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Siege of Yorktown

Count de Grasse
Count de Grasse, Admiral of the French fleet in the Battle of the Virginia Capes and in the blockade of Yorktown in September—October 1781. (From a painting in the U. S. Naval Academy. Annapolis, Md.)

BATTLE OF THE VIRGINIA CAPES. The Count de Grasse left Cape Francais, on the northern coast of Haiti in the West Indies, for the Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay on August 5. He had reached the West Indies in April, after a 38 days' crossing of the Atlantic from Brest, France. There had been some contact with the sizeable British fleet under Rear Adm. Sir Samuel Hood who, with his superior in this theater, Sir George Rodney, did not seem willing to bring on a general action at this time. De Grasse had moved on against Tobago, proceeded to Santo Domingo, and reached Cape Francais on July 16.

At Santo Domingo, negotiations for land forces for use in Virginia were completed with M. de Lillancourt, the new commander there, who agreed to supply from the West Indies garrison a detachment from the Gatinois, Agenois, and Touraine regiments, as well as some artillery, dragoons, and field and siege ordnance. It was further agreed that the troops could be maintained on the continent only until October 15, as they might be needed in the West Indies after that time. In Havana, De Grasse, as had been requested of him, concluded arrangements for financial aid—a virtual necessity at this point.

De Grasse approached the Virginia Capes on August 30, encountering the British frigate Guadaloupe and the corvette Loyalist which had been posted as lookouts. Both were pursued, the corvette being taken and the frigate forced into the York River. The next day, the French fleet moved into Chesapeake Bay for anchorage, individual ships having been delegated to block the mouths of the York and the James. On September 2, the land forces under the Marquis de St. Simon were sent up the James in long boats for landing at Jamestown.

Dispatches telling of the arrival of De Grasse were sent to Washington and Rochambeau, contact having already been established with Lafayette. De Grasse felt that there was urgent need for action, but Lafayette, even with the reinforcements of St. Simon, thought that it would not be wise to attack before Washington and the army under his command reached the area. He wrote ". . . having so sure a game to play, it would be madness, by the risk of attack, to give any thing to chance." Perhaps De Grasse was wondering how he had been able to reach Virginia and establish a blockade of Cornwallis' position without interference from the British fleet. Such good fortune might not continue.

The undisturbed voyage had indeed been a stroke of luck. In July, word had been received by Rear Adm. Thomas Graves, in command of the British naval units at New York, that a convoy, with valuable aid for the American cause, had sailed for America and that it was important that it be intercepted. This led him to put to sea, believing that Rodney, in the West Indies, would take steps to cover any movement of the French fleet of De Grasse which was known to be in that area. As a precautionary measure, however, he sent some light craft on reconnaissance south along the Atlantic coast.

Graves left Sandy Hook, off New York harbor, on July 6. He was still at sea when a sloop reached New York with dispatches from Rodney telling of De Grasse's fleet and the fact that at least a part of it was destined for North America. Rodney further reported that if the situation should require him to send a squadron to contact the French that he would order it to "make the Capes of Virginia," proceed along the Capes of the Delaware, and move on to Sandy Hook. Not finding Graves, the commander of the sloop put to sea to locate him, but was attacked by a privateer and forced ashore. Thus, Graves did not get word of De Grasse from Rodney until he himself returned to New York on August 18.

Needing repairs, Graves did not want to sail again until his fleet was in readiness. Another matter that was troubling him was the French squadron of eight ships under Admiral De Barras at Newport; and it was tentatively agreed that when he was at full strength joint operations would be undertaken against that station. Then, on August 28, Rear Adm. Samuel Hood anchored off Sandy Hook with the greater part of the West Indies fleet. Rodney, suffering from poor health, had turned over his command to Hood and sailed for home, but one of his last acts had been to dispatch Hood northward along the Atlantic coast with comprehensive instructions to act against, or to head off, De Grasse. Hood, on August 25, had entered the Chesapeake and found no enemy, since he had sailed in advance of De Grasse. From Virginia he had continued on to New York. Thus Hood had missed De Grasse, and the latter was now in the Chesapeake.

