“Oh God, it’s all over!” - the Naval Battle that cost an Empire

June 11, 2018

In the late summer of 1781, the British attempt to re-conquer Virginia from the American rebels was not going well. Their army was boxed into a defensive position around the little port of Yorktown, by a combined French and American force of almost twice their size. The British commander, General Cornwallis, was not overly concerned however. His army may have seemed to be trapped, but they were in a well fortified position, with their backs to the wide York River. The river ran into Chesapeake Bay, which in turn opens to the sea, and it is Britannia who rules the waves - doesn’t she?

 

At first, all had seemed to be well for the besieged army. A steady flow of ships arrived, bringing both supplies and news of the reinforcements being gathered in New York to relieve them. However, on the 15th of August it was not a British relief force but a French one that arrived. A fleet of 28 ships under Admiral de Grasse had moored off the Virginia Capes at the mouth of the bay, cutting off Cornwallis from both relief and supply, and trapping two Royal Navy frigates in the bay itself. They also brought a further three thousand French troops to fight alongside Washington.

 

When news of this reached Admiral Thomas Graves in New York, he set off to give battle with De Grasse. This was an age when the Royal Navy was blessed with an unusual numbers of talented and aggressive leaders. Unfortunately, Admiral Graves does not seem to have been one of them. With only 19 ships, he was badly outnumbered by the French, a fact that he was unaware of, since the two frigates that should have given him exact intelligence of his enemy were both still trapped in the bay by De Grasse.

 

Nevertheless, when he arrived off the mouth of the Chesapeake on the 5th of September, Graves had a number of advantages that a more aggressive leader would have capitalised on. Four of the French ships were absent, operating in support of Washington deep in the bay. He had also caught his opponent at anchor, with large numbers of crew still ashore, and had forced them to set sail in haste. As the French struggled to deploy in a fierce tidal stream, large gaps appeared in their line of battle. In particular, Admiral Louis de Bougainville’s squadron of four ships were well ahead of the rest of the French fleet, and should have been overwhelmed and destroyed. This never happened, thanks to a number of confusing signals from Graves. Instead the battle degenerated into little more than two parallel lines of ships bombarding one another at range. Given that the French had both more ships and guns, it was a battle of attrition that played into their hands.

 

The battered British fleet broke off the engagement as evening fell. There then followed days of indecision, as Graves pondered what to do. For over a week he manoeuvred with De Grasse’s fleet, continually avoiding combat, and achieving little. Meanwhile supplies grew ever lower for Cornwallis’s army. Eventually Graves retreated to New York to refit his fleet, arriving on the 20th of September. It was a decision he should have taken immediately after the battle, rather than waiting, and his delay proved costly. When he was eventually able to sail from New York on 19 October with 25 ships of the line and 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis, the Siege of Yorktown was over. The British had surrendered to Washington two days earlier.

 

To the government in London this defeat was the final straw. A war that had started as a dispute over taxation had escalated out of all proportion. Britain now found themselves at war with much of continental Europe, with no allies abroad, and with considerable opposition to the war at home.  The failure of even the ever-reliable Royal Navy, to rescue Cornwallis’s expedition was too much. When the British Prime Minister, Lord North, heard news of the disaster he is said to have exclaimed "Oh God, it's all over!"

 

From a British perspective, this was true. But for the world’s newest nation it was just about to start.

 

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