagement, known as the Battle of the Chesapeake, that proved to be the deathblow for British ambitions in the American War of Independence.
"If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst." (Charles Cornwallis during the beginning Siege of Yorktown in a despatch to Sir Henry Clinton, British C-in-C for North America)
|V. Zveg's famous interpretation of the "Second Battle of the Virginia Capes" or Battle of the Chesapeake from 1962|
Somehow, the rebellious Commonwealth of Virginia was a bit left behind in terms of decisive military action during the first years of the American Revolution. After a few naval raids Governor Thomas Jefferson had moved the capital further inland from Williamsburg to Jamestown though, but the defeat at King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 prompted Clinton to concentrate British war efforts again in the South. Nevertheless, Virginia was a centre of American operations and supplies and something ought to be done about it. Accordingly, in December of the same year, infamous Benedict Arnold, now a British brigadier, led a small force into Virginia to wreak havoc and was strengthened by Cornwallis in May 1781 with troops moved in from North Carolina. Washington had not much to oppose the British advance at his disposal besides the insufficiently trained men of Lafayette but when reinforcements under Wayne and Steuben arrived on the scene, Cornwallis, who had assumed overall command on the Virginia theatre, thought it wise to withdraw to Yorktown to keep his lines of communication with Clinton in New York open. When a large French squadron was en route to Chesapeake Bay to bolster Lafayette with 3,000 more men, Washington lead Clinton to believe that he was still planning an attack on the British stronghold of New York and moved into Virginia while the British commander-in-chief somehow lost touch with his subordinate Cornwallis, issued rather vague orders and supplied him with delayed, erroneous and superficial intelligence about the overall strategic situation. Cornwallis, in turn, might have believed that he was on an independent command in Virginia, but both British generals severely underestimated the threat of the French ships under the Comte de Grasse, maybe counting a bit too much on the tradition of victory of the Royal Navy. But in the summer of 1781 the British squadron on the North American station was under the command of the somewhat unlucky Thomas Graves after the more capable Rodney had returned for Europe with a part of the fleet. And Graves outranked Hood, who had arrived from the West Indies with 14 ships of the line on the trail of de Grasse. A fatal mixture, however, when it became clear that de Grasse had already reached his destination at the mouth of the Chesapeake and disembarked troops and siege equipment, Graves decided to sail his squadron to the Virginian coast and bring the French to bay, before Cornwallis was cut off from sea and supplies in Yorktown.
|Bougainville's "Auguste" (80) during the closing phase of the battle, exchanging broadsides with the British |
when Graves' squadron veered away (unknown artist)
De Grasse was not quite the naval military genius either. Graves approaching squadron of 19 ships of the line caught him quite by surprise and the French battleships had to cut their cables to get at the British out in Chesapeake Bay and not be bottled up and blockaded at their anchorage in the mouth of the river, even if there were certainly worse defensive positions imaginable. Thus, many of de Grasse 25 ships of the line left seriously undermanned with contingents of their officers and crew still on shore and sailed as fast as they were able and not according to a battle plan appropriate to their combat abilities. The French line-of-battle gaped wide open when the squadron passed Cape Henry on their larboard side, with the ex-explorer and circumnavigator Louis Comte de Bougainville leading the van in his brand new “Auguste” (80) while the centre under de Grasse himself lagged significantly behind. The British approached under a lively wind blowing from the north north-east, had the weather gauge and might have dominated the engagement, but Graves had reversed his course to get his line-of-battle parallel to de Grasse’s and keep his advantage and now his most aggressive commander, Hood, commanded the rear instead of the van, his signals were confused and the chance to cut through the French line and destroy de Grasse’s squadron piecemeal was blown. When the British van under Admiral Francis Samuel (sic.!) Drake approached the French in roughly a 45 ° angle, their starboard sides were pressed dangerously close to the waterline, they couldn’t open their gun ports on their lower battery deck and received a few full raking broadsides while the two battle lines converged for close action and the French centre caught up with the van unmolested. Around 4 pm, the vans of both sides finally lay parallel to each other and exchanged broadside for broadside and the French school of naval gunnery aiming for the enemy’s rigging ensured that Drake’s six ships were almost disabled and adrift after an hour while the British pounded away at the hulls and hands of Bougainville who received a considerable drubbing as well. When the wind changed, Graves decided to break off the engagement and de Grasse had successfully forced the British away from Chesapeake Bay.
|John Turnbull's famous if somewhat unhistorical imagination of the "Surrender of Lord Cornwallis" at Yorktown.The latter had actually called in sick and ordered his subordinate O'Hara to be present at the ceremony to deliver his sword (1820).|
Graves sailed his battered squadron back to New York to lick his wounds, arriving on September 20th at Sandy Hook, panic broke out among the loyalist civilians while Cornwallis was now completely cut off from the outside world in Yorktown, facing nearly 20,000 men with siege artillery under Washington and Rochambeau with about 8,500 men of his own. The siege commenced on 28 September and de Grasse 24 ships of the line were reinforced by the Comte de Barras’ 12 battleships arriving from their base at Newport, Rhode Island. The admiral had been convinced by Rochambeau to join the Siege of Yorktown instead of operating up north off Newfoundland, according to his orders from Paris. With now 36 ships of the line blockading Cornwallis, Graves, who, in the meanwhile, scraped up 25 battleships fit for use from all over the North American station, had lost his chance to relief him, Cornwallis surrendered accordingly on 19 October and the British had lost the American War. At least Hood had a chance to redeem himself during the Battle of the Saintes in April of the following year during the last act of the global conflict. There, he and Rodney managed to break de Grasse’ line-of-battle, capture the French admiral and it fell to unlucky Graves to sail the French prizes captured during the engagement home for England, de Grasse’s flagship Ville de Paris (110) among them, and loose the ships in a hurricane off Newfoundland in September 1782.
|Contemporary illustration showing the sinking of the "Ville de Paris", de Grasse's former flagship, as British prize during a hurricane in 1782|
And more about the Battle of the Chesapeake on: