When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
September 5, 1781
DeGrasse enters the Chesapeake with the French Fleet
When Adm. François-Joseph-Paul, comte de Grasse, arrived in the West Indies from France in April 1781, he had orders to coordinate his operations with Washington. Exchanging messages by fast frigate, the general and the admiral concocted a plan for a junction of fleet and armies in a move against the British in lower Chesapeake Bay. After Cornwallis arrived at Yorktown, his base became the primary objective of the Franco-American military-naval forces.
Meanwhile, Adm. Samuel Hood of the British West Indies fleet became concerned for the security of New York. Hood started north five days after de Grasse, with 14 ships of the line. With faster ships and following a more direct route, Hood was the first to reach the Chesapeake. Finding no sign of the French, he hastened to the protection of New York, where he was joined by five ships of the line under Adm. Thomas Graves. As the senior officer, Graves took command of the whole force. Soon the British received news that eight ships of the line under Adm. Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, comte de Barras, had left Newport. Correctly assuming that this squadron was bound for Chesapeake Bay, Graves sailed with his 19 capital ships to intercept it.
When Graves he was startled to find the great fleet of de Grasse, at anchor just inside Cape Henry. De Grasse hastily got underway and proceeded to sea in a long column, thus exposing his fleet to piecemeal destruction as it emerged from the harbor. Instead of exploiting such a golden opportunity, Graves deliberately awaited the exit of the French, outnumbering them 24 to 19, before attacking from his advantageous “weather gage” (the favorable position with regard to the wind). The poorly executed British attack resulted in only the leading squadrons of the two fleets being engaged in the late afternoon.
For three days the two fleets were becalmed and, within sight of each other, drifted nearly 100 miles (160 km) southward. One damaged British ship was abandoned and sunk by its crew. When a breeze sprang up, the French got it first and hastened back to the Chesapeake, where de Barras had recently arrived. With this French reinforcement, the British were decisively outnumbered. Graves then sealed the fate of Cornwallis at Yorktown by sailing back to New York.
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