Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The American Revolution's Unsung Naval Hero, Part I:


This bust by sculptor J. Kendetagi Orsolya currently displayed in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum gallery depicts Vice Admiral Francois Joseph Paul du Bar, Compte de Grasse, an imposing man who stood six feet, two inches tall, yet he was "six feet six inches on days of battle," according to one comrade. (Photo by M.C. Farrington/ Bust Courtesy of the Old Coast Guard Station Museum, Virginia Beach)
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

On September 17, 1781, a group of military commanders boarded the Queen Charlotte, a captured British prize, in Hampton, Virginia. The party was made of an assortment of individuals, whose names are likely familiar to even those with only elementary knowledge of the Revolutionary War: Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Harrison, Comte de Rochambeau, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Foremost in the group was the commander-in-chief of the Franco-American forces in Virginia, General George Washington. This esteemed party was on their way to meet with a man who, in their minds, warranted just as much esteem. The Queen Charlotte reached its destination around noon, the French flagship Ville de Paris, and the party was welcomed by a 13-gun salute, one for each American colony. As Washington crossed the quarterdeck of the ship, the man he had come to conference with, wrote Washington’s adopted son George Washington Parke Custis, “…flew to embrace him, imprinting the French salute upon each cheek. Hugging him in his arms he exclaimed, ‘My dear little general.’” Upon hearing the towering Washington referred to as little, almost everyone close enough to hear burst into laughter, with Knox laughing “…until his fat sides shook again.” Admiral Fran├žois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse, who at 6’2 stood eye to eye with the American, greeted Washington for the first time with a joke.

In the painting “Washington Visits the French Fleet,” artist Percy Moran captured the moment the Comte de Grasse and Washington first met on the quarterdeck of the Ville de Paris. Washington and de Grasse quickly became friends who had immense respect and affection for one another. The two corresponded regularly until De Grasse’s death in 1788. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The Comte de Grasse is not widely recognized as a major hero of the Revolutionary War by scholars and enthusiasts of the conflict alike. However, de Grasse’s accomplishments in his naval career and as a fleet commander during the Revolutionary War stand as a testament to his skill, dedication, and personal bravery. His victory over the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes (also known as the Battle of the Capes) stands as one of the most important and consequential naval battles in the history of the world as it directly led to British defeat at Yorktown and the subsequent independence of the United States of America. Highly regarded by his friends and enemies alike, de Grasse played a vital role in the establishment of American independence and his career, life, and military service in the Revolution stand as an often overlooked yet compelling chapter of naval history. 

De Grasse’s path to serving in America’s War for Independence was paved in privilege as he was born to a wealthy and storied French noble family in 1722. De Grasse benefited from a superb education, learning from the Jesuits, serving as a page for the Knights of Malta, and ultimately joining the Marine Royale as an ensign when he turned 18. De Grasse climbed the ranks, fighting skillfully in several wars against the British in the mid-18th century. Although he was regarded as a brave, honorable, and talented officer, his naval career advanced unremarkably until his promotion to commodore in 1778 and the entrance of France as an American ally in the Revolution.

This painting depicts the grand harbor of Malta with several ships of The Order of St. John. Founded in the mid-12th century, the Order of St. John was the first chivalric order to adopt an official navy. Originally known as the Knights Hospitaller, the Order eventually moved to Malta in the 14th century. With their elite ships and crews, the Maltese Navy was the scourge of their enemies in the Mediterranean. The Comte de Grasse received an excellent naval education from the Order of St. John and he remained a member until he joined the Order of St. Louis later in life. (Wikimedia Commons)
De Grasse distinguished himself in several battles off of France and in the Caribbean from 1778 to 1780 as a ship, squadron, and fleet commander. The Marine Royale, contrary to how they had fared in prior naval wars with Britain, fought the Royal Navy to a standstill. In January 1781, de Grasse was recuperating from an illness in France when he was summoned to the court of King Louis XVI. He was personally escorted to the king by Queen Marie Antoinette who offered the tall and handsome naval commander her arm as they walked through the palace. De Grasse was well-liked by the King and Queen and he was given the vital Caribbean fleet command and promoted to Rear Admiral. Thus, de Grasse sailed for the Caribbean on March 22 with 20 ships of line with his flag flying from the first rate 104 gun Ville De Paris, one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world. It would be up to De Grasse on how to best use French naval might in North America.

The French fleet arrived in the Caribbean on April 28 and was immediately met in battle by a powerful British force under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, whose conduct during the Battle of the Capes a few months later proved to be decisive. De Grasse successfully protected a merchant convoy while simultaneously defeating Hood at The Battle of Fort Royal. De Grasse spent the next few months maneuvering, resupplying, and engaging British forces in the Caribbean. However, de Grasse possessed a keen strategic mind and knew that his true objective was to use his fleet in conjunction with the Franco-American forces in North America.

