The Naval Prelude to Yorktown
Michael J. Crawford
Naval History and Heritage Command

On September 5, 1781, a French fleet of twenty-four ships of the line engaged a British fleet of nineteen ships of the line in the Battle off the Virginia Capes. The French fleet prevented the British fleet from relieving Lord Cornwallis's besieged army at Yorktown, Virginia, leading to the eventual surrender of some 7,000 British troops to the combined American and French arms. The allied victory at Yorktown was not simply the playing out of inevitabilities. Rather, that victory was the product of contingencies. The outcome resulted from real choices made in a drama in the act of being written by the players who were also the playwrights. The military and naval decision-makers in the American War of Independence faced strategic and tactical alternatives. Those choices steered the course of the war.
The French fleet of twenty-eight ships of the line, under command of Admiral de Grasse, entered the Chesapeake Bay on August 30, 1781. By the second of September, ships of the fleet had moved up the James River to land the 3,300 French soldiers brought from the West Indies to assist in the allied siege of the British army under General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. Mid-morning September fifth, a French frigate on scouting duty brought word that a fleet of at least ten sail had appeared on the horizon. De Grasse thought this must be the French fleet from Newport, Rhode Island, under Admiral Barras, bringing the army's siege artillery. But by eleven o'clock the number of sail in the strange fleet had risen into the twenties and the French admiral knew it must be the British. Realizing that he must meet the British fleet before it intercepted Barras, de Grasse did not wait to re-embark the 1,800 sailors who were ashore to replenish the fleet's supply of water and fresh produce or to recall several of his ships blockading the York and James Rivers. At 11:30, twenty-four French ships of the line cut their anchor cables and stood out to sea to fight the engagement on whose outcome rested the independence of the United States of America.


When the French government entered into an alliance with the United States against Great Britain in 1778, it had two strategic options for employing their navy, one embodied in a war plan submitted by the Comte de Broglie, lieutenant général in the army, and one in a memoir on strategy probably by the minister for foreign affairs, the Comte de Vergennes, himself.
De Broglie advised that the British had more experience with navigation, long cruises, and command of squadrons, their fleet was better supported by magazines and dockyards, and they had better access to naval stores from the Baltic. They would beat the French in detail or their navy would outlast and remain in good condition longer in an extended conflict. Therefore the French should avoid dividing forces, individual combat, cruising on dangerous stations, and long distant expeditions. "No small squadrons, no long distant expeditions, all our forces in the same waters; a naval battle at an early but well-chosen moment and for an important objective; a short, hard war: This is the doctrine we propose for our navy." Force the British to fight in the Channel by threatening invasion. The eventualities of which de Broglie warned almost came to pass. By 1782, the better lasting power of the British fleet and the greater experience of its officers were evident in the Battle of the Saintes, an unequivocal victory for the British in which they captured four French ships of the line, including the flag ship with admiral de Grasse on board. The major European navies were limited in size by the availability of skilled seamen. Great Britain successfully manned ninety ships of the line through the later years of the war. When France expanded beyond seventy, problems arose because there were too few skilled seamen. If the war had lasted a year or two longer than it did, the British would have established naval superiority in numbers of ships and crews as well as in quality.
The advice offered in the Memoir on French Naval Strategy differed greatly from that offered by de Broglie. The memoir begins by stating France's two war goals: Preserve French and Spanish possessions in America and help the Americans secure independence. The best way to achieve these goals would be with a French squadron on the coasts of North America. The French squadron should try to destroy British naval forces that were scattered along the coast in support of ground operations and cruising against American privateers. This would end the British threat to the French West Indies, as well as prop up the Americans.
The French chose the second strategy in 1778. A squadron under Comte d'Estaing sailed to North America but failed to strike a decisive blow there because d'Estaing was too slow and too cautious. With an earlier arrival, he could have caught the British fleet in the Delaware; he was foiled at New York and Rhode Island; then Admiral Byron's arrival gave the British local superiority. Nevertheless, the mere presence of the French fleet forced the British to abandon Philadelphia and raise, at least for a time, the blockade of the coast. In Europe, Admiral D'Orvilliers had no intention of risking the Brest fleet during the Battle off Ushant. His instructions were to avoid all risk, but to draw British attention to the Channel and hold it there. The strategy of tying down British naval forces in England by threat of invasion and then winning naval superiority in some part of the British Empire eventually succeeded in 1781.
American victory at Yorktown resulted from the combination of strategic miscalculations by the British, the Comte de Grasse's daring in taking his entire West Indian squadron to the Chesapeake, and the cooperation of Spain, France's ally, that allowed de Grasse to do so.
The British made the disaster that happened to their forces at Yorktown possible because: They were blind to the dangers of their policy of dividing their troops in North America into three armies dispersed to locations so separated that the armies could not come to each other's support except by sea, which depended on maintaining naval superiority; and they mistakenly believed that they would always maintain naval superiority in North America.
Having armies in New York City, Virginia, and South Carolina, the British acted on the assumption that any French squadron arriving from the West Indies would be matched in power by a British squadron dispatched from the West Indies.


