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Francois Joseph Paul Compte de Grasse, the Battle off the Virginia Capes, and the American Victory at Yorktown
by Robert A. Selig

Doctor Selig received his Ph.D. in history cum laude from Universität Würzburg, 1988
He has most recently been Visiting Professor of History and German at Hope College in Michigan.
Recipient of many awards and grants, his articles have appeared in American Heritage, Military History Quarterly, William and Mary Quarterly, and others. Other fine articles by him include Franz Ludwig Michel , the story of an early visitor to America, The Revolution's Black Soldiers, Lauzun's Legion, Georg Daniel Flohr's Journal, soon to be expanded into a book, and Deux-Ponts Germans.
He is available to lecture on the present topic. He may be contacted by clicking on his name above, or visit Dr. Selig's website by clicking here.


At 2 P.M. October 19, 1781, a British army marched out of Yorktown to lay down its arms, filing past the triumphant Americans on the left and the conquering French on the right. Absent from the victors' ranks was an officer who had done as much as anyone to bring about that moment, but had yet to set foot on the continent, Francois Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse. Commanding officer of the French fleet, de Grasse was on his flagship, the Ville de Paris, too sick to witness the surrender. Six weeks earlier, he had denied British Admiral Thomas Graves's fleet entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Their battle at sea off the Virginia Capes had sealed the fate of Lord Cornwallis and forced the capitulation of the last operational British army on the mainland. De Grasse's strategic vision, Yale historian Jonathan R. Dull said, had "made possible the most important naval victory of the 18th century."

De Grasse was born into an old noble family in southern France in 1722. At 11, he entered the Naval Academy in Toulon, but left in 1734 to join the Knights of Malta. At the outbreak of the war of the Austrian Succession in 1740, he transferred to the French navy and, for 25 years, served his king in India and in the Mediterranean. More importantly, he spent much time in the Caribbean where he commanded the 26-gun frigate Amphitrite in Haiti in 1775 and 1776. Returning to American waters in 1779, he commanded a squadron under the comte d'Estaing at Grenada in July and was commanding officer of the French fleet in the Caribbean after d'Estaing left for Europe following the unsuccessful siege of Savannah, Georgia. His health failing, the 58-year-old de Grasse sailed for France in late 1780 as well. In his absence, French strategy for defeating her British archenemy had fundamentally changed.

As soon as news of Lexington and Concord reached Paris, His Most Christian Majesty, King Louis XVI of France, became the first foreign power to provide support to the United States. Clandestine aid became official with the declaration of war on Britain in 1778. Yet, neither in 1778 nor in 1779 had the French fighting effort been crowned by success. In Amer ica, the ports of Newport, Rhode Island, and Savannah were still in British hands. An attempt to invade England in 1779 had been a dismal failure. Though Louis XVI and his foreign minister the comte de Vergennes had put no high hopes in the attack on Britain, the all-too apparent inability of French forces to make a difference in the war strained the alliance with the United States.

In the fall of 1779, French voices in favor of fighting England in her colonies grew ever stronger. The decisive shift in thinking on the question of sending troops came late in January 1780. On February 2, the king approved a plan, codenamed expedition particuliere, for the transportation of an infantry force large enough to decide the war in the New World. Naval forces in the Caribbean would be strengthened and positioned to support the expeditionary force.

Come May, the comte de Rochambeau sailed for Rhode Island with 450 officers and 5,300 men. But he arrived too late in the campaign season, and with too many sick men, to undertake any military action. By the spring of 1781, America's allies were still encamped in Newport while Cornwallis was marching almost at will across the southern colonies. George Washington wrote April 9, "We are at the end of our tether, and ... now or never our deliverance must come." The campaign of 1781 had to produce results.

On March 22, 1781, Louis XVI promoted de Grasse to rear admiral and sent him back to the West Indies with 20 ships of the line, 3 frigates and 156 transport. Concurrently, the vicomte de Rochambeau, son of the general, sailed from France with badly needed cash for his father. He also brought the news that a second division of infantry the French had planned to send would not be coming. General Rochambeau was free to draw his own plans for the coming campaign, possibly in cooperation with de Grasse, who might be able to provide naval support. At Wethersfield, Connecticut, in late May, Washington and Rochambeau decided to join the forces on the North River for an attack on New York, "the only practicable object under present circumstances," as Washington reminded Rochambeau. on June 13.

