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A Near Thing at Yorktown

July 2024
25min read

“Admiral Graves lost no ships… he merely lost America”

battle of chesapeake
In the crucial Battle of the Chesapeake, the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Grasse prevented the smaller British fleet from reaching Cornwallis's army stranded at Yorktown, leading to the surrender that effectively ended the American Revolution.

It has been called “the one decisive engagement” of the American Revolution, since by closing the crucial gap in the ring around Cornwallis at Yorktown, it changed American independence from a possibility to a certainty. Yet many Americans have never heard of it, perhaps because the outcome of the long and bitter war was decided between the French and British navies, with no Americans present. Fought out of sight of land, it had only its participants as eyewitnesses, and their accounts have remained hidden in the naval archives of England and France. The encounter does not even have a generally accepted name. You will find it called the Battle of the Chesapeake, of Lynnhaven Roads, of Cape Henry, and of the Capes of Virginia.

King George III himself referred to it as “a drawn battle,” and in a sense it was. Not a single ship was taken or sunk during the action. Paradoxical as it may sound, the sea fight was actually decisive because it was indecisive. For its result was as crushing to Cornwallis as if every British warship had been sent to the bottom. To see why, it is necessary to abandon the conventional view of the noble lord’s plight, with his army of some 7,000 men “trapped” on the hastily fortified Yorktown peninsula. American historians, dazzled by the superb generalship displayed by Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette, have tended to write about the Yorktown campaign from the landward side. They have portrayed the hapless British general as stupidly allowing himself to be cornered by “the boy” (as he called the twenty-three-year-old Major General Marquis de Lafayette) between the York and James rivers, from which escape by land could easily be prevented.

You will find it called the Battle of the Chesapeake, of Lynnhaven Roads, of Cape Henry, and of the Capes of Virginia.

But to the eyes of Earl Cornwallis in that hot summer of 1781, the picture must have looked entirely different. He was, as Washington described him in a letter to Rochambeau written on July 13, “free, from his superiority of force, to go where he would.” For a month he had been using that freedom to chase Lafayette’s elusive mixed army of Continentals and militia—varying in size from one to four thousand men and lacking shoes, clothing, and arms—back and forth across Virginia without being able to bring them to battle. Even against such a vastly inferior enemy, Cornwallis now discovered that he could not conquer and hold hostile territory merely by moving through it, as he boasted, “with uniform success.”

Roads in eighteenth-century Virginia were scanty or indifferent at best. The main avenues of transportation were rivers or sea lanes. Throughout the war the British armies depended upon the sea, not the land, for their mobility and logistical support and could not venture far away from it without risking disaster. Thus in heading for Yorktown, as his superior Sir Henry Clinton had ordered, Cornwallis was making for the great bay of the Chesapeake, where the protecting Royal Navy could come far into the land mass, and where he could again be in contact with Clinton in New York. Once in Yorktown, he believed that he could either establish an easily defended naval base and strengthen his army for the reduction of Virginia or send reinforcements northward if needed. If besieged by land, he regarded himself as more than safe by sea, since it could always be taken for granted that the British Navy ruled the waves.

What upset these calculations completely was the arrival off the Chesapeake on August 30 of Admiral Comte de Grasse with the entire French West Indies battle fleet of twenty-eight ships, bringing as well 3,300 regular troops commanded by the Marquis de Saint-Simon and, of almost equal importance, 1,200,000 livres in cash supplied by the Spanish bankers of Havana. Soon afterward, Lafayette’s small army was suddenly swelled by the advent of Washington with 2,000 Continentals and Rochambeau with 4,000 more French regular troops, who had made a heroic march of four hundred miles in twenty-eight days from their Hudson River encampments. From Newport, Rhode Island, the Comte de Barras had been induced to start southward with seven additional warships, as well as ten transports laden with tons of salt beef and a valuable train of siege artillery. From the British point of view, everything depended upon speedily regaining control of the sea. Unless a fleet could somehow be assembled to meet and beat De Grasse, thus opening the Chesapeake for Clinton to reinforce or evacuate Cornwallis, the siege of Yorktown could have but one outcome.

