Battle of Chesapeake Bay – 5 September 1781

by | Sep 23, 2017 | 1781, American Revolutionary War 1776-1783 | 1 comment


Throughout the spring and summer of 1781, Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis and his army had battled their way north through South Carolina and Virginia in an attempt to reach the York River where they hoped to establish a base and open up a supply line to the commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, at New York. During their march they had been harried by American and French forces which, sensing the vulnerability of Cornwallis’ situation, planned to sandwich him at the mouth of the Chesapeake River between themselves and the North American-bound French West Indian fleet of twenty-eight sail of the line commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse-Tilli, the Comte de Grasse.

Lieutenant-General Cornwallis

In the Leeward Islands the British commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir George Rodney, had already obtained intelligence that de Grasse was intending to sail north, and on 7 July he despatched the sloop Swallow, Commander Thomas Wells, to advise his counterpart at New York that the majority of his fleet would also come north to counter the allied intentions. Rodney’s message distinctly requested that a frigate meet his fleet at the entrance to the Chesapeake. Having reached New York on 27 July, Captain Wells was advised that the temporary commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, who had acceded to the North American command following the return home of Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot on 4 July, was off Boston, and so he set off to look for him. Unfortunately, the Swallow was then intercepted and chased aground on Long Island by three American privateers, and as per the standing instructions the despatches were destroyed, meaning that Graves never received Rodney’s request for the frigate to meet his ships off the Chesapeake. Five days later Lord Cornwallis and his seven thousand men finally reached Yorktown on the southern edge of the York River which flowed into Chesapeake Bay.

In the meantime, Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood had assumed temporary command of the Leeward Islands fleet after Rodney had decided to head for England on 1 August in order to recover his health, and to defend himself in parliament against accusations of inactivity and misconduct over the capture of St. Eustatius earlier in the year. As Rodney took three badly needed sail of the line home with him Hood sailed north from Antigua on 10 August with just fourteen ships of the line, four frigates, a sloop and a fireship. Hood also returned a brig, the Active, previously sent by Graves with news of the Franco / American dispositions, to arrange a rendezvous with the North American fleet. Unfortunately, the fate that had befallen the Swallow saw the Active captured too, and she was taken into Philadelphia.

After failing to rendezvous with the expected frigate off the Chesapeake upon his arrival on 25 August, Hood sailed on for New York and reached Sandy Hook three days later. Here he joined Graves, a man of a similar age, but although senior to Hood far less capable. The two admirals barely knew one another, and as Hood was the sort of man from whom you had to earn respect the requirement to act quickly meant that Graves would have little opportunity to prove his worth, nor find an accord of purpose with his subordinate.

It now became clear that although Graves had returned to Sandy Hook on the 16th following a month-long cruise to monitor the seven French sail of the line at Newport, Rhode Island, he had received no intelligence of de Grasse’s voyage north. After a consultation with Hood the admirals came to the initial assumption that the French West Indian fleet would seek to join the squadron at Newport and then sail for New York in order to attack it in conjunction with the Continental Army under General George Washington. Later that evening however, they received intelligence that the French squadron at Rhode Island, now commanded by Rear-Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras, who had been sent out to replace the late Commodore Charles Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay, had departed Newport three days earlier with seven sail of the line, three frigates and eighteen transports carrying vital siege equipment to the Franco /American army. Undoubtedly the allies were taking their campaign to the Chesapeake.

Leaving behind two sail of the line which were not yet fit to resume service, the newly combined British fleet of nineteen sail of the line, neither part of which was in particular good order, departed Sandy Hook on 31 August. Graves and Hood expected to find no more than a dozen to eighteen of de Grasse’s fleet at sea in the belief that the remainder would have been sent home to refit. In fact, having left Cap François on 5 August, de Grasse had sailed boldly though the treacherous Old Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Bahama Banks, and he had arrived in Chesapeake Bay with all his twenty-eight of the line and three thousand two hundred troops the day before. After detaching four sail of the line, the Glorieux 74, Triton 64, Vaillant 64, and Experiment 50, together with the frigates Andromaque 32, Gentille 32, and Diligente 26, into the York and James Rivers, he had landed the troops and retreated to the bay with the remainder of his fleet to await de Barras. Whilst these naval dispositions were taking place, Generals George Washington and Jean-Baptise Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, had crossed the Hudson River on 24 August with over six thousand troops, and had begun their march south to trap Cornwallis.