Two days earlier, about 450 French officers and 2,900 enlisted men in four regiments had crossed from Newport to Providence, Rhode Island. They left behind a garrison of 600 men under Brigadier Claude Gabriel de Choisy; the siege artillery, 30 officers and men, a detachment of about 90 men under Major de Prez of the Royal Deux-Ponts in Providence, and a French fleet under Admiral de Barras. De Barras had been sent to Rhode Island to replace the deceased Admiral de Ternay.

On Monday, June 18, the regiment Bourbonnais set out for Waterman's Tavern and New York. During the next three days, the remainder of Rochambeau's army followed. At White Plains in early July, the French met their American allies for the first time. Artillery lieutenant the comte de Clermont-Crevecoeur was shocked: "In beholding this army I was struck, not by its smart appearance, but by its destitution: the men were without uniforms and covered with rags; most of them were barefoot. They were of all sizes, down to children who could not have been over fourteen. There were many negroes, mulattoes, etc." Baron Ludwig von Closen of the Royal Deux-Ponts wrote: "I had a chance to see the American army, man for man. It was really painful to see these brave men, almost naked with only some trousers and little linen jackets, most of them without stockings, but, would you believe it? Very cheerful and healthy in appearance."

Some of the cheerfulness no doubt, could be attributed to French silver. Rochambeau had loaned half his cash - 120,000 livres - to Washington, and for many a Continental soldier this was the first and only time he was paid in something other than worthless shinplasters. Their generals, however, had less cause for celebration. . Rochambeau, a veteran of 40 years and 14 sieges, declared the fortifications around New York impregnable. Yet something had to be done. Rochambeau began urging a campaign against Cornwallis, who had begun erecting fortifications in a town called Little York, on August 1. But without a navy to throw across Cornwallis's escape seaward route, any siege would be doomed to failure.

Enter the comte de Grasse. Sailing from Brest on March 22, de Grasse and his huge convoy, re-enforced by six ships of the line from Martinique, had arrived off the island coast on April 28. British Rear Admiral Samuel Hood was waiting for him, but in a stroke of that good fortune that would shine on the FrancoAmerican alliance all year, Hood had but 18 ships against de Grasse's 26.

Hood's superior, Admiral George Rodney, had captured the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in February, and a booty of about £3,000,000 - roughly 75 to 80 million livres - fell into his hands. French expenditures for Rochambeau's army amounted to 12,730,760 livres, and total French aid, including loans and subsidies, ran to about 48 million. To protect the loot, Rodney had withdrawn four of Hood's ships, giving de Grasse the superiority he needed to get his convoy safely into Port Royal on May 6. Following his conquest of Tobago in early June, de Grasse sailed for St. Domingo, where four more ships of the line joined his fleet July 16.

Now, said Dull, began the "most perfectly executed naval campaign of the age of sail." As de Grasse was sailing for St. Domingo, Rochambeau learned June 8 of the admiral's arrival in the West Indies. In a hastily called conference with de Barras, they decided that admiral's fleet should stay in Newport rather than sail for Boston and be ready to depart at short notice. On June 15, Rochambeau had information from de Grasse that he would be in St. Domingo by the end of June and could be in American waters as early as July 15.

Rochambeau immediately dispatched the aptly named Concorde to St. Domingo to apprise de Grasse of Franco-American plans. He also informed the admiral of Cornwallis's arrival in Virginia and hinted strongly that he would prefer de Grasse to sail for the Chesapeake rather than New York, even if this contradicted the plan reached at Wethersfield:

There are two points at which an offensive can be made against the enemy; the Chesapeake Bay and New York. The southwesterly winds and the state of defense in Virginia with there [sic] where we think you may be able to render the greatest service, whereas you will need only two days to come from there to New York. In any case it is essential that you send, well in advance, a frigate to inform de Barras where you are to come and also General Washington.

Concurrently, the chevalier de la Luzerne, French minister to America, impressed upon de Grasse that "It is you alone who can deliver the invaded states from that crisis which is so alarming that it appears to me there is no time to lose." Washington had been kept in the dark about the details of French naval plans for 1781. That day Rochambeau informed him of de Grasse's plans, if not of his own intentions.

It took a swift ship up to three weeks to sail to St. Domingo. De Grasse got the letters in mid-July. He opted to sail for the Chesapeake. His choice involved risk. It was based upon reading between the lines of Luzerne's and Rochambeau's dispatches. If the combined Franco-American army remained before New York rather than march to Virginia, the campaign of 1781 would end in failure, and like d'Estaing, he too would return from America in disgrace.

De Grasse made another bold gamble. A convoy of 126 merchantmen was homeward-bound from the Caribbean to France. Rather than detach a squadron of ships to protect it, he entrusted the ships to the care of a single 64-gun vessel. The risk was rewarded: the Actionnaire left St. Domingo in late October and made it safely to France, while most of Rodney's fleet and its booty was captured by Captain de la Motte-Picquet about May 1, 1781. In another stroke of good fortune, Rodney, Britain's most capable sea commander, sailed home on August 1, leaving rear admirals Samuel Hood and Sir Francis Drake in command. Rodney pleaded ill health; more likely, he wanted to accompany his share of the loot from St. Eustatius to safety in England.

The stage was set when de Grasse raised anchor with his 28 ships of the line and supporting frigates at Cape Francois on August 5 and headed north. They were bursting with soldiers and sailors: An 80-gun ship190 feet long with a 46-foot beam and a 22-foot hold carried a crew of 940 men. All but 150 were needed to work the cannon. It took 15 men to service one of the thirty 36-pounders on the main deck; the rest were needed to operate the fifty 18- and 8-pounders. They were also carrying 3,000 men of the infantry regiments Gatinais, Agenais, and Touraine under the comte de Saint-Simon, 100 artillery men, their guns, and 100 dragoons.

Along the way, de Grasse dispatched the frigate Aigrette to Havana to pick up 1.2 million livres that Rochambeau had requested in July to pay and feed his army. It took but five hours to collect the funds from public and private sources. The next day the Aigrette was away.

Washington and Rochambeau learned August 14 from the Concorde that de Grasse was sailing for the Chesapeake with all the ships and troops he had collected. Leaving behind a small contingent of militiamen to make British General Sir Henry Clinton think the allies were still planning for a siege of New York, the American and French generals joined forces. De Grasse had declared he could stay no later than October 15; there was no time to lose. On August 19, the armies began the 450 mile march to Yorktown.

It took 11 days to inform de Barras of the change in plans and to secure his cooperation in the campaign. De Grasse had left it open for de Barras to join him. De Grasse had once been de Barras's junior in the service and, under the 18th-century code of honor, de Barras could have refused to serve under de Grasse. Heeding Rochambeau's request, de Barras swallowed his pride for the greater good and slipped out of Newport with nine ships, including seven ships of the line, loaded with troops, supplies, and the siege artillery on the night of August 24-25.

If fortune shone on the fleurs-de-lis, the same could not be said for the British. Assuming that de Grasse, too, would sail for the mainland once the hurricane season arrived, rear admirals Samuel Hood and Sir Francis Drake left the West Indies on August 10. Their 14 copper-sheathed ships were faster than de Grasse's, so fast they passed the French without sighting them and arrived off the Virginia Capes on August 25, the day de Barras sailed from Newport. Finding no French vessel, Hood and Drake sailed on to New York, where they dropped anchor August 28. Vice Admiral Thomas Graves commanded the British navy at New York. He, Hood, and Drake agreed that de Barras, whose departure was known in New York, was on his way to join de Grasse, presumably for an attack on New York. On August 31, Graves's five vessels sailed out of New York harbor to join Hood's 14. Next, the 19 ships headed south. Destination: de Grasse's fleet, wherever it might be.

De Grasse was already in the Chesapeake. On August 30, his 28 ships had dropped anchor in the mouth of the York River and were unloading men and material for the siege of My Lord Cornwallis. His lordship, as unaware as Graves and Hood that Washington, Rochambeau, and de Barras were on their way to the Chesapeake, did nothing to impede the activities of the French navy.

The FrancoAmerican army, still in Pennsylvania, marched through Philadelphia in a parade before Congress in the first days of September. Reporting on the event on the fifth, the Freeman's Journal said, "the appearance of these troops far exceeds any thing of the kind seen on this continent, and presages the happiest success to the cause of America." Later that day, Washington heard of de Grasse's arrival. Rochambeau, coming out of Philadelphia to meet Washington in Chester, could hardly believe his eyes. The usually stoic American ran to greet his French counterpart, hat in one hand and handkerchief in the other. Embracing Rochambeau, over and over again Washington shouted: "He's here! He's arrived!"

De Grasse had arrived indeed. The day that saw Washington jump for joy and the Freeman's Journal predict the triumph of American arms, the foundations for victory were laid off the coast of Virginia.

Approaching Cape Charles - the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore - at around 9:30 a.m., the lookout on the British frigate Solebay reported sails beyond. Graves knew the ships had to be French and made straight for the main entrance of the ten mile wide bay. It lay about three miles north of Cape Henry. Not much later, the French frigate Aigrette, cruising off Cape Charles, sighted approaching sails as well. Her captain assumed these belonged to de Barras, bringing the siege artillery from Newport, but he was soon undeceived. Graves and his armada of 19 ships of the line - two 98-gun vessels, twelve 74s, one 70, and four 64s, a 50-gun ship, six frigates and a fire ship, were bearing down on the bay at full speed: about six knots or seven miles per hour.

Though he knew by 10:30 a.m. that 19 enemy sails were approaching Hampton Roads, there was not much de Grasse could do. Wind and tide were against him, and many of his personnel were ashore. But he was not unduly worried; the British were still more than 20 miles or almost four hours away. As the tide was turning around noon, de Grasse cut his cables. Slowly his flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris, the largest ship in the French navy, three 80s, seventeen 74s, and three 64s moved out of the channel to meet the enemy. Short of hands, de Grasse had to leave 90 officers and about 1,900 men behind. Hampered by contrary wind, his ships were slow forming a line: the Ville de Paris, the eleventh ship in line, did not clear the bay until 1:00 p.m.

Rather than order "close action" and head straight for the French line straggling into the open sea, Graves, just as Hood's lead division was about to enter the bay at around 2:15 p.m., gave order for "line ahead!" formation. In accordance with the British Admiralty's fighting instruction, which demanded that battle be waged in close line formation with each ship engaging her opponent, he wanted to bring his vessels into a roughly parallel position with the approaching French fleet. This meant that his ships, sailing west-southwest, had to turn almost 180 degrees to change course to east-southeast and head back out to sea. The maneuver took 90 minutes, and strung out the heretofore tight formation of the British fleet. In the meantime, the French cleared the entrance of the bay.

As Graves lined up for battle, his fastest ships, which had been in the lead, found themselves at the end of the column. That included Hood on the Barfleur, who had been fourth in line, but now had 15 ships ahead of him. Three 74s under Drake, which had already been leaking badly when the fleet had sailed from New York five days earlier and been put into the rear, now formed the lead division.

As the ships took their places in the line, Graves, much to the consternation of his officers, ordered them to be brought to and wait for the French center to come abreast. This, too, was in accordance with the fighting instructions. De Grasse was only too happy with the delay, which allowed him to bring up his rear. When battle commenced, he not only would have five more ships but also 1,794 cannon versus 1,410 British guns. Thanks to Graves, they would also be sailing in closer formation than the British. His best and fastest ships would line up with Graves's slowest and weakest. The two fleets were arranged like the sides of a funnel when Graves raised the flag to head toward the enemy. According to the London's log, it was precisely 3:46 p.m. Six hours had passed since the fleets had spied each other. What happened next is not quite clear.

In a memorandum compiled the day after the battle, Hood said Graves forgot to lower the flag signaling "line ahead" as the standard "close action" went up. Yet Graves's log indicates that he flew "engage the enemy" throughout the day and hoisted "line ahead!" only twice. Hood and his captains, Graves said, misunderstood the signal. This is possible: there was no uniform flag code within the Royal Navy. Hood and his captains had served under Rodney in the Caribbean, Graves had served under Admiral Sir Richard Howe in New York. Hood had had Graves's signal book for less than five days and may not have understood all its signals.

