[Program Note: First, a happy Fourth of July to everyone! This article is from last year, as I will be out celebrating our independence today instead of typing. It’s a fascinating story which I certainly didn’t learn in school, so if anyone’s stuck behind a computer monitor today, here’s something which will hopefully be entertaining and enlightening for you to read.]
The Revolutionary War lasted a lot longer than most of us realise. Begun in 1775, the war didn’t end for six long years, and wasn’t fully resolved for another two. During this time, American forces had some notable victories, and also more than a few ignoble defeats at the hands of the British. Some of these battles have been inscribed on the nation’s consciousness so deeply they are remembered in name (if not in complete detail) by its citizenry more than two centuries later. For instance, as schoolchildren we all learned the following names: Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Valley Forge, and Trenton (or “Washington crossing the Delaware”).
This litany of sacred spots (which includes Valley Forge even though no battle was fought there, since we all know the name), began with “the shot heard ’round the world,” and ended decisively with the surrender of the British General Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Virginia. Yorktown was the endpoint of the war, we all learned as children, and the surrender of the British forces to the ragtag Americans was the decisive victory which forced the British to negotiate an end to the entire conflict.
But what we weren’t taught is that this battle may not have been such a key one if it hadn’t been for a naval battle which had happened over a month earlier. This battle — called variously the “Battle of the Chesapeake,” or the “Battle of the Virginia Capes” — is one very few Americans have even heard of. This is probably due to the fact that no Americans took part in the battle — or even witnessed it (except perhaps from afar) — because it was a slugfest between the British and the French navies. But if the Battle of the Chesapeake hadn’t happened, it is very likely General Washington wouldn’t have won the Siege of Yorktown, and the American Revolution would have continued on for a lot longer than it did — and may have been lost, in the end. Which is why it’s a shame that almost nobody remembers such a turning point in our country’s history.
History sees things as inevitable, but it’s worth remembering that they didn’t seem so at the time these events were happening. America wasn’t exactly “winning the war” leading up to Yorktown. Here is how James Michener put it in his fictionalized historical novel Chesapeake (from which I’ll be quoting throughout this article, for both Michener’s admirable prose, and for the reason that this is where I learned about the Battle of the Chesapeake myself):
In that year  the English army, consolidated at last under a succession of daring generals, began to chew the south apart. Victory upon victory crushed General Washington’s lieutenants in Georgia and South Carolina, and it became clear that a few colonial farmers, no matter how brave, were no match for hundreds of well-trained English regulars supported by large guns.
And when General Cornwallis began ravaging Virginia, and Admiral Rodney assembled a fleet of battleships in the Caribbean, ready to invade the Chesapeake, it seemed obvious that the revolution was doomed. New York lay in English hands; Philadelphia was neutralized; Boston and Newport were powerless to send support, and no major port along the Atlantic was open to American vessels, even if any had succeeded in penetrating the blockade.
Men had begun to openly talk of defeat and started calculating among themselves what kind of terms they might be able to wheedle from the victorious English.
The mighty British navy, in other words, pretty much owned our Atlantic coastline through a successful blockade of all American shipping. It was at this crucial point that the French really entered the fray in a big way. General Lafayette and General Rochambeau lent significant military experience (and forces) to General Washington’s land-war efforts, which began to turn the tide in Virginia. This resulted in besieging Yorktown, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Because today we’re more concerned with the aid the French navy lent to our revolutionary war effort.
To fully understand what happened, you have to remember that the biggest problem in waging war back then was communication. The French and British fleets, independent of each other (obviously), formed up their fleets in the Caribbean. They had absolutely no way of knowing what was happening in any other part of the world, aside from letters carried by other ships. Largely out of touch with both their home countries, and the front lines of the war, much depended on outwitting the other commanders, and strategically putting your forces where they’ll do the most good. But again, up-to-the-minute information about any particular place was simply non-existent to a ship’s captain, meaning they largely had to make educated (and, hopefully, lucky) guesses.
And the British guessed wrong. In the first place, the most brilliant of their admirals went back to Britain, and didn’t even participate in the Battle of the Chesapeake. Admiral Rodney figured the French had sailed back to Europe, and went looking for them there (where he would also avoid the Atlantic hurricane season). He guessed wrong, and because he did, the British fleet was headed by much-less-experienced officers, who went on to make some key mistakes.
What remained of the British fleet first arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but they found no French ships awaiting them there. The Brits then figured that they had miscalculated where the French were planning their attack, and promptly sailed up to New York. Eventually, they figured out their error — that the Chesapeake was indeed the intended target — and they moved back down the coast.
By this time, the French, led by Admiral de Grasse, had arrived in the Chesapeake, and had anchored their ships on the Virginia side. Many officers and men disembarked, both to aid the American forces in northern Virginia in their efforts against Cornwallis, and for some shore leave to round up some provisions for the fleet.
This was the situation the British fleet found the French fleet in, as the British arrived at the mouth of the bay. As Michener put it:
“And worst of all, [de Grasse’s] position allowed him no room in which to manoeuvre. He was trapped, and when scouting boats rushed in with news that Admiral Rodney was bearing down with the entire Caribbean squadron, he realised his peril.
If de Grasse had been a prudent man, he might have surrendered then and there, for the enemy had every advantage except one: the British ships were sleek-bottomed and free of worm; their crews were complete and battle-hardened; they had the advantage of the wind and ocean space in which to manoeuvre; they had guns of shattering power manned by the best seamen in the world. The only disadvantage the English suffered was that Admiral Rodney, a tested leader in battle, was not aboard the ships….
But de Grasse didn’t even know this. What followed next was a monumental display of ineptitude by the British admiral, and a very brave gamble by the French. Instead of swooping in and destroying the French sitting at anchor, the British admiral dithered and essentially did nothing. This allowed de Grasse to leap into action — which he did. With the heavily-reduced crews he had aboard, he cut anchor and fled the mouth of the Chesapeake for open ocean. Stunningly, this tactic worked. It should not have worked — the French would have been torn apart if the British had acted faster. Instead, the French escaped and leveled the battlefield significantly.
But not completely, as the British belatedly leapt into action themselves, and performed a manoeuvre — using sail-powered vessels and communication with flags, mind you — which turned their entire fleet 180 degrees in the blink of an eye. This impressive feat of coordination left the British with the advantage of wind (off their larboard quarter), and tide, and position over the French fleet. But it did give the French one further advantage — the British leading ships (the “van”) had, due to the U-turn, now become the rear of the British battle line, essentially taking them out of the brunt of the main battle. The British ships in the rear — where an admiral would normally put his least-capable ships — had now become the van, and would lead the battle.
Six hours after the two fleets had spotted each other, the firing began. Dozens of ships on both sides let loose their broadsides. While today it’s hard to comprehend, these ships individually carried 70, 80, even (in the case of one or two ships on both sides) 100 cannons. That’s a lot of firepower, by any standard. And those numbers are per ship — and each side had roughly two dozen ships. This was without a doubt the greatest naval battle America had ever seen. Except that, as I mentioned before, very few (if any) Americans actually saw it.
Once again, from Michener:
…[A] massive burst of flame exploded from the English ships, and cannonballs ricocheted with fearful effect across the French decks. The battle for the future of America had begun.
… Wooden cannonballs had been used in hopes they would throw jagged splinters through the bodies of French sailors, and that is what happened. Before the smoke had cleared, the decks of the French ships were red, and young sailors sped about with buckets of sand to help the gunners maintain their footing, but before the latter could prepare their guns, a second volley of wooden balls exploded, adding to the devastation.
. . .
… [F]or two agonizing hours under a dying summer sun the guns roared, and the implacable ships moved ever closer; even pistols reverberated. The lead ships of the English line created unimaginable devastation on the French decks, already undermanned, and for a while it seemed that the French must crumble. But toward dark the terrible efficiency of their gunfire began to take its toll. Down came the soaring English masts, down fluttered the gallant sails. One English ship after another began to limp, and then to falter, and finally to fall away.
It was a curious fact that in this culminating struggle of the revolution, this engagement foreseen by Washington as the one which would determine everything, not a single American participated. …
When the day ended, neither fleet had won. No colours were struck. No ship was sunk. Of course, the English admirals decided to burn the Terrible, sorely damaged, but later this was held to be a craven act.
Neither side won. The battle would actually continue for days, drifting ever further away from the Chesapeake itself. But while neither side technically “won” the battle, the British most definitely “lost.” Their naval blockade was effectively broken by the Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result, the French wound up in possession of the bay. And as a direct result, the American forces besieging Yorktown were helped out in two enormous ways. The French, as a result of their subsequent domination of the Chesapeake Bay, were able to supply the American land forces with heavy artillery — without which the Yorktown siege would have been far more difficult. But the biggest reason that the victory at Yorktown most likely would never have happened without the French’s (relative) success in the Battle of the Chesapeake is that it denied the British in Yorktown their resupply route, and — most importantly of all — any hope of an escape route. Because British ships couldn’t come to their aid, the British had to abandon all hope of retreat, and instead were forced to surrender to General Washington and his colonial army. Cornwallis’ surrender happened less than two months after the Battle of the Chesapeake.
And Yorktown was where we won the whole war. The British soldiers knew how monumental this victory was, too — the mighty British Empire, on whom “the sun never sets,” had just been defeated by a ragtag irregular army of farmers. The British military band, while the official surrender at Yorktown took place, showed they understood the enormity of what was happening — by playing a song called “The World Turned Upside Down.”
Michener sums up the importance of the naval battle, in our final excerpt from Chesapeake:
This engagement was one of the decisive battles of history, for when it was terminated, with the French line of battle still impregnable, the English had to withdraw, leaving the Chesapeake open to the French fleet. Rochambeau was now able to bring thousands of French soldiers south for the final thrust against Cornwallis; the iron blockade of the Atlantic ports was broken.
It became a battle without a name, a triumph without a celebration. It accomplished nothing but the freedom of America, the establishment of a new system of government against which all others would eventually compare themselves, and a revision of the theory of empire.
Which is why, this Independence Day, I will personally be lifting my glass in a toast to a French admiral, and the French sailors who served under him. Because without Admiral Compte de Grasse’s efforts, we might not even have an Independence Day to be celebrating. The Battle of the Chesapeake deserves to be remembered. This military triumph deserves a bit of celebration. By all Americans. So, I hope you’ll join me in honouring the good French admiral this Sunday. Lift a glass and give grateful thanks to his bravery and his heroic efforts on behalf of our own revolution — whose successful end he made possible:
“Vive l’Amiral Compte de Grasse! Vive la révolution!”
[Note: The above photo is of a statue of Admiral Compte de Grasse, located on the grounds of the Cape Henry Memorial in Virginia. This was the closest point of land in Virginia to where the Battle of the Chesapeake took place, at the southern end of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Cape Henry Memorial is part of the National Park System. Have a happy Fourth, everyone!]
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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