The Battle of Chesapeake Bay

At about 9.30 on the morning of 5 September the outlying British frigate Solebay sighted the French fleet just inside the ten-mile wide entrance to the Chesapeake, their anchorage appearing to stretch some three miles from Cape Henry to the middle ground. With four sail of the line up in the rivers the anchored French numbered twenty-four sail of the line, but as many as eighteen hundred of their seamen were assisting the army ashore. Graves and Hood were somewhat surprised by the number of enemy sail, for they had been unable to glean any intelligence of the French strength on their journey south from New York, not least because the frigate Orpheus 32, Captain John Colpoys, which had earlier been sent ahead to reconnoitre, had not yet relocated the British fleet. Unfortunately, two other frigates, the Medea 28, Captain Henry Duncan, and Iris 32, Captain George Dawson, which had been cruising off the Chesapeake, had also sought to convey the news of the French arrival to Graves, but had been delayed from so doing.

Enjoying a north north-easterly wind that gave him the weather-gauge, and with the benefit of the incoming tide, Graves stood in on a south-westerly course towards the bay. The conditions suggested that an assault on the French vessels before they could form a line of defence might be possible, but despite having recently been exposed to the innovative ideas of Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt whilst serving in the Channel Fleet, Graves was an officer who was risk averse. Wary that the superior French fleet might have time to form a defensive line before he could attack, and recognising that his fleet was made up of two different factions who had not had the time to drill together, he decided to allow the French to come out and fight an engagement on traditional lines.

Having given the order to clear for action an hour earlier, the British line formed on the starboard tack at 11 a.m. Shortly before noon the tide began to turn, allowing the French to cut away their anchors and work out to sea on an easterly course. For his part de Grasse not only wished to avoid a defensive action for which he thought his fleet ill-prepared but was also intent on drawing the British away from the Chesapeake so that de Barras could sail in unmolested with the army’s vital siege train.

One of the first French vessels to leave the bay was the Auguste 80 under the command of the noted circumnavigator, Commodore Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, but those ships which had been anchored closer into Lynnhaven Bay were delayed by the need to make several tacks before joining their consorts. Thus, in exiting the bay the French line of battle began to form in a somewhat haphazard and extended fashion.

The British continued their approach on an opposite tack to their enemy, but shortly after 2.00, as his leading ship Alfred approached the middle ground, Graves wore his fleet so as to join them on their easterly course. Momentarily he put his topsail to the mast in order to ensure that his line of battle could be formed, and then satisfied that all was in order he got underway again and signalled a general chase.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville led the French van

Graves evolutions saw Hood’s division relegated to the rear and Rear-Admiral Francis Samuel Drake’ s division promoted to the van, and it also signified his intention to fight the battle along traditional lines, van against van, centre against centre and rear against rear. At 2.30 he made a further signal for the leading ship, the Shrewsbury, to bear down towards the French van, which was on the lee tack some three miles away to starboard. His intention was for the rest of the fleet to also bear down whilst maintaining their parallel course to the enemy, but the different signal system operated by the Leeward Islands ships meant that his instructions were not fully comprehended. Hood’s division had been sailing towards the enemy under the ‘close action’ flag, but was then brought up by a ‘form line of battle’ instruction, which was enforced with a gun and repeated.

These signals left Hood, as he perceived it, with no option but to form his division in line behind the ship ahead, that is to say in her wake at an oblique angle to the enemy, rather than in a parallel line. That the opposing vans and centres were fairly well matched, but that the rear under Hood was outnumbered, at least lent some logic to what he understood to be Graves’ instructions. He was also aware that Graves, who was already inhibited by the numerical inferiority of nineteen to twenty-four ships of the line, would undoubtedly be anxious not to contravene the formal fighting instructions in the way that had seen Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng executed twenty-four years previously.

Notwithstanding this confusion over signals, the British fleet was still too far to windward to undertake an attack, and despite further orders to alter their course at 3.17, 3.34, and 3.46 the proposed angle of attack by most of the fleet remained too acute. For Graves, whose flagship London was attempting to demonstrate his intentions by bearing down on the French line, the fact that their hasty exit from the bay had left the French line in a mess only added to his dismay at the way his evolutions were being misunderstood. In particular, the French van of five ships was some distance ahead and to windward of the French centre, which in turn was well to windward of the rear ships that had struggled to get out of the bay. If Graves was intent on cutting off the French van then the confusion over signals and the failure through time constraints to construct a battle plan prevented him from doing so, and this allowed de Grasse to rectify the situation by ordering his van to bear up two points so that the centre and rear could catch up. That the British admirals were not of an accord was demonstrated by Hood’s astonishment that Graves appeared to be making no effort to cut the French van off.

At about 4.15pm the British van and part of the centre at last began engaging the French van, with the opening shots coming at long range from the Montagu which had luffed up in order to do so, thereby necessitating her consorts to also luff up in order not to receive her fire. Consequently, the momentum of the ships in the centre was somewhat retarded, causing a further delay in bringing the whole of the centre into the action. For the British van their steep line of attack meant that they were engaging in succession rather than as a complete force, and in so doing they were subjected to a raking fire as they ran down on the French ships.

In the van the leading British ship, the Shrewsbury, suffered heavily aloft and below from the raking fire of the Pluton, losing her main and fore topsail yards in the opening quarter of an hour, as well as the services of her captain, Mark Robinson, who lost a leg, and her first lieutenant, who was killed. Within another thirty minutes she dropped away with her fore and main-topmasts shot through. Her second, the Intrepid, opened against the Marseilles and then attempted to defend the Shrewsbury from the Pluton by passing between the two vessels, only to be forced out of the line by the former’s raking fire after inflicting great damage to the latter. Drake’s Princessa received substantial damage to her foremast and was battered below, whilst and the Alcide suffered damage aloft. The already weather-beaten Ajax and Terrible also received heavy punishment, but beyond the eighth ship in the British line there was little discomfort.

Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves

In turn the French van suffered a greater number of casualties than the rest of their fleet as they became engaged at musket range, with Captain Jean-François Emmanuel de Brune de Boades of the Réfléchi 64 losing his life early in the battle to the guns of the heavily involved Princessa, the ravaged Caton dropping out of the line, and the Diadème 74 sustaining over one hundred casualties and being engaged by up to three ships at once until her rescue by the Saint-Esprit 80. For his part de Bougainville unsuccessfully attempted to board the Princessa before being rebuffed and concentrating his fire upon the leaky Terrible. Finally, towards 5 p.m., a shift in the wind allowed the French centre to gain on the van, whereupon de Grasse ordered the badly damaged van ships to bear away, a move Bougainville adhered too, if somewhat reluctantly. Now the British centre began to suffer casualties too, in particular the lead ships, Europe and Montagu, with the latter being forced out of the battle.

Only at 5.30, when he noticed that the signal for the line of battle was no longer flying, did Hood’s rear ships sail down to engage, but it was at such long range that nothing could be achieved. Such was their ineffective participation in the battle that Hood’s division consisting of the Alfred, Belliqueux, Invincible, Barfleur, Monarch and Centaur, together with the America and Bedford from the centre division did not suffer a single casualty. Meanwhile, deciding not to pursue the French van, which they believed to be fleeing the engagement, the British ships ahead of Hood maintained a long-distant fire.

Eventually, at 6.30 p.m. the firing ceased on Graves’ orders with the fleets some ten miles or so off Cape Henry. British losses in the battle had been ninety men killed and two hundred and forty wounded, as opposed to total French casualties of two hundred and twenty-one. The commander-in-chief was apparently desirous of renewing the engagement in the morning, but having despatched the frigate Fortunée to ascertain the condition of the van she returned at 10 p.m. with the advice that Drake’s ships were in no shape to fight until significant repairs could be made to their masts. As a first step Captain Colpoys of the Orpheus, which had managed to rejoin the fleet during the battle, was ordered to assume command of the badly damaged Shrewsbury and prepare her for battle. In the meantime the French, who by Graves’ interpretation had appeared to suffer far less than the British, reformed their line, and throughout the night the two fleets remained in sight of one another.

