Naval battles of the American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War was by no means confined to American soil; naval operations, by both the Continental Navy and privateers, ranged right across the Atlantic. In 1777, American captains such as Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham and William Day had been making raids into British waters and capturing merchant ships, which they took into French ports- although France was officially neutral, Day had even been accorded a gun-salute by the French admiral at Brest. Encouraged by such successes, and even more by the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga that autumn, France signed two treaties with America in February 1778, but stopped just short of declaring war on Britain. The risk of a French attack forced the Royal Navy to concentrate its forces in the English Channel (La Manche), leaving other areas vulnerable. Wickes and Day had shown that, despite the narrowness of St. George's Channel and the North Channel, it was possible for single ships or very small squadrons to get into the Irish Sea, and create havoc among the many vessels which traded between Great Britain and Ireland.
France officially enters the war on June 17th, 1778, and the ships of the French Navy sent to the Western Hemisphere spend most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed near the Thirteen Colonies during the Carribean hurricane season from July until November. The first French fleet attempted landings in New York and Rhode Island, but ultimately failed to engage British forces during 1778. In 1779, a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Henri, comte d'Estaing assists American forces attempting to recapture Savannah, Georgia.
In 1780, a fleet with 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau lands at Newport, Rhode Island, and shortly afterwards the fleet is blockaded by the British. In early 1781, Washington and de Rochambeau plan an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area to coordinate with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice Admiral François, comte de Grasse. Successfully deceiving the British that an attack is planned in New York, Washington and de Rochambeau march to Virginia, and de Grasse begins landing forces near Yorktown, Virginia. On 5 September 1781 a major naval action is fought by de Grasse and the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, ending with the French fleet in control of the Chesepeake bay. Protected from the sea by the French fleet, American and French forces surround, besiege and force the surrender of British forces commanded by Lord Corwallis, effectively winning the war and leading to peace two years later.
Early actions, 1775–1778
During the Siege of Boston, supplies in the city were short. British Troops were sent out to some of the islands in Boston Harbor to raid farmers for supplies. In response, the colonials began clearing those islands of supplies useful to the British. One of these actions was contested by the British in the Battle of Chelsea Creek, but it resulted in the loss of two British soldiers and the British ship Diana. The need for building materials and other supplies led Admiral Samuel Graves to authorize a Loyalist (American Revolution) merchant to send his ships from Boston to Machias in the District of Maine, accompanied by a Royal Navy schooner. The Machias townspeople rose up, seizing the merchant vessels and then the schooner after a short battle in which its commander was killed. Their resistance and that of other coastal communities led Graves to authorize an expedition of reprisal in October whose sole significant act was the Burning of Falmouth. The outrage in the colonies over this action contributed to the passing of legislation by the Second Continental Congress that established the Continental Navy.
The US Navy recognizes 13 October 1775 as the date of its official establishment — the Second Continental Congress had established the Continental Navy in late 1775. On this day, Congress authorized the purchase of two vessels to be armed for a cruise against British merchant ships; these ships became Andrew Doria and Cabot. The first ship in commission was the USS Alfred which was purchased on 4 November and commissioned on 3 December by Captain Dudley Saltonstall. John Adams drafted its first governing regulations, which were adopted by Congress on 28 November 1775 and remained in effect throughout the Revolution. The Rhode Island resolution was reconsidered by the Continental Congress and was passed on 13 December 1775, authorizing the building of thirteen frigates within the next three months, five ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns.
By February 1776 the first ships of the fleet were ready for their maiden voyage, and Commodore Esek Hopkins led a fleet of eight ships on an expedition to the Bahamas, where the British were known to have military stores. The fleet that Hopkins launched consisted of Alfred, Hornet, Wasp, Fly, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, and Columbus. In addition to ships' crews, it carried 200 marines under the command of Samuel Nicholas. In early March, the fleet (reduced by one due to tangled riggings en route) landed marines on the island of New Providence and captured the town of Nassau. After loading the fleet's ships, enlarged to include two captured prize ships, with military stores, the fleet sailed north on March 17, with one ship dispatched to Philadelphia, while the rest of the fleet sailed for the Block Island channel. The fleet's cruise was marked by outbreaks of a variety of diseases, including fevers and smallpox, resulting in significant reductions in crew effectiveness.
