Thomas Graves 1st Baron

1725-1802. Born on 23 October 1725, he was the second son of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves of Thanckes, Cornwall, and of his wife, Elizabeth Budgell. He was the cousin of Admiral Samuel Graves, and of Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and the superannuated rear-admirals David, Samuel, John and Richard Graves. .

Graves initially served on the Romney 50 with Commodore Henry Medley, the governor of Newfoundland, before joining his father aboard the Norfolk 80. He was present at the unsuccessful expedition against Cartagena on the Spanish Main in March 1741 and later saw service in the Mediterranean.

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Admiral Lord Graves

On 25 June 1743 he was commissioned lieutenant of the Romney 50, Captain Thomas Grenville, and he saw action at the Battle of Toulon on 11 February 1744 and in the Spanish prize Princesa 70, Captain John Cockburne, during the expedition to Lorient in 1746. He was aboard the Monmouth 70, Captain Henry Harrison, at Vice-Admiral George Anson’s action off Cape Finisterre with the Marquis de La Jonquière on 3 May 1747, and later in Rear-Admiral Edward Hawke’s action off the same cape with Commodore des Herbiers de l’Etenduère on 14 October.

Following the peace of 1748 Graves applied himself to the theoretical study of his profession and to the French language. He also participated in two voyages to Africa as first lieutenant of the Assistance 50 with Commodore Matthew Buckle and Commodore George Stepney, the latter officer passing away shortly before the return to England in 1753.

On 12 March 1754 Graves was appointed commander of the sloop Hazard 8 which he commanded off Brest in the following year, and on 8 July 1755 Lord Anson posted him captain of the Sheerness 20 as a reward for having risked his ship to ascertain at close quarters the strength of the French fleet off Brest. He soon made his mark, capturing the French letter-of-marque Treize Cantons on 11 December 1755.

On Boxing Day 1756 the Sheerness fell in with another vessel which the officers assumed to be a French sail of the line, hence Graves refused an engagement. Upon learning of the incident the Admiralty came to the conclusion that the other vessel had been nothing more than a French East Indiaman, and a court martial was ordered upon Graves. The verdict against him, of having made an error of judgement, was reached at Plymouth on 27 January 1757 on the very same day that Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng was sentenced to death at Portsmouth for negligence in command of a fleet. But for the friendship of Lord Anson, Graves may well have received a harsher verdict than the one that was handed down upon him of being ‘publicly reprimanded’.

The incident apparently had no bar on Graves’ career for in the early part of 1758 he commanded the Unicorn 28 in the Channel, and with the assistance of the Adventure 32, Captain Matthew Moore, he captured the Moras, a 22-gun French privateer the following 13 February and then participated in Rear-Admiral George Rodney’s bombardment of Havre. He later assisted the Shrewsbury 74, Captain Hugh Palliser, and the Lizard 28, Captain Broderick Hartwell, in the destruction of the French frigate Calypso in Audierne Bay on 12 September 1758, and a further capture was the privateer Duc d’Harcourt on 28 September 1759.

A French illustration of their attack on Newfoundland – kindly provided by M. Bataillard

Having been appointed lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland, Graves joined the Antelope 50 and sailed thither with a convoy in May 1761 before coming home in the autumn as was the custom. Prior to his return to Newfoundland in the following year a French squadron under de Ternay d’Arsac forced the surrender of the main town, St John’s, in June. Sailing out from England that month, Graves powered through the ice with his squadron and assumed command of the defence of Placentia against an expected French attack. Once he had summoned assistance from Commodore Lord Colville on the North American station a sufficient force was despatched to drive the French out of St. John’s. Whilst returning to England in November 1762 Graves’ ship rescued the crew of the Marlborough 74, Captain Thomas Burnet, which was on the point of foundering. Returning with the Antelope to Newfoundland in the summer of 1763, he spent a great deal of time in fishery protection.

At the end of 1764 he was appointed to the Plymouth guard-ship Téméraire 74, and in January 1765 was ordered to raise a broad pennant aboard the Edgar 60, exchanging with Captain George Collier who temporarily shifted into the Téméraire. Graves then led a small squadron to the coast of West Africa with orders to resolve a dispute between merchants and the governors of the various forts on that coast. By August he was back at Plymouth in the Téméraire, and he remained in command of her for the usual three years.

During the Falkland Islands dispute of 1770 he recommissioned the Cambridge 80 in November, paying her off in May 1771, and from January 1773 he commanded the Raisonnable 64, serving mostly in the Channel before paying her off in September 1775. He had been appointed a colonel of marines on 31 March 1775, and after leaving the Raisonnable he immediately commissioned the new Plymouth based guardship Nonsuch 64, although the command soon passed to Captain Walter Griffith.

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Graves failure to win the Battle of Chesapeake Bay was a major factor in the surrender of a British army and the loss of the American colonies

In the spring of 1777 Graves commissioned the new Conqueror 74 and in June 1778 he sailed for North America with Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s reinforcements, arriving in company with Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker on 29 August after the fleet had scattered in violent weather, and with over three hundred men on the sick list. In December he sailed with Byron to the West Indies, having been ordered to raise a commodore’s broad pennant with Captain Harry Harmood commanding the ship. He was recalled to England following his promotion to rear-admiral on 19 March 1779, and with his flag in the London 90, Captain David Graves, he served under Admiral Sir Charles Hardy in the Channel fleet during the retreat of August 1779.

In the summer of 1780 Graves sailed for North America in command of six sail of the line to reinforce Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, arriving on 13 July. That this force could be detached from the Channel fleet was due in no small measure to Admiral Sir George Rodney’s capture of Spanish prizes off Cape Finisterre earlier that year. In January 1781 he was sent to bring in a convoy but was caught in a storm which scattered his squadron, and he was later present at Arbuthnot’s battle with the French fleet off Cape Henry on 16 March 1781 where his ship was partially disabled.

Following his commander-in-chief’s resignation in July Graves took temporary command of the crucial North American station. With some circumspection he sailed for Rhode Island to monitor the French movements, being aware that at any time his smaller force could be surprised by the Comte de Grasse’s fleet which was known to be sailing north from the West Indies. Only following his reinforcement from the Leeward Islands by Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with fourteen sail of the line was he able to take the more proactive decision to track de Grasse southwards instead.

On 5 September 1781 his nineteen sail of the line fought twenty-four under de Grasse at the indecisive Battle of Chesapeake Bay, and his lack of tactical skill was exposed when his van was disabled by the enemy whist the rear remained un-engaged. Graves was clearly hampered by his adherence to the rigid Fighting Instructions, and it little helped that he failed to see eye to eye with his second-in-command, Hood, who rightly considered him to be inferior in abilities. As a result of his failure to win the battle he was unable to seize de Grasse’s anchorage, and the opportunity was lost to relieve Lord Cornwallis’ army and quite possibly bring about a different conclusion to the war.

On 10 September Graves took his fleet back to New York where two weeks later Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby arrived with three sail of the line to assume command of the station. Digby also brought orders for Graves to assume the position of commander-in chief in Jamaica with his flag remaining in the London, now to be commanded by Captain James Kempthorne. Between them the two admirals decided that the London could not be spared whilst Cornwallis’ army remained bottled up by the French fleet at Yorktown, and accordingly Graves returned to the Chesapeake with twenty-five sail of the line to attempt a relief. The French ships held their position of advantage however, and after learning that Cornwallis had surrendered Graves returned to New York. Although he was held largely responsible for failing to relieve Cornwallis and thus prevent the subsequent British defeat in the war, Graves was considered somewhat unfortunate in having chosen the wrong, but equally worthy, option of defending New York.

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Graves’ career ended when he lost an arm at the Battle of the Glorious first of June in 1794

By 10 November he had assumed his new command in Jamaica, with the London having captured the French frigate Imperieux 36 on passage. But once more his luck failed him, for having been despatched to England on 25 July 1782 by Admiral Lord Rodney in charge of a motley collection of one hundred and eighty merchantmen and five prizes taken at the Battle of the Saintes, he lost all but two of the latter in a violent hurricane on 16 September that claimed some three thousand five hundred lives. His own flagship the Ramillies 74, Captain Sylverius Moriarty, was taken aback, dismasted and eventually had to be abandoned and blown up, leaving him to embark on a merchantman which got into Cork on 10 October without his property and library to a value of 1,000 guineas. He also had to endure a great deal of acrimony with his subordinate, Captain Hon. William Cornwallis, over the latter’s perceived failings in the tragedy, a dispute that was little diluted by Graves’ part in the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ army the previous year. What was not in doubt however was the consummate bravery and fortitude that Graves had displayed to his men during the hurricane.

On 24 September 1787 he was promoted vice-admiral, and he served as commander in chief at Plymouth with his flag in the Powerful 74, Captain Andrew Sutherland, the Impregnable 98, Captains Thomas Pringle and Sir Thomas Byard, and from June 1790 the Cambridge 80, Captain William Locker. During the Nookta Sound dispute of 1790 he supervised the fitting out of the fleet before leaving the role at Plymouth later in the year.

In February 1793 Graves became second-in-command to Admiral Lord Howe in the Channel fleet, taking part in the cruises of 14 July-10 August 1793, and October-December 1793 with his flag in the Royal Sovereign 100, commanded by the opinionated Captain Henry Nicholls. He was promoted admiral on 12 April 1794, and on 23 April took the first division of the fleet to sea. At the Battle of the Glorious First of June he led the van but was badly wounded in the right arm after thirty minutes of action. The injury forced him to resign his command, but he received some compensation in the form of an Irish peerage and pension of one thousand guineas for his part in the victory.

Graves died on 9 February 1802 at Cadhay, near Ottery St. Mary in Devon.

On 22 June 1771 he married Elizabeth Peere Williams, heiress of William Peere Williams from Cadleigh, Devon, and the first cousin of Lady North, the wife of the prime minister. Lord North. They had issue three daughters and two sons, and she died in 1827. His youngest daughter, Margaret Anne, married Admiral Christopher Nesham.

Graves served briefly as M.P. for East Looe from January- June 1775 but did not take part in any debates during his four-month tenure. He was succeeded by his brother William.

He was considered to be a skilful and diligent seaman, an experienced calm and methodical officer, and a good manager of men and of situations. He was nevertheless a somewhat cautious and unlucky commander whose captains could have served him better at the Battle of the Chesapeake. His strength of character during the hurricane of 1782 was rightly praised, and he was proficient in the skill of engineering and gunnery.