A Near Thing at Yorktown


At the critical moment, Comte de Grasse displayed a magnificent audacity, remarkable energy, political tact, and a breadth of view beyond anything his record to that date could have foretold. When he was on naval maneuvers in 1772, his mentor, the Sieur d’Orvilliers, remarked of him: “His collisions seem to show that there is something lacking in his judgment by eye.” But though he may have had defects as a short-range tactician, De Grasse in 1781 was a superb strategist whose long-range vision was remarkable. What he grasped, says the British naval historian Michael Lewis, and “demonstrated to perfection” was “one of the great principles of war—securing a concentration stronger than the enemy’s at the right time and in the right place.”

He postponed the sailing of the convoy, sending it back to Martinique to wait until November, collected every French warship he could command, and secured the permission of Comte de Lillancourt, acting governor of the islands, to borrow for two months the Marquis de Saint-Simon’s corps (the regiments of Agenais, Gâtinais, and Touraine), technically in the service of Spain. The obtaining of the money to fill the empty allied war chests proved to be more difficult. Failing at San Domingo, even though both De Grasse and Chevalier de Charitte (captain of the Bourgogne ) offered as security their own property in the West Indies and in France, he sent the Aigrette to Havana, where the inhabitants (some say “the ladies”) of that city provided the 1,200,000 livres in piasters without conditions in the space of six hours—the sum “serving as an excuse for the seventeen Spanish men-of-war not to accompany him.”

The race between Hood and De Grasse for the Chesapeake was now on; and the British were not the only ones who were mystified about the French admiral’s whereabouts and intentions. On September 2, Washington wrote to Lafayette that he was “distressed beyond measure to know what had become of the fleet of the Comte de Grasse, for fear that the English fleet, by occupying the Chesapeake, toward which my last accounts say they were steering, may frustrate all our flattering prospects in that quarter. I am also not a little solicitous for the Comte de Barras, who was to have sailed from Rhode Island on August 23 and from whom I have heard nothing since that time.”

De Grasse had sailed from Cape Haitien on August 5, and Hood from Antigua on August 10, but since all of Hood’s ships were coppered, as against only half of De Grasse’s, the English admiral had no trouble in being the first to arrive off the Capes of Virginia on August 25, five days ahead of the French. Seeing no signs of the enemy in the Chesapeake or the Delaware, Hood sailed on to New York “under a fresh of wind” on August 28, somewhat inexplicably missing all the lookout frigates Graves had stationed along his route. De Grasse also, quite intentionally of course, saw nothing of Graves’ frigates, for he negotiated, with the aid of Spanish pilots, the Old Bahama Channel between Cuba and the Bahama Banks, seldom used by warships. When Hood and his fourteen ships arrived off Sandy Hook, he found that his senior there, Thomas Graves, Rear Admiral of the Red, had returned within the bar on August 16 from a futile cruise after a reported French convoy, with two of his seven ships—the Robuste, 74 guns, and the Prudent, 64 guns— “extremely infirm,” and docked for at least ten days. Says Graves’ account:

The admirals consulted with the general [Clinton] and Rear-Admiral Graves instantly determined to seek the enemy, and to sail with the first wind for the chance of falling in with one of the French squadrons before joined with the other.  A line of battle was delivered on August 30, and, the wind serving on the 31st, the whole fleet made the best of their way for the Chesapeake, without any interruption, but from the complaints of the West Indian squadron, the Terrible on the third day of sailing making the signal of distress.  The fleet brought-to; when the Terrible was found to have come from the Leeward Islands with five pumps at work, the Ajax but little better, and the Montagu a leaky ship; that some of the rest had sprung masts, and several were very short of water and bread.  These defects were supplied as quickly and as well as the situation would admit, and the fleet proceeded with the utmost expedition.

A curious situation developed at 9 A.M.. on September 5, as the ten-mile-wide mouth of the Chesapeake opened before the British ships, and Graves learned from a lookout vessel that an enemy fleet “judged to be about fifteen ships of the line” lay at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay. This he took to be Barras, augmented by De Grasse. At about the same hour, De Grasse learned from his scouting frigate of the approach of a fleet, which he hoped was the expected squadron of Barras. Thus both admirals at first mistook one another for a third who was not there. Not until 2 P.M.., says Graves, did De Grasse’s imposing array “disclose itself fully” to the view of the British, who found to their consternation that it consisted of twenty-four large ships of the line.