The Battle of the Chesapeake was a critical naval battle in the American Revolutionary War. A moment mentioned in the musical Hamilton, it contributed to the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. Indeed, British naval historian Michael Lewis (1890-1970) stated that ‘The Battle of Chesapeake Bay was one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain.’
The British created a base at Yorktown
Prior to 1781, Virginia had witnessed little fighting as most operations had taken place either in the far north or further south. However, earlier that year, British forces had arrived in and raided Chesapeake, and under Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis, created a fortified base at the deep-water port of Yorktown.
Meanwhile, French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly arrived in the West Indies with a French fleet in April 1781 under the orders that he sail north and assist the French and American armies. When deciding whether to head for New York City or Chesapeake Bay, he chose the latter since it had a shorter sailing distance and was more navigable than the New York harbour.
The English failed to take advantage of favourable winds
On 5 September 1781, a British fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Graves engaged a French fleet under Rear Admiral Paul, the Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Chesapeake. When a French fleet left the West Indies and another under Admiral de Barras sailed from Rhode Island, Graves guessed that they were heading for Chesapeake Bay to blockade Yorktown. He left New Jersey with a fleet of 19 ships to try and keep the mouths of the rivers York and James open.
By the time Graves arrived at Chesapeake Bay, de Grasse was already blockading access with 24 ships. The fleets saw each other just after 9am and spent hours trying to manoeuvre themselves into the best position for a fight. The wind favoured the English, but confused commands, which were the subject of bitter arguments and an official inquiry in the aftermath, meant they failed to drive the advantage home.
The French were tactically more sophisticated
The French tactic of firing at masts reduced the mobility of the English fleet. When it came to close combat, the French suffered less damage but then sailed away. The English pursued what was a tactical move to get them away from Chesapeake Bay. In all, over the course of the two-hour battle, British fleet suffered damage to six ships, 90 sailor mortalities and 246 wounded. The French suffered 209 casualties but only had 2 ships damaged.
For several days, the fleets drifted south within view of each other without further engagement, and on 9 September, De Grasse sailed back to the Chesapeake Bay. The British arrived outside Chesapeake Bay on 13 September, and quickly realised that they were in no condition to take on so many French ships.
The British defeat was catastrophic
Eventually, the English fleet was forced to limp back to New York. The defeat sealed the fate of General Cornwallis and his men in Yorktown. Their surrender on 17 October 1781 came two days before Graves set sail with a fresh fleet. The victory at Yorktown is seen as a major turning point that contributed to the eventual independence of the United States. General George Washington recorded that ‘whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest’. George III wrote of the loss that ‘I nearly think the empire ruined’.