A Near Thing at Yorktown

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Most of the havoc wreaked upon both men and ships was confined to the van and center of each fleet, only twelve of the British ships actually being engaged with fifteen of the French, the rear squadrons remaining far apart. Some of the blame for this belongs to the British Navy’s crude and ineffective system of signals. Admiral Graves had signaled to his fleet to bear down and engage, but at 4:22 P.M.. made the mistake of re-hoisting the flag for line ahead, “ye ships not being sufficiently extended.” This was because the flagship, in advancing and bringing her broadside to bear, found the ships ahead of her bunched together. Graves may possibly have intended that each captain should bear down, engage his opposite number, and also keep the line conterminous with the enemy. But none of his admirals or captains saw it that way. The line was the line; and Graves’ signals were literally contradictory. For the French were in no sort of line; and a grand melee would have resulted, in which the British might have fared very well indeed.

At 4:27 P.M.., according to Graves, the line signal was down and that for close action was up, although Hood and at least one of his captains swore that the line signal flew continuously until 5:30 P.M.. The contradiction between the testimonies of the two admirals is so glaring that Sir John L. Laughton, the distinguished biographer of both Graves and Hood, has suggested the possibility that Graves saw the signal lowered, but that a “too active-minded signalman” mistakenly restored it. Hood argued that had the British center come to the support of the van, and the signal for the line been hauled down, or the commander-in-chief had set the example of close action, even with the signal for the line flying, the van of the enemy must have been cut to pieces, and the rear division of the British fleet would have been opposed to those ships the center division fired at, and at the proper distance for engaging it, or the Rear Admiral who commanded it [Hood himself] would have had a great deal to answer for.

Partisans of Graves thought that Hood had indeed a great deal to answer for, namely his alleged “shyness” or “dilatory tactics” in refusing to leave the line and engage the enemy. It appeared to them that he was deliberately leaving Graves, of whose ability he said he “thought very meanly,” to get out of the jam by himself. We can see today that Hood, being obliged to disobey one of two signals, chose the wrong one; but it is Laughton’s opinion that strict obedience to the line signal was officially held to be of paramount importance, so that “no suspicion that he should have acted otherwise than he did ever crossed Hood’s mind.”

According to the French, the cannonading “was kept up in the center for a half hour longer than in the van. For our part, we were so tired, that though within gun-shot, the vans no longer fired; at 6 P.M.. the battle closed.” De Grasse “wore” his fleet about, to receive a second attack, but it was not forthcoming. Graves sought to keep his shattered line extended with that of the enemy during the night, “with the full intention,” he said, “to renew the engagement in the morning.” But when a frigate returned from the van, he learned that “several of the ships had suffered so much, they were in no condition to renew the action until they had secured their masts.”

The next four days were spent by the two fleets at sea in sight of one another, jockeying for the wind, and alternating in possession of it, but with neither admiral using it to press an attack. Graves’ explanation was: “We had not speed in so mutilated a state to attack them, had it been prudent”; and De Grasse’s mood was plainly defensive, hoping to distract British attention from Barras, who was circling far to the east, then south opposite Albemarle, and back up the coast.

Both admirals seemed temporarily to have lost sight of their true strategic bone of contention, the occupation of the Chesapeake, as they maneuvered south of the Capes. At one time Graves was probably closer to Yorktown than De Grasse. But the latter seems to have been the first to recall what the two fleets were fighting about, and on the evening of September 9, he pressed on sail for his former anchorage. There he found Barras, “who had witnessed the affair of the 5th,” says a French observer, but because of the distance “being unable to distinguish the French fleet, had anchored in the roads where we found him.”

Four more days were spent by the three British admirals in acid exchanges of notes and acrimonious councils of war on board the London. Hood had wanted Graves to go boldly into the Bay right after the battle and seize De Grasse’s anchorage, a maneuver Hood later brilliantly executed against that admiral at Basseterre Bay, St. Kitts. After all, only sixteen guns in the British batteries had been disabled, and Hood’s squadron, of course, was wholly intact and full of fight. Even in the event that Graves could drive De Grasse from the Chesapeake, on the other hand, he would have to leave Clinton defenseless in New York.