Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de

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Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de

GRASSE, FRANÇOIS JOSEPH PAUL, COMTE DE. (1722–1788). French admiral. A page of the Knights of Malta (1733), he was inscribed on the rolls of the naval guard in June 1734 and activated that duty in 1737. In 1740 he served in the Antilles and the Mediterranean during the War of Jenkins's Ear. In May 1747 he was captured while serving as an ensign in the battle off Finisterre and was taken to England. A nobleman of one of France's oldest families, six feet two inches tall, and considered one of the handsomest men of the period, he rose steadily in his profession, serving in Indian waters, the West Indies, the expedition against the Moroccan corsairs, and in the Mediterranean before taking command of the Marine Brigade at Saint-Malo in 1773.

On 5 June 1775 he sailed for Saint Domingue as commander of the twenty-six-gun frigate Amphitrite. Back in France the next year, he took command of the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Intrépide and on 1 June 1778 became a chef d'escadre. He commanded a division in the indecisive battle off Ushant on 27 July 1778 before returning to American waters. He commanded a squadron under Estaing in the battle against Admiral Byron off Grenada and in the operation against Savannah. After temporarily commanding the French fleet in the West Indies, he led a squadron in Guichen's engagement with Rodney off Martinique. In bad health, he sailed home with Guichen, reaching Cadiz on 23 October 1780 and Brest on 3 January. Although his health had not recovered and he was almost sixty years old, on 22 March 1781 he was promoted to rear admiral, and the same day he sailed from Brest with a fleet of 20 ships of the line, three frigates, and a convoy of 150 ships for the West Indies.

With discretionary orders to give Rochambeau and Washington whatever support was possible, Grasse played a decisive role in the Yorktown campaign. Consequently, he had a decisive role in the winning of American independence.

He started back for the West Indies on 4 November 1781, and after capturing St. Kitts (12 February 1782) he was—despite efforts of Hood to relieve the eleven-hundred-man garrison—defeated and captured aboard the Ville de Paris on 12 April in the battle off Saints Passage (9-12 April). While in London as a prisoner during the period 2-12 August 1782, he had several conversations with Lord Shelburne, who spoke to him of terms under which the new ministry would consider negotiating peace. The day after he returned to Paris on parole, Grasse sent his nephew to see the comte de Vergennes and give an oral report, and on this same day (17 August) Vergennes used this information to draft his Preliminary Articles of Peace. Grasse then served as an intermediary between Shelburne and his government in this important preliminary phase of the peace negotiations.

Although the official attitude toward his defeat in the West Indies was favorable at this time, Grasse found himself the popular scapegoat for this French disaster. The admiral had bluntly reported to the minister of marine, duc de Castries, that most of his fleet had abandoned him on 12 April 1782. In a flood of letters and memoirs, he spelled out his accusations against his subordinates, particularly Bougainville. The subordinates went to Castries with their counteraccusations, and a publicity storm developed. During four months a tribunal heard 222 witnesses and on 21 May 1784 announced its findings. Bougainville was officially reprimanded for misconduct on the afternoon of the 12th—which amounted to a slap on the wrist. No official action was brought against Grasse, but when he appealed to Louis XVI to pass judgment, he found the king was displeased not by the naval defeat but by Grasse's attempts to clear his own name at the expense of his subordinates and the French navy. He was informed of this in a blunt letter from Castries and advised to retire to his country home. He died suddenly at his town house in Paris. During the French Revolution, his Château de Tilly was destroyed by a mob, and the four captured cannon from Yorktown, which Congress had sent him in 1784, were dragged off to be melted into revolutionary coin.

SEE ALSO Bougainville, Louis Antoine de; Shelburne, William Petty Fitzmaurice, Earl of; Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de; Yorktown Campaign; Yorktown, Siege of.


Antier, Jean Jacques. L'Amiral de Grasse: Héros de l'indépendance américaine. Paris: Plon, 1965.

Digne, M. "Grasse." In Dictionnaire de biographie française. Edited by J. Balteau, et al. 9 vols. to date. Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1933–.

Kite, Elizabeth S., ed. Correspondence of General Washington and Comte de Grasse, 1781, August 17-November 4. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931.

Lewis, Charles L. Admiral de Grasse and American Independence. Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute, 1945.

                      revised by Robert Rhodes Crout

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