Today it is only too apparent why the British, although they were very nearly successful in delaying their ultimate defeat, failed to do so. Yorktown is the story of French and American allies, who might have been expected to quarrel, co-operating beautifully; and of George III’s admirals and generals, who might have been expected to work together harmoniously, indulging instead in endless professional, political, and personal bickerings. Private animosities, such as Clinton’s for Cornwallis and Vice Admiral Arbuthnot, and the lively detestation entertained by Admirals Rodney, Graves, and Hood for one another, accentuated the divisions in their commands. This was all the more harmful because Yorktown was what is now called an amphibious or combined operation, and it was ruined for England by insufficient forces too widely dispersed, divided authority, wretched communications, and a great deal of sheer bad luck. All these factors made the blunders of her shortsighted leaders appear to be even worse than they actually were. It was, as Randolph G. Adams has said, “one time when Britain failed to muddle through.”

Today it is only too apparent why the British, although they were very nearly successful in delaying their ultimate defeat, failed to do so.

The one man who might have wrecked the allied strategy was Sir George Brydges Rodney, Admiral of the White; his Leeward Islands fleet was nearly as powerful, and considerably faster, thanks to its copper bottoms, than De Grasse’s armada. But Rodney’s mind was on the wealth of the sugar islands rather than on the obviously poorer colonies to the north. Public-spirited avarice for trading advantages in the West Indies was to cost England a continent. Rodney had just seized the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, with booty amounting to the fantastic sum of 75 million francs. Quite mistakenly, he regarded the traffic in “naval and warlike stores” between that island and the rebellious colonies as being the key factor which had permitted the rebels to take the offensive and had thereby “prevented the American war from being terminated.”

Like other eighteenth-century commanders, Rodney was plagued by what seem to us to be intolerably slow and unreliable communications. Even the swiftest frigates took weeks to transport dispatches, which were always in danger of loss by shipwreck or capture. Two such mishaps befell Rodney’s attempts to warn New York that De Grasse’s fleet, escorting a two-hundred-ship convoy, had left Martinique on July 5 for some unknown destination. Some of the ships, he thought, were destined for America. His first dispatch was destroyed in the wreck of the sloop Swallow, driven ashore on Long Island by four Yankee privateers. Copies reached their destination six weeks after they had been sent. The Active, carrying Rodney’s second warning, was captured and taken into Philadelphia.

During the summer hurricane season Admiral Rodney fully intended to go himself to North America to insure British maritime supremacy there, but gout and other afflictions caused him on July 24 to order his second in command, Sir Samuel Hood, Rear Admiral of the Blue, to take fourteen of his ships to Antigua to refit, then to escort an incoming convoy to Jamaica, and finally to reinforce Rear Admiral Graves in order “to counteract the schemes of his Majesty’s rebellious subjects” in North America. In an earlier letter to Hood on July 7, Rodney had mentioned De Grasse’s fleet of twenty-eight “sail of the line, a part of which is reported to be destined for North America” (author’s italics).

That was Rodney’s fatal miscalculation. To the moment of his own departure for England on August 1, for reasons of health, along with several of his ships (“invalids like himself”), the British admiral was convinced that De Grasse would never be foolish enough to leave the French sugar islands undefended. As for the plans of De Grasse himself, Rodney believed that he was going to accompany the commercially important summer trade convoy to France with the main body of his fleet. Actually ten of De Grasse’s ships were originally destined to return to France.

With Britain’s best admiral out of the picture, the fate of her rule in the American colonies was placed squarely in the hands of four men: Rear Admirals Graves and Hood, and Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, not one of whom grasped the scope of the allied plans. In one lucid moment on June 9, Clinton, otherwise obsessed by intercepted dispatches from Washington telling of an imminent attack upon New York, wrote prophetically to his chief in London, Lord George Germain: “If the Enemy remain only a few Weeks superior at Sea, our insular and detached situation will become very critical.” But all that was in the Earl of Sandwich’s department, the Admiralty; and everyone assumed that Hood’s fourteen ships with Graves’ supposed eight, or twenty-two in all, would be more than a match for Barras’ seven, plus De Grasse’s possible contribution of twelve, for a total of nineteen. This bad strategic arithmetic set the stage for a naval disaster.

Everyone had also lost track of Admiral de Grasse, whom Rodney had promised to watch “like a lynx.” Even as late as August 28, when the French commander was just two days away from the Chesapeake with his whole fleet, and Hood was even closer to Sandy Hook, Graves wrote (to Hood): “We have as yet no certain intelligence of De Grasse; the accounts say that he was gone to Havana to join the Spaniards and [they are] expected together upon this coast; a little time will show us.” When Hood arrived at the Hook on the evening of that same day, he confessed that he did not know De Grasse’s strength or objective, but that he had come “with a full persuasion that our force was a match for theirs.”

Meanwhile, De Grasse in the West Indies had been told by a letter from Rochambeau that “all our means at hand can do nothing without the assistance and naval superiority which you can bring us.” The French general had painted the allied situation in very dark colors, urging the Admiral to bring both his fleet and an army and a large sum of money northward as soon as possible, leaving the choice of Sandy Hook or the Chesapeake to him. De Grasse chose the Chesapeake; and Rochambeau, who received the good news on August 14, immediately notified Washington, who seems then to have decided upon the master stroke of the war. He would abandon the attack upon New York and march the allied armies around the unsuspecting Clinton to join Lafayette before Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was a full two weeks before Clinton caught on, and then it was too late for him to act.

At the critical moment, Comte de Grasse displayed a magnificent audacity, remarkable energy, political tact, and a breadth of view beyond anything his record to that date could have foretold. When he was on naval maneuvers in 1772, his mentor, the Sieur d’Orvilliers, remarked of him: “His collisions seem to show that there is something lacking in his judgment by eye.” But though he may have had defects as a short-range tactician, De Grasse in 1781 was a superb strategist whose long-range vision was remarkable. What he grasped, says the British naval historian Michael Lewis, and “demonstrated to perfection” was “one of the great principles of war—securing a concentration stronger than the enemy’s at the right time and in the right place.”

He postponed the sailing of the convoy, sending it back to Martinique to wait until November, collected every French warship he could command, and secured the permission of Comte de Lillancourt, acting governor of the islands, to borrow for two months the Marquis de Saint-Simon’s corps (the regiments of Agenais, Gâtinais, and Touraine), technically in the service of Spain. The obtaining of the money to fill the empty allied war chests proved to be more difficult. Failing at San Domingo, even though both De Grasse and Chevalier de Charitte (captain of the Bourgogne ) offered as security their own property in the West Indies and in France, he sent the Aigrette to Havana, where the inhabitants (some say “the ladies”) of that city provided the 1,200,000 livres in piasters without conditions in the space of six hours—the sum “serving as an excuse for the seventeen Spanish men-of-war not to accompany him.”

The race between Hood and De Grasse for the Chesapeake was now on; and the British were not the only ones who were mystified about the French admiral’s whereabouts and intentions. On September 2, Washington wrote to Lafayette that he was “distressed beyond measure to know what had become of the fleet of the Comte de Grasse, for fear that the English fleet, by occupying the Chesapeake, toward which my last accounts say they were steering, may frustrate all our flattering prospects in that quarter. I am also not a little solicitous for the Comte de Barras, who was to have sailed from Rhode Island on August 23 and from whom I have heard nothing since that time.”

De Grasse had sailed from Cape Haitien on August 5, and Hood from Antigua on August 10, but since all of Hood’s ships were coppered, as against only half of De Grasse’s, the English admiral had no trouble in being the first to arrive off the Capes of Virginia on August 25, five days ahead of the French. Seeing no signs of the enemy in the Chesapeake or the Delaware, Hood sailed on to New York “under a fresh of wind” on August 28, somewhat inexplicably missing all the lookout frigates Graves had stationed along his route. De Grasse also, quite intentionally of course, saw nothing of Graves’ frigates, for he negotiated, with the aid of Spanish pilots, the Old Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Bahama Banks, seldom used by warships. When Hood and his fourteen ships arrived off Sandy Hook, he found that his senior there, Thomas Graves, Rear Admiral of the Red, had returned within the bar on August 16 from a futile cruise after a reported French convoy, with two of his seven ships—the Robuste, 74 guns, and the Prudent, 64 guns— “extremely infirm,” and docked for at least ten days. Says Graves’ account:

