The Battle Off the Virginia Capes - The Hudson River Valley Institute

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Dennis Conrad, PhD
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this
presentation are those of the presenter and
do not represent an official position of the
Department of the Navy
THE BATTLE OFF THE
VIRIGNIA CAPES: THE KEY
MOMENT IN THE ALLIED
VICTORY AT YORKTOWN
Victory at Yorktown
Cornwallis
Fateful Decisions
Rochambeau
De
Grasse
Rodney
British Miscalculations
• Divided land forces outside range of mutual
support
• Believed they would always maintain naval
superiority in North America
Intelligence from Admiral Barras
• Gen. Rochambeau to incorporate corps with
Gen. Washington’s army
• Barras to command French squadron at
Newport
• de Grasse to send part of West Indies
squadron north in July or August
The Allies’ Options
• New York
• Virginia
The British in Virginia
• Spring 1781,
Cornwallis enters
Virginia
• July, Clinton orders
Cornwallis to
occupy a seaport
• July, Cornwallis
occupies Yorktown
Spain
Cooperates
• Hurricane season postpones Spanish
operations
• Spain releases French troops for a time
• Saint-Simon submits to Rochambeau’s
orders
• Spanish ships guard French merchant fleet
• Spanish at Havana advance war chest
Forces in Motion
•
•
•
•
Washington and Rochambeau march south
de Grasse and Hood sail north
Rodney goes home
Clinton and Graves plan to move against
Newport
• Barras sails from Newport
• Hood and Graves sail in search of Barras
The Battle off the Virginia Capes
The Comte de Grasse in the
Chesapeake
• 30 Aug. 1781: 28 French ships of the line
enter the Chesapeake
• 2 Sept.: French land 3,300 soldiers on the
shores of the James R.
• 5 Sept.: Scouting vessel reports strange fleet
• 11:30 A.M.: 24 French ships of the line cut
their cables and stand out to sea
The Decision not to Fight Inside
the Capes
• Graves might enter the Chesapeake and
molest the allied armies without defeating
de Grasse
• Barras’s squadron with the allied siege
artillery would be endangered
Strategic Imperatives
de Grasse
• had to fight Graves so
that Barras could enter
the Chesapeake
• did not have to defeat
Graves
Graves
• unaware of
Cornwallis’s extreme
danger
• under no compulsion
to risk everything
• may have assumed
that Barras had already
joined de Grasse
Bougainville
The Lost Opportunity
• French fleet straggles out in bad order
• French van separates from the center
• Graves ignores opportunity to attack a
portion of the French line
• Graves intent on fighting in line-ahead
formation
Line Ahead Formation
British Fleet Wears Together
Methods of Closing from
Windward
• All ships turns at right angles, bear down on
enemy, luff up to reform line of battle
• Maintain line ahead with lead ship bearing
obliquely toward enemy, resuming parallel
position at proper distance
• Each warship turns obliquely in its position,
comes down with wind on its quarter,
resuming parallel line at proper distance
All ships turn at right angles, bear
down on enemy, luff up to reform
line of battle
Maintain line ahead with lead
ship bearing obliquely toward
enemy, resuming parallel
position at proper distance
Each ship turns obliquely in its
position, comes down with wind
on its quarter, resuming parallel
line at proper distance
The van is unsupported, the center bunched up, and
the rear out of the action
The leeward fleet (bottom), by increasing
sail, brings the van of the windward fleet
(top) to engage unsupported
Confused Signals
Hood
Allied Victory
• British plan amphibious landing to relieve
Cornwallis—too little, too late
• Cornwallis surrenders Sept. 19
Sea Power
Decisive local superiority at sea, attained
through the cooperation of three allies,
sealed the fate of the British Army at
Yorktown. British strategy had assumed a
continuity of naval superiority. When the
British lost that, they lost America.
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