Chesapeake Capes

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Chesapeake Capes

CHESAPEAKE CAPES. 5 September 1781. On 4 January 1781 Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, awarded his position in the British Army for betraying the American cause at West Point, landed with some 1,500 troops at Westover, Virginia, on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. After raiding rebel depots and towns, he established control of Portsmouth as a deep-water port for the Royal Navy in furtherance of British commander in chief Sir Henry Clinton's southern campaign. On 16 March 1781 a British squadron under Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot met a French squadron of similar size under Commodore Sochet des Touches off Cape Henry. Hours of maneuvering led to a brief though violent exchange of broadsides in which the French achieved an apparent tactical advantage. Des Touches, however, chose to withdraw rather than further risk his ships and men, leaving Arbuthnot in control of the entrance to the Chesapeake.

Major ships engaged at the battle of the Chesapeake, listed in order of initial engagementBritish ShipsGunsCaptainsFrench ShipsGunsCaptains
Shrewsbury74RobinsonLe Pluton74de Rions
Intrepid64MolloyLa Bourgogne74de Charitte
Alcide74ThompsonLe Marseillais74de Masjastre
Princessa70Admiral Drake
Le Diadème74de Monteclerc
Ajax74CharringtonLe Reflechi64de Boades
Terrible74FinchL'Auguste80Admiral de Bougainville
de Castellan
Europe64ChildLe St. Esprit80de Chabert
Montagu74BowenLe Caton64de Framond
Royal Oak74ArdesoifLe César74d'Espinouse
London98Admiral Graves
David Graves
Le Destin74de Goimpy
Bedford74Thomas GravesLa Ville de Paris98Admiral de Grasse
Admiral de Latouche-Tréville
de Saint Cezair
Resolution74MannersLa Victoire74Saint-Hyppolyte
America64ThompsonLe Sceptre74de Vaudreuil
Centaur74InglefieldLe Northumberland74de Briqueville
Monarch74ReynoldsLe Palmier74D'Argelos
Barfleur90Admiral Hood
Alexander Hood
Le Solitaire64de Cicé Champion
Invincible74SaxtonLe Citoyen74d'Ethy
Belliqueux64BrineLe Scipion74de Clavel
Alfred74BayneLe Magnanime74le Bègue
L'Hercule74de Turpin
Le Languedoc80de Parscau
Le Zélé74de Gras-Préville
Le Souverain74de Glandevès

Meanwhile, General Charles Cornwallis, commanding the British field army in the Carolinas, won a Pyrrhic victory against the American army of Major General Nathanael Greene at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Cornwallis, with supplies depleted and hundreds of wounded in tow, made for the British enclave at Wilmington, North Carolina. Once supplied and reinforced with the few men that could be spared from that garrison, Cornwallis opted to abandon the attritional campaign in the Carolinas for Virginia. Exactly what he hoped to accomplish in Virginia is unclear, though his absence did allow Patriot forces to reestablish control of the interior of the Carolinas.

By the end of May, over seven thousand regular and Loyalist forces worked to build new fortifications at the deep-water port of Yorktown, Cornwallis having abandoned Portsmouth as indefensible. For the British army in North America, ports meant safe havens: time and again the Royal Navy protected communications and logistics as well as evacuating troops from losing positions. Arbuthnot's apparent victory over des Touches in March merely strengthened that belief. Yet General George Washington, commanding the Continental Army investing New York, studied his maps and envisioned the British position at Yorktown as a vast trap, awaiting only a concentration of American and French troops and a brief period of naval superiority to cinch a war-ending victory.