The admirals consulted with the general [Clinton] and Rear-Admiral Graves instantly determined to seek the enemy, and to sail with the first wind for the chance of falling in with one of the French squadrons before joined with the other.  A line of battle was delivered on August 30, and, the wind serving on the 31st, the whole fleet made the best of their way for the Chesapeake, without any interruption, but from the complaints of the West Indian squadron, the Terrible on the third day of sailing making the signal of distress.  The fleet brought-to; when the Terrible was found to have come from the Leeward Islands with five pumps at work, the Ajax but little better, and the Montagu a leaky ship; that some of the rest had sprung masts, and several were very short of water and bread.  These defects were supplied as quickly and as well as the situation would admit, and the fleet proceeded with the utmost expedition.

A curious situation developed at 9 A.M.. on September 5, as the ten-mile-wide mouth of the Chesapeake opened before the British ships, and Graves learned from a lookout vessel that an enemy fleet “judged to be about fifteen ships of the line” lay at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay. This he took to be Barras, augmented by De Grasse. At about the same hour, De Grasse learned from his scouting frigate of the approach of a fleet, which he hoped was the expected squadron of Barras. Thus both admirals at first mistook one another for a third who was not there. Not until 2 P.M.., says Graves, did De Grasse’s imposing array “disclose itself fully” to the view of the British, who found to their consternation that it consisted of twenty-four large ships of the line.

True to the British naval tradition of attack, Graves and Hood brought their ships into the bay under foresails and topgallant sails with the wind north-northeast very much in their favor. De Grasse, whose fleet was anchored “promiscuously” in three lines, was seriously handicapped by the absence of 1,800 men and 90 officers, the best-drilled of his crews, whom he had sent up the bay in small boats to assist in the landings of Saint-Simon’s troops and to water the fleet. Some crews were short as many as two hundred men, the Citoyen , 74 guns, being unable to man its second tier. Four of the French fleet were also on detached duty to guard the mouths of the James and York rivers against a possible Cornwallis sortie.

De Grasse quickly gave the signal to prepare for action, and such was the celerity of the response that in spite of the absent officers and men, the fleet was ready to get under way in three-quarters of an hour. At 11:30 A.M.. came the order to slip cables, and by noon the ebb tide had made sufficiently for the first of the fleet, formed at will according to speed, to emerge against the wind in order to clear Cape Henry, obtain sea room, and insure a junction with Barras. Some of the slower ships were obliged to tack several times before clearing the Cape, and that made the formation of an orthodox line of battle impossible.

According to a French eyewitness:

The fleet formed in very bad order, for, to tell the truth, there were only four vessels in line, the Pluton, 74 guns, the Bourgogne, 80, the Marseillais, 64, and the  Diadème, 74. The Réfléche, 64 guns, and the Caton, 64, came next, half a league to the lee of the first; the rest of the fleet more to the lee of the latter, the Ville de Paris, 110, in the center. The British were in the best possible order, bowsprit to stern, bearing down on us.

So eager were the French captains to get out to sea that Commodore de Monteil of the rear division in the Languedoc, 80 guns, found himself ahead of De Grasse’s flagship, and had to be ordered to fall back to his proper station.

Four more hours were to elapse before a shot could be fired. This was because eighteenth-century warships were “great tub-like hulks,” very difficult to handle, virtually floating gun platforms capable of hurling great quantities of metal at one another with deadly results, but very much at the mercy of that true mistress of the seas, the wind. At 2:15 P.M.. Graves found that his van, commanded by Hood, was coming too close to the shoal called the Middle Ground, so he gave the signal for the entire fleet to tack simultaneously (or “wear”), thus bringing them into reverse order, close-hauled on the same tack as the French, both bearing for the open sea, but not on strictly parallel courses. The British line of battle was now headed by the Shrewsbury, 74 guns, of Drake’s division, with Hood’s forming the rear.

Here was Graves’ heaven-sent opportunity to reap what Hood later called “a rich and most delightful harvest of glory.” As Graves himself said, the first five ships of the French van were “very particularly extended.” He had only to throw his whole force, or even his van and center, in almost any formation, against them at odds of at least two to one. This was the perfect opening for the maneuver which Hawke, Rodney, and Nelson were to make famous, by openly defying the established rules, called “breaking the line,” although at this stage the French admiral really had no line to break.

