Sunday, February 11, 2024

ARP298 Battle of the Capes

Last week we covered the Continental and French efforts to concentrate their forces on the British Southern army at Yorktown.  In order for that effort to be successful, they had to deny the British Navy control of the waters around Yorktown.

Battle of Virginia Capes
Throughout the war, the British Navy had dominated the waters off the coast of North America.  The Continentals could do little but occasionally pick off isolated ships.  They could not compete directly with the British Navy.  To contest British control of the sea, General Washington had to await the arrival of the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse.  That fleet was in the West Indies and was expected in North America in the fall of 1781.

Admiral de Grasse

Admiral François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse was an experienced 53 year old naval veteran.  He came from old French nobility, tracing his family back nearly 1000 years.  His father, the Marquis de Grasse, served as a captain in the French Army.  Francois Joseph Paul joined the Knights of Malta at age 11, seeing early combat against the Turks and the Moores. At age 16, he joined the French Navy.  During the War of Austrian Succession, de Grasse was taken prisoner by the British for two years.  Upon his return he received promotion to lieutenant and served in the East Indies.  By the end of the Seven Years war, de Grasse had become an experienced naval captain.

Comte de Grasse
When France entered the war with Britain in 1778, de Grasse led fleets at the Battle of Ushant and against the British fleet near Grenada.  He assisted the Americans in the failed siege of Savannah in 1779.  He also served in the West Indies under Admiral d’Estaing.

After his return to France in 1780, de Grasse took some time off to recover from injuries and illness.  In March 1781, he received promotion to admiral and was given command of 23 ships of the line.  His mission was to protect French island colonies in the West Indies and to capture British colonies there.

Almost immediately after his arrival in the West Indies, his fleet contested with the British fleet.  A few months later the French captured the British-controlled island of Tobago.

The mission for de Grasse did not really involve the war in North America.  France’s naval focus was the fight with the British for control of valuable island colonies in the West Indies and elsewhere.  General Rochambeau had been sent to America with the explicit task of supporting, some say propping up, the Continental Army. French Admiral Jacques de Barras provided naval support for Rochambeau in North America.  Admiral de Grasse was focused on other goals that did not involve the sideshow in North America.

That said, late summer and early fall was a bad time for any navy to remain in the West Indies.  That was the height of hurricane season.  Since hurricanes could arrive with little notice and were known to destroy fleets, it made sense to get out of the area during hurricane season.

Knowing this, in June, de Grasse received multiple requests from North America asking for the help of his fleet.  The American privateer Congress brought Continental Major John McLane to de Grasse’s flagship.  Major McLane was tasked by General Washington to convince de Grasse to bring his fleet up to New York and assist a combined Continental and French army with the capture of Manhattan.

McLane was to persuade de Grasse to sail up take New York Harbor and assist the combined Continental and French armies to defeat the British under General Clinton and capture the city of New York.

Some accounts of McLane’s mission indicate he was there to persuade de Grasse to sail up to the Chesapeake. But that appears to be the way it got spun after the fact.  When Washington dispatched McLane, Washington still wanted the fight to come to New York, not Virginia.  However, McLane also brought dispatches from French General Rochambeau to Admiral de Grasse.

Technically, Rochambeau’s letters were supposed to support Washington’s goal of taking New York.  Instead, Rochambeau focused on the goal of capturing the British Army in Virginia, and then suggested perhaps afterwards sailing up to New York to finish the job.  That, of course, was highly unlikely.  Even if the French fleet had the time and ability to fight two such campaigns,  The Continental and French Armies would not have time to be in both locations before the French fleet had to return to the West Indies.

Rochambeau phrased his letters in respectful and diplomatic language.  But reading between the lines, what Rochambeau was telling de Grasse was that Rochambeau was under orders to support whatever Washington wanted to do, but that de Grasse was not.  The admiral should focus on the Chesapeake and ignore the naive General Washington’s hopes to retaking New York.  Certainly, that was what de Grasse took as his strategy after meeting with McLane and after reading Rochambeau’s letters.

In his responses, de Grasse informed Washington and Rochambeau that he would sail for the Chesapeake Bay in August, but would have to be back in the West Indies in October. This gave the allies a pretty narrow window to attack and defeat the British Army in Virginia.

Attack of the Savage

One interesting side note to this story was Major McLane’s return trip to America.  As the privateer Congress sailed up the coast, it came across the British naval ship the Savage, commanded by Captain Charles Stirling.  The Savage was a small British sloop with fourteen 6-pounder canons and a crew of about 125 sailors.  This was the same ship that had sailed up the Potomac River and threatened Mount Vernon a few months earlier.  On its current mission, the Savage was escorting a supply fleet on its way to British occupied Charleston.

The Congress Captures the Savage
When the Savage spotted the Congress, Captain Stirling thought it was a smaller privateer that had been harassing British shipping in the area.  He sailed to engage.  As the ships got closer, Stirling quickly realized his target was much larger.  The Congress had twenty 12-pounders and four 6-pounders.  Its crew of over 200 included a sizable complement of Continental Marines.  Once the British commander realized he was outclassed, he turned his ship away and tried to escape.

The Congress pursued and came within cannon range by late morning.  After another half hour, the ships were close enough for marines to fire their muskets at the enemy ship.  The Savage returned fire at close range. Both ships took heavy damage.  The Congress took so much damage to its rigging, that it had to back off while the crew made quick repairs and resumed battle.  After an hour or so, the Congress pulled alongside the Savage so the marines could board.  As they prepared for the final assault, the British surrendered.

The fighting had been brutal.  The British lost 9 killed and 34 wounded.  The Americans lost 11 killed and 30 wounded.  The Americans took control of the British ship.  They put a prize crew aboard.

The Congress made it back to port, but the Savage struggled.  The prize crew attempted to sail the badly damaged ship north.  After about a week, the British frigate Solebay encountered the Savage.  The British recaptured the ship and took the prize crew as prisoners.

Sailing to Virginia

Back in the West Indies, de Grasse made plans to bring his entire fleet up to the Chesapeake.  He scrambled to collect money, which came primarily in the form of a loan from the Spanish people in Havana, which I described last week.  On August 18, the fleet sailed from Cuba toward Virginia.  About a week into the trip, they encountered three small British Navy ships, which they captured.  

One of the ships was taking Lord Rawdon back to Britain after he left South Carolina.  Recall that Lord Rawdon had been the overall British commander in South Carolina after General Cornwallis moved north.  After losing most of his outposts in South Carolina to General Nathanael Greene's Continentals and South Carolina militia, and also being sick with malaria,  Lord Rawdon hoped to sail home to London.  As a result of his capture at sea, Lord Rawdon became a French prisoner of war, along with the rest of the crews of the three captured ships.

Yorktown Movements
On August 28, the fleet was just outside of the Chesapeake.  A group of loyalists, thinking the fleet was British, rowed out to greet them, and were promptly taken prisoner.  A few days later, on September 1, the fleet offloaded the about 3300 French soldiers under the command of the Marquis de St. Simon that the navy had brought to America.  

During this time, de Grasse noted that the British forces at Yorktown observed their movements, but made no effort to attack them or disrupt the landings.  The Admiral noted “The English general might have prevented us from doing anything, and even repulsed us, had he not despised our small army.  At our first encampment it would have been annihilated if attacked.”  Even being unmolested, it took three days for the army to connect with the Continentals under Lafayette.

Personally, de Grasse was almost killed in a careless accident.  While going ashore, his boat capsized and he could not swim.  Fortunately, the boat capsized near a sand bar which was in about four feet of water. The admiral was able to walk to the shore, although completely soaked.

The remainder of the fleet continued to arrive and position itself over the first few days of September.  They managed to seize several British ships attempting to escape out of the Chesapeake.  On September 3, de Grasse sent four of his ships into the bay, to seek out and capture a number of merchant ships that were still in the bay.

The French Navy had secured the waters around Yorktown, but were still awaiting another French fleet under the Count de Barras.  That smaller fleet had been in Rhode Island, protecting the French camp at Newport. It included eight ships of the line, as well as numerous smaller ships.

De Barras was a friend of the Count d’Estaing, and considered de Grasse a rival. Also, de Barras outranked de Grasse and de Grasse had been given overall command of the operation.  So serving under an officer junior to him was seen as an insult.  As a result, de Barras really had no desire to link up with the de Grasse fleet.  

Washington had originally hoped that de Barras would sail the French Army down to the Chesapeake, but de Barras refused.  His fleet remained in New England as the French and Continental armies marched overland. Rochambeau and Washington had hoped that de Barras would at least transport some of the French heavy artillery that they needed at Yorktown.

The stubbornness of de Barras ended up working in the Americans’ favor.  The British fleet at New York did not sail for the Chesapeake because they were still monitoring the French fleet under de Barras.  That the French fleet remained in New England was evidence to General Clinton that the march toward Yorktown was really just a ruse, and that the enemy forces might still be planning an attack on New York.  Another theory was that the fleet under de Grasse would sail up to Newport before the combined French fleets sailed elsewhere.

It was only after de Barras finally left port in late August, that the British fleet finally left New York.  Even then, the British chased after de Barras, who sailed east into the open Atlantic, rather than sailing south.  The British hoped to capture and defeat this smaller fleet before it could link up with de Grasse’s fleet.  

There was also a second British fleet in the West Indies that had been fighting with the French fleet under de Grasse all spring and summer.  This British fleet was under the command of Admiral George Rodney.  In early August, Rodney sailed for England with part of the fleet, leaving the remainder under the command of Admiral Samuel Hood.  The fleet under Hood arrived at the Chesapeake a few days before de Grasse.  The British admiral had sent instructions to New York to have a frigate meet him there so that they could coordinate a strategy.  His instructions never arrived because the ship carrying them was attacked by privateers.  When Admiral Hood saw no frigate at the Chesapeake, he continued sailing his fleet up to New York. As a result, de Grasse found the Chesapeake virtually uncontested when he arrived a few days later.

Battle of the Capes

On August 31, three days after de Grasse arrived at the Chesapeake, the combined British fleet under Admirals Grave and Hood sailed out of New York.  They took nineteen ships of the line, thinking that they would outnumber and outgun the French fleet which would have left some of their ships in the West Indies.  The British though they would face an enemy fleet of about 14 ships of the line.  In fact, thanks to Spanish cooperation, de Grasse had taken his entire fleet, which included 28 ships of the line.

When the British frigate Solebay spotted the French fleet on the morning of September 5, its captain counted 24 French ships of the line.  The other four were still sailing away from the main fleet in the Chesapeake.  That put the British leaders on notice that they were facing a fleet larger than their own.

Admiral Thomas Graves
Even so, Admiral Graves had the wind on his side, and had time to attack the lead French ships before the rest could get into position and form into a line of battle.  For some reason, he delayed.  Admiral Hood later reported that Graves had about an hour and a half to demolish the French vanguard before the rest of the enemy fleet arrived.  Instead, he adjusted his fleet and waited for the French to approach him.

The French received intelligence of the approaching British fleet only a short time before the fleet was upon them.  They hoped to take them on in battle out in open sea. But unfavorable winds and the tides made it difficult for much of the fleet to get out to the ocean quickly.

By early afternoon, both fleets came into contact and were formed into lines of battle.  Due to some confusion over flag signals, the rear of the fleet under Admiral Hood formed a line behind that of Graves’ ships, rather than the parallel line that Graves expected.  Several of the French ships were still struggling to get out of the bay.  It was not until about 4:15 in the afternoon that the ships came into firing range with one another and began opening up with their cannons.

Within minutes, the lead British ship, the Shrewsbury, suffered heavy damage and was out of the fight.  The next few British ships in line also took damage but returned fire, inflicting heavy damage on the lead French ships.  

After a little over an hour, Hood figured out that he no longer had to remain in the line that he thought was required by Graves’ flag commands, and his portion of the fleet entered the battle.  The damaged lead French ships veered away from the battle, leaving a large number from the center of the line to continue the fight.

By evening, Admiral Graves called off the fight and withdrew.  The French fleet did not pursue.  Graves had intended to renew the fight the following morning, but after getting reports from each of his ships, he reconsidered.  Five of his ships were too badly damaged to continue the fight, one so badly it had to be scuttled. Graves could view the French fleet, only a few miles away, and believed that the enemy had suffered far less damage than his fleet.

Instead, both fleets spent the following day, September 6, repairing their ships and tending to the wounded.  British records later reported 82 killed and 232 wounded.  French records don’t give a detailed breakdown but give a total of 209 casualties.  


That evening, Admiral Graves met with Admiral Hood to discuss the battle and next steps.  Graves was upset that Hood had not entered the battle until very late in the day.  Hood argued that Graves’ flags were effectively orders that he stay in line behind Graves.  While Graves conceded that was what the flag meant, Hood should have used his better judgment.  Hood, however, was used to serving under Admiral Rodney, who would never have tolerated subordinates using their own judgment like that.  

French map showing control of Chesapeake
The result was that Graves’ ships at the front of the line had taken the brunt of the damage.  Hood’s ships in the rear had taken almost none.  In fact, none of the ships in Hoods’ division reported a single casualty.  The British fleet would still have been outnumbered and outgunned, even if several of their ships of the line were not out of commission. At that point, Hood recommended returning to New York, but Graves rejected that plan.

While the two fleets kept in sight of each other, they had moved far enough out to sea that they could not see the mouth of the Chesapeake anymore.  On September 7, Graves sent two British frigates to determine how many additional French ships remained in the Chesapeake.

Over the next couple of days, the two sides continued to drift further out to sea.  Finally, Graves conceded on September 13 that they needed to return to New York to regroup and repair.  

The French fleet under de Grasse returned to the Chesapeake, only to find another fleet guarding the entrance to the bay.  After some moments of concern, de Grasse determined that the fleet was, in fact, the French fleet under de Barras that had arrived from New England.

The French Navy maintained undisputed control of the Chesapeake Bay and of the Atlantic coast of Virginia.  The American and French Armies around Yorktown continued to grow as more regiments arrived from the march from New York and local militia began to turn out in larger numbers. 

Inside the British camp at Yorktown, General Cornwallis finally began to realize the predicament that he faced.  Even so, he believed he could hold out until another British relief force returned to assist his army.  We’ll see how that goes next week, when we cover the Siege of Yorktown

- - -

Next Episode 299 Siege of Yorktown 

Previous Episode 297 March to Yorktown

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Further Reading


François-Joseph-Paul Grasse:

The American Revolution's Unsung Naval Hero, Part 1:

Battle of Chesapeake Bay:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Johnston, Henry P. The Yorktown Campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis, 1781, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.

Larrabee, Harold A. Decision at the Chesapeake, New York: C.N. Potter, 1964 (borrow only). 

Rice, Howard C. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Princeton University Press, 1972 (borrow only). 

Shea, John G. The Operations of the French fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-2, New York: Bradford Club, 1864 (1971 reprint by De capo Press): 

Warner, Oliver Great Sea Battles, Spring Books 1963 (borrow only) 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Davis, Burke The Campaign that Won America, Eastern Acorn Press, 1970 (borrow on 

Fleming, Thomas Beat the Last Drum;: The siege of Yorktown, 1781, St. Martin’s Press, 1963 (borrow on

Grainger, John D. The Battle of Yorktown, 1781: A Reassessment, Boydell Press, 2005 
(borrow on

Ketchum, Richard M. Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution, Henry Holt and Co. 2004. 

Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on 

Philbrick, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, Penguin Books, 2019. 

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan Company, 1952. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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