American Revolutionary War
Naval Battles

The Battle of Chesapeake Capes

September 5, 1781 at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia

Battle Summary

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 Revolutionary War that took place near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The combatants were a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse.

The battle was strategically decisive, in that it prevented the Royal Navy from reinforcing or evacuating the forces of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia. The French were able to achieve control of the sea lanes against the British, allowing them to provide the Franco-American army with siege artillery and French reinforcements—all of which proved decisive in Yorktown, effectively securing independence for the Thirteen Colonies.

Admiral de Grasse had the option to attack British forces in either New York or Virginia; he opted for Virginia, arriving at the Chesapeake at the end of August. Admiral Graves learned 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, and he concluded that they were going to join forces at the Chesapeake. He sailed south from New York with 19 ships of the line.

On September 5, he and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake to see de Grasse’s fleet at anchor in the bay. De Grasse hastily prepared most of his fleet for battle—24 ships of the line—and sailed out to meet him, and the two-hour engagement took place after hours of maneuvering.

The lines of the two fleets did not completely meet; only the forward and center sections fully engaged. The battle was consequently fairly evenly matched, although the British suffered more casualties and ship damage, and it broke off when the sun set. The British tactics have been a subject of debate ever since.

The two fleets sailed within view of each other for several days, but de Grasse preferred to lure the British away from the bay where de Barras was expected to arrive carrying vital siege equipment.

On September 13, de Grasse broke away from the British and returned to the Chesapeake, where de Barras had since arrived. Graves returned to New York to organize a larger relief effort; this did not sail until  October 19, two days after Cornwallis surrendered.

Facts about the Battle of Chesapeake Capes

  • Armies – American Forces was commanded by Rear Adm. Comte de Grasse and consisted of unknown number of Sailors. British Forces was commanded by Rear Adm. Thomas Graves and consisted of unknown number of Sailors.
  • Casualties – American casualties were 220 killed/wounded. British casualties were 90 killed and 246 wounded.
  • Outcome – The result of the battle was an American victory. The battle was part of the Yorktown Campaign 1781.


After a successful campaign in the southern states that included victories at the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Guilford Court House, British troops under Cornwallis headed north in the summer of 1781 in order to rejoin Major General Henry Clinton‘s army in New York City, which were under threat of attack from American forces led by General George Washington. Rather than taking an overland route, Cornwallis led his troops to the coast at Yorktown, Virginia to await naval transport to New York. The presence of the British troops at Yorktown made control of the Chesapeake Bay an essential naval objective.

Cornwallis was expecting to be met by ships of the British West Indian fleet, which in any case would be heading north to escape hurricane season in the Caribbean. At the same time, the French fleet in the Caribbean had been urgently petitioned to come north by Washington, who realized the strategic importance of the Chesapeake.

On August 25, the British fleet under Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake, but finding no French ships there and perhaps underestimating the urgency of the situation, Hood proceeded to take his entire fleet of 14 ships of the line to New York to join with Graves’s fleet. However, upon arriving in New York, he found that Graves had only 5 additional ships of the line that were fit for battle.

On August 29, de Grasse had arrived at the Chesapeake with a French fleet that included 27 ships of the line and also carried 3 regiments of regular troops under General Marquis de Saint-Simon. Thus, the British had already made two fatal mistakes: they had failed to track the movements of the French fleet, and they had badly underestimated its strength and sent an inadequate force to deal with the threat.

News of Barras’ departure led the British to realize that the Chesapeake was the probable target of the French fleets.

By August 31, Graves had moved his five ships of the line out of New York harbor to meet with Hood’s force. Taking command of the combined fleet, now 19 ships, Graves sailed south, and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on September 5. His progress was slow; the poor condition of some of the West Indies ships necessitated repairs en route. Graves was also concerned about some ships in his own fleet; Europe in particular had difficulty maneuvering.

Battle Begins

On September 5, the British fleet of 19 ships, now under Graves’s command, arrived back at the Chesapeake in the morning. They found 24 French ships at anchor behind Cape Henry. The remaining 3 ships of de Grasse’s fleet had been detached to blockade the York and James Rivers farther up the bay, and many of the ships at anchor were missing officers, men, and boats who were busy landing the French troops.

With the wind and tide in their favor as well as the element of surprise in finding the French ships at anchor in a state of unpreparedness for battle, the British might have been able to inflict severe losses by sailing into the bay and striking quickly in a general attack. However, it is unlikely that such an idea ever occurred to Graves. Conventional naval tactics of the time called for the fleets to each form up in line of battle and then maneuver within gun shot range of each other, each ship attacking its opposite in the enemy line.

