A Near Thing at Yorktown

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True to the British naval tradition of attack, Graves and Hood brought their ships into the bay under foresails and topgallant sails with the wind north-northeast very much in their favor. De Grasse, whose fleet was anchored “promiscuously” in three lines, was seriously handicapped by the absence of 1,800 men and 90 officers, the best-drilled of his crews, whom he had sent up the bay in small boats to assist in the landings of Saint-Simon’s troops and to water the fleet. Some crews were short as many as two hundred men, the Citoyen , 74 guns, being unable to man its second tier. Four of the French fleet were also on detached duty to guard the mouths of the James and York rivers against a possible Cornwallis sortie.

De Grasse quickly gave the signal to prepare for action, and such was the celerity of the response that in spite of the absent officers and men, the fleet was ready to get under way in three-quarters of an hour. At 11:30 A.M.. came the order to slip cables, and by noon the ebb tide had made sufficiently for the first of the fleet, formed at will according to speed, to emerge against the wind in order to clear Cape Henry, obtain sea room, and insure a junction with Barras. Some of the slower ships were obliged to tack several times before clearing the Cape, and that made the formation of an orthodox line of battle impossible.

According to a French eyewitness:

The fleet formed in very bad order, for, to tell the truth, there were only four vessels in line, the Pluton, 74 guns, the Bourgogne, 80, the Marseillais, 64, and the  Diadème, 74. The Réfléche, 64 guns, and the Caton, 64, came next, half a league to the lee of the first; the rest of the fleet more to the lee of the latter, the Ville de Paris, 110, in the center. The British were in the best possible order, bowsprit to stern, bearing down on us.

So eager were the French captains to get out to sea that Commodore de Monteil of the rear division in the Languedoc, 80 guns, found himself ahead of De Grasse’s flagship, and had to be ordered to fall back to his proper station.

Four more hours were to elapse before a shot could be fired. This was because eighteenth-century warships were “great tub-like hulks,” very difficult to handle, virtually floating gun platforms capable of hurling great quantities of metal at one another with deadly results, but very much at the mercy of that true mistress of the seas, the wind. At 2:15 P.M.. Graves found that his van, commanded by Hood, was coming too close to the shoal called the Middle Ground, so he gave the signal for the entire fleet to tack simultaneously (or “wear”), thus bringing them into reverse order, close-hauled on the same tack as the French, both bearing for the open sea, but not on strictly parallel courses. The British line of battle was now headed by the Shrewsbury, 74 guns, of Drake’s division, with Hood’s forming the rear.

Here was Graves’ heaven-sent opportunity to reap what Hood later called “a rich and most delightful harvest of glory.” As Graves himself said, the first five ships of the French van were “very particularly extended.” He had only to throw his whole force, or even his van and center, in almost any formation, against them at odds of at least two to one. This was the perfect opening for the maneuver which Hawke, Rodney, and Nelson were to make famous, by openly defying the established rules, called “breaking the line,” although at this stage the French admiral really had no line to break.

Instead, Graves proceeded to “edge cautiously down upon the unformed French,” preserving the prescribed “line ahead” and striving to make it conterminous with that of the enemy. The log of his flagship, the London, 98 guns, has the astounding entry: “Brought-to in order to let ye Center of the Enemys Ships come a Brest of us.” Signals were then addressed to five of his ships to “gett in line” or “gett to her station,” indicating that the line-order was being enforced. This stately, by-the-rules approach, as Hood was to point out, gave De Grasse “a full hour and a half” to bring his lagging center and rear to the support of his exposed van.