Battle of the Chesapeake

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The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes or simply the Battle of the Capes, was a crucial naval battle in the American War of Independence that took place near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on 5 September 1781, between a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse. The battle was tactically inconclusive but strategically a major defeat for the British, since it prevented the Royal Navy from reinforcing or evacuating the blockaded forces of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. It also prevented British interference with the transport of French and Continental Army troops and provisions to Yorktown via Chesapeake Bay. As a result, Cornwallis surrendered his army after the Siege of Yorktown. The major consequence of Cornwallis's surrender was the beginning of negotiations that eventually resulted in peace and British recognition of the independent United States of America.

Presented in July 1781 with the options of either attacking British forces in New York or Virginia, Admiral de Grasse opted for the latter, arriving at the Chesapeake at the end of August. Upon learning that de Grasse had sailed from the West Indies for North America, and that French Admiral de Barras had also sailed from Newport, Rhode Island, Admiral Graves concluded that they were going to join forces at the Chesapeake. Sailing south from New York with 19 ships of the line, Graves arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake early on 5 September to see de Grasse's fleet at anchor in the bay. De Grasse hastily prepared most of his fleet, 24 ships of the line, for battle and sailed out to meet Graves. In a two-hour engagement that took place after hours of manoeuvring, the lines of the two fleets did not completely meet, with only the forward and center sections of the lines fully engaging. The battle was consequently fairly evenly matched, although the British suffered more casualties and ship damage. The battle broke off when the sun set. British tactics in the battle have been a subject of contemporary and historic debate.

For several days the two fleets sailed within view of each other, with de Grasse preferring to lure the British away from the bay, where de Barras was expected to arrive carrying vital siege equipment. On 13 September de Grasse broke away from the British and returned to the Chesapeake, where de Barras had arrived. Graves returned to New York to organize a larger relief effort; this did not sail until 19 October, two days after Cornwallis surrendered.

Russell Weigley[5]

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