Instead, Graves proceeded to “edge cautiously down upon the unformed French,” preserving the prescribed “line ahead” and striving to make it conterminous with that of the enemy. The log of his flagship, the London, 98 guns, has the astounding entry: “Brought-to in order to let ye Center of the Enemys Ships come a Brest of us.” Signals were then addressed to five of his ships to “gett in line” or “gett to her station,” indicating that the line-order was being enforced. This stately, by-the-rules approach, as Hood was to point out, gave De Grasse “a full hour and a half” to bring his lagging center and rear to the support of his exposed van.

Why did Graves not only preserve the line ahead, but actually heave to in order to allow the enemy to reach the proper position to be attacked according to the rules? “The real culprit,” says Michael Lewis, “was the System,” those permanent Fighting Instructions with the force of law, which had been binding on all naval commanders under the severest penalties for almost a century and had never brought about a decisive action in all that time. All officers were imbued with the doctrine of the line ahead, drawn geometrically from the leading ship of the van through the admiral’s flagship. “Conserve the line at all costs. See that it extends the full length of the enemy line, van to van, center to center, rear to rear, and leave it, individual captain, at your peril.” The century had been dotted with courts-martial for negligence and disobedience; and in 1757 Admiral the Honorable John Byng had been shot by a file of marines on the quarter-deck of the Monarque for negligence in failing to “bear right down on the enemy” in the prescribed form. Byng had been sent to relieve Minorca, met the fleet of Admiral de la Galissonière, attacked it without preserving the line, and paid with his life for “not doing his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships.”

Rear Admiral Thomas Graves had a special reason for abiding by the letter of the Instructions, because on the very same day that Byng was sentenced at Portsmouth, Graves, then the captain of the 20-gun frigate Sheerness, had been sentenced by another court at Plymouth “to be publicly reprimanded for an error of judgment” under the Thirty-sixth Article of War for his failure to chase and engage a merchantman which he had mistaken for a ship of the line. In view of the shadowy borderline between “an error of judgment” and “negligence,” Captain Graves must have thought himself fortunate to have escaped the firing squad.

Granted that Graves lacked the dash of a Hawke or a Nelson, it must also be conceded that if he was to keep out of trouble with the Admiralty in the Chesapeake, he was in a very tight box. Since the situation presented by De Grasse was unforeseen, there were no instructions or signals for dealing with it. The line ahead would not work; but the only alternative signal was for “General Chase,” which the rules said must be used only when the enemy was in small force or on the run. De Grasse was neither; and Graves was well aware that another commander, Sir Charles Knowles, had been tried and narrowly acquitted for ordering a “General Chase” of an unbeaten Spanish fleet off Havana in 1748.

Taking no chances of being found technically at fault, Graves kept doggedly to his line ahead, and committed his second tactical error at 2:30 by making the signal “for ye Leading Ships to lead more to starboard” (toward the French). This meant that his line became obliquely inclined toward the van of the opposing fleet. Since the naval cannon of that period fired only in broadsides, a ship approaching obliquely had to sacrifice for a time almost all its fire-power at the very moment when it exposed itself to being enfiladed by the enemy.

But an even more shocking outcome of Graves’ method of approach was that the seven ships of Hood’s division, though part of an inferior force undertaking to attack, never came into action at all. Graves and Hood each blamed the other for this particular failure, and a furious controversy began. On the day after the battle Hood wrote down his angry “Sentiments Upon the Truly Unfortunate Day,” in which his cold contempt for Graves was no longer concealed; it was summed up by him also in a letter to a friend: “A cunning man … clearly unequal to the conducting of a great squadron.” It should be remembered, however, that Hood, approximately Graves’ peer in age and experience, had been called to sea from virtual retirement, only to find himself junior to everybody.

The dispute between the two admirals was further aggravated by what happened after the firing began, summed up by one historian in the words: “A mistaken signal loses an empire.” At 4:03 P.M.. Graves, “seeing the enemy ships advancing very slow, and the evening approaching,” judged that the moment for attack had arrived and “made ye signal for ye ships to bear down and Engage, filled ye Main Top sail [of the London ] and bore down on enemy.” The trouble was that he did so with the signal for the line ahead still flying until 4:11 P.M.., when it was hauled down “that it might not interfear with ye signal to engage close.” The London, tenth in line, started for the French, as Hood observed, “from a most improper distance.”

While the London ’s cannon balls were falling short, the ships of the British van, much closer to the enemy, came within musket shot and were subjected, one by one, to the diagonal fire of the French gunners. Among the reforms introduced in the navy by the Duc de Choiseul had been the formation of a corps of seamen-gunners, and this training, parallel to that of the land artillery, had begun to show results. Their policy was to aim high and seek to cripple the enemy’s masts and rigging, while their British counterparts went for the hull at close range. The carnage on deck was usually frightful, because once the hatches were closed, the gun crews could not leave their posts, and wooden walls gave scant protection.

Attacking in “a very spirited and gallant manner,” the leading ship of the British van, the Shrewsbury, met a hail of fire from the Pluton, which tore off the left leg of grizzled old Captain Mark Robinson, killed his lieutenant and fourteen of the crew, and wounded fifty-two. “All its running rigging and sails,” says the official report of damages, “were shot to pieces.” One broadside brought down the main topmast; others almost severed the foremast in three places, the mizzenmast in two. At 8:05 P.M.. the Shrewsbury made the signal of distress, no longer being able to keep its place.

The second ship, Intrepid, whose Captain Molloy bravely tried to cover the Shrewsbury, was even more roughly handled by the Marseillois. She was “much disabled in every respect,” with twenty-one killed and thirty-five wounded. There were “65 shot holes in the starboard side, 19 between wind and water; rudder much damaged; sails and rigging very much cut.” Similar reports came from the Alcide (“many shot under water, making the ship leaky, three shot through the mainmast”); the Ajax (“two guns are wounded and one dismounted”); the Europe (“four shot in the mainmast, 12 shot between wind and water, and a great number in the upper works”), and the Montagu (“hull much shattered by shot, rigging and sails very much cut, four guns dismounted”).

The flagship Princesa of Francis Drake, Rear Admiral of the Blue, had its “mainmast shot through in three places; several shot in the side and under water, with rigging and sails very much cut,” but nevertheless was able to retaliate in kind. It poured its “first broadside into the Réfléche, killing its captain, M. de Boade,” says a French account, which continues:

That vessel soon bore away, as well as the Caton, on which the English kept up a brisk fire. The four ships in the [French] van found themselves, consequently, entirely cut off from the rest of the fleet, and constantly engaged with 7 or 8 vessels at close quarters. The Diadème was near Rear Admiral Drake, who set fire to her at every shot, the wadding entering her side. This vessel was constantly engaged with 2 and sometimes 3 ships. The English could not cut off our van, which they might perhaps have taken, and which they would, at all events, have rendered past repair. They contented themselves simply with cutting up that part of our fleet which kept up a distant fight.

The Diadème was utterly unable to keep up the battle, having only four 36-pounders and nine 18-pounders fit for use, and all on board killed, wounded or burnt. At this juncture M. de Chabert, commanding the St. Esprit, which had for a long time been engaged with the British admiral, and who was himself wounded, seeing the imminent danger of the Diadème, hoisted sail and was soon in her wake; then he opened a terrible fire, that the gentlemen of Albion could not stand, and had to haul their wind.

Meanwhile Commodore de Bougainville on the Bourgogne was on the point of boarding the Princesa, which avoided him, whereupon he turned all his fire on the Terrible, sending two cannon balls through her already-sprung foremast, in which two more buried themselves. “We weighed one of the shot,” said her Captain Finch, “it weighed 39 pounds.” That ill-fated ship’s pumps, “only kept together by tar’d canvas and lead,” could not long keep her afloat; and after a council of war a few days later the Terrible had to be dismantled and burned in the sight of the enemy. The total battle casualties of the British amounted to 90 killed and 246 wounded, as against a French toll of dead and wounded of about 220.

Most of the havoc wreaked upon both men and ships was confined to the van and center of each fleet, only twelve of the British ships actually being engaged with fifteen of the French, the rear squadrons remaining far apart. Some of the blame for this belongs to the British Navy’s crude and ineffective system of signals. Admiral Graves had signaled to his fleet to bear down and engage, but at 4:22 P.M.. made the mistake of re-hoisting the flag for line ahead, “ye ships not being sufficiently extended.” This was because the flagship, in advancing and bringing her broadside to bear, found the ships ahead of her bunched together. Graves may possibly have intended that each captain should bear down, engage his opposite number, and also keep the line conterminous with the enemy. But none of his admirals or captains saw it that way. The line was the line; and Graves’ signals were literally contradictory. For the French were in no sort of line; and a grand melee would have resulted, in which the British might have fared very well indeed.

At 4:27 P.M.., according to Graves, the line signal was down and that for close action was up, although Hood and at least one of his captains swore that the line signal flew continuously until 5:30 P.M.. The contradiction between the testimonies of the two admirals is so glaring that Sir John L. Laughton, the distinguished biographer of both Graves and Hood, has suggested the possibility that Graves saw the signal lowered, but that a “too active-minded signalman” mistakenly restored it. Hood argued that had the British center come to the support of the van, and the signal for the line been hauled down, or the commander-in-chief had set the example of close action, even with the signal for the line flying, the van of the enemy must have been cut to pieces, and the rear division of the British fleet would have been opposed to those ships the center division fired at, and at the proper distance for engaging it, or the Rear Admiral who commanded it [Hood himself] would have had a great deal to answer for.

Partisans of Graves thought that Hood had indeed a great deal to answer for, namely his alleged “shyness” or “dilatory tactics” in refusing to leave the line and engage the enemy. It appeared to them that he was deliberately leaving Graves, of whose ability he said he “thought very meanly,” to get out of the jam by himself. We can see today that Hood, being obliged to disobey one of two signals, chose the wrong one; but it is Laughton’s opinion that strict obedience to the line signal was officially held to be of paramount importance, so that “no suspicion that he should have acted otherwise than he did ever crossed Hood’s mind.”

According to the French, the cannonading “was kept up in the center for a half hour longer than in the van. For our part, we were so tired, that though within gun-shot, the vans no longer fired; at 6 P.M.. the battle closed.” De Grasse “wore” his fleet about, to receive a second attack, but it was not forthcoming. Graves sought to keep his shattered line extended with that of the enemy during the night, “with the full intention,” he said, “to renew the engagement in the morning.” But when a frigate returned from the van, he learned that “several of the ships had suffered so much, they were in no condition to renew the action until they had secured their masts.”

The next four days were spent by the two fleets at sea in sight of one another, jockeying for the wind, and alternating in possession of it, but with neither admiral using it to press an attack. Graves’ explanation was: “We had not speed in so mutilated a state to attack them, had it been prudent”; and De Grasse’s mood was plainly defensive, hoping to distract British attention from Barras, who was circling far to the east, then south opposite Albemarle, and back up the coast.

Both admirals seemed temporarily to have lost sight of their true strategic bone of contention, the occupation of the Chesapeake, as they maneuvered south of the Capes. At one time Graves was probably closer to Yorktown than De Grasse. But the latter seems to have been the first to recall what the two fleets were fighting about, and on the evening of September 9, he pressed on sail for his former anchorage. There he found Barras, “who had witnessed the affair of the 5th,” says a French observer, but because of the distance “being unable to distinguish the French fleet, had anchored in the roads where we found him.”

Four more days were spent by the three British admirals in acid exchanges of notes and acrimonious councils of war on board the London. Hood had wanted Graves to go boldly into the Bay right after the battle and seize De Grasse’s anchorage, a maneuver Hood later brilliantly executed against that admiral at Basseterre Bay, St. Kitts. After all, only sixteen guns in the British batteries had been disabled, and Hood’s squadron, of course, was wholly intact and full of fight. Even in the event that Graves could drive De Grasse from the Chesapeake, on the other hand, he would have to leave Clinton defenseless in New York.

By September 13, at any rate, there were no less than thirty-six French ships of the line across the entrance to the Bay. As Hood sadly reflected: “We should have barred the entrance to De Grasse; now he has barred it to us.” So, the resolution of the British council of war, signed by Graves, Hood, and Drake, concluded that

because of the position of the enemy, the present condition of the British fleet, the season of the year so near the equinox, and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis in the Chesapeake, … the British fleet should proceed with all dispatch to New York.

Says Stephen Bonsal in When the French Were Here: “That was indeed a war council that should be gratefully remembered in our annals. Its members contributed powerfully to the founding of the United States of America.”

Rumors that the English fleet had received “a severe drubbing” trickled into New York, and on September 17, according to the Memoirs of Major General William Heath, “when a packet arrived at New York, 3,000 people were said to be waiting on the wharves to learn the news, but not a word transpired; nor did the countenance of the officer who landed appear to beam with the smiles of fortune.” When the fleet returned on the twentieth, and ten ships docked for repairs, “the inhabitants were in great consternation, many were packing up their goods.”

Not until the night of September 14 did the worried Rochambeau receive from the unhurried De Grasse a letter giving a circumstantial account of the battle of September 5. Strangely enough, none of the allied leaders seems to have realized at the time what a decisive engagement had taken place. De Grasse was in a state of alarm over the news that Rear Admiral Digby was on his way to New York with reinforcements for Graves, and it was only with difficulty that Washington persuaded him to stay within the Capes, lest the returning British might catch him again without sea room on a lee shore. In his diary, Washington described the battle as “a partial engagement … with Admiral Graves whom De Grasse has driven back to Sandy Hook,” as a result of which, so he told Governor Thomas Sim Lee on September 15, “the Bay is now secure.”

About a month later, on October 19, Washington wrote to Major General William Heath those prophetic words: “The naval engagement appears to have been of much greater importance than was at first estimated.” By the time a British relief expedition could be made ready to sail from New York with a reinforced fleet of twenty-five ships with 7,000 troops on board, on that same day, Cornwallis had already surrendered. As one French officer wrote in his journal: “They were too late. The fowl had been eaten.”

The British public began its search for a scapegoat. Lord Cornwallis got off easily: “Neither the government nor the nation,” said Benjamin F. Stevens, “blamed him for the disaster that had overtaken his command.” General Clinton escaped any public censure and had “a very kind reception from the King,” but was given no further employment in the field, and spent his remaining years in an interminable pen battle with Cornwallis. There were a few open attacks upon Rear Admiral Graves in the House of Lords, some of them exaggerated and unjust. But as Michael Lewis angrily inquires:

What did they do to Graves on his return? Shoot him? Cashier him? Certainly not. They did not even try him. He was reemployed, rose to high rank, and ultimately gained a peerage. And why not? He had faithfully kept their rules, their Instructions, their inviolable line. He had lost no engagement, no ships—none was lost on either side. He had merely lost America.

As Washington had predicted, the navy had had the “casting vote” in deciding the outcome of the war, and it was the French Navy which delivered what soon became known as le coup de Grasse. Yorktown was still to be besieged, and deeds of valor were still to be performed, but after De Grasse had sealed off the ocean approaches, Cornwallis’ chances of avoiding surrender were exactly nil. Once he had capitulated, whatever might happen elsewhere, the British attempt to subdue the rebellious colonies was doomed to failure.

In two respects the Battle of the Chesapeake marked the end of an era. On land the French and American armies now followed out in great detail the ancient siege ritual according to Vauban: investiture, circumvallation, countervallation, bombardment, and the opening of first and second parallels to the rolling of drums and the waving of banners. It was the last of a two-hundred-year series of feudal sieges. The campaign by sea was the last that was conducted under the tyranny of the Fighting Instructions. When Admiral Rodney, restored to his West Indies post, defied the rules and sailed into the midst of De Grasse’s becalmed fleet at the Saintes on April 12, 1782 (see “The Battle of the Saintes,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, June, 1958), thereby restoring “the empire of the ocean” to Britannia, the old naval order was finished. Yorktown not only enabled the French Navy to make us the decisive gift of our independence as a nation; it gave mankind “one flickering glimpse of war in its ancient panoply.”

*One, of course, later was burned and sunk (supra).


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