On May 6, 1781, a French frigate, the Concorde, arrived at Boston delivering Admiral Barras, who brought the following information: General Rochambeau was to incorporate his corps at Newport, R.I., with Washington's army; Barras was to take command of the French squadron at Newport; and De Grasse was to send part of his West Indies squadron north in July or August to support operations of the combined Continental and French armies.
In order to discuss the operations the prospects of temporary naval superiority on the North American coast made possible, Washington and Rochambeau met at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on 21 May. At that meeting, Rochambeau gave in to Washington's views that Clinton's army in New York was the most eligible target of such a joint operation. But a week later, when Rochambeau wrote de Grasse, news had arrived that a British army under Lord Cornwallis had marched into Virginia where, joining a force under Benedict Arnold and William Phillips, it threatened the modest Continental forces under the Marquis de Lafayette. Rochambeau presented de Grasse a choice between the Chesapeake and New York and did it in such a way as to indicate that the French general preferred the Chesapeake. By mid-August, when Clinton had received nearly four thousand troop reinforcements and when Washington's army had failed to receive from the states the number of recruits he had counted on, Washington concluded he had too few troops for a successful attack on Clinton's defenses. The American general became reconciled to joint operations in the Chesapeake, where Cornwallis's army appeared vulnerable. On August 12, the frigate Concorde delivered to Newport a letter from de Grasse announcing his intention to sail for the Chesapeake Bay.
Contrary to the views of Clinton, who thought Cornwallis should return to South Carolina, Lord Cornwallis entered Virginia from North Carolina in the spring of 1781, and uniting his force with a British detachment that had been raiding in the Chesapeake and chasing the Continental Army troops under Lafayette and local militia all around the Commonwealth of Virginia, commanded something more than 7,000 troops. At the end of July, under orders from General Sir Henry Clinton to establish himself somewhere in the Chesapeake he could hold as a base for naval operations and where he could be supplied by sea, Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, Virginia.
The French had agreed to cooperate with the Spanish in a campaign in the Caribbean. Concluding that the coming of the hurricane season would make a campaign against Jamaica untenable for the time being, Francisco Savaadra, sent by the Spanish king to coordinate Spain's military and naval operations in America, released for a time a French corps of 3,300 men at Saint Domingue that had been placed in Spanish service. Since his arrival in saint Dominguez the previous year, the French general Claude-Anne Marquis de Saint-Simon, eager for more military action than he expected to have with the Spanish, had been offering to come to North America and place himself under Rochambeau's orders. When de Grasse announced his intention to sail with twenty-four of his ships of the line for an expedition to the Chesapeake, Savaadra urged him to sail instead with his entire force and to enable him to do so offered to send four Spanish ships of the line to protect the French merchant fleet at Cape Français. Promising to return to the Caribbean when the hurricane season ended in mid-October, de Grasse sailed on August 5. Before sailing, de Grasse stowed away aboard his fleet a war chest of more than a million livres, raised by private subscription in Havana, Cuba. De Grasse departed the Caribbean with the three essentials requested by Washington and Rochambeau: a superior fleet, reinforcements of land troops, and money to keep the allied armies in the field. De Grasse's fleet arrived at the Chesapeake on August 30, and the next day landed the troops.
On August 14, Washington learned of de Grasse's decision to come to the Chesapeake. He ordered Rochambeau's corps of about 2,000 men and 2,500 American troops to Virginia, where they were to join Continental troops under Lafayette in besieging Cornwallis's army, in fortifications on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers.
De Grasse sailed from the West Indies with twenty-eight ships of the line, practically his entire force. Never dreaming that de Grasse would be so bold, the British admiral Sir George Rodney sailed home to England unwell and ordered his subordinate Samuel Hood to North America. Nominally, Rodney's Leeward Islands Station consisted of twenty-one ships of the line. One seventy-four-gun ship, however, had sustained damages requiring it to be laid up for repairs at Antigua; Rodney ordered the ninety-gun ship Sandwich to convoy merchantmen to Jamaica, where it was to be repaired, and ordered a seventy-four and a sixty to accompany the convoy; Admiral Parker, in command of the Jamaica Station, delayed the departure of those two vessels until an outward-bound convoy was ready; and Rodney employed the eighty-gun Gibraltar to carry him home to England, accompanied by a seventy-four and a sixty, all in need of repairs. Hood's fleet thus consisted of only fourteen ships of the line, but Rodney assumed that would be sufficient to maintain naval superiority in the north. On his way north Hood looked into the Chesapeake on August 25 and, finding no fleet there, continued on to New York, where he place himself under the orders of Thomas Graves, commander of the North America Station, on August 28.
Through most of the summer of 1781, even into late August, Sir Henry Clinton, in New York, had no inkling that Cornwallis's army might be in danger. Clinton was more concerned about the safety of his own command and in July, in fact, had issued orders to Cornwallis to send reinforcements to New York, orders he revoked only after receiving instructions from London. In addition, after the French army left Rhode Island and joined Washington's army outside New York, the British saw an opening for capturing Newport and Barras's squadron with it. Clinton was convinced that Washington and Rochambeau would not move south without naval superiority.


