Largely overlooked in histories of the Revolution, the Battle of the Chesapeake is in fact one of the most important naval engagements in history, leading to the American victory at Yorktown.
Excerpted from the George Washington Book Prize finalist In the Hurricane's Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking).
When France entered the American Revolutionary War in the spring of 1778, George Washington dared to hope his new ally had put victory within reach. Finally, the British navy's hold on the Atlantic Seaboard was about to be broken. If the French succeeded in establishing what Washington called "naval superiority," the enemy's army would be left open to attack from not only the land but also the sea. But after two and a half years of trying, the French had been unable to contain the British navy.
First, an inexplicably protracted Atlantic crossing prevented French admiral Comte d'Estaing from trapping the enemy's fleet in Philadelphia. Shortly after that, d'Estaing turned his attention to British-occupied New York, only to call off the attack for fear his ships would run aground at the bar across the harbor mouth. A few weeks after that, a storm off the coast of southern New England prevented d'Estaing from engaging the British in a naval battle that promised to be a glorious victory for France.
Since then, a botched amphibious assault at Savannah, Georgia, had marked the only other significant action on the part of the French navy, a portion of which now lay frustratingly dormant at Newport at the southern end of Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. By the fall of 1780, amid the aftershocks of devastating defeats at Charleston and Camden in South Carolina and Benedict Arnold's treasonous attempt to surrender the fortress at West Point to the enemy, Washington had come to wonder whether the ships of his salvation would ever appear.
For the last two years he'd been locked in an unproductive standoff with Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in North America, in and around New York City. What fighting had occurred had been, for the most part, in the south, where British general Charles Cornwallis sought to build upon his recent victories by pushing into North Carolina. Between the northern and southern theaters of the war lay the inland sea of the Chesapeake, which had enjoyed a period of relative quiet since the early days of the conflict.
All that changed in December 1780, when Clinton sent his newest brigadier general, the traitor Benedict Arnold, to Virginia. Having already dispatched the Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene to do battle with Cornwallis in the Carolinas, Washington sent the young French nobleman whom he regarded as a surrogate son, the Marquis de Lafayette, in pursuit of Arnold.
Thus began the movement of troops that resulted nine months later in Cornwallis's entrapment at the shoreside hamlet of Yorktown, when a large fleet of French warships arrived from the Caribbean. As Washington had long since learned, coordinating his army's movements with those of a fleet of sail-powered men-of-war based two thousand miles away was virtually impossible. But in the late summer of 1781, the impossible happened.
And then, just a few days later, a fleet of British warships appeared.
The Battle of the Chesapeake has been called the most important naval engagement in the history of the world. Fought outside the entrance of the bay between French admiral Comte de Grasse's twenty-four ships of the line and a slightly smaller British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, the battle inflicted severe enough damage on the Empire's ships that Graves returned to New York for repairs. By preventing the rescue of seven thousand British and German soldiers under the command of General Cornwallis, de Grasse's victory on September 5,1781, made Washington's subsequent triumph at Yorktown a virtual fait accompli. Peace would not be officially declared for another two years, but that does not change the fact that a naval battle fought between the French and the British was largely responsible for the independence of the United States.
Despite its undeniable significance, the Battle of the Chesapeake plays only a minor part in most popular accounts of the war, largely because no Americans participated in it. If the sea figures at all in the story of the Revolutionary War, the focus tends to be on the heroics of John Paul Jones off England's Flamborough Head, even though that two-ship engagement had little impact on the overall direction of the conflict. Instead of concentrating on the sea, the traditional narrative of Yorktown focuses on the allied army's long overland journey south, with a special emphasis on the collaborative relationship between Washington and his French counterpart the Comte de Rochambeau. In this view, the encounter between the French and British fleets was a mere prelude to the main event. In my book, I hope to put the sea where it properly belongs: at the center of the story.
As Washington understood with a perspicacity that none of his military peers could match, only the intervention of the French navy could achieve the victory the times required. Six months before the Battle of the Chesapeake, during the winter of 1781, he had urged the French to send a large fleet of warships to the Chesapeake in an attempt to trap Benedict Arnold in Portsmouth, Virginia. What was, in effect, a dress rehearsal for the Yorktown campaign is essential to understanding the evolving, complex, and sometimes acrimonious relationship between Washington and Rochambeau. As we will see, the two leaders were not the selfless military partners of American legend; each had his own jealously guarded agenda, and it was only after Washington reluctantly — and angrily — acquiesced to French demands that they began to work in concert.
Ultimately, the course of the Revolutionary War came down to America's proximity to the sea—a place of storms and headwinds that no one could control. Instead of an inevitable march to victory, Yorktown was the result of a hurried rush of seemingly random events—from a hurricane in the Caribbean, to a bloody battle amid the woods near North Carolina's Guilford Courthouse, to the loan of 500,000 Spanish pesos from the citizens of Havana, Cuba — all of which had to occur before Cornwallis arrived at Yorktown and de Grasse sailed into the Chesapeake.
That the pieces finally fell into place in September and October 1781 never ceased to amaze Washington. "I am sure," he wrote the following spring, "that there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States."
The victory at Yorktown was improbable at best, but it was also the result of a strategy Washington had been pursuing since the beginning of the French alliance. My book is the story of how Washington's unrelenting quest for naval superiority made possible the triumph at Yorktown. It is also the story of how, in a supreme act of poetic justice, the final engagement of the war brought him back to the home he had not seen in six years. For it was here, on a river in Virginia, that he had first began to learn about the wonder, power, and ultimate indifference of the sea.
Copyright 2018 by Nathaniel Philbrick.