Forming up the British line took so much time that the French were able to cut their anchors, sail out of Chesapeake Bay, and form their own line of battle. It was after 4:00 P.M., over 6 hours since the two fleets had first sighted each other, by the time the British – who still had the weather gage, and therefore the initiative – were ready to open their attack.

At this point, both fleets were sailing generally east, away from the bay. The two lines were approaching at an angle so that the leading ships of the vans of both lines were within range of each other, but the ships behind them were still attempting to close the gap. A shift in wind direction during the battle made it even harder for the ships in the rear to engage. Thus the ships in the van on both sides were engaged in heavy and continuous firing from the beginning of the action, while several of the ships in the rear never got into action at all. There was also confusion in the British fleet’s maneuvers caused by apparently contradictory signals issued by Graves during the battle.

Around 6:30 P.M., the firing ended. Graves gave a general signal to keep to windward so that the heads of the two fleets separated. By this time, the British ships in the van division that had borne the brunt of the battle were very badly damaged and unable to continue to fight effectively in any case. Many of the British ships had been leaking badly and were in need of refitting even before the battle, and the French gunnery had been particularly destructive of the ships’ rigging and masts.

On September 5, the actual battle ended at sunset, but for several days afterwards the 2 fleets continued to maneuver within sight of each other, as ships on both sides carried out repairs and waited for an opportunity to resume the fight. In the meantime, both fleets were sailing farther and farther away from Chesapeake Bay, their strategic objective.

That evening Graves did a damage assessment. He noted that “the French had not the appearance of near so much damage as we had sustained“, and that five of his fleet were either leaking or virtually crippled in their mobility. De Grasse wrote that “we perceived by the sailing of the English that they had suffered greatly.” Nonetheless, Graves maintained a windward position through the night, so that he would have the choice of battle in the morning. Ongoing repairs made it clear to Graves that he would be unable to attack the next day.

On the night of September 6, he held council with Hood and Drake. During this meeting Hood and Graves supposedly exchanged words concerning the conflicting signals, and Hood proposed turning the fleet around to make for the Chesapeake. Graves rejected the plan, and the fleets continued to drift eastward, away from Cornwallis.

On September 8-9, the French fleet at times gained the advantage of the wind, and briefly threatened the British with renewed action. French scouts spied Barras’ fleet on 9 September, and de Grasse turned his fleet back toward Chesapeake Bay that night.

Arriving on September 12, he found that Barras had arrived two days earlier. Graves ordered the Terrible to be scuttled on September 11 due to her leaky condition, and was notified on September 13 that the French fleet was back in the Chesapeake; he still did not learn that de Grasse’s line had not included the fleet of Barras, because the frigate captain making the report had not counted the ships.

In a council held that day, the British admirals decided against attacking the French, due to “the truly lamentable state we have brought ourself.” Graves then turned his battered fleet toward New York, arriving off Sandy Hook on September 20.


The British fleet’s arrival in New York set off a flurry of panic amongst the Loyalist population. The news of the defeat was also not received well in London. King George III wrote (well before learning of Cornwallis’s surrender) that “after the knowledge of the defeat of our fleet […] I nearly think the empire ruined.

The French success left them firmly in control of Chesapeake Bay, completing the encirclement of Cornwallis. In addition to capturing a number of smaller British vessels, de Grasse and Barras assigned their smaller vessels to assist in the transport of Washington’s and Rochambeau’s forces from Head of Elk to Yorktown.

On September 23 Graves and Clinton learned that the French fleet in the Chesapeake numbered 36 ships. This news came from a dispatch sneaked out by Cornwallis on the September 17, accompanied by a plea for help: “If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst.”

On October 19, after effecting repairs in New York, Admiral Graves sailed from New York with 25 ships of the line and transports carrying 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis. It was two days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

Washington acknowledged to de Grasse the importance of his role in the victory: “You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest.” The eventual surrender of Cornwallis led to peace two years later and British recognition of the independent United States of America.

Admiral de Grasse returned with his fleet to the West Indies. In a major engagement that ended Franco-Spanish plans for the capture of Jamaica in 1782, he was defeated and taken prisoner by Rodney in the Battle of the Saintes. His flagship Ville de Paris was lost at sea in a storm while being conducted back to England as part of a fleet commanded by Admiral Graves. Graves, despite the controversy over his conduct in this battle, continued to serve, rising to full admiral and receiving an Irish peerage.

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