On the evening of August 25, the same day Hood's squadron arrived at New York, the British learned that Barras's squadron of six ships of the line had sailed to the southward. It was not until the 31st, however, that Graves was able to cross the bar with five ships to join Hood, where he waited with his squadron of fourteen, and sail in hopes of intercepting Barras.
Graves commanded only nineteen ships of the line when he approached the Chesapeake on September 5 and to his surprise find the entrance to the Capes occupied by the superior French West Indian fleet rather than by Barras's smaller squadron. When de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake, he found Cornwallis supported by three Royal Navy frigates and six armed sloops in the York River. The French admiral stationed vessels at the mouth of the York to blockade the British warships and in the James River to prevent Cornwallis from escaping to North Carolina. The morning of September 5th found twenty-four of de grasses' twenty-eight ships of the line drawn up in three files in Lynn Haven Bay, with about eighteen hundred sailors ashore helping with the landing of the Marquis de Saint-Simon's troops and with watering the fleet. Unable to recall the absent sailors in time, and leaving four ships of the line behind, de Grasse sailed out with twenty-four to meet Graves.
    De Grasse chose not to form a defensive line within the Capes because:
  • Graves could have entered the Chesapeake without defeating de Grasse first, which could have given Washington's army trouble, even if Graves would have been trapped; and
  • De Grasse needed to ensure that Barras's squadron with the army's siege artillery got safely into the Chesapeake.
De Grasse had to fight Graves in order to allow Barras to slip into the Chesapeake; he did not have to defeat Graves.
Graves was unaware of Cornwallis's extreme danger; he may have been aware that Washington and Rochambeau were marching to Virginia, but he would not have known that Cornwallis's army was immobilized.
The French fleet straggled out of the Capes in some disorder, the van, under Bougainville, getting significantly ahead of the center. Graves did not take advantage of the stretching out of de Grasse's line of battle to attack a portion of it. His actions indicate that he was intent on preventing ships of the more numerous French fleet from doubling his, catching British ships between two fires. Graves sought to fight a conventional battle of line against line.
The British fleet approached the Chesapeake capes on an east to west line, the wind from north north east. Hood commanded the van, Graves the center, and Rear Admiral Francis Samuel Drake the rear. Shortly after 2 p.m. when the fleet came in danger of running onto the Middle Ground, a shoal in the mouth of the bay, Graves ordered all ships to wear together. This put the fleet on a west to east line, roughly parallel to that of the French at a distance of four or five miles. The maneuver reversed the order of battle, making Drake's squadron the van and Hood's the rear. It also maintained the British windward position, which gave them the choice of when to engage, since the French could not sail into the wind to force battle. In order to insure that his line of battle extended as far as that of the French, to prevent being doubled, Graves delayed engaging until the French admiral had formed up his line. Even at that, the French line was badly formed, with Bougainville's squadron well to the windward.
Graves had three methods of closing with the French from which to choose. He could:
  • order all ships to turn at right angles, bear down on their opposite numbers in the French line, and luff up to re-form the line of battle
  • maintain the line-ahead with the leading ship bearing obliquely toward the French, resuming a parallel position as, one by one, the proper distance was reached
  • have each vessel turn obliquely in its position in the line and come down with the wind on its quarter toward its opponent until within range, then resume the parallel line.
Each of these methods possessed two disadvantages, in varying degrees: they exposed the attackers to the enemy's raking fire along the length of the deck while depriving them for a time from using the firepower of their own broadsides.
About 3 P.M., by issuing the order by signal flags to "lead more to starboard, or toward the enemy," Graves indicated that he was choosing the second of these methods, maintaining line ahead with the lead ship bearing toward the enemy. This method minimized the ships' exposure to raking fire, but entailed its own additional cost: The two fleets approached each other at an angle, so that when the vans clashed, the center and rear were well out of range, thus defeating Graves's intention of attacking all together.
By 4 p.m. the tail end of the French line of battle had passed beyond Cape Henry and Graves determined that the moment to engage had at last arrived. The British admiral broke out a signal to bear down on the enemy and engage more closely, but for eight minutes left flying the signal for line-ahead. The flag signals confused the commanders in the other ships, since it was impossible for a ship both to maintain its place in the line, that is, in a line running from the lead ship through the flagship, and to bear down at right angles to the enemy. Graves intended for his commanders to engage the enemy more closely without disrupting their formation, but the signal book provided no clear way of communicating that by flags. In bearing down, Graves's flagship, the London, advanced farther toward the enemy than the ships ahead of him. In luffing up to bring its broadsides to bear, the London masked the fire of the next ship ahead in the line. In an attempt to relieve the bunching up of the ships forward of the flag, Graves ordered the signal for maintaining the line hoisted once more. According to Graves, he had that signal lowered a few minutes later. But Hood and at least one of his captains in the rear believed that it flew continuously until about 5:30 P.M. Hood, in command of the rear, maintained the line-ahead. As the British van bore down on the French, the angle of the British line became more oblique, moving the rear farther from the action. About 5 P.M. the wind shifted more easterly, putting the British rear less to the windward. The rear never engaged. Around 6:30, as darkness fell, Graves disengaged.
Tactically the Battle off the Virginia capes was indecisive. Both fleets had ships badly shot up. The British had five ships of the line particularly injured. As would be expected, the ships in the vans of both fleets received the bulk of the damage. The seventy-four gun HMS Terrible, which had been leaking badly when it sailed from the West Indies, was so injured that the British abandoned and burned it. Over the next several days, while the two fleets sailed within sight of each other, it became clear that the British fleet was in no condition to act in concert in another engagement. The French admiral was content not to resume battle, but simply to keep the Virginia Capes clear. This was in accord with French doctrine that the goal of the fleet was not winning battles but achieving ulterior ends. On September 9, convinced that Barras must have made it in safely, de Grasse sailed back to the Chesapeake, arriving on September 11 and finding Barras's squadron there. Washington and Rochambeau reached the Yorktown peninsula on September 14; their entire force had arrived by September 26. With the urging of the generals, de Grasse, despite his commitment to the Spanish, agreed to remain until the end of October.
It occurred to Graves too late that he might to try to beat de Grasse back to the Chesapeake and bar his way. On September 13 the British admiral decided to return to New York, repair his ships, and prepare for possible offensive operations, with reinforcements expected from England. On September 24, three additional ships of the line arrived.
A British council of war in New York determined that the only way to save Cornwallis's army was by landing troops from New York near Yorktown. Such an amphibious landing in the face of a superior army and fleet was an impracticable undertaking, and even if the landing succeeded, the British numbers of troops would still be inferior.
On October 17, Graves's ships were repaired and ready; on October 18, 7,000 rank and file embarked; on October 19, twenty-five ships of the line set sail; and on October 24 they learned that Cornwallis had surrendered on the 19th. Decisive local superiority at sea, attained through cooperation of three allies, sealed the fate of the British army at Yorktown. British strategy had assumed a continuity of naval superiority. When the British lost that, they lost America.


