Editor’s Note: As the French tall ship replica L’Hermione makes her way up the East Coast to celebrate the relationship between France and the United States, a series of blogs will discuss four topics: the Marquis de Lafayette; the ship that brought him to America the second time in 1780, L’Hermione; the critical Battle of the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781, and the Franco-American relationship as it has grown over the past years.
By Michael Crawford, Ph.D., Senior Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command
On Sept. 5, 1781, a French fleet of 24 ships of the line engaged a British fleet of 19 ships of the line in the Battle off the Virginia Capes. The French fleet prevented the British fleet from relieving the besieged army of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, 2d Earl Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Va., leading to the eventual surrender of some 7,000 British troops to the combined American and French arms.
The French fleet of 28 ships of the line, under command of Adm. François Joseph Paul comte de Grasse-Tilly, entered the Chesapeake Bay on Aug. 30, 1781, bringing with them 3,300 French soldiers from the West Indies.
Mid-morning Sept. 5, a French frigate on scouting duty sited strange sails on the horizon. De Grasse first thought it was a French squadron from Newport, R.I. bringing the army’s siege artillery. But by 11 a.m. the the French admiral knew it could only be the British. Realizing the need to meet the British fleet before it intercepted the squadron, de Grasse did not wait to re-embark the 1,800 sailors who were ashore to replenish the fleet’s supply of water and fresh produce or to recall several of his ships blockading the York and James Rivers.
At 11:30, 24 French ships of the line cut their anchor cables and stood out to sea to fight the engagement on whose outcome rested the independence of the United States of America.
Setting the scene
On May 6, 1781, a French frigate arrived in Boston delivering Adm. Louis Jacques comte de Barras de Saint-Laurant, who brought the following information: Barras was to take command of the French squadron at Newport; De Grasse was to send part of his West Indies squadron north in July or August, and Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien Vimeur comte de Rochambeau was to incorporate his corps of French troops with George Washington’s Continental troops.
Lord Cornwallis entered Virginia from North Carolina in the spring of 1781, and uniting his force with a British detachment, commanded something more than 7,000 troops. At the end of July, under orders from Gen. Sir Henry Clinton to establish himself somewhere in the Chesapeake he could hold as a base for naval operations and where he could be supplied by sea, Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, Va.
The French agreed to cooperate with the Spanish in a campaign in the Caribbean. Francisco Saavedra, sent by the Spanish king to coordinate Spain’s military and naval operations in America, released for a time a French corps of 3,300 men at Saint Dominque that had been placed in Spanish service.
When de Grasse announced his intention to sail with 24 of his ships of the line for an expedition to the Chesapeake, Savaadra urged him to sail instead with his entire force and offered four Spanish ships of the line to protect the French merchant fleet at Cape Français.
Promising to return to the Caribbean when the hurricane season ended in mid-October, de Grasse sailed on Aug. 5. To avoid being seen by scouting ships, they took a more circuitous route to the Chesapeake. De Grasse’s fleet arrived at the Chesapeake on Aug. 30, and the next day landed the troops.
On Aug. 14, Washington ordered Rochambeau’s corps of about 2,000 men and 2,500 American troops to Virginia, where it was to join Continental troops under Marquis de Lafayette.
British Adm. Sir George Rodney, who was unwell, ordered his subordinate Adm. Samuel Hood to North America, assuming Hood’s fleet of 14 ships of the line would be sufficient to maintain naval superiority.
On his way north Hood looked into the Chesapeake on Aug. 25 and, finding no fleet there, continued on to New York, where he placed himself under the orders of Adm. Thomas Graves, commander of the North American station, on Aug. 28.
On the evening of Aug. 28, the same day Hood’s squadron arrived at New York, the British learned Barras’s squadron of six ships of the line had sailed to the southward. It was not until the 31st, however, that Graves was able to cross the bar with five ships to join Hood, where he waited with his squadron, and set sail in hopes of intercepting Barras.
Graves commanded only 19 ships of the line when he approached the Chesapeake on Sept. 5 and to his surprise discovered the entrance to the capes occupied by the superior French West Indian fleet rather than by Barras’s smaller squadron.
The Battle Begins
The morning of Sept. 5th found 24 of de Grasse’s 28 ships of the line drawn up in three files in Lynnhaven Bay, with about 1,800 sailors ashore landing troops and watering the fleet.
Unable to recall the absent sailors in time, and leaving behind four ships of the line that were occupied in the rivers in support of the army, de Grasse sailed out with 24 to meet Graves. De Grasse had to fight Graves in order to allow Barras to slip into the Chesapeake; he did not have to defeat Graves, who was unaware Cornwallis’ army was immobilized.
The French fleet straggled out of the capes in some disorder, the van, under Louis-Antoine comte de Bougainville, getting significantly ahead of the center. Graves did not take advantage of the stretching out of de Grasse’s line of battle to attack a portion of it. His actions indicate that he was intent on preventing ships of the more numerous French fleet from doubling his, catching British ships between two fires. Graves sought to fight a conventional battle of line against line.
As the British van bore down on the French, the angle of the British line became more oblique, moving the rear farther from the action. It didn’t help the flag signals given by Graves confused commanders within his fleet. About 5 p.m. the wind shifted more easterly, putting the British rear even more to the windward. The rear never engaged. Around 6:30, as darkness fell, Graves disengaged.
Tactically the Battle off the Virginia Capes was indecisive. Both fleets had ships badly shot up. The British had five ships of the line particularly injured. The ships in the vans of both fleets received the bulk of the damage.
The 74-gun HMS Terrible, which had been leaking badly when it sailed from the West Indies, was so injured the British abandoned and burned it. Over the next several days, while the two fleets sailed within sight of each other, it became clear the British fleet was in no condition for another engagement.
On Sept. 9, de Grasse sailed back to the Chesapeake, arriving on Sept. 11, finding Barras’s squadron there. It occurred to Graves too late he might to try to beat de Grasse back to the Chesapeake and bar his way. On Sept. 13 the British admiral decided to return to New York, repair his ships, and prepare for possible offensive operations with reinforcements expected from England.
Washington and Rochambeau reached the Yorktown peninsula on Sept. 14; their entire force arrived by Sept. 26. On Sept. 28, the Battle of Yorktown began as French and American forces began to surround Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown.
By Oct. 17, Graves’s ships were repaired and ready; after 7,000 rank and file embarked, the ships of line set sail two days later. On Oct. 24 they learned Cornwallis had surrendered on the 19th.
Decisive local superiority at sea, attained through the cooperation of three allies — the United States, France, and Spain — sealed the fate of the British Army at Yorktown. British strategy had assumed the Royal Navy would maintain a continuity of naval superiority in North America. When the British lost that, they lost America.