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On September 5, 1781, French ships commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, exchange fire with Sir Thomas Graves' Royal Navy vessels in the Battle of the Virginia Capes, by V. Zveg. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Revolution's Fate Sealed at Sea

Only one ship was sunk in the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, but strategically, it helped decide a war.

By Joseph N. Valliant, Jr.

The year 1781 looked grim for all involved in the American Revolution. After almost six years of bumbling effort and staggering expense, the British were further than ever from restoring the king's authority over his American colonies. Worse, they were embroiled in a war with France and Spain that flared from the Appalachians to India -- a war that the British were not winning.

Hard pressed everywhere, British fleets and armies fought desperately to keep the sun from setting on the empire. Three times before 1781, the naval situation had been so grim that the British Isles had trembled before threats of invasion by their ancient enemy across the English Channel.

Problems For The Americans

France, ally of the Continental Congress since 1778, was resolved to wind up her effort in North America by the end of 1781. Despite French efforts in 1778, 1779 and 1780, the British still held Canada and most of the precious Caribbean sugar islands, and the war was sucking Louis XVI's treasury dry. Spain, reluctant ally of Revolutionary America, was in even worse straits. Her commerce-raiding privateers added to Great Britain's naval burdens, but no Spanish fleets or armies had come to the aid of the American rebels. If France dropped out of the war, so would Spain.

Things were as bad as ever for the Americans. Because the Continental Congress was destitute, the Continental Army was undermanned, underfed and discontented to the point of mutiny. The Continental Navy was almost nonexistent. Indians and Americans loyal to the king raided wherever they found weak points, and British armies, landing from the ships of the Royal Navy, could march through the 13 colonies at will. Even General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, was close to despair. On April 9, 1781, he wrote, "We are at the end of our tether, or never our deliverance must come."

French Ships

The deliverance Washington prayed for was the French navy. In the spring of 1781, a French battle fleet was fighting the British for control of the Caribbean sugar islands, the main source of overseas wealth for Europe's colonial powers. Late in the summer it would sail north to escape the hurricane season and annoy the British in American waters.

Washington yearned for those ships, but he bitterly understood that a French fleet in American waters guaranteed nothing. In 1778 and 1779, French fleets had missed chances to seize vital American seaports held by inferior British forces. On both occasions, a lack of cooperation between American commanders on shore and a haughty French admiral had saved the British. But Washington still cherished hope. If the French could win command of the sea and land a few thousand men and some siege artillery, the allies could take New York. The fall of Britain's main base in America would cripple her war effort. Then peace -- and independence -- might follow.

Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in chief, was tired of the war, and he knew that growing numbers of British politicians were tired of it as well. Wherever he looked he saw the rebels strong, and he feared French reinforcements would make them stronger still. Never eager to attack the crafty Washington, Clinton sheltered behind the water barriers and dense fortifications that guarded New York, hoping for some risk-free opportunity to crush the rebelling Americans.

Cornwallis On The March

Clinton's real hope of finally making headway against the rebels lay with his lieutenant general, Earl Charles Cornwallis, vigorous commander of a British army operating in the south. Cornwallis had won a reputation as a queller of southern rebels on August 16, 1780, by defeating an army commanded by Horatio Gates, victor of Saratoga. In the Battle of Camden, the American army was routed, leaving Georgia and South Carolina firmly in British hands. Buoyed by victory in 1780, Cornwallis felt strong enough to hunt down the rebels in 1781.

Under the brilliant command of a new general, Nathanael Greene, the defeated rebels faded into the North Carolina back country, regrouped, fought and faded again. By the summer of 1781, long marches over miserable roads, poor supplies, and stubborn resistance by American forces had crippled the army Cornwallis had led out of Charleston the year before.

The elusiveness of the Americans infuriated Cornwallis. If he could catch them with his main force, he could destroy them; but the rebels vanished as he approached, and then re-emerged in his rear, striking his supply columns and attacking places he thought secure. In South Carolina, the Americans destroyed two of his detachments, at King's Mountain on October 7, 1780, and at Cowpens on January 17, 1781. On March 15, Cornwallis won a costly victory at Guilford Court House (now Greensboro, N.C.), but once more, Greene escaped to fight again. Drawn farther and farther north from his base at Charleston, Cornwallis planned one last campaign that he hoped would finally demolish the colonial forces.

Virginia As Key

Cornwallis saw Virginia as a sanctuary for rebel forces and the main source of their food and war materiel. With that colony laid waste or restored to royal authority, he reasoned, the Americans in the Carolinas would have no means of making war.

Cornwallis hatched this plan without the knowledge or approval of his superior in New York, going over Clinton's head and writing directly to London for his orders. When Clinton finally learned of his willful subordinate's plans for a campaign in Virginia, Cornwallis had already left his winter quarters in North Carolina and was marching for Richmond.

Clinton urged Cornwallis to return to Charleston and hold South Carolina for the king, but Cornwallis marched on into Virginia, reaching Petersburg on May 20. Facing Cornwallis was Maj. Gen. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, commanding a few thousand ragged Continental troops and Virginia militiamen. Lafayette, knowing he was outmatched, adopted Greene's strategy ("I am determined to skirmish," he wrote Washington, "but not to engage too far"), denying Cornwallis the decisive pitched battle Cornwallis wanted so much.

Split Against Themselves

In New York, Clinton feared a Franco-American onslaught from the north. Captured letters from Washington to Lafayette convinced Clinton that the French and Americans would attack after an expected French fleet, with its cargo of French regulars, landed at Newport, R.I. Soon spies brought the dreaded news: An army under Maréchal Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, indeed was marching across Connecticut to join Washington on the upper Hudson.