An intelligence report was received about this time by the British that De Barras had sailed from Newport with his entire squadron and that he, too, was headed for Virginia. Immediate action was imperative. Graves assumed command of the entire British fleet, now made up of Hood's ships and all of his own that were ready for duty. On August 31, he sailed south, hoping to intercept either De Barras or De Grasse, or of engaging them both.

On the morning of September 5, Graves approached the capes of the Chesapeake. The French fleet was sighted and a signal was made to form a line of battle. By noon, his ships were getting to their stations. The fleet was divided into three divisions, with Graves directing operations from his flagship, the London, of 98 guns. Division commanders were Rear Adm. Samuel Hood and Rear Adm. Francis Samuel Drake.

Ville de Paris
The VILLE DE PARIS. A model of the flagship of the Count de Grasse during his operations in Virginia waters in the autumn of 1781.

Meanwhile, in the French fleet, De Grasse ordered all hands to prepare for action. The tide was right by noon, and, even though 90 officers and 1,800 men were not aboard, his ships got under way and moved out into the Atlantic to allow more room for maneuver. De Grasse commanded from his flagship, the Ville de Paris, a 110-gun ship, and deployed his fleet in three sections, commanded respectively by Le Sieur de Bougainville, De Latouche-Treville, and Le Sieur de Monteil. Action began about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and continued for 2-1/2 hours, when darkness necessitated a cease-fire order. A French account of the battle related that:

At four o'clock the van, commanded by M. de Bougainville, began the action with a very brisk fire and successively the ships of the line of battle took part. Only the eight leading ships of the English line took any great part in the fight. The combat was violent here. For the most part the center of their fleet and their rear held themselves at half a cannon shot without inclining to engage. The wind failed the nine last vessels of our line entirely. . . . At five o'clock the winds having continued to vary up to four points placed again the French van too much to windward. Count de Grasse desired ardently that the action be general, and in order to have the enemy at command there he ordered his van to bear down a second time. That of Admiral Graves was very abused, and that admiral profited by the advantage of the wind which rendered him master of distance, in order to avoid being attacked by the French rear-division which was making every effort to reach him and his center. Sunset ended this battle. . . . The first fifteen ships in the French line were the only ones to participate in the battle. . . .

It was later learned that the "ship London commanded by Admiral Graves had been so well raked by the Ville de Paris that they [the English] had been obliged to change all its masts."

In the action, 24 French ships of the line, carrying approximately 1,700 guns and 19,000 seamen, were opposed by 19 British ships of the line, having about 1,400 guns and 13,000 seamen. Casualties for the British were 90 killed and 246 wounded. The French counted about 200 in killed and wounded. Several English ships were damaged, and one, the Terrible, had to be sunk several days after the engagement.

During the night of September 5—6, the two fleets remained close together. At a conference on the London, on the 6th, Graves decided that with a number of his ships disabled it would be too hazardous to renew the action. He also declined Hood's suggestion to try to slip into the Chesapeake. De Grasse, having stopped the British and having inflicted considerable damage, likewise hesitated to renew the engagement. On the 7th and 8th, the two fleets remained from 2 to 5 leagues apart. Meanwhile, a northeast wind was carrying them south. On the 9th, they were below Albermarle Sound, and by the next day the British fleet was off Cape Hatteras. It was on the 9th that De Grasse lost sight of the British and, fearing that a change of wind might prevent it, sailed toward the Chesapeake Bay, which he reached on the 11th. On the 10th, De Barras reached Virginia with his squadron from Newport, R. I., and entered the bay, later to join De Grasse. Admiral Graves followed De Grasse northward, realizing that the situation was now out of hand. On September 14, he sailed from the Virginia coast for New York, where he intended to ". . . use every possible means for putting the Squadron into the best state for service. . ." His departure had momentous consequences for Cornwallis.

The Battle of the Virginia Capes, as the action of September 5 has come to be called, was a most important phase of the siege of Yorktown. At a critical point the French had seized control of the sea and had sealed in the British at Yorktown. This prevented the evacuation of Cornwallis and ended his hopes of reinforcement and supply. The next phase of the combined operation against Cornwallis was encirclement by land. Already this was being accomplished.


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