But how could Hood misunderstand the signal? Once the cannon began roaring, he knew that the battle had begun and, irrespective of the signal flying on the London, should have fallen on the French rear. Why he did not, is one of the mysteries of the American Revolutionary War.

Drake's leaky division followed the signal, and, at 4:15 p.m., the Shrewsbury opened fire. Hood continued with "line ahead." Hiding behind the two contradictory flags on Graves's main mast, he later said he did not know which order to follow or what Graves and Drake were doing. Graves sent a frigate to order Hood to attack at once, but it was too late. The French held all the cards: when hundreds of cannon began to spit fire and destruction at each other, de Grasse's ships fired broadside after broadside into Drake's division, which was slowly approaching at a 90-degree angle and still had to turn before its cannon could even hit them. Seven ships, including Hood's Barfleur, never caught up. At 5:30 p.m., they opened long-distance fire; an hour later Graves ordered the fleet to disengage.

Even so, the Royal Navy held its ground. When Graves ordered fire to cease with nightfall at 6:30 p.m., it had suffered 336 casualties. The 74s Shrewsbury, Vax, and Terrible were almost unsailable; the Terrible would be burned at sea a few days later. The Montague, a 74, almost lost her masts. The Intrepid, struck by 65 cannon balls in the first volley, had to leave the fleet with a broken rudder. On the French side, the Diademe and the Pluto, both 74s, and the Reflechi and the Caton, both 64s, were in bad shape. French casualties numbered 240 sailors.

The fleets spent the next day, September 6, making repairs and getting into position. Hood wanted Graves to turn around during the night and try to reach the bay before de Grasse, but the fleets drifted farther and farther south on the seventh. At nightfall on the ninth, de Grasse headed back north. As he approached, he saw de Barras and his fleet riding at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, near Norfolk. De Grasse, who knew that Washington and Rochambeau were on their way, knew that he had achieved his goal: with de Barras safely in the Chesapeake, Cornwallis was in the trap.

Pressured by an angry Hood, Graves, too, returned briefly to the Chesapeake on the 13th only to find de Barras there. Hood agreed that it would be unwise to attack the 36 French with the British 18. Graves, unaware that Rochambeau and Washington were marching on Yorktown, returned to New York, thinking that he would be able to come to the relief of Cornwallis in due time. As he arrived in New York on the 19th, things were looking grim for His Lordship, and Graves knew it. In a letter to the earl of Sandwich, he wrote, "The signal was not understood. I do not mean to blame anyone, my Lord. I hope we all did our best."

Washington and Rochambeau had reached Williamsburg on the 14th ahead of their troops. On the 17th, Washington and de Grasse dined on the Ville de Paris, and much to the amusement of the guests, the 6'2" de Grasse kept calling the 6'4" American "mon petit general." On September 28, the combined FrancoAmerican armies left Williamsburg for Yorktown; three weeks later, Cornwallis surrendered. Fighting would continue for another year, but American independence had been won on the banks of the York River and off the Capes of Virginia.

De Grasse's victory off the Capes demonstrates the importance of the French navy for American independence. It was de Grasse's fleet that kept the Royal Navy from making contact with Cornwallis when it sailed out to meet the British challenge on September 5, 1781. There was no Continental Navy that could have stopped Graves, Hood, and Drake: in 1781, the Royal Navy had about 140 ships of the line, the French had 67 capital ships, Spain had 58, the Dutch 19. The United States had none.

In the summer of 1781, everything went right for the Franco-American alliance. While Graves was poking in the dark in a campaign uncoordinated with an equally deceived Clinton in New York, Washington, Rochambeau, and de Grasse had their ducks, or better ships, soldiers and cannon in a row, and knew what they had to do to make the campaign a success.

De Grasse's luck did not last. In April 1782's disastrous defeat in the Battle of the Saints against Rodney, he lost seven of his 29 ships of the line and sustained more than 3,000 casualties. He also faced the humiliation of being captured and held prisoner in England. In royal disfavor after May 1784, but restored to the King's good graces two years later, he died in Paris in January 1788.

Though he spent but two months in American waters and never set foot on American soil, de Grasse ranks with the marquis de Lafayette and the comte de Rochambeau as a Frenchman who contributed to American victory.

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