Surrender of a second British army--the first having been at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777--broke the political will in Great Britain to continue the struggle. The North ministry was replaced with one determined to end the war.
Yorktown came just in time to save the Revolution. The Continental Congress was bankrupt and the American economy on verge of collapse; the French treasury was empty and the government was able to borrow only with great difficulty; and the British navy was on the way to superiority over the allied navies.
Although fighting on the North American mainland ended, the naval war continued. Bourbon fleets threatened the Channel for a time, after which the British relieved Gibraltar a third time and stationed a fleet to watch the Dutch. Naval warfare in the Indian Ocean was inconclusive.
The French used naval superiority in the West Indies to capture several of the Leeward Islands and then planned to rendezvous with the Spanish for an attack on Jamaica. Admiral Sir George Rodney's arrival gave the British naval superiority in the West Indies Theater and Rodney intercepted and defeated de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes.


By 1782, all parties were ready for peace. Great Britain was willing to grant America independence in order to retain Canada; France was at the end of her financial rope; and Spain could not go it alone.
The British chance for success in America rested on command of the seas. They did not achieve command of the seas because they lacked the boldness to choose among the competing demands on limited naval resources. The ministry lacked the necessary boldness because it was too weak politically to accept the reverses that choosing among demands made inevitable.
The French were unable to man more than about seventy ships of then line. Thus, when d'Estaing failed to strike a decisive blow in 1778, they were dependent on Spain's fifty ships of the line to maintain naval superiority, and thus adjusted their strategy to meet Spanish demands. After invasion of England failed in 1779, the allies used their fleet to tie down British naval forces in home waters by the continued threat of invasion. Meanwhile, Spanish and French fleets put pressure on different sectors of the overextended British Empire in the hope of achieving decisive superiority of force somewhere. This strategy succeeded in 1781, leading to the surrender of a British army at Yorktown.

Page posted 12 April 2013.
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