In truth, the threads leading to the Battle of the Capes are as complex a weave as any of the massive cables used by ships of that era. At their core rests the British southern campaign, beginning with the successful siege and capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780. This opened the door for Clinton's subordinate, Cornwallis, to begin the pacification of the Carolinas, an effort that seemed to yield initial success, thus encouraging the establishment of an enclave at Portsmouth, Virginia. Meanwhile, French entry into the war saw a French squadron sheltering at Newport, Rhode Island. Inferior in both guns and hulls to the British squadron based in New York, it elicited little respect from the Royal Navy. Then, Washington's plan to eliminate the Virginia enclave together with a brief parity in hulls between French and British squadrons led to the near-run battle off Cape Henry. Had des Touches persevered, the British position at Portsmouth may have been forced to surrender, ending the Virginia campaign and penning Cornwallis in the Carolinas. But he did not, and both battered naval squadrons eventually returned to their respective home bases, more than willing to play a waiting game while repairing. In July Arbuthnot, complaining of his health, returned to England, relieved by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, his second-in-command at Cape Henry. About the same time, des Touches resumed his role as ship's captain, replaced as commodore by a new arrival from France, the comte de Barras. Both sides awaited reinforcements, knowing that the upcoming hurricane season would bring the fleets operating in the West Indies northward; but only Barras knew with certainty that the coming campaign would center on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Strangely enough, two of the key threads leading to this battle originated far from Yorktown and Chesapeake Bay, at St. Eustatius in the Leeward Islands and in the French port of Brest. Since 1632 St. Eustatius had been a thorn in the British side whenever war visited the New World. Claimed in that year by the Dutch, the port became a commercial center of the West Indies, especially for smugglers seeking to avoid British maritime law and duties. Since the outbreak of the American rebellion, ship after ship from the wayward colonies had unloaded tobacco, rice, indigo, lumber, and other products, returning to their home ports with weapons, ammunition, specie, or other cargoes necessary to continue resistance against the British.

On 2 February 1781 Admiral Sir George Rodney took advantage of Great Britain's recent declaration of war on Holland to lead a fleet of fourteen ships of the line, five lesser warships, and three thousand troops against the harbor. The defenders, one ship of the line, and a gaggle of smaller vessels supported by less than one hundred troops, immediately surrendered, and into the hands of the commander of all British naval forces in the region fell quite possibly the single richest prize in the Indies. Rodney, sick of body and with his mind burdened by mounting debt at home, could not resist the loot of easy wealth. Over the next months, he focused almost exclusively on securing his share of the prize money, even to the point of shifting the dispositions of ships to protect the convoy bearing this wealth to England, a convoy that Rodney soon followed home.

Rodney's fixation on personal gain came at a very bad time for the British efforts in America. On 22 March Rear Admiral de Grasse, the comte de Grasse, sailed from Brest, France, with a large fleet of warships escorting 150 merchantmen to the West Indies. Rodney, with some intelligence of expected French reinforcement to the theater even before de Grasse left port, ordered his chief subordinate, the newly minted Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, into a defensive posture in mid-February. In company with Rear Admiral Francis S. Drake, Hood cruised with eighteen ships of the line to windward of French-held Martinique, site of Front Royal, the largest French base in the Leeward Islands and the obvious landfall for the expected enemy fleet. By mid-March, they had nothing to show for their efforts other than some two thousand men suffering from scurvy.

Rodney, believing that the French had sought another destination, then shifted Hood's squadrons to the leeward side of Martinique to serve as a covering force for a weakly escorted convoy of over a hundred prizes and transports loaded with the loot of St. Eustatius and bound for England. Hood obeyed under protest, fearing that he would be unable to bring the expected French fleet to a decisive action before it could reach Front Royal. On 29 April, de Grasse and twenty ships of the line escorted the merchantmen from Brest into Front Royal after a sharp skirmish with Hood and Drake. Having abandoned the windward position at Rodney's orders, the British admirals could not close the range in time to prevent de Grasse from reaching safe haven.

Over the next weeks, de Grasse led or dispatched detachments to threaten British holdings in the West Indies. Thwarted at St. Lucia, de Grasse managed to capture Tobago. In early July the French admiral and his entire fleet sailed from Martinique, escorting the annual convoy of merchantmen bound for France on the first stage of its journey. With the convoy safely on its way, de Grasse anchored in the harbor of Cap François on Hispaniola. There he received a packet from General comte de Rochambeau, commanding the French army supporting Washington and the rebellion. Because the admiral would need to leave the West Indies during the hurricane season, the general urged de Grasse to find men, artillery, and money, then make his first landfall at the Chesapeake Capes. There he would join a Franco-American land force to isolate and destroy the British army under Cornwallis. Moving expeditiously, de Grasse gathered over three thousand men, artillery and siege artillery, and a large sum of money from local resources. His fleet, over twenty ships strong, then sailed for the Chesapeake on 3 August 1781.

Two days earlier, Rodney, seeking healthier climes and no doubt desirous to put his financial affairs in order, had sailed for England with three ships of the line and a large convoy of merchantmen. Before leaving, Rodney ordered Hood to sail for New York, looking into both the Chesapeake and the Delaware Bays on the way. Hood, with Drake joining at the last moment, sailed from Antigua on 10 August. His fleet, however, had dwindled to a mere fourteen ships of the line because of detachments and worn vessels. On 25 August Hood arrived at the Chesapeake. Thanks to their coppered bottoms, the British had outsailed the French. Failing to find de Grasse in either of the American bays, Hood arrived at New York on 28 August and anchored off Sandy Hook.

Refusing to waste time on getting his ships over the bar and into New York harbor, Hood had himself rowed ashore to meet with Rear Admiral Graves, freshly returned from a three-week cruise to intercept a rumored French squadron off Boston. Graves, senior in rank to both Hood and Drake by over a year, automatically inherited command of the combined squadrons. Pressured by the aggressive Hood and the recently garnered knowledge that de Barras had sailed from Newport with all of his warships and a large convoy carrying men and siege equipment on 25 August, Graves moved his ships across the bar to join the West Indies squadrons as quickly as adverse winds allowed. On 31 August the combined squadrons set course of the Chesapeake, arriving on 5 September only to discover de Grasse at anchor inside the capes.

De Grasse had reached the Chesapeake Bay on 30 August, surprising and capturing one British frigate while another frigate and smaller craft fled up the York River. Anchoring his main fleet in Lynnhaven Roads, de Grasse dispatched his lighter vessels to interdict both the York and James Rivers while three ships of the line directly blockaded Yorktown, effectively isolating Cornwallis in his entrenchments as de Grasse's ships' boats began landing their contingents of infantry and artillery. Then, around 8:00 a.m. on 5 September, a French frigate signaled that a fleet had appeared outside the bay—a fleet with far too many warships to be the expected Barras.


The nineteen ships of the line, a fifty-gun ship too small to stand in the line of battle, seven frigates, and a single fireship composing Graves's fleet were in less than tiptop condition as it closed the Virginia Capes at 9:30 a.m. on 5 September. Though all were fully crewed and coppered, many badly needed refits, none more so than HMS Terrible, already pumping to stay afloat before the first cannon fired. A certain degree of rot also appeared at the command level where the aggressive Hood, having led most of the ships in the fleet from the West Indies, seemed to resent Graves's command of the combined squadrons. Graves, apparently seeking to reconcile his admirals, relied on command councils for decision making rather than firmly taking control of the fleet himself. And, in the haste to leave New York, Graves failed to issue standing orders for signaling. This meant that, though using similar signals, the officers in the West Indies squadrons and those in Graves's New York squadron may well have interpreted them differently.

De Grasse's twenty-four available ships may have been in better overall physical condition than those of their enemy, but de Grasse had problems of his own. His ships, anchored in the best positions to unload their human cargoes, did not hold the best positions for a stationary defense. Furthermore, around fifteen hundred crewmen, including some ninety officers, were away in small craft or on detached duty supporting the landing force; thus virtually every ship would enter battle short-handed. Finally, the combination of fouled bottoms from their months at sea and an incoming tide meant it would be some hours before he could leave the bay to challenge his attackers.

Fortunately, the British approached slowly. Graves ordered the line of battle to form not until 11:00 a.m. At almost the same time, the tide having turned, de Grasse ordered his captains to slip their cables, leaving them attached to buoys for later recovery, and exit the Chesapeake at best speed while forming the line of battle on the fly. By 2:00 p.m., Graves, pushed by a north-northeast wind and thus possessing the weather gauge, could clearly see the disordered line of the French some three miles clear of the capes. He also made an accurate count of de Grasse's fleet. Although at that time there was a possibility of isolating and destroying the French van, the five-ship superiority of the enemy may well have nullified the loss of the van ships and allowed the French to still defeat Graves's fleet. Rather than risk a devastating loss that would guarantee the eventual fall of all British positions in the rebellious colonies, Graves opted for the strict linear engagement mandated by the Fighting Instructions, near sacred to Britain's Admiralty for many years. At 2:15 p.m., he ordered the fleet to wear to an easterly course that would parallel the French line.

The major ships engaged at the Battle of the Chesapeake are listed in order of initial engagement in table on page 207.

At 2:30 p.m. Graves ordered his van to steer more to starboard, thus edging closer to the French line. Several signals followed urging the rear squadron to make more sail and close the remainder of the fleet. At 3:46 p.m., Graves flew two signals, one to maintain the line ahead and the other to close and engage their opposite number in the enemy line. At 4:05 p.m., the second ship in the British line, HMS Intrepid, opened fire. Within minutes the van and centers of both fleets were hotly engaged. For almost two hours, these ships exchanged fire. Yet Hood, commanding the rear of the British force, never closed the enemy, justifying his failure to support Graves's center with a misunderstanding of the signals. Graves, himself, felt that Hood's hanging back stopped the French from using their numeric advantage to penetrate and overwhelm the rear of the British fleet. In truth, a close engagement by Hood would most likely have simply increased damage and casualties without reaching a decision for either side.

By 1630, the fighting ended. Both sides had suffered heavy damage aloft, but the five leading ships of the British line had taken the worst of the damage, the Terrible barely managing to remain afloat. Over the next four days the two fleets, in roughly parallel columns, continued to sail eastward into the Atlantic. De Grasse saw no need to renew the action and was more than happy to keep Graves at sea while Barras and his transports entered the Chesapeake. Even after that, de Grasse had merely to keep the British out of the bay with his superior force to enable a strategic victory ashore against Cornwallis. Finally, late on 9 September de Grasse decided to end the game and turned his fleet for the Chesapeake, returning on the morning of 11 September to find Barras safely at anchor.

Graves declined to interfere with de Grasse's maneuvers. On 10 September he ordered the scuttling of the waterlogged Terrible, and three days later he received word from a frigate that de Grasse had joined Barras in the Chesapeake. With no hope of defeating that combined fleet, he ordered the British squadrons to return to New York. Heroic efforts saw the fleet repaired and reinforced to twenty-five ships of the line by 19 October. Yet Graves's new fleet sailed too late. Cornwallis surrendered on that same day, making any return engagement at the Chesapeake pointless.


The failure of Graves to secure any form of victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes can be directly and immediately traced to Admiral Rodney. His fixation on personal wealth led to Hood's failure to engage de Grasse closely with a relatively equal force when the French fleet first appeared at Martinique in April—the best, perhaps only, chance to disrupt French naval activities in the Americas. Rodney compounded the problem by dissipating his ships to convoys (especially those of personal interest) throughout the West Indies, leaving a vastly inferior squadron to pursue de Grasse to the Chesapeake. Had de Grasse engaged Hood before reinforcement by Graves, say at the mouth of the Chesapeake or in Delaware Bay, it is difficult to see Hood escaping without severe losses. Nor could Hood have secured the Chesapeake by anchoring there on 25 August. The French could simply have blockaded his forces, then used fireships, cutting out expeditions, or even quickly established shore batteries to further weaken the outnumbered British before an overwhelming final assault. This is a moot point, however, as Rodney's orders prevented Hood from lingering in the Chesapeake.

Once Graves assumed control of the fleet, he had very little chance to free the Chesapeake of French shipping. An immediate attack on the French van certainly offered little guarantee of victory, and reengagement on any day between 5 and 10 September would only have increased the cumulative damage to both fleets—a game of attrition that the outnumbered British could not win. The same goes for Hood's failure to engage on 5 September. Commitment of the rear squadron offered little chance of victory and much chance of increased losses.

The Royal Navy's failure at the Chesapeake Capes, no matter the reason, sealed the doom of Cornwallis and his army. This second surrender of a major British army in the colonies destroyed the Grenville Ministry, and led directly to freedom for the rebellious colonies.


Nineteen British ships of the line engaged twenty-four French ships of the line at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. Smaller ships supported both sides. The British lost one ship, HMS Terrible, which was scuttled, and a frigate, HMS Iris, captured after the action of 5 September. British casualties numbered 90 killed and 246 wounded, as well as the crew of the Iris captured. The French lost no ships and reported total losses of slightly over 200 men (some estimates place this as high as 400 men).

SEE ALSO Arbuthnot, Marriot; Charleston Siege of 1780; Clinton, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Dutch Participation in the American Revolution; Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de; Grenville, George; Hood, Samuel; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Rodney, George Bridges; Weather Gauge.


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                              revised by Wade G. Dudley