The Battle of Chesapeake Capes
September 5, 1781 at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
The Battle of Chesapeake Capes, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, was a crucial naval battle in the Revolutionary War, which occurred near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay between a British fleet led by Rear Adm. Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Adm. Comte de Grasse. It was the only major defeat for the British Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The victory by the French fleet prevented the Royal Navy from resupplying the forces of Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. It also prevented interference with the supply of troops and supply from New York to the armies of Gen. George Washington through Chesapeake Bay. As a result, Cornwallis surrendered after the Battle of Yorktown and Great Britain later recognized the independence of the United States.
After a successful campaign in the southern states that included victories at the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Guilford Court House, British troops under Cornwallis headed north in the summer of 1781 in order to rejoin Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton's army in New York City, which were under threat of attack from American forces led by Washington. Rather than taking an overland route, Cornwallis led his troops to the coast at Yorktown, Virginia to await naval transport to New York. The presence of the British troops at Yorktown made control of the Chesapeake Bay an essential naval objective.
Cornwallis was expecting to be met by ships of the British West Indian fleet, which in any case would be heading north to escape hurricane season in the Caribbean. At the same time, the French fleet in the Caribbean had been urgently petitioned to come north by Washington, who realized the strategic importance of the Chesapeake.
On August 25, the British fleet under Rear Adm. Sir Samuel Hood arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake, but finding no French ships there and perhaps underestimating the urgency of the situation, Hood proceeded to take his entire fleet of 14 ships of the line to New York to join with Graves's fleet. However, upon arriving in New York, he found that Graves had only 5 additional ships of the line that were fit for battle.
On August 29, de Grasse had arrived at the Chesapeake with a French fleet that included 27 ships of the line and also carried 3 regiments of regular troops under Gen. Marquis de Saint-Simon. Thus, the British had already made two fatal mistakes: they had failed to track the movements of the French fleet, and they had badly underestimated its strength and sent an inadequate force to deal with the threat.
On September 5, the British fleet of 19 ships, now under Graves's command, arrived back at the Chesapeake in the morning. They found 24 French ships at anchor behind Cape Henry. The remaining 3 ships of de Grasse's fleet had been detached to blockade the York and James Rivers farther up the bay, and many of the ships at anchor were missing officers, men, and boats who were busy landing the French troops.
With the wind and tide in their favor as well as the element of surprise in finding the French ships at anchor in a state of unpreparedness for battle, the British might have been able to inflict severe losses by sailing into the bay and striking quickly in a general attack. However, it is unlikely that such an idea ever occurred to Graves. Conventional naval tactics of the time called for the fleets to each form up in line of battle and then maneuver within gun shot range of each other, each ship attacking its opposite in the enemy line.
Forming up the British line took so much time that the French were able to cut their anchors, sail out of Chesapeake Bay, and form their own line of battle. It was after 4:00 P.M., over 6 hours since the two fleets had first sighted each other, by the time the British - who still had the weather gage, and therefore the initiative - were ready to open their attack.
At this point, both fleets were sailing generally east, away from the bay. The two lines were approaching at an angle so that the leading ships of the vans of both lines were within range of each other, but the ships behind them were still attempting to close the gap. A shift in wind direction during the battle made it even harder for the ships in the rear to engage. Thus the ships in the van on both sides were engaged in heavy and continuous firing from the beginning of the action, while several of the ships in the rear never got into action at all. There was also confusion in the British fleet's maneuvers caused by apparently contradictory signals issued by Graves during the battle.
Around 6:30 P.M., the firing ended. Graves gave a general signal to keep to windward so that the heads of the two fleets separated. By this time, the British ships in the van division that had borne the brunt of the battle were very badly damaged and unable to continue to fight effectively in any case. Many of the British ships had been leaking badly and were in need of refitting even before the battle, and the French gunnery had been particularly destructive of the ships' rigging and masts.
The actual battle ended at sunset on September 5, but for several days afterwards the 2 fleets continued to maneuver within sight of each other, as ships on both sides carried out repairs and waited for an opportunity to resume the fight. In the meantime, both fleets were sailing farther and farther away from Chesapeake Bay, their strategic objective.
On September 9, in the evening, de Grasse recognized the futility of continuing the stalemate, and the French fleet turned around. When they arrived back at Cape Henry the following day, they found that in their absence, de Barras had arrived from Newport, Rhode Island with 7 more ships of the line. Thus Chesapeake Bay was indisputably under French control.
Although the actual naval battle was inconclusive, the Battle of the Chesapeake was a major strategic victory for the French because of its consequences for the land campaign. Cornwallis was cut off from rescue or resupply, while the French were reinforced by the troops brought by de Grasse, and Washington's army converged from the north. This led to the Battle of Yorktown, the surrender of Cornwallis's army, and the ultimate defeat of the British forces in America.