The French line (left) and British line (right) do battle.
Formation of fleets: British ships are black, French ships are white. The Middle Ground to the left are the shoals that Graves tacked to avoid.
In mid-August 1781, Admiral Hood’s fleet was at the northern edge of the Caribbean, looking for the arrival of de Grasse’s, when Hood learned from a messenger ship sent from New York that de Grasse was likely to attack New York. The message said that de Grasse would first go to Newport, join with Barras’s fleet, and then both would attack the British stronghold—so Hood should hasten to New York to help fend them off. Departing the Caribbean for the American coast, on August 25 Hood “made the land a little to the southward of Cape Henry.… Finding no enemy had appeared either in the Chesapeake or Delaware, I proceeded [to] Sandy Hook.”
Forty-eight hours later, de Grasse’s fleet arrived at Chesapeake Bay, with twenty-eight ships of the line, four frigates, and three thousand French soldiers.
A small boat came out to meet the Ville de Paris. Despite seeing its fleur-de-lis flags and its sailors dressed in white, not in British blue, those in the small boat asked where Admiral Rodney could be found. The visitors were conveyed to de Grasse’s cabin where they were informed that they were now prisoners. The banquet they had brought, intended for Rodney, was eaten by the French officers while offering toasts to him. To forestall any Cornwallis exit from the peninsula, de Grasse sent some ships to block the York and James Rivers. Shortly Lafayette’s associate Jean-Joseph Soubadère de Gimat came aboard with news that Rochambeau and Washington were marching down the Atlantic seaboard to link with the fleet.
Those two commanders were just then reaching Philadelphia and a profuse welcome. At Washington’s request, Rochambeau loaned to Robert Morris twenty thousand dollars in specie. The term was short—one month. The French general’s own troops’ wages were waiting on cash that de Grasse was bringing from Cuba and the money that Laurens had carried from Versailles. Morris then gave Rochambeau a gift of flour from his warehouses—perhaps after hearing the bakery-deceit story, which Rochambeau became fond of repeating—and added ten thousand dollars of his own to the twenty thousand for Washington. The thirty thousand dollars enabled the commander to surprise his troops with a month’s pay in hard cash. “This was the first that could be called money, which we had received as wages since the year ’76,” the diarist Joseph Plumb Martin recalled: six French crowns each, paid only to line soldiers, not to officers.
The army’s poverty was reflected in its ragtag appearance as the men marched through Philadelphia in a line two miles long, stirring clouds of dust. Continental officers in handsome uniforms provided a bright contrast, though not as startling as that furnished the next day by the French. After a halt at the outskirts to powder wigs and make white uniforms glisten, the French marchers paraded through Philadelphia, resplendent far beyond the British in the 1777–78 occupation. Lauzun’s Legion, riding on draped steeds, wore the most exciting multicolored garb. The Soissonnais Regiment put on a show of intricate rifle handling.
Washington smiled at the guests during the formal receptions in Philadelphia but was “distressed beyond expression,” he confessed in a letter to Lafayette, at not knowing whether de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay. In moving the land forces toward Virginia, Washington had taken a huge gamble: Should de Grasse not arrive on schedule, or be bested by the British fleet, the American and French armies, rather than Cornwallis’s, might be trapped and the war lost.
By the time Washington reached Philadelphia, his emissary to de Grasse, Duportail, had boarded the Ville de Paris and introduced himself. The admiral was in the process of putting ashore three thousand troops, led by Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon to link up with Lafayette’s forces, which were approaching from Jamestown. Offloading was always a time of peril since the force was not in a good defensive position and therefore was vulnerable. Saint-Simon’s officers were amazed that Cornwallis did not attack. They made haste in the unloading, which stoked de Grasse’s desire to use the combined troops to attack the British immediately.
Not yet, Duportail pleaded, basing his request on a Washington letter that he hand-delivered to de Grasse and likely translated for him on the spot. Washington begged the admiral not only to wait for his and Rochambeau’s arrival before attacking Cornwallis but to detach ships upriver to bring the American and French troops to the Yorktown Peninsula. “I have not hesitated to open my heart to [Duportail] and acquaint him with all my resources and my orders,” de Grasse wrote back, and expressed willingness to wait for a general “whose experience in the profession of arms, knowledge of the country and insight will greatly augment our resources,” but protested that his short time in American waters made it unfeasible to use for transport the vessels needed to block Cornwallis’s supply ships. “Come with the greatest expedition,” Duportail urged Washington in his own letter. “Let us make us[e] of the short stay of the count de grasse here. we have no choice left I thinck, when 27 of line are in Chesapeake, when great americain and French forces are joined we must take Cornwallis or be all dishonored.”
