American Revolution: Battle of the Chesapeake

The British and French fleets fight during the Battle of the Chesapeake
Battle of the Chesapeake, September 5, 1781. US Naval History & Heritage Command

Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, was fought September 5, 1781 during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Fleets & Leaders:

Royal Navy

  • Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves
  • 19 ships of the line

French Navy

  • Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse
  • 24 ships of the line

Background:

Prior to 1781, Virginia had seen little fighting as the majority operations had taken place far to the north or further south.

Early that year, British forces, including those led by traitor Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, arrived in the Chesapeake and commenced raiding. These were later joined by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis' army which had marched north following its bloody victory at the Battle of Guilford Court House. Taking command of all British forces in the region, Cornwallis soon received a confusing string of orders from his superior in New York City, General Sir Henry Clinton. While initially campaigning against American forces in Virginia, including those led by the Marquis de Lafayette, he was later instructed to establish a fortified base at a deep-water port. Assessing his options, Cornwallis elected to utilize Yorktown for this purpose. Arriving at Yorktown, VA, Cornwallis constructed earthworks around the town and built fortifications across the York River at Gloucester Point. 

Fleets in Motion:

During the summer, General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau requested that Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse bring his French fleet north from the Caribbean for potential strike against either New York City or Yorktown. After extensive debate, the latter target was chosen by the allied Franco-American command with the understanding that de Grasse's ships were necessary to prevent Cornwallis escaping by sea.

Aware that de Grasse intended to sail north, a British fleet of 14 ships of the line, under Rear Admiral Samuel Hood, also departed the Caribbean. Taking a more direct route, they arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on August 25. That same day, a second, smaller French fleet led by the Comte de Barras departed Newport, RI carrying siege guns and equipment. In an effort to avoid the British, de Barras took a circuitous route with the goal of reaching Virginia and uniting with de Grasse.

Not seeing the French near the Chesapeake, Hood decided to continue on to New York to join with Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. Arriving at New York, Hood found that Graves only had five ships of the line in battle condition. Combining their forces, they put to sea heading south towards Virginia. While the British were uniting to the north, de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake with 27 ships of the line. Quickly detaching three ships to blockade Cornwallis' position at Yorktown, de Grasse landed 3,200 soldiers and anchored the bulk of his fleet behind Cape Henry, near the mouth of the bay.

The French Put to Sea:

On September 5, the British fleet appeared off the Chesapeake and sighted the French ships around 9:30 AM.

Rather than swiftly attack the French while they were vulnerable, the British followed the tactical doctrine of the day and moved into a line ahead formation. The time required for this maneuver allowed the French recover from the surprise of the British arrival which had seen many of their warships caught with large portions of their crews ashore. Also, it allowed de Grasse to avoid entering battle against adverse wind and tidal conditions. Cutting their anchor lines, the French fleet emerged from the bay and formed for battle. As the French exited from the bay, both fleets angled towards each other as they sailed east.

A Running Fight:

As wind and sea conditions continued to change, the French gained the advantage of being able to open their lower gun ports while the British were prevented from doing so without risking water entering their ships.

Around 4:00 PM, the vans (lead sections) in each fleet opened fired on their opposite number as the range closed. Though the vans were engaged, a shift in the wind made it difficult for each fleet's center and rear to close within range. On the British side, the situation was further hampered by contradictory signals from Graves. As fighting progressed, the French tactic of aiming for masts and rigging bore fruit as HMS Intrepid (64 guns) and HMS Shrewsbury (74) both fell out of line. As the vans pummeled each other, many of the ships to their rear never were able to engage the enemy. Around 6:30 PM the firing ceased and the British withdrew to windward. For the next four days the fleets maneuvered within sight of each other, however neither sought to renew the battle.

On the evening of September 9, de Grasse reversed his fleet's course, leaving the British behind, and returned to the Chesapeake. Upon arriving, he found reinforcements in the form of 7 ships of the line under de Barras. With 34 ships of the line, de Grasse had full control of the Chesapeake, eliminating Cornwallis' hopes for evacuation. Trapped, Cornwallis' army was besieged by the combined army of Washington and Rochambeau. After over two weeks of fighting, Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Aftermath & Impact:

During the Battle of the Chesapeake, both fleets suffered approximately 320 casualties. In addition, many of the ships in the British van were heavily damaged and unable to continue fighting. Though the battle itself was tactically inconclusive, it was a massive strategic victory for the French. By drawing the British away from the Chesapeake, the French eliminated any hope of rescuing Cornwallis's army. This in turn allowed for the successful siege of Yorktown, which broke the back of British power in the colonies and led to American independence.