The prospect of a siege by well-equipped French regulars alarmed Clinton. His early messages to Cornwallis were more polite suggestions than orders, but with the French and rebels closing in on him, Clinton got tough. He ordered Cornwallis to fortify a seaport on the Virginia coast as a base for the British fleet, then send the bulk of his army to help defend New York. Cornwallis spent most of the summer arguing with Clinton by mail, while still trying to trap Lafayette's feeble army with futile lunges into the Virginia countryside.

Separated by hundreds of miles and operating under two entirely different sets of conditions, Cornwallis and Clinton were, in effect, fighting two different wars. Both British generals saw themselves in desperate situations, and neither was eager to listen to the other. Cornwallis was fed up with Clinton's caution, and Clinton saw that the earl's aggressive pursuit of the Americans had severely reduced his army, making Clinton eager to get the remainder of British land forces under his command.

Digging In At Yorktown

At midsummer, orders arrived from London instructing Cornwallis to establish a base for himself in Virginia. The London strategists aimed to cut the colonies in two by basing their army and fleet at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Then the British could strike down the two halves by turns. Those orders pleased Cornwallis; once his base was established, he could continue plundering rebel storehouses and chasing Lafayette.

Cornwallis' engineers selected two little tobacco ports on opposite sides of the York River, Yorktown and Gloucester, for his base of operations. Lafayette watched them working on their fortifications in a fever of hope. To Washington he wrote, "Should a French fleet now come to Hampton Roads, the British army would, I think, be ours."

Above New York, Washington was having second thoughts about attacking Clinton's fortified lines. Rochambeau, a veteran of 14 sieges in 40 years of soldiering, saw New York as impregnable to the small army he and Washington could muster. He urged instead a campaign against Cornwallis in Virginia. Washington understood Rochambeau's plan, but feared that Cornwallis, supplied by sea, could successfully resist every Franco-American effort to dig him out of Yorktown. Meanwhile, Clinton could march south and attack the allies from the rear. If Rochambeau's plan were to succeed, they would need help from an uncertain source -- the French navy.

Washington's Risk

Cornwallis began building his base at Yorktown on August 2. Twelve days later Washington learned that the main French battle fleet, under Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, was sailing for the Chesapeake. Washington decided to take the risk. On August 19, he and Rochambeau joined their forces on the upper Hudson and began a hot, dusty 450-mile march to Virginia.

Clinton watched his enemies' movements anxiously. To him, New York was still the logical place for the enemy to strike. When spies reported that Washington and Rochambeau were headed for Virginia, Clinton scoffed. Even after the Franco-American armies were reported marching through New Jersey, Clinton believed his enemies were shifting forces to assault New York from the south. Meanwhile, Washington ran an elaborate deception campaign to confirm Clinton's beliefs. As August faded, the excellent British spy service daily sent accurate reports of Washington's march south, but Clinton ignored them. Convinced that the allies would eventually attack New York, Clinton conferred with Sir Thomas Graves, commander of the Royal Navy in North America, planning a pre-emptive attack on the French base at Newport.

Graves was a veteran seaman, but a courtly and easygoing man who disliked haste. He was not worried by the French squadron at Newport, and he was certain that when the main French fleet appeared off the American coast in late summer, it would number no more than 12 ships of the line. Perhaps it would not come at all. Sir Samuel Hood, commanding the British fleet in the West Indies, had promised to keep the French occupied there, or chase them back across the Atlantic. Graves' main concern was to get his sea-worn ships repaired in New York's dockyards. Several of his line-of-battle ships were in very poor condition.

On August 28, 14 British ships of the line from the West Indies suddenly appeared off New York. Sir Samuel Hood, their commander, reported that the French battle fleet was in American waters. Two days later, a frigate brought word of a powerful French fleet approaching Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, the French fleet at Newport, the ships Clinton and Graves had planned to catch in harbor, slipped off to sea, crammed with troops, supplies and -- most important -- siege artillery powerful enough to smash Cornwallis' fortifications.

Reality Dawns

The light dawned on Clinton at last. On September 2, he wrote a warning to Cornwallis, adding, "Mr. Washington gives out that he expects the cooperation of a very considerable French armament." By then, Washington had been three days in Philadelphia.

Since the last days of August, that "considerable French armament" had been anchored in Chesapeake Bay, landing troops and artillery. From Admiral de Grasse's 28 ships of the line and numerous transports, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, ferried his 3,500 men and eight guns up the James River and landed at Jamestown to reinforce Lafayette's ragged little army. With his 7,000 veterans and 100 guns, Cornwallis easily could have barred the James to the French, but he preferred to sit behind his fortifications at Yorktown, just a few miles away, confident that the Royal Navy would soon scatter the French fleet.

With his own command of 5,000 Continentals and militiamen augmented by Saint-Simon's 3,500 regulars and artillery, plus 1,800 French sailors available if he needed them, Lafayette might have tried to storm Yorktown on his own. To his credit, he decided to hold the trap shut on Cornwallis and wait for Washington and Rochambeau.


The British fleet sailed from New York with Admiral Graves in command. He was senior to Hood, so it would be up to him to break the French blockade and relieve Cornwallis. He had 19 ships of the line with him, but three of them limped along with serious leaks and sprung masts.

Early on September 5, Graves arrived at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, steering for Cape Henry. Scouting ahead, a frigate counted 24 French ships of the line anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, behind the Cape. At the same time, a French frigate was reporting the British fleet to de Grasse. Pandemonium broke out on the French ships. In his haste to meet the British, de Grasse left behind 90 officers and 1,900 sailors who were ashore fetching water and firewood. Sailing into battle short-handed was vastly preferable to being caught without room to maneuver. Just before noon, the French fleet cut its anchor cables and stood out to sea.

Next: Battle For The Chesapeake

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