After coordinating with the allied commanders Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau, de Grasse decided to sortie into the Chesapeake Bay in order to isolate British General Charles Cornwallis’ large army in Virginia. On September 5, 1781, de Grasse defeated the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. The Royal Navy was ultimately forced to retreat as they were outnumbered and their ships were deemed too damaged to reengage. As a result, Cornwallis’ forces were vulnerable to an overwhelming concentration of Franco-American forces. On September 28, the united Franco-American army besieged Yorktown and, after the British redoubts were stormed and their position shelled, Cornwallis was forced to surrender on October 19.

This rare map stylistically depicts the effective blockade of the Chesapeake Bay by the French fleet commanded by the Comte de Grasse. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Word of the victory at Yorktown spread fast and de Grasse was effusively praised by many key parties. Washington wrote Congress on October 19 complimenting de Grasse, stating, “I wish it in my Power to express to Congress how much I feel myself indebted to the Count De Grasse and the officers of the French fleet…for the distinguished Aid and Support which have been afforded by them.” On October 20, Washington personally thanked de Grasse for his role in the victory at Yorktown, writing, “…in the name of America, for the glorious event for which she indebted to you…the surrender of York…the honor of which belongs to your excellency.”

Congress, upon receiving news of the victory, passed a resolution officially thanking de Grasse, “…for his display of skill and bravery in attacking and defeating the British fleet…and for his zeal and alacrity in rendering…the most effective and distinguished aid and support to the allied army in Virginia.” The gratitude de Grasse received for his victory at Yorktown was deserving and he relished another opportunity to engage the British, declaring to Washington, “I wish that they (British) would choose to crown our happiness by affording me the means of inspiring them with the respect which they ought to feel for a victorious fleet.” De Grasse would get his chance.


Charles Wilson Peale captured the quiet confidence and martial zeal of George Washington in this 1782 painting of him at Yorktown. Commissioned by a French officer who served with Washington at Yorktown, this portrait depicts Washington as the military commander he was. Washington was well liked by even the most austere of the French and he maintained several friendships over the years of his life with the French military officers he served with, including the Comte de Grasse. (National Portrait Gallery)
De Grasse, having promised to aid the Spanish in the Caribbean against the British before leaving for Virginia, departed the Chesapeake Bay on November 4. Washington wrote de Grasse on November 5, expressing regret he could not bid him farewell in person writing, “I entreat your Excellency to accept my ardent vows for the speedy and perfect establishment of your health and the sentiments of sincere friendship.” Though the two remained friends throughout their lives, they never met again.

Arriving safely at Fort Royal on November 26, de Grasse immediately planned and prepared for military operations against British targets in the Caribbean. The grand prize, in the eyes of the Franco-Spanish forces, was British-held Jamaica. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, regarded Jamaican sugar exports, which made up 20% of all British import revenue, as a vital interest and as a result the defense of Jamaica was prioritized. If de Grasse could take Jamaica, it would be a death blow to the British economy. 

This 1784 painting of the Battle of St. Kitts by Nicholas Pocock helps illustrate the brilliant tactical mind of Admiral Hood. De Grasse was out maneuvered by Hood who circled behind the French, seizing their anchorage. This painting depicts Hood’s ships, on the left, repelling an attack by de Grasse’s fleet. Hood’s tactical maneuver at St. Kitts received high praise from both his peers in the Admiralty and subsequent historians, yet Hood’s brilliance was ultimately rendered meaningless as de Grasse nevertheless took St. Kitts. (Wikimedia Commons)
By January, 1782, de Grasse’s fleet, numbering 26 ships of the line, was ready to conduct offensive operations against the British. De Grasse decided that the first blow of his 1782 offensive would be struck at the British-held island of St. Kitts while he awaited reinforcements for the grand assault on Jamaica. On January 11, de Grasse landed an invasion force on St. Kitts and thousands of French troops laid siege to the fortified British position on Brimstone Hill. On January 25, Admiral Hood, who had fought de Grasse several times the previous year, counter-attacked de Grasse’s 26 ships with his smaller fleet of 22. Hood executed the most brilliant tactical maneuver of his naval career at The Battle of St. Kitts when he lured de Grasse away from the island and then seized his anchorage. De Grasse, with Hood between his fleet and the besieging French forces, furiously assaulted the British held anchorage on January 26. The engagement was indecisive, with both fleets suffering approximately 300 casualties, and de Grasse was forced to retreat and blockade the St. Kitts anchorage.  

Although de Grasse’s old enemy Hood had brilliantly maneuvered his smaller force, his tactical victory over him was for naught as he was unable to stop the French invasion on the island. The French took St. Kitts on February 12 and Hood was forced to retreat. De Grasse had taken St. Kitts but it would not be the last time he had to face Admiral Hood. The final reckoning between de Grasse and the Royal Navy would occur months later at Saint’s Passage.

No comments: