We’re marching on towards Yorktown and subsequently the end of the Revolutionary War, but just prior to the Battle of Yorktown is a battle that is almost forgotten in current American history, This is probably due to the fact that no Americans took part in the battle — or even witnessed it (except perhaps from afar) — because it was a battle solely between the British and the French navies. The Battle of the Chesapeake, sometimes referred to as the Battle of the Virginia Capes. I do ask that you bear with me on this episode, as my french is not great, so these names are going to be a little rough, but we’ll get through it.
It’s also important to point out that America wasn’t exactly “winning the war” leading up to Yorktown. Here is how James Michener put it in his fictionalized historical novel Chesapeake:
“In that year  the English army, consolidated at last under a succession of daring generals, began to chew the south apart. Victory upon victory crushed General Washington’s lieutenants in Georgia and South Carolina, and it became clear that a few colonial farmers, no matter how brave, were no match for hundreds of well-trained English regulars supported by large guns.
And when General Cornwallis began ravaging Virginia, and Admiral Rodney assembled a fleet of battleships in the Caribbean, ready to invade the Chesapeake, it seemed obvious that the revolution was doomed. New York lay in English hands; Philadelphia was neutralized; Boston and Newport were powerless to send support, and no major port along the Atlantic was open to American vessels, even if any had succeeded in penetrating the blockade.
Men had begun to openly talk of defeat and started calculating among themselves what kind of terms they might be able to wheedle from the victorious English.”
The mighty British navy, in other words, pretty much owned our Atlantic coastline through a successful blockade of all American shipping.
In the summer of 1781, General Lord Charles Cornwallis began marching north with 7,500 men to rejoin British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton at New York. Arriving at Yorktown, VA, Cornwallis fortified his position and awaited naval transport to New York. Realizing the strategic importance of the Chesapeake Bay, American General George Washington requested that the French fleet in the Caribbean come north to take control of the bay and prevent Cornwallis from escaping.
What was the strategic importance? –
1. Chesapeake was a harbor that could help control the east coast and Southern part of the United States.
2. Washington was encamped around New York and was in a situation where neither force could really move without drawing direct attention from it’s counterpart. Neither side really wanted to do that, so there was an uneasy stalemate, but if Cornwallis could bring his 7500 men there, the combined force of those stationed in New York and Cornwallis could push Washington back and away from the city, and inflict significant damage to his army there.
On August 25, a British fleet of 14 ships of the line, under Rear Admiral Samuel Hood arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Hood was aware that a French fleet was working with the American’s but he was unsure of it’s exact location. Not seeing the French near the bay, Hood decided to continue on to New York to join with Rear Admiral Thomas Graves before returning to collect Cornwallis’ men.
Arriving at New York, Hood found that Graves only had five ships of the line in battle condition. Combining their forces, they put to sea heading south towards Virginia. While the British were uniting to the north, French Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake with 27 ships of the line. Quickly detaching three ships to blockade Cornwallis’ position at Yorktown, de Grasse anchored the bulk of his fleet behind Cape Henry, near the mouth of the bay.
On September 5, the British fleet arrived at the Chesapeake and sighted the French ships. Rather than swiftly attack the French while they were vulnerable, the British followed the tactical doctrine of the day and moved into a line ahead formation. The time required for this maneuver allowed the French to cut anchor and fled the mouth of the Chesapeake for open ocean. Stunningly, this tactic worked. It should not have worked — the French would have been torn apart if the British had acted faster. Instead, the French escaped and leveled the battlefield significantly.
But not completely, as the British belatedly leapt into action themselves, and performed a maneuver — using sail-powered vessels and communication with flags, mind you — which turned their entire fleet 180 degrees in the blink of an eye. This impressive feat of coordination left the British with the advantage of wind (off their larboard quarter), and tide, and position over the French fleet. But it did give the French one further advantage — the British leading ships (the “van”) had, due to the U-turn, now become the rear of the British battle line, essentially taking them out of the brunt of the main battle. The British ships in the rear — where an admiral would normally put his least-capable ships — had now become the van, and would lead the battle.
Six hours after the two fleets had spotted each other, the firing began. Dozens of ships on both sides let loose their broadsides. While today it’s hard to comprehend, these ships individually carried 70, 80, even (in the case of one or two ships on both sides) 100 cannons. That’s a lot of firepower, by any standard. And those numbers are per ship — and each side had roughly two dozen ships. This was without a doubt the greatest naval battle America had ever seen.
Though the vans were engaged, a shift in the wind made it difficult for each fleet’s center and rear to close within range. On the British side, the situation was further hampered by contradictory signals from Graves. As the vans pummeled each other, many of the ships to their rear never were able to engage the enemy. Around 6:30 PM the firing ceased and the British withdrew to windward. For the next four days the fleets maneuvered within sight of each other, however neither sought to renew the battle.
Neither side won. The battle would actually continue for days, drifting ever further away from the Chesapeake itself. But while neither side technically “won” the battle, the British most definitely “lost.” Their naval blockade was effectively broken by the Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result, the French wound up in possession of the bay. And as a direct result, the American forces besieging Yorktown were helped out in two enormous ways. The French, as a result of their subsequent domination of the Chesapeake Bay, were able to supply the American land forces with heavy artillery — without which the Yorktown siege would have been far more difficult. But the biggest reason that the victory at Yorktown most likely would never have happened without the French’s (relative) success in the Battle of the Chesapeake is that it denied the British in Yorktown their resupply route, and — most importantly of all — any hope of an escape route. Because British ships couldn’t come to their aid, the British had to abandon all hope of retreat, and instead were forced to surrender to General Washington and his colonial army.