The Battle of Cape Henry – 16 March 1781

by | May 18, 2017 | 1781, American Revolutionary War 1776-1783 | 2 comments


For several months a state of inactivity had existed in North American waters between the British fleet based in Gardiner’s Bay at the end of Long Island, and the French fleet which the previous July had occupied Newport, Rhode Island, some fifty miles to the north-east.

In January Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, commanding the North American station, detached Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves with three sail of the line to intercept a similar number of French vessels that had been sent out of Newport to bring in a convoy. Unfortunately Graves squadron was overtaken by a fierce gale on 23 January which dismasted the Bedford 74, Captain Edmund Affleck, drove the Culloden 74, Captain George Balfour, ashore on Long Island, and forced the America 64, Captain Samuel Thompson, out to sea. Whilst the America attempted to claw back to the fleet and Captain Affleck strove valiantly to re-mast the Bedford with the wrecked Culloden’s redundant spars, the French commander at Newport, Commodore Charles Ren Dominique Sochet, Chevalier des Touches, considered an assault on Arbuthnot s weakened force before foregoing that possibility after a reconnaissance.

Admiral Arbuthnot saved an army but failed to win the Battle of Cape Henry

Commodore des Touches, who had by seniority assumed command of the French fleet in place of the late Commodore Charles Louis d Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay, nevertheless remained anxious to take advantage of the temporary British deficit. After negotiations with his American allies he sent Captain le Gardeur de Tilly with the veill 64 and the frigates Surveillante 32 and Gentille 32 to the Chesapeake where a small British naval squadron was supporting a raiding force of seventeen hundred men commanded by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, an ex-Continental Army officer who had notoriously changed his allegiance in favour of the loyalist cause. After departing Rhode Island on 8 February de Tilly returned to the French base eleven days later, having been unable to capture any of Arnold s supporting ships because they had expediently ran up the Elizabeth River. Nevertheless, he had enjoyed a partial success in the capture of the Romulus 44, Captain George Gayton, which had been unaware of the French sortie, and was taken whilst proceeding from Charleston to the Virginia Capes.

The pressure now intensified on des Touches to achieve something more tangible in order to curtail Arnold s ruinous campaign and thereby leave the allies free to concentrate on Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis army in the Carolinas, and on 6 March General George Washington himself arrived at Newport to move things forward. The allies concocted a plan that would see twelve hundred French troops conveyed to Virginia by the Newport squadron, where they would join with the Marquis de Lafayette who was marching south through Maryland to assist the local militia. Accordingly at sunset on 8 March des Touches put to sea with a fleet of seven ships of the line in addition to the Romulus, three frigates and a tender. The commodore also carried instructions from General Washington to hang Benedict Arnold on the spot without the necessity of a trial for his treason and desertion.

Such was the nature of the conflict that intelligence from local sympathisers was readily available to both the allies and the British, and hence Arbuthnot was fully aware of his opponent s movements almost as soon as they were decided upon. On 10 March, and with the Bedford having rejoined his force, he also took to sea in a race for the Chesapeake with the French, having seven sail of the line and a 50-gun ship under his command. At the same time he instructed his senior officer at New York, Captain Charles Hudson of the Richmond 32, to attend the army commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, and to offer to convey any troop reinforcements to the Virginias.

Aided in the latter stages of their passage by a north-westerly gale, and by the fact that the French had taken a more circuitous course in order to avoid discovery, the swifter copper-bottomed British vessels soon outran their enemy. At 6 a.m. on the morning of 16 March, the frigate Iris reported that five sail of the line were in the haze astern to the north north-east, their position then being some forty miles to the north-eastward of Cape Henry. Shortly afterwards she added the information that the ships were steering for the Virginia Capes, and that they were about three miles away. At this stage the weather was so thick that Arbuthnot was unable to discern his entire line of battle, but nevertheless, with a fresh westerly wind he steered towards the French.

Benedict Arnold – whose neck was saved by Arbuthnot’s arrival off Cape Henry

At about 8.15 the wind veered into the north-west, providing the lesser-gunned des Touches with the weather-gage. Soon the remainder of the French squadron appeared in sight to windward, but with the weather thickening Arbuthnot had to order the frigates Guadeloupe and Iris to sail ahead to observe the enemies evolutions. At 9.20, having formed their own line of battle, the whole French body tacked in succession onto the starboard tack, and within fifteen minutes Arbuthnot formed his own ships into a line of battle ahead, sailing close-hauled on the larboard tack. Forty minutes later he ordered his ships to tack with the intention of trying to gain the weather gauge, and an hour later he saw the French attempt a similar manoeuvre, although when one of their line missed stays in the squally conditions her consorts were forced to wear before coming around on the larboard tack. Shortly afterwards Arbuthnot began to close his line to one cable s length, and at noon, being confident of an action, he ordered his squadron to once more tack in succession and to assume an east south-easterly course that would bring them down upon the French. Finally at 1.30 des Touches, being under threat from a doubling manoeuvre on his rear from the swift-sailing British, crossed southwards in front of Arbuthnot and formed his line to leeward, the wind by now having shifted to the north-east. In his desire to avoid attacking from to windward in the heavy sea where his ships would be unable to open their lower gun ports, des Touches had decided to cede the weather gage.