Following the battle there was some acrimony between Graves and Hood as to their conduct during the day. The latter maintained that he could not have entered the fight whilst the line of battle signal was flying from the flagship, as strictly interpreted it indicated that there should be a straight line from the van through the centre to the rear, meaning that the fleet was under orders to attack at an angle. The former asserted that the signal had been open to interpretation, and that Hood should have acted accordingly. That Hood was a difficult subordinate prone to disaffection was beyond doubt, as he would later display in the postscript to the Battle of the Saintes, and in 1795 when his insolent behaviour to the Board of Admiralty caused them to order the striking of his flag. Undoubtedly a man of his exceptional capabilities should have played a more prominent part in the battle, and it appeared that his perception of Graves’ lack of ability clouded his judgement. Yet it could also be argued that his experience of serving under the autocratic Rodney, who never expected or allowed his junior admirals to think for themselves, had dictated his strict compliance to the signals. Whatever the reasons, Hood did no more than adhere rigidly to the rulebook, and as a result the chance to win a battle that might have saved an army, and indeed a continent, was lost.

The next day the Medea and Iris, which had joined the fleet, were sent to reconnoitre the Chesapeake to ascertain which French vessels were still there, and on the 7th they entered the bay where Captain Duncan instructed his subordinate to cut de Grasse’s buoys adrift. After completing their reconnaissance the two frigates returned to the fleet, which at the time was some seventy odd miles off the coast, and within a dozen miles or so miles of the French. By now a shift in wind had seen Graves lose the weather gauge to the French, and as de Grasse had never needed to fight in the first place it was no surprise that he declined any favourable opportunity to renew the battle. Graves had a conference of his admirals on the 8th, and although Hood was all for seizing the entrance to the bay in order to assist Cornwallis and attack the French ships up the rivers, Graves considered the risk to his weaker and damaged fleet too great. On the third day both fleets, by now almost a hundred miles off the coast, were battered by a heavy storm, and the already badly damaged British Terrible, which had been pumping water all the way south from New York, was abandoned to be set afire on the 11th. By then the French were no longer in sight, but despite Hood’s entreaties that the British should return to the bay, Graves still took no action.

On that same day, the 11th, de Grasse returned to the bay where he discovered a forest of masts. Although initially wary enough to clear for action in the belief that Graves had worked past him, he found to his relief that he was in the company of the Newport fleet of seven sail of the line with the French siege train, this force having arrived the day before under the Comte de Barras. The French reappearance in the river also led to the capture of the frigates Richmond 32, Captain Charles Hudson, and the Iris, which were endeavouring to get back to Graves after delivering despatches to Lord Cornwallis.

Upon being advised by the scouting Medea that the French were anchored once more in the Chesapeake, Graves conferred with Hood on the morning of 13 September and agreed that they had little option but to retreat to New York. When consulted as to what should be done Hood’s response was typical of the man: ‘Sir Samuel would be very glad to send an opinion, but he really knows not what to say in the truly lamentable state we have brought ourself.’ The next day Captain Henry Duncan of the Medea was sent home with Graves’ despatches, arriving at the Admiralty on the night of 13 October after putting into Weymouth earlier that day.

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ army followed the unsuccessful Battle of Chesapeake Bay

The Navy suffered further losses in early October when the Charon 44, Captain Thomas Symonds, was set alight by the allied batteries in the Chesapeake, and the Guadeloupe 28, Captain Hugh Robinson, Fowey 24, Captain Peter Aplin, and fireship Vulcan, Commander George Palmer, were scuttled, or in the case of the latter lost in a failed attack on two French sail of the line and a frigate. Meanwhile Rear-Admiral the Hon. Robert Digby with the Prince George 98, Canada 74 and Lion 64, had arrived at New York on 24 September to assume the North American command from Graves, who had returned to Sandy Hook with the fleet five days earlier. With the Torbay 74 and Prince William 64 joining from Jamaica, and the Prudent 64 being restored to the fleet, it was decided that Graves should be allowed to make another attempt to relieve Cornwallis with twenty-five sail of the line, two 50 gun-ships and seven thousand troops.

By now however it was too late, for on 18 October the Articles of Capitulation were signed by Cornwallis and Captain Symonds for the British, and by Washington, Rochambeau, and de Grasse for the American-French alliance. On19 October, the day that Graves left New York, Cornwallis surrendered his army of seven thousand soldiers, together with eight hundred seamen from the lost vessels at Yorktown. American independence was thus all but guaranteed.

Graves learned of Cornwallis’ surrender upon arriving off the Chesapeake five days later, leaving him once more with little option but to return to New York. The only men from the army to get away were Colonel Banastre Tarleton and four hundred and eighty soldiers of the British Legion, all of them fearsome fighters, whom Washington had chivalrously allowed Cornwallis to send off in the sloop Bonetta 14, Commander Ralph Dundas.

The campaign in North America ended with de Grasse sailing for the West Indies on 5 November, and Hood departing from Sandy Hook in his wake six days later to arrive at Barbados on 5 December. Graves was subsequently heavily criticised for leaving New York to cruise off Boston when his detractors felt that it was obvious the French would come north from the West Indies. In this aspect he was undoubtedly unfortunate, for if he had placed the fleet off the Chesapeake in the first instance then in all probability de Grasse would have attacked New York instead. The criticism of his actions once he had arrived off the Virginia Capes was far more valid however, and his failure to win the Battle of Chesapeake Bay proved fatal to the British war effort.

British fleet: 19 sail of the line

London 98 Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves 4+18
  Flag Captain David Graves  
Barfleur 90 Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood 0
  Captain Alexander Hood  
Princessa 70 Rear-Admiral Francis Samuel Drake 6+11
  Captain Charles Knatchbull  
Alcide 74 Captain Charles Thompson 2+18
Alfred 74 Captain William Bayne 0
Bedford 74 Acting-Captain Thomas Graves 8+14
Resolution 74 Captain Lord Robert Manners 3+16
Shrewsbury 74 Captain Mark Robinson 14+52
Royal Oak 74 Captain John Plummer Ardesoif 4+5
Ajax 74 Captain Nicholas Charrington 7+16
Terrible 74 Captain Hon. William Clement Finch 4+21
Montagu 74 Captain George Bowen 8+22
Monarch 74 Captain Francis Reynolds 0
Invincible 74 Captain Charles Saxton 0
Centaur 74 Captain John Inglefield 0
America 64 Captain Samuel Thompson 0
Belliqueux 64 Captain James Brine 0
Europe 64 Captain Smith Child 9+18
Intrepid 64 Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy 21+35
Adamant 50 Captain Gideon Johnstone  
Fortun e 40 Captain Hugh Cloberry Christian  
Nymphe 36 Captain John Ford  
Richmond 32 Captain Charles Hudson  
Solebay 28 Captain Charles Holmes Everitt  
Sibyl 28 Captain John Rodney  
Santa Monica 28 Captain John Linzee  
Medea 28 Captain Henry Duncan  
Salamander fs Commander Edward Bowater  

Comte de Grasse s fleet:
1 x 110 guns: Ville de Paris.
3 x 80 guns: Auguste, Saint-Esprit, Langudeoc.
17 x 74 guns: Pluton, Marseilles, Bourgogne, Diadème, César, Destin, Victoire, Sceptre, Northumberland, Palmier, Citoyen, Scipion, Magnanime, Hercule, Zélé, Hector, Souverain.
3 x 64 guns: Réfléchi, Caton, Solitaire.
Frigates: Aigrette, Railleuse.

Comte de Barras squadron:
1 x 80 guns: Duc de Bourgogne.
2 x 74 guns: Conquérant, Neptune.
4 x 64 guns: Ardent, Éveillé, Jason, Provence 64.
Frigates: Romulus 44, Concorde 32, Surveillante 32.