A Near Thing at Yorktown

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Why did Graves not only preserve the line ahead, but actually heave to in order to allow the enemy to reach the proper position to be attacked according to the rules? “The real culprit,” says Michael Lewis, “was the System,” those permanent Fighting Instructions with the force of law, which had been binding on all naval commanders under the severest penalties for almost a century and had never brought about a decisive action in all that time. All officers were imbued with the doctrine of the line ahead, drawn geometrically from the leading ship of the van through the admiral’s flagship. “Conserve the line at all costs. See that it extends the full length of the enemy line, van to van, center to center, rear to rear, and leave it, individual captain, at your peril.” The century had been dotted with courts-martial for negligence and disobedience; and in 1757 Admiral the Honorable John Byng had been shot by a file of marines on the quarter-deck of the Monarque for negligence in failing to “bear right down on the enemy” in the prescribed form. Byng had been sent to relieve Minorca, met the fleet of Admiral de la Galissonière, attacked it without preserving the line, and paid with his life for “not doing his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships.”

Rear Admiral Thomas Graves had a special reason for abiding by the letter of the Instructions, because on the very same day that Byng was sentenced at Portsmouth, Graves, then the captain of the 20-gun frigate Sheerness, had been sentenced by another court at Plymouth “to be publicly reprimanded for an error of judgment” under the Thirty-sixth Article of War for his failure to chase and engage a merchantman which he had mistaken for a ship of the line. In view of the shadowy borderline between “an error of judgment” and “negligence,” Captain Graves must have thought himself fortunate to have escaped the firing squad.

Granted that Graves lacked the dash of a Hawke or a Nelson, it must also be conceded that if he was to keep out of trouble with the Admiralty in the Chesapeake, he was in a very tight box. Since the situation presented by De Grasse was unforeseen, there were no instructions or signals for dealing with it. The line ahead would not work; but the only alternative signal was for “General Chase,” which the rules said must be used only when the enemy was in small force or on the run. De Grasse was neither; and Graves was well aware that another commander, Sir Charles Knowles, had been tried and narrowly acquitted for ordering a “General Chase” of an unbeaten Spanish fleet off Havana in 1748.

Taking no chances of being found technically at fault, Graves kept doggedly to his line ahead, and committed his second tactical error at 2:30 by making the signal “for ye Leading Ships to lead more to starboard” (toward the French). This meant that his line became obliquely inclined toward the van of the opposing fleet. Since the naval cannon of that period fired only in broadsides, a ship approaching obliquely had to sacrifice for a time almost all its fire-power at the very moment when it exposed itself to being enfiladed by the enemy.

But an even more shocking outcome of Graves’ method of approach was that the seven ships of Hood’s division, though part of an inferior force undertaking to attack, never came into action at all. Graves and Hood each blamed the other for this particular failure, and a furious controversy began. On the day after the battle Hood wrote down his angry “Sentiments Upon the Truly Unfortunate Day,” in which his cold contempt for Graves was no longer concealed; it was summed up by him also in a letter to a friend: “A cunning man … clearly unequal to the conducting of a great squadron.” It should be remembered, however, that Hood, approximately Graves’ peer in age and experience, had been called to sea from virtual retirement, only to find himself junior to everybody.

The dispute between the two admirals was further aggravated by what happened after the firing began, summed up by one historian in the words: “A mistaken signal loses an empire.” At 4:03 P.M.. Graves, “seeing the enemy ships advancing very slow, and the evening approaching,” judged that the moment for attack had arrived and “made ye signal for ye ships to bear down and Engage, filled ye Main Top sail [of the London ] and bore down on enemy.” The trouble was that he did so with the signal for the line ahead still flying until 4:11 P.M.., when it was hauled down “that it might not interfear with ye signal to engage close.” The London, tenth in line, started for the French, as Hood observed, “from a most improper distance.”