After wearing in succession onto the same starboard tack as the French as soon as he was almost abreast with them at 2 p.m., Arbuthnot recklessly allowed his van to get into action before they could be adequately supported. Within a half-hour the Robust, Prudent and Europe, which had already been raked in the process of wearing, were engaging the French line, whilst the rear of the British line could only look on inactively. The French pounded the foremost British ships for an hour before wearing once more, their whole line piling final broadsides into the three stricken vessels and then heading off towards the south-east. They were followed at 3.20 by Arbuthnot’s remaining five ships, although the largest British vessel, the London 98, was almost immediately hampered by the loss of her main-topsail yard. In the meantime, although Arbuthnot s van had managed to inflict some heavy punishment upon the French ships it was at the cost of the Robust and Prudent which were unable to do anything more than lay-to, and to the Europe which was so damaged as to prevent her from participating in the chase.

At 4.30 the French disappeared into the haze and Arbuthnot sent his frigates to shadow them whilst he re-gathered his own force and headed for the Chesapeake in case they attempted to enter the river. There was no sign of the French off the Capes however, and at 7 p.m. Arbuthnot brought too in order to effect repairs before entering Lynnhaven Bay the next evening with the Robust and Prudent under tow of the America and Adamant respectively.

Arbuthnot was later criticised for failing to bring each of his own ships into action when they had the benefit of the weather-gage, and of not raising any other signal than that of engaging the enemy in line of battle, thus precluding each ship from engaging her direct opponent. However, although he had failed to win the battle, which given his opening position was as much a surprise to his enemies as to his own officers, he had succeeded in diverting the French away from the Chesapeake with the result that for the moment, at least, their troops could not join the Americans in counteracting Benedict Arnold s raiding force, or indeed from placing a noose around the inconstant general s head. On the French side des Touches could be proud of having fought a more proficient battle with his lighter fleet, but he too had failed to capitalise on Arbuthnot s mistakes and thereby obtain an unlikely victory.

Following the engagement the French fleet immediately returned to Newport, arriving there on the 30 March from where they did not venture out for some months. Two weeks later, and having greeted the safe arrival from New York of Captain Hudson s convoy transporting two thousand troops to reinforce Arnold s corps on 26 March, Arbuthnot arrived at Gardiner’s Bay and resumed his long-distance vigil over the enemy. By now ill-health was dogging him, and having enjoyed little success during his period in command he was recalled in favour of Rear-Admiral Graves and he departed for England on 2 July. Commodore des Touches, whose failure to land the French troops in the Chesapeake area was privately criticised by General Washington, was succeeded on 6 May by the arrival of Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, the Comte de Barras.

During the Battle of Cape Henry the British lost thirty men killed and seventy-three wounded, and the French seventy-two men killed and one hundred and twelve wounded. Captain Balfour, who had been serving as a volunteer aboard the flagship since the loss of the Culloden, was sent home with Arbuthnot s despatches, and he arrived at the Admiralty on the morning of 24 April.

Ships participating: Killed and Wounded
Royal Oak 74 Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot 0+3
Flag Captain William Swiney
London 98 Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves 0+3
Flag Captain David Graves
Bedford 74 Captain Edmund Affleck 0
Robust 74 Captain Phillips Cosby 15+21
America 64 Captain Samuel Thompson 0+3
Prudent 64 Captain Thomas Burnet 7+24
Europe 64 Captain Smith Child 8+19
Adamant 50 Captain Gideon Johnstone 0
Iris 32 Captain George Dawson
Pearl 32 Captain George Montagu
Medea 28 Captain Henry Duncan
Guadeloupe 28 Captain Hugh Robinson
French fleet:
1 x 84 guns: Duc de Bourgogne
2 x 74 guns: Conqu rant, Neptune.
4 x 64 guns: Provence, Ardent, Jason, veill .
1 x 44 guns: Romulus.
Frigates: Hermione 36, Gentille 32, Fantasque 38 (en-flute).