Duportail also wanted Washington to hurry because he feared that de Grasse might flatter Lafayette into an immediate attack. De Grasse did try, telling Lafayette, “I want to contribute everything I can to further your glory and assure you of spending a winter of tranquility [after vanquishing Cornwallis].… With pleasure, I join your admirers.” Lafayette resisted the pressure.
In midmorning on September 5, offloading was continuing when the scout frigate Aigrette signaled a press of sail arriving from the north. De Grasse hoped it was Barras, but as the number of vessels grew, the Aigrette soon signaled that it was the British, with so many ships that de Grasse concluded that both Hood’s and Graves’s squadrons had come after him.
He wanted to sail out in force to meet them. But to do so he had to wait until the Chesapeake Bay tide turned to ebb. The French exit of Chesapeake Bay began at 11:30 a.m., with Bougainville’s flagship leading the vanguard. Although the fleet was anchored in proper three-column formation, it still took several hours for all the ships to exit the relatively narrow channel, which they had to do one by one, and even then de Grasse had to leave behind the four warships positioned to block Cornwallis, along with the eighteen hundred sailors and ninety officers who had been offloading troops. Thus de Grasse’s fleet for this action off the Virginia Capes was smaller than it had been, and shorthanded; and he faced a formidable enemy, in attack formation, that had the weather gage.
* * *
At that very same hour, Rochambeau and his retinue were floating down the Delaware River from Philadelphia toward Head of Elk. They had passed Forts Mercer and Mifflin and other important sites of the war. Washington and his retinue had set off overland to meet them at Head of Elk; the commander loved to ride his steed and did not much like being on a boat. As the French approached the town of Chester they saw on the bank an American officer waving wildly at them with a hat in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other. Nearing, they realized it was Washington. “I never saw a man so thoroughly and openly delighted,” Lauzun recalled. What happened next amazed everyone. Washington, upon conveying to Rochambeau that de Grasse had made Chesapeake Bay, enveloped Rochambeau in a full-body embrace. Each general, Closen observed, had reason to be ecstatic, as did the young officers, “burning with the desire to try their strength against the enemy and avid for gloire, as we all were.” There was a sense of everything coming together at last, of a moment to be savored for its melding of American and French hearts and wills in an ultimate conjoint endeavor.
* * *
The British fleet facing de Grasse’s was not in as good shape as it first appeared to the spyglasses of the French. When Hood had reached Sandy Hook, he had been insistent on leaving immediately to counter de Grasse, but Graves protested that his New York fleet was not ready to go. His ships were in poor repair and to obtain four hundred able bodies press-gangs had recently had to roust men from their beds. After taking three days to ready his vessels, Graves still left behind five capital ships—and Hood was appalled. At sea it was Graves’s turn to be annoyed, as Hood’s vessels were “the shadow of ships more than substance,” slowing the fleet to three knots per hour. The nineteen ships of the line included only three recent additions, a tenth of the ships the Admiralty had retained in European waters to counter French and Spanish initiatives in the Mediterranean and Dutch ones in the North Sea. By deciding to keep the bulk of British ships in European waters in 1781, a naval historian writes, “The Admiralty had finally sacrificed the parity in naval strength on which the safety of the scattered British army [in America] depended.”
At the start of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, in the early afternoon of September 5, 1781, the British fleet was three miles north of the French, “in a position almost beyond the wildest dreams of a sea-commander,” a naval analyst later wrote, since Graves’s “whole fleet was running down before the wind and his enemy was … working slowly out of harbor. He had only to fall on their van with full force and the day was his.” But standard Admiralty fighting orders decreed that attacking ships had to be in line-ahead formation, a maneuver that took Graves ninety minutes to achieve and that allowed the French to get wholly out of the bay. Only at 3:46 p.m. did Graves give the signal to engage, and shortly issued a different order, with the result that only some British ships, rather than the whole line, were positioned properly.
Both sides then began to blast away.
