Battle of the Capes

Battle Off the Virginia Capes

19th century painting owned by the U.S. Navy and on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, VA

"No land force can act decisively unless it is accompanied by maritime superiority"

---General George Washington

"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." ---Michael Lewis, The History of the British Navy

"Few naval battles have decided more." ---Professor Randolph G Adams

"It deserves the name of 'British Naval Waterloo of Cape Henry.'" ---Emil Reich (European Historian)

On September 5, 1781, off the coast of Virginia, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most critical naval battles in United States history took place.The "Battle of the Capes" only lasted two and a half hours and did not involve any Americans, but this battle was one of the decisive factors that assured the United States would win independence from Great Britain.

French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Marquis de Grasse Tilly arrived in the West Indies with a French fleet in April 1781. He sent word to French General Comte de Rochambeau, in Newport, Rhode Island, that he was under orders to sail his fleet north to assist the French and the American armies. General George Washington hoped to use De Grasse's fleet and Rochambeau's army to assist the American army in an attack on the British at New York City.Rochambeau and Washington sent word to De Grasse that his fleet was desperately needed and that any troops and money that De Grasse could bring with the fleet would also be of great help.They suggested that De Grasse come to either New York City which Washington favored; or to the Chesapeake Bay to assist General Lafayette's American army opposing British General Cornwallis and his army that had recently moved into Virginia; a course of action favored by Rochambeau..

De Grasse decided to bring his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay because of the shorter sailing distance to it and it was more navigable than the New York harbor. In Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, (Dominican Republic), De Grasse loaded 3000 French troops from the Gatinais, Agenois and Touraine infantry regiments aboard his ships. He also raised 1.2 million livres (worth approximately 6 million US dollars today) in Havana, Cuba from the local government, banks and citizens to assist the American and French armies in America. On August 5, De Grasse set sail with his fleet of 37 ships including 28 ships-of-the-line, (large battleships), 7 frigates and 2 cutters, headed to the Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse took a dangerous route through the straits of the Bahamas to avoid the British fleets of Admiral George Rodney and Admiral Samuel Hood, who were protecting British interests and commerce in the West Indies.

When General Washington received news on August 14 that De Grasse was sailing to the Chesapeake Bay instead of New York, he quickly changed his plan.Four days later he began moving the American and French armies to Yorktown, Virginia to surround Cornwallis's army that had just two weeks earlier begun setting up a British naval base there, but the success of Washington's daring plan depended on De Grasses' fleet controlling the Chesapeake Bay.

Once British Admiral Rodney learned the French fleet was sailing north, he sent Admiral Hood with a fleet of 14 ships-of-the-line to intercept it.Though Admiral Hood left the West Indies several days after the French fleet, he took a direct route to the Chesapeake Bay and passed the French fleet without spotting them.Hood arrived at the bay on August 25.Not seeing any French ships, he raced his fleet to New York City.Four days later, the French fleet arrived at the Bay, anchored and began off loading French troops near Jamestown to join the army of General Lafayette at Williamsburg, 12 miles from Yorktown.

Admiral Hood arrived at New York City on August 28 and informed British Admiral Thomas Graves, Commander-in-Chief of the North American fleet, that De Grasse's fleet was in American waters. Admiral Graves also learned that another French fleet of eight ships-of-the-line under the command of Admiral Louis Jacques Comte de Barras, had left Newport, Rhode Island, sailing south.With two French fleets on the move, the two British admirals combined their fleets and with Graves in command, left New York on August 31 with 19 ships-of-the-line. The British fleet reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay around 9:00 am on September 5, 1781 and soon received word from a scouting frigate of a large French fleet in the bay. Graves directed his ships-of-the-line to begin the slow process of moving into battle formation.

Admiral De Grasse, unaware of the British Fleet's approach, continued offloading supplies from his ships; many of his ships' officers were ashore. When the British fleet was first spotted, the French believed it was De Barras arriving, but as the British fleet sailed closer, the French realized it was a large British fleet. Admiral De Grasse chaotically rushed his fleet out of the bay. Admiral Graves failed to take advantage attacking the French in such a vulnerable position. This gave De Grasse time to organize his fleet into a line of battle.

The British and French fleets slowly maneuvered to engage each other. The wind direction and confusing flag signals sent by Admiral Graves prevented the back half of the British battle line from getting close enough to fire on the French ships. At 4:15 PM, the action finally began with a deadly volley of cannon fire from the leading ships of both fleets.The battle lasted over two hours. The British fleet suffered six ships damaged and 90 sailors killed and 246 wounded.The French fared better with 209 causalities and only 2 ships damaged.

When the sun set at 6:30PM, the two fleets disengaged to evaluate and repair damage.Admiral Graves, realizing his fleet was heavily damaged, was reluctant to renew the battle. Admiral De Grasse waited to see what Graves would do.The fleets drifted south within view of each other for several days without further engagement. On September 9, De Grasse slipped out of the sight of the British and sailed back to the Chesapeake Bay, arriving there the next day. De Barras' fleet had arrived in the bay during the battle and now the French had 36 ships-of-the-line.

The British fleet turned for the Chesapeake Bay the evening of the 10th, arriving outside the bay on September 13. Graves realized his fleet was in no condition to take on so many French ships. He sailed his fleet to New York, leaving the French in control of the Chesapeake Bay.When Admiral Graves reached New York, he raced to repair the fleet to get troop reinforcements to Cornwallis at Yorktown. Contrary winds, difficulties in securing replacement parts, and slow repairs delayed the departure of the fleet until October 19th, too late to be of any help. That same day, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown

The success of the French fleet in gaining control of the Chesapeake Bay prevented Cornwallis from receiving reinforcements and helped ensure that Washington could use the bay to transport troops and supplies to Yorktown.Without De Grasse's fleet gaining control of the Chesapeake Bay from the British, victory by the American and French armies at Yorktown would have been impossible.Without the French victory at the Battle of the Capes, American independence from Great Britain might never have been achieved.


Larrabee, Harold.Decision at the Chesapeake.Clarkson N Potter Inc, 1969.

Landers, H. L.The Virginia Campaign and the Blockade and Siege of Yorktown 1781.U.S. Printing Office, Washington DC, 1931.

Crawford, Michael J.The Real Story of the American Revolution.Naval Historical Center, 2005.

Hatch, Charles E Jr.Yorktown and the Siege of 1781.National Park Service Historical Handbook Series.No. 14 Washington DC, 1957.

Last updated: January 25, 2021

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