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Yorktown and the Battle of the Capes


Yorktown and the Battle of the Capes

The naval force that played the most important role in achieving American independence was not American at all--it was French. General Washington knew that as long as the Royal Navy controlled the seas, the British army could maintain its mobility and never be pinned down or destroyed.
George Washington. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The greatest opportunity for Washington to trap a major British force on land developed in the summer of 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. British General Cornwallis, after making a sweeping movement across the southern states, had withdrawn to the port of Yorktown to establish a base of operations.
Battle of the Capes. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press.
From Yorktown, located on the Virginia shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis's army of 7,000 could rely on the Royal Navy to provide supplies, reinforcements, and, if need be, a means of retreat.

As the British established themselves at Yorktown, Washington and his army of 9,000 camped around New York City. Seeking an opportunity to cut off Cornwallis's contact with the Royal Navy, Washington urgently requested the support of the French fleet then operating in the Caribbean. Washington's plan called for a combined naval and land offensive against Cornwallis. Rear Admiral J. P. Compte de Grasse responded to Washington's call by sailing his French battle fleet of twenty-eight ships north toward Virginia. Simultaneously, on August 21, 1781, Washington began moving his army south.
General Charles Cornwallis. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Leaving 2,500 troops with Major General Heath in New York to screen the withdrawal of the remainder of the American army, Washington began the long trek south through New Jersey and Philadelphia to the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile, Admiral Sir George Rodney, commanding the British naval forces in the West Indies, realized that de Grasse had begun moving his fleet northward. Rodney dispatched fourteen ships of the line under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Hood to pursue the French fleet. However, in an effort to avoid detection by the British, de Grasse did not follow the main shipping lanes north. By slowly navigating through the seldom-used Bahama Channel, de Grasse avoided Hood.
Rear Admiral J. P. Compte de Grasse. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
In fact, as he followed a more direct route, Hood not only failed to spot the French, but also outdistanced them and arrived at the Chesapeake Bay some four days ahead of de Grasse. Finding no sign of the French at the Chesapeake Bay, Hood continued north to New York. There, with de Grasse's whereabouts unknown, Hood met with the commander of the British squadron in New York, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. Graves's concern at this point centered on reports that another French squadron had set sail from Newport, Rhode Island. This French fleet of eight ships was rumored to be carrying siege guns and troops to help the Americans encircle Cornwallis at Yorktown. On September 1, 1781, in an effort to cut off this second French fleet, Graves and Hood set sail once again for the Chesapeake Bay with a combined fleet of nineteen ships of the line.

What neither Graves nor Hood realized was that on August 29, de Grasse had successfully arrived in Virginia. Finding no opposition, he anchored his fleet just inside the Chesapeake Bay. There de Grasse landed some 2,500 French troops to support American forces already at Yorktown.
Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The combination was sufficient to hold Cornwallis in place at Yorktown while de Grasse ferried Washington's army from the northern end of the Bay. Cornwallis was now nearly trapped.

On the morning of September 5, 1781, the British fleet, approaching from the north, sighted the French fleet at anchor inside the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. At first, the British assumed they had located the French squadron they had been tracking from Newport; but as they drew closer, the forest of masts showed their mistake. De Grasse moved quickly to put his ships to sea, where he could maneuver against the British. In their haste, the twenty-four French ships rounded Cape Henry in an undisciplined mass and failed to form a proper battle line. At this point, the British fleet had the opportunity to defeat the vessels as they emerged from the Bay. Instead, Graves stopped to form a line of battle, which allowed the French to prepare for the coming action.

At 3:45 P.M., with the two fleets on nearly parallel courses a mile or two apart, Graves hoisted the signal "line ahead," meaning that his ships were to remain in single file, bow to stern, as they approached the enemy. As the forward end, or "van," of the British line approached the French at a slight angle, forming a "V," Graves signaled for his fleet to "bear down and engage," meaning that each ship was to engage its opposite in battle. However, Graves continued to fly the signal for "line ahead." Hood, knowing that the requirement to follow the "line ahead" signal superceded all other signals, remained doggedly in line in the rear, positioned too far back to be actively engaged. For nearly an hour and a half, only the van of the British fleet engaged de Grasse's ships. Finally, at 5:20 P.M., Graves lowered all signals and hoisted the sign for "close action." Hood's squadron joined the fight. However, by this time, three British ships had been disabled.
Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, 1781. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
As the afternoon wore on, de Grasse ordered his ships to break contact and bear away. The battle ended by 6:30 P.M., as daylight failed.

For the next two days the rival fleets maneuvered within sight of each other in blustery weather, but no further engagements took place. The objective for de Grasse was not to destroy the British fleet, but protect the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. On September 11, he ordered his ships back to anchorage inside the Bay's entrance. There he found that the eight French ships from Newport had successfully arrived. The British realized that the addition of these ships brought the French fleet to thirty. Facing this overwhelming strength, Graves withdrew to New York. Cornwallis's fate was sealed. Without the navy to resupply or reinforce his army, and with no means of retreat, surrender was certain.

While the Battle of the Capes was a minor tactical victory for the French, it was decisive for the Franco-American allies, for it led directly to Cornwallis's surrender. Hemmed in by the French navy and the allied army, with no chance of rescue by the Royal Navy, Cornwallis formally surrendered on October 22, 1781. This did not necessarily mean an end to the war, but when news of the surrender reached Prime Minister Lord North, he threw up his hands and cried, "Oh God, it is all over!"

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The Algerine Pirates and the Creation of the Navy

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