GRAVES, THOMAS. (1725–1802). British admiral. Entering the navy at an early age and made lieutenant on 25 June 1743, he served in a number of actions, including both battles of Cape Finisterre (3 May and 2 October 1747). He was made post captain on 8 July 1755 and was instrumental in saving Newfoundland in 1761. After varied peacetime service he went in the Conqueror to America with Byron in 1778. Promoted to rear admiral on 19 March 1779, he became second in command to Sir Charles Hardy in the Channel Fleet. Here in 1779–1780 he and Richard Kempenfelt experimented with more flexible modes of signaling and fleet control. In the spring of 1780 he sailed with reinforcements for the North American squadron and joined Arbuthnot at New York on 13 July. Graves took part in the action against Destouches on 16 March 1781 and on Arbuthnot's departure took over the North American station.
He found himself facing a crisis: many of his ships were out of repair, and the stocks of naval stores were run down; Arbuthnot had quarrelled with Rodney and Clinton; and warnings from the Admiralty and Rodney told of a large French force in the West Indies. On 28 August 1781, Hood appeared off New York with fourteen of the line and the news that De Grasse had left the West Indies, while other intelligence told Graves that Barras had sailed from Rhode Island. The likely targets were the Chesapeake or New York itself. Three days later Graves sailed for the Chesapeake, but when he arrived on 5 September, De Grasse was already in the bay with twenty-four of the line. Graves, not wishing to be trapped inside, turned seaward to offer battle. In the ensuing action Graves, wary of De Grasse's superior numbers, kept his line of battle tightly closed up and approached the French line diagonally. As a result, his leading ships were heavily engaged, but those in the rear (Hood's) were unable to come up before dark.
Having failed to cripple De Grasse's fleet and fearful of the condition of his own ships, Graves dared not resume the battle. He could have taken Hood's advice to race back to reach Cornwallis at Yorktown, but then the French could have penned him into the bay with possibly dire consequences for New York. On the night of 9-10 September, De Grasse slipped away, and when Graves reached the Chesapeake on the 11th, both French squadrons were there, a combined force of thirty-six of the line. Graves could only return to New York for repairs. Reinforced by five of the line under Rear Admiral Digby and by two latecomers from the West Indies, Graves sailed again on 19 October with twenty-four ships of the line and seven thousand soldiers. It was a desperate venture, and it was probably as well that Cornwallis surrendered the next day. On hearing the news Graves prudently returned to New York, where he handed over to Digby and sailed to take command in the West Indies.
Graves was not blamed for the Yorktown disaster, and he went on to have a distinguished career. Promoted to vice admiral in 1787, he became commander in chief at Plymouth in 1788. In 1793 he was appointed Lord Howe's second in commanding the Channel fleet. He rose to full admiral in 1794 and commanded the British van in the chase action of 1 June, when his arm was so badly wounded that he had to resign. He was awarded an Irish barony and a pension of one thousand pounds a year.
Breen, Kenneth. "Divided Command in the West Indies and North America, 1780–1781." In The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Jeremy Black and Philip Woodfine. Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1988
Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1989.
revised by John Oliphant