By April 4 the fleet had reached the waters off Long Island, and captured a prize, the HMS Hawk, which was also laden with supplies. The next day brought a second prize, the Bolton. Hoping to catch more easy prizes, Hopkins continued to cruise off Block Island that night, forming the fleet into a scouting formation of two columns. The right, or eastern, column was headed by the USS Cabot, followed by Hopkins' flagship, the USS Alfred, at 20 guns the largest ship of the fleet, and the left column was headed by the USS Andrew Doria, followed by the USS Columbus. Behind these came the USS Providence, with USS Fly and USS Wasp trailing further behind as escorts for the prizes. The need to provide crews for the prizes further reduced the fighting effectiveness of the fleet's ships.
Although Continental Congress President John Hancock praised Hopkins for the fleet's performance, its failure to capture the Glasgow gave opponents of the Navy in and out of Congress opportunities for criticism. Nicholas Biddle wrote of the action, "A more imprudent, ill-conducted affair never happened". Abraham Whipple, captain of the Columbus, endured rumors and accusations of cowardice for a time, but eventually asked for a court martial to clear his name. Held on May 6 by a panel consisting of officers who had been on the cruise, he was cleared of cowardice, although he was also criticized for errors of judgment. John Hazard, captain of the Providence, was not so fortunate. Charged with a variety of offenses by his subordinate officers, including neglect of duty during the Glasgow action, he was convicted by court martial and forced to surrender his commission.
Commodore Hopkins came under scrutiny from Congress over matters unrelated to this action. He had violated his written orders in sailing to Nassau instead of Virginia and the Carolinas, and he had distributed the goods taken during the cruise to Connecticut and Rhode Island without consulting Congress. He was censured for these transgressions, and dismissed from the Navy in January 1778 after further controversies, including the fleet's failure to sail again (a number of its ships suffered from crew shortages, and also became trapped at Providence, Rhode Island by the British occupation of Newport late in 1776).
On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold ordered the construction of 12 Navy vessels to slow down the British fleet that was invading New York from Canada. The British fleet did destroy Arnold's fleet, but the US fleet managed to slow down the British after a two day battle, known as the Battle of Valcour Island, and managed to slow the progression of the British Army. By mid-1776, a number of ships, ranging up to and including the thirteen frigates approved by Congress, were under construction, but their effectiveness was limited; they were completely outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy, and nearly all were captured or sunk by 1781.
Privateers had some success, with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. Individual states, American agents in Europe and in the Caribbean also issued commissions; taking duplications into account more than 2,000 commissions were issued by the various authorities. Lloyd's of London estimated that 2,208 British ships were taken by Yankee privateers, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.
France enters the theatre
For its first major attempt at cooperation with the Americans, France sent Admiral the Comte d'Estaing with a fleet of 12 ships of the line and some French Army troops to North America in April 1778, with orders to blockade the British North American fleet in the Delaware River. Although British leaders had early intelligence that d'Estaing was likely headed for North America, political and military differences within the government and navy delayed the British response, and permitted him to sail unopposed through the Straits of Gibraltar. It was not until early June that a fleet of 13 ships of the line under the command of Admiral John Byron left European waters in pursuit. D'Estaing's crossing of the Atlantic took three months, but Byron (who was called "Foul-weather Jack" due to his repeated bad luck with the weather) was also delayed by bad weather and would not reach New York until mid August.
The British evacuated Philadelphia to New York City before d'Estaing's arrival, and their North American fleet was no longer in the river when his fleet arrived at Delaware Bay in early July. D'Estaing decided to sail for New York, but its well-defended harbor presented a daunting challenge to the French fