Graves, Samuel

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Graves, Samuel

GRAVES, SAMUEL. (1713–1787). British admiral. He began his naval service on HMS Exeter in November 1732. Passing for lieutenant on 6 October 1739, he saw service in the War of Jenkins's Ear and the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1743 he was at Cartegena in the Norfolk under his uncle Thomas and served alongside the latter's son, also Thomas. Samuel attracted attention for his part in the storming of the batteries, and in December he was given the command of the sloop Bonetta. He was made post captain the following year and was on active service until 1748. During the Seven Years' War he took part in the abortive 1757 expedition against Rochefort and commanded the Duke in Admiral Hawke's victory at Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759. He remained on the Duke until 1762, when he was made rear admiral. The peace, however, put him on half pay, though he was raised to vice admiral in October 1770.

On 28 March 1774 he was made commander in chief of the North American squadron, with orders to enforce the Boston Port Act and in particular the blockade of Boston declared by his predecessor. Later he was told to prohibit imports of arms and ammunition into the all colonies. With only nineteen vessels, the wider task was impossible, and even with nine of these off Boston, he could not command all the channels leading to the port. On top of this, he was not officially permitted to seize American ships until September 1775 and was understandably unwilling to allow his commanders to fire unless attacked themselves. His apparent inaction provoked attacks on the government in Parliament, and Sandwich, who did his best to protect Graves, ordered him to attack coastal towns. Predictably, the burning of Falmouth, Massachusetts, on 18 October alienated uncommitted colonists even more surely than British press gangs. Yet Graves was still accused of incompetence and idleness. In the end, even the king wanted him sacked, and Sandwich could not save him. On 27 January he handed over his command and sailed for home. Shortly afterwards his thankless task passed to Lord Richard Howe.

Graves was now politically unemployable, at least in an active post that he would need to salvage his reputation. Even Sandwich's best efforts could procure him only the Plymouth command, an offer Graves angrily rejected. The spat sealed his fate, and he was never again employed. In January 1778 he became admiral of the Blue and four years later he was advanced to the White. Twice married, he had no children and died in Devon on 8 March 1787.

Graves was a perfectly competent admiral brought up to obey orders and execute the fighting instructions. Given a conventional campaign and an enemy fleet to engage, he might have acquitted himself tolerably well. Confronted with a situation which demanded brilliance, moral daring, and ruthlessness, he was entirely out of his depth. However, it was the ministry's failure to offer him sufficient ships, adequate orders, and firm political support—as well as the sheer scale of the task—that doomed him to failure.


Tilley, John A. The British Navy and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

                              revised by John Oliphant