“Thunder, foam and fire,” Bougainville wrote of that day; “Those few testing moments for which an entire naval officer’s life has been built and for which so many arms have toiled, so much sweat has been poured out in the shipyards to get together all that timber, that iron, those sails.” The foretop bowline of his ship was twice shot off, and sailors repairing it were killed by enemy fire. But his Auguste, while taking sixty-seven casualties, managed to riddle the British Terrible and nearly sank it. The Auguste also put three other British ships out of action.
After ninety minutes had gone by and Graves saw that the French were continuing to advance, he signaled his ships to cease the attack and sail away. By 6:30 p.m. the firing ended for the day. The British ships had suffered more than the French ones, although the French had lost more men. Bougainville had gained new respect for de Grasse, with whom he had been feuding, and de Grasse lauded him, saying, “That’s what I call fighting.” On the British side, Hood became enraged at Graves’s missed opportunities, although analysts also later faulted Hood for dilatoriness in carrying out the commander’s orders.
Through the night the two fleets drifted southeast, in parallel. The morning revealed that the French ships were less damaged than the British. The wind remained negligible, making it impossible for either side to do more than maintain relative positions. On the third day rainsqualls and a British wish to avoid action and complete repairs also resulted in no skirmishes. French naval corporal Simon Pouzoulet marveled in his diary at his commanders’ dexterity in maneuvering for the weather gage, and regretted his ship’s not being close enough to the British to send cannon shot at them. Early on September 8 Graves gave orders to sail to the windward of the French and be ready to attack, but was only able to use the weather gage for a short period, as de Grasse by well-executed maneuvers made Graves cede it. Even so, very little fighting ensued. Another night passed. The next morning, September 9, de Grasse’s men spotted a fleet on the horizon and, thinking it was the British, gave chase. They never caught it, but Graves chased de Grasse, and by day’s end both fleets were nearer to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, than to Cape Henry, Virginia. That allowed the unknown fleet, which was Barras’s, to slip unopposed into the Chesapeake Bay anchorage.
Barras managed this partly because the British did not expect him—they presumed he had already combined with de Grasse and was not sailing independently—but mostly due to his own initiative. With the craftiness imbued in him by a long career in the French navy, where preservation of assets was always highly regarded, and knowing that he carried precious cargo, to avoid encountering the British Barras had chosen a circuitous route. From Newport he sailed east around Long Island, and then due south until he reached a position lateral to Chesapeake Bay, where he turned sharply west and by rapid sailing made it into Chesapeake Bay unopposed. Upon arrival he immediately offloaded the heavy artillery, provisions, and troops from Newport.
Thus, before shots were fired on land at Yorktown, the two French admirals, de Grasse and Barras, had immensely assisted their army brethren’s pursuit of the common objective, the defeat of Cornwallis’s army.
Washington was then in Baltimore, unaware that there had already been a decisive Battle of the Virginia Capes, and also ignorant that Barras had invested the bay. That evening he rode the sixty miles to Mount Vernon, alone but for his personal servant and one aide. He had not been home since May 4, 1775. The next morning he wrote to Lafayette, “I hope you will keep Lord Cornwallis safe, without provisions or forage, until we arrive.”
De Grasse was on his way to the Chesapeake to do just that, having reasoned that the British might lay off the sea action and try to beat him into the anchorage, and not knowing that Barras was already there. A modern French admiral writes that in the seminal Virginia Capes sea battle, while de Grasse was not as aggressive as a Suffren or a Rodney might have been, “la prudence et le sang-froid” (prudence and coolness under fire) had produced the essential victory—complete control of Chesapeake Bay.
Upon de Grasse’s arrival in the bay, Barras, although more senior and entitled to command, graciously yielded it. Appreciative of the gesture, de Grasse quickly did what Washington had wanted but that he had not earlier felt able to oblige: sent ships to fetch French and American troops and matériel, using Barras’s transports and some captured British ones that were able to operate in shallow waters.
The Battle of the Virginia Capes concluded when a Graves reconnaissance frigate reported that the French were all over Chesapeake Bay. The British commanders then agreed, as Graves wrote to London, that due to the enemy’s superior position, the poor condition of the British ships, the impending hurricane season, “and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis,” they must return to New York and refit. With some luck they would return before Cornwallis was starved out and forced to surrender.