Memorial to the
'Second Battle of the Virginia Capes (1781)',
Cape Henry Virginia

Statue of Admiral comte deGrasse
Cape Henry over looks the scene where the 'Second Battle of the Virginia Capes' took place. On September 5, 1781, two mighty war fleets exchanged cannon shot for about two and one-half hours. A French fleet, commanded by Admiral comte deGrasse, engaged a British naval force commanded by Admiral Graves that had been sent to reinforce Lord Cornwallis's British army at Yorktown. With no ships lost during this battle, the French fleet would return to the Chesapeake Bay and block the British from relieving Cornwallis. This ensured the eventual surrender of Cornwallis to General Washington's Allied army of American and French troops on October 19, 1781. The victory at Yorktown, the final major battle of the Revolutionary War in North America.
      The location was important to another significant historic event that took place 174 years earlier -- the founding of the English settlement of Jamestown, one of the earliest European settlements that led to the founding of the United States of America.


On April 26, 1607, three small ships with 104 sea-weary English colonists laid eyes upon the shores of Virginia. Captain Christopher Newport, admiral of the fleet, brought his ships to anchor within the protected waters of the bay. Sent by the Virginia Company of London to explore and establish a new English colony, Newport, Edward Maria Wingfield, future President of the ruling council, Bartholomew Gosnold, a member of the council, and about 30 others, ventured ashore. What they found, according to George Percy, were "fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof." Near the end of the day, as these intrepid adventures returned to their ships, they encountered some Indians and a conflict erupted that left two of the English wounded.

      The following day, a second group went ashore and began construction of a small boat, known as a shallop. On April 28 the shallop was launched, and exploration of the lower Chesapeake Bay began. The colonists scouted by land as well and Percy reported, "We past through excellent ground full of Flowers of divers kinds and colors, and as goodly trees as I have seene, as Cedar, Cipresse, and other kinds... fine and beautiful Strawberries, four time bigger and better than ours in England." However, the company's instructions were explicit: they were to lay the foundations of this new colony farther inland, away from the threat of Spanish interference.

      According to Percy "The nine and twentieth day we set up a cross at Chesupioc Bay, and named the place Cape Henry." Here, on the windswept sands, led by their chaplain Reverend Robert Hunt, the colonists must have knelt in prayer giving thanks for this new land and their safe voyage. Now they were ready to follow the company's instructions and push deeper into Virginia and seek a suitable site for settlement. The site selected was named Jamestown, in honor of their King, James I and would become the first permanent English settlement in North America.


Cape Henry Memorial, a part of Colonial National Historical Park, is administered by the National Park Service (NPS). This quarter acre of ground marks the approximate site of the first landing of the Jamestown settlers in Virginia. A memorial cross of granite was erected in 1935 by the Daughters of the American Colonists to commemorate the site where a cross was erected by those early adventurers in the spring of 1607. There is also a statute of Admiral Comte deGrasse, a granite memorial to the Second Battle of the Capes, and a walkway leading to the top of the sand dunes where one can overlook the Atlantic Ocean and the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.


Located on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Henry Memorial sits within Fort Story Military Reservation, 10 miles east of Norfolk and 3 miles north of Virginia Beach. From Interstate 64 take Northhampton Boulevard (U.S. 13) towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Then take Shore Drive (Route 60) South and turn into Fort Story Military Reservation. The memorial is open all year without an admission fee. Entrance is by visitor pass issued by military personnel at Fort Story. The site is unattended by the National Park Service, and there are no facilities or special services available. The Cape Henry stamp for your National Park Service "Passport" book is located at the NPS Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center gift shop.


Adjacent to the memorial, but not a part of it, is the first lighthouse authorized by the Federal Government. Construction was begun in 1791, and the lighthouse was lighted in October 1792. An octagonal tower of cut stone, the lighthouse served until 1881 when a new one was built nearby. The tower, a Registered National Historic Landmark, is administered by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). Admission fee required.

[Much of the foregoing text was taken from the a 3 July 1999 NPS webpage. Page layout was rearranged to emphasize the 1781 events.]

Page created 20 December 2001; revised 26 December 2001.