The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes or simply the Battle of the Capes, was a crucial naval battle in the American Revolutionary War which took place near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on September 5 1781, between a British fleet led by Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear-Admiral the Comte de Grasse. It was, in strategic terms, a major defeat for the Royal Navy.
The victory by the French fleet prevented the Royal Navy from resupplying the forces of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. It also prevented interference with the supply of troops and provisions from New York to the armies of George Washington through Chesapeake Bay. As a result, Cornwallis surrendered his army after the Siege of Yorktown (the second British army to surrender during the war), and Great Britain later recognized the independence of the United States of America.
The British fleet arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake on August 25, but found no French ships there, so Hood proceeded to take his fleet of 14 ships of the line to New York. Meanwhile his colleague, Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, had spent several weeks trying to intercept a convoy bringing supplies from France, requested by Colonel John Laurens, to Boston. When Hood arrived at New York, he found that Graves, who had failed to find the convoy, was in port, but had only 5 additional ships of the line that were ready for battle.
Hood had missed de Grasse because the French admiral was deliberately sailing very slowly, having sent a message ahead to his colleague at Newport, Rhode Island, the Comte de Barras Saint-Laurent, stating, weeks in advance, his precise date of arrival. Barras forwarded this information to the generals Washington and Rochambeau, preparing to besiege New York, and when they received it on August 14, they realised immediately the opportunity that de Grasse was presenting. Washington therefore prepared for a rapid march, and requested Barras to take his small fleet south from Newport to the Chesapeake, with the French artillery and other supplies that would be needed for a siege. De Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake on August 29, almost exactly on schedule, with a fleet that included 28 ships of the line and also carried three regiments of French troops under General Marquis de Saint-Simon, who were immediately disembarked to help the American troops under the Marquis de Lafayette keep Cornwallis from retreating inland.
Barras sailed from Newport on August 25. Notified of this, and now aware that Yorktown had been designated as an operational target by Washington, Graves and Hood combined forces, and set out to find both the missing French fleets. Unaware that Barras was keeping well out at sea, heading towards Bermuda, they sailed southwards towards the Chesapeake.
With the wind and tide in their favor as well as the element of surprise in finding the French ships at anchor in a state of unpreparedness for battle, the British might have been able to inflict severe losses by sailing into the bay and striking quickly in a general attack. However, it is unlikely that such an idea ever occurred to Graves. Conventional naval tactics of the time called for the fleets to each form up in line of battle and then maneuver within gun shot range of each other, each ship attacking its opposite in the enemy line.
This meant that 24 of the French ships were able to cut their anchors, sail out of Chesapeake Bay, and form their own line of battle. By 1pm, the two fleets were roughly facing each other, but sailing on opposite tacks. In order to engage, Graves then ordered his whole fleet to execute a 180-degree turn, so the nominal rear of his line became the van (the leading group of the line) for fighting purposes. It was after 4 p.m., over 6 hours since the two fleets had first sighted each other, by the time the British—who still had the weather gage, and therefore the initiative—were ready to open their attack.
At this point, both fleets were sailing generally east, away from the bay. The two lines were approaching at an angle so that the leading ships of the vans of both lines were within range of each other, but the ships behind them were still attempting to close the gap. A shift in wind direction during the battle made it even harder for the ships in the rear to engage. Thus the ships in the van on both sides were engaged in heavy and continuous firing from the beginning of the action, while several of the ships in the rear never got into action at all. There was also confusion in the British fleet's maneuvers caused by apparently contradictory signals issued by Graves during the battle.
Around 6:30 p.m., at dusk, firing ended. Graves gave a general signal to keep to windward so that the heads of the two fleets separated. By this time, the British ships in the van division that had borne the brunt of the battle were very badly damaged and unable to continue to fight effectively in any case (the first five ships in the British line sustained over half of all British casualties). Many of the British ships had been leaking badly and were in need of refitting even before the battle, and the French gunnery had been particularly destructive of the ships' rigging and masts.
Although the actual naval battle was inconclusive, the Battle of the Chesapeake was a major strategic victory for the French because of its consequences for the land campaign. Cornwallis was cut off from rescue or resupply, while the French were reinforced by the troops brought by de Grasse, and Washington's army converged from the north. This led to the siege of Yorktown, the surrender of Cornwallis' army, and the ultimate defeat of the British forces in America.
|France (de Grasse)||Britain (Graves)|
Bourgogne - 74, De Charitte
Marseillais - 74, Castellane de Masjastre
Diadème - 74, Monteclerc
Le Réfléchi - 74, Boades
L'Auguste (*) - 80, Castellan
Saint-Esprit - 80, Chabert
Caton - 74, Framond
Destin - 74, Dumaitz de Goimpy
Ville de Paris (**) - 100, Saint-Cezaire
Victoire - 74, D'Albert Saint-Hyppolyte
Sceptre - 80, Vaudreuil
Northumberland - 74, Briqueville
Palmier - 74, Arros d'Argelos
Le Solitaire - 64, Cicé Champion
Scipion - 74, Clavel
Le Magnanime - 74, Le Bègue
L'Hercule - 74, Turpin
Languedoc (***) - 80, Duplessis Parscau
Le Zélé - 74, De Gras-Préville
Hector - 74, Renaud d'Aleins
Le Souverain - 74, Glandevès
Belliqueux - 64, Captain Brine
Invincible - 74, Captain Saxton
Barfleur (*) - 98, Captain Alexander Hood
Monarch - 74, Captain Reynolds
Centaur - 74, Captain Inglefield
Bedford - 74, Captain Thomas Graves
Resolution - 74, Captain Manners
London (**) - 98, Captain David Graves
Royal Oak - 74, Captain Ardesoif
Montagu - 74, Captain Bowen
Europe - 64, Captain Child
Ajax - 74, Captain Charrington
Princessa (***) - 70, Captain Knatchbull
Alcide - 74, Captain Thompson
Intrepid - 64, Captain Molloy
Shrewsbury - 74, Captain Mark Robinson
(*) Van flag, Bougainville|
(**) Center flag, Latouche-Tréville - Fleet flag, De Grasse
(***) Rear flag, Monteil
(*) Van flag, Samuel Hood|
(**) Fleet flag, Sir Thomas Graves
(***) Rear flag, Sir Francis Drake