Friday, August 31, 2018

The Repulse off the Capes: How Command Decisions at Sea Sealed an Army's Fate

This famous oil painting depicts the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, capturing the initial line engagement of the British and French vanguards during the battle. (V. Zveg/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

On September 5, 1781, at about 4:10 pm, the French ship Réfléchi received a broadside at close range from the British ship Princessa, killing the ship’s commander, Captain Brune De Boades. Moments later, other lead ships of both the British and French lines of battle opened fire on one other, beginning a two-hour engagement now known as the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. Hundreds of cannons blazed away in the waning afternoon sun as the eight ships of the French vanguard exchanged volleys of thunderous fire with the six ships of the British vanguard. Solid cannon shots crashed into wooden planking, rigging, sails, and crew, leaving in their wake gore soaked decks and passageways. Deadly splinters of various sizes were created by cannon shots crashing through planking; they sliced across the deck killing or maiming unlucky crew.  
A model of Ville de Paris in the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

From the decks of the massive 104-gun French flagship Ville De Paris, the man who had organized, planned, and led the French watched as one of his ships fired a well-aimed broadside into the British line. Upon seeing this display of martial prowess, the man declared, “Now that’s what I call fighting.” Standing at the towering height of 6’2 and wearing the bright red flaming sword ribbon of the Order of St. Louis, Vice Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse must have been a striking figure as he watched his ships continue their effective fire into the British line.

Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse (or the Count of Grasse) stands as a noble, heroic, yet forgotten commander of the Revolutionary War. Serving in the French Navy for his entire career, De Grasse’s actions proved to be critical in the Yorktown campaign. De Grasse’s regalia is captured in this 1837 lithograph, including the signature bright red ribbon of his military order, the Order of St. Louis. (Antoine Maurin Lemercier/ National Maritime Museum)
De Grasse was leading the French fleet against the Royal Navy in one of the most important and consequential naval battles in the history of the world, The Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. French victory at this battle directly led to the isolation of British forces in Virginia, the concentration of Franco-American forces at the Siege of Yorktown, and the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis’ army. The Allied victory at Yorktown resulted in nothing less than theater wide defeat for British forces in the thirteen colonies, a shift of British strategic goals to India and the Caribbean, and ultimately the independence of the United States of America. And this victory would have been impossible if not for French victory at the Battle of the Capes. Two-hundred-thirty-seven years have passed since that momentous victory and there is no better time than now to reexamine how Battle of the Capes was won and lost.

Generals George Washington and the Comte De Rochambeau are depicted in this 1836 painting at the Siege of Yorktown. Through correspondence, Washington, De Grasse, and Rochambeau planned the Yorktown offensive. Though they differed in age and experience, all three men worked well together and had immense respect for each other’s abilities. (Auguste Couder/ The Palace of Versailles)
De Grasse was in the Caribbean with a powerful French fleet when he began corresponding with General George Washington and the Comte De Rochambeau in June 1781 and the three planned, over the following weeks, the Yorktown campaign. All three wanted to take advantage of French naval parity in theater to strike a blow at isolated British forces either in New York or Virginia. Washington favored striking British forces in New York under General Sir Henry Clinton but both Rochambeau and De Grasse believed that General Charles Cornwallis’ weaker forces in Virginia were the better target. Critically, it would be up to De Grasse to decide where the Allied forces should be concentrated, with Washington writing Rochambeau, “Instead of advising him [De Grasse] to run immediately into Chesapeak [sic], will it not be best to leave him to judge…which will be the most advantageous quarter for him to make his appearance in.” De Grasse carefully read the various dispatches and made one of the most momentous decisions in all of history, deciding that the Allied blow would be struck against Cornwallis in Virginia. On August 5, De Grasse sailed for the Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet of 28 ships and a crack strike force of 3,000 infantry equipped with mortars and siege guns.

On September 5, an overjoyed Washington learned of the news of De Grasse’s safe arrival in the Chesapeake Bay on August 30. Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette rapidly concentrated their forces in Virginia but not before launching a feint attack on Clinton in New York to fool the British into thinking the blow would land there. De Grasse had made the correct decision to concentrate allied forces in the Chesapeake Bay and, as Washington later wrote, De Grasse was “…the pivot upon which everything turned.” It would now be up to De Grasse to repel any British rescue force and ensure the destruction of Cornwallis’ army at the hands of the converging Allied armies. 

Unfortunately for the Allies, the British relief force arrived on the same day Washington learned of De Grasse’s arrival. The British, aware of the danger to Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown, rallied their available naval assets to sortie into the bay in force to defeat any French force which might threaten Cornwallis. Admiral Thomas Graves and De Grasse’s old opponent, Admiral Samuel Hood, combined their fleets to form a powerful force of 19 ships of the line. Graves, who had the overall command, was a steady if uninspiring naval commander while Hood was brash, energetic, and arrogant. The two did not like each other nor did they get along well. Furthermore, the combined British fleet was full of ships and captains who had never worked together and the British had little time to conference on the minutiae of naval warfare. Nevertheless, the British squadron was a force to be reckoned with.  

Admiral Samuel Hood (left), who seems to glower in this 1783 painting by James Northcote, was an aggressive and well-connected fleet commander of the Royal Navy. With a prickly personality, Hood was not well liked by his fellow admirals yet he was respected as a talented naval commander. Hood had engaged De Grasse in the Caribbean several times in the months prior to the Yorktown Campaign and he would fight his old enemy again as a flag commander at the Battle of the Capes. Although his conduct during the battle was highly controversial, he went on to have a celebrated naval career. To his right is Admiral Thomas Graves, looking a bit more sanguine in this 1785 painting by Thomas Gainsborough, who served as a career naval commander and colonial official during his service to the British Crown. Although capable, Graves was often seen as not aggressive enough to command a fleet having once been court martialed and reprimanded for not engaging a French warship in a prior war. With Admiral George Rodney unable to command due to sickness, it fell to Graves to lead the British forces at the Battle of the Capes. (Wikimedia Commons)
Around 10:00 am on the morning of September 5, 1781 De Grasse’s fleet spotted a large fleet approaching the Chesapeake Capes. At first they thought it was an expected reinforcing squadron under the command of the Comte De Barras. However, they quickly realized that the ships were not French. Caught by surprise, De Grasse was forced to rapidly deploy his available fleet of 23 ships of the line from the Chesapeake Bay out into the Atlantic Ocean, lest De Barras’ expected squadron become isolated and destroyed by Graves’ fleet. Forced to exit the bay through a narrow passage ringed by shoals, portions of the French fleet were isolated as they exited the bay due to the general confusion caused by the surprise of the British attack. 

This period map and chart of the Chesapeake Bay region illustrates the geographic features critical to the Battle of the Capes. Note both the location of Yorktown, where Cornwallis’ Army was, and the narrow passage in which De Grasse was forced to deploy his fleet. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Admiral Hood led the British vanguard and felt that the British had a golden opportunity to attack and destroy the isolated lead ships of the French vanguard as they exited the Bay. However, Graves signaled for the British fleet to wear together, essentially reversing their order, rather than “cross the T” by blocking De Grasse’s passage from the Bay. Thus, Hood found himself commanding the rear of the British line rather than the vanguard. Graves’ plan was to let De Grasse deploy from the bay and then, with the advantage of the wind gauge (wind direction), attack the French vanguard and center with the entirety of his fleet. The French rear, Graves thought, would be unable to rapidly respond to this maneuver due to the unfavorable wind direction. Graves’ plan was good in theory, as long as the British fleet was coordinated enough to bring the entirety of their firepower to bear on a portion of the French fleet.

In contrast, De Grasse’s plan was simple yet appropriate; he wanted to engage the smaller British fleet in a traditional line battle to allow his superior firepower to wear down and destroy the British ships. However, De Grasse’s fleet struggled to deploy due to the fickle wind. As a result, his vanguard was vulnerable to enemy attack. Graves gave the order to attack, which was communicated via flag order, to the British fleet. However, Graves briefly left the flag to stay in line formation flying simultaneously.

This period illustration shows a tactical overview of the Battle of the Capes. Shown sequentially, the map illustrates the different phases of the battle with De Grasse deploying his fleet, Graves reversing his line, and Hood’s failure to attack. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The British vanguard, commanded by Admiral Samuel Francis Drake, attacked the French vanguard around 4:10 PM, and the opposing sides traded brutal fire. Close behind the lead ships of both fleets, the center lines of both fleets closed to attack each other at a range of a few hundred yards. However, the British center did not attack like Graves wanted them to as the British ship Montagu opened fire at too long of range, which forced the rest of the British center to fire at the same range to maintain formation. To make matters worse, the British rear commanded by Hood did not even attack. Thus, the British were fighting an already superior force with two thirds of their ships. Graves, again, sent the flag signal for close in attack yet Hood still held the British rear out of range.

This Harper’s Weekly drawing by J.O. Davidson was published in 1881 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes. Due to the close range of the fighting, this drawing likely depicts the engagement of the British and French vanguards. The various flags flying from each ship illustrates how ships communicated with each other in the age of sail.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

The French vanguard and center, with De Grasse leading them from his flagship Ville De Paris, ferociously fought back the British attack. With advantages in numbers, firepower, maneuvering, and coordination, the engaged portions of the French fleet raked the ships of the Royal Navy with accurate fire, aiming for their rigging and masts. The British fought on bravely, effectively returning fire. The two sides continued to battle for around two hours and eventually the two fleets disengaged around 6:30.
In this bird's-eye view probably published in Britain not long after the battle shows the disjointed arrangement of the British line as it ultimately faced the French.  The two lines, with the larger French line extending towards Cape Henry and the shorter British line at bottom, violently came together at the van, with Hood's and Graves' divisions sustaining the most damage, while Sir Samuel Hood's division bringing up the rear remained too far from the French to effectively fight. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)     

The Battle of the Capes was over and the British clearly suffered more damage. The British scuttled the heavily damaged Terrible, suffered significant damage to five other ships, and sustained 336 casualties. The French suffered notable damage to two ships along with 220 casualties. Graves’ plan to concentrate all his firepower on the French vanguard and center completely backfired. The two fleets maneuvered for position over the next few days but ultimately the British ships were too heavily damaged and Graves’ retreated to New York on September 13. The retreat of the Royal Navy and the converging Franco-American armies sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ Army and on October 19, 1781, the British garrison at Yorktown surrendered after their besiegement. The British defeat at Yorktown was the single most consequential battle of the entire war and it eventually resulted in American Independence. 

This famous painting by John Trumbull depicts the surrender of British forces to Franco-American forces at Yorktown. Cornwallis, claiming illness, was not present for the surrender and sent his subordinate General Charles O’Hara in his stead who at first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau. However, Rochambeau’s subordinate directed him to Washington, stating “The Commander-in-Chief of our army is to your right.” Washington appropriately had his own subordinate General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender. De Grasse himself was too sick to attend the ceremony and his own subordinate, the Comte de Barras, went on his behalf. Thus, the second in command of the various forces officiated the most important surrender in American history. (Wikimedia Commons)
Contemporaries and historians have attempted to untangle the reasons for British defeat at the Battle of the Capes. Graves blamed Hood for his failure to attack the enemy fleet at all with his rear squadron, having raised the flag for close attack multiple times. Graves argued that if Admiral Drake and the rest of the fleet understood his orders, why didn’t Hood? Hood, conversely, blamed Graves for flying the flag to stay in formation simultaneously with the flag for close attack. Hood argued that these contradictory orders required him to obey the flag for line formation. Hood added to this excuse in a letter to his superior Lord Sandwich in which he argued that Graves had missed the opportunity to engage the French when they were disorganized, declaring, “Yesterday the British fleet had a rich and most delightful harvest of glory presented to it, but omitted to gather it…the enemy’s van was not closely attacked as it came out of Lynnhaven Bay.” Ironically, Hood blamed Graves for the very thing he had failed to do, attack the enemy. Some of Hood’s arguments have merit yet the fact remains that if Hood had attacked like the rest of fleet understood to do, Graves’ plan would have been executed as he intended and perhaps the engagement would have gone differently.

Hood vigorously defended his conduct at the Battle of the Capes to both the public and the Admiralty. Hood was largely successful in mitigating blame for his failure to attack due to his considerable political connections via his marriage, Graves’ less vigorous campaign to vindicate himself, and Hood’s far better conduct in future battles. In the years after his death in 1816, Hood was venerated as an aggressive naval hero in the same vein as his protégé, Admiral Horatio Nelson. The famous HMS Hood, sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in WWII, was named after Hood. (Pinterest)

Lost in the debates over reasons for British defeat are the reasons for French victory. First of all, the Comte De Grasse’s steady leadership and strategic vision put the French fleet in the right place at the right time to inflict a defeat on inferior British forces at the most critical juncture of the entire Revolutionary War. Secondly, French gunnery was simply better then British gunnery at the Battle of the Capes. Though they lost the tactical initiative due to the wind direction, the French fought bravely, honorably, and inflicted more damage on the British then the British did to them. The consequences of these French martial achievements on September 5, 1781 changed the world forever and directly led to the establishment of the United States of America.

The Comte De Grasse is not widely recognized as a major hero of the Revolutionary War. However, his conduct directly resulted in victory at Yorktown and American independence. De Grasse’s naval career, personality, accomplishments, and service in the Revolutionary War will be explored in this author’s next article.  


Lewis, Charles Lee. 1945. Admiral De Grasse and American Independence. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Morgan, William James. 1981. "The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned: French Naval Superiority That Ensured Victory At Yorktown."

Pengelly, Colin. 2009. Sir Samuel Hood and the Battle of the Chesapeake. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

No comments: