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American Revolution: Battle of the Chesapeake

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American Revolution: Battle of the Chesapeake

Battle of the Chesapeake, September 5, 1781

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Battle of the Chesapeake - Conflict:

The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, was fought during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Battle of the Chesapeake - Date:

Fought on September 5, 1781, the Battle of the Chesapeake was a key naval engagement during the Yorktown Campaign.

Fleets & Leaders:

Royal Navy

  • Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves
  • 19 ships of the line

French Navy

  • Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse
  • 24 ships of the line

Battle of the Chespeake - Background:

In the summer of 1781, General Lord Charles Cornwallis began marching north with 7,500 men to rejoin British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton at New York. Arriving at Yorktown, VA, Cornwallis fortified his position and awaited naval transport to New York. Realizing the strategic importance of the Chesapeake Bay, American General George Washington requested that the French fleet in the Caribbean come north to take control of the bay and prevent Cornwallis from escaping. On August 25, a British fleet of 14 ships of the line, under Rear Admiral Samuel Hood arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Not seeing the French near the bay, Hood decided to continue on to New York to join with Rear Admiral Thomas Graves before returning to collect Cornwallis' men. Arriving at New York, Hood found that Graves only had five ships of the line in battle condition. Combining their forces, they put to sea heading south towards Virginia. While the British were uniting to the north, Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake with 27 ships of the line. Quickly detaching three ships to blockade Cornwallis' position at Yorktown, de Grasse anchored the bulk of his fleet behind Cape Henry, near the mouth of the bay.

Battle of the Chesapeake - The French Put to Sea:

On September 5, the British fleet arrived at the Chesapeake and sighted the French ships. Rather than swiftly attack the French while they were vulnerable, the British followed the tactical doctrine of the day and moved into a line ahead formation. The time required for this maneuver allowed the French to cut their anchor lines, sail out of the bay, and form for battle. As the French emerged from the bay, both fleets angled towards each other as they sailed east. The ships in each fleet's van opened fired on their opposite number as the range closed.

Battle of the Chesapeake - A Running Fight:

Though the vans were engaged, a shift in the wind made it difficult for each fleet's center and rear to close within range. On the British side, the situation was further hampered by contradictory signals from Graves. As the vans pummeled each other, many of the ships to their rear never were able to engage the enemy. Around 6:30 PM the firing ceased and the British withdrew to windward. For the next four days the fleets maneuvered within sight of each other, however neither sought to renew the battle.

On the evening of September 9, de Grasse reversed his fleet's course, leaving the British behind, and returned to the Chesapeake. Upon arriving, he found reinforcements in the form of 7 ships of the line under the Comte de Barras. With 34 ships of the line, de Grasse had full control of the Chesapeake, eliminating Cornwallis' hopes for evacuation. Trapped, Cornwallis' army was besieged by the combined army of General George Washington and General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau. After over two weeks of fighting, Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Battle of the Chesapeake - Aftermath & Impact:

During the Battle of the Chesapeake, both fleets suffered approximately 320 casualties. In addition, many of the ships in the British van were heavily damaged and unable to continue fighting. Though the battle itself was tactically inconclusive, it was a massive strategic victory for the French. By drawing the British away from the Chesapeake, the French eliminated any hope of rescuing Cornwallis's army. This in turn allowed for the successful siege of Yorktown, which broke the back of British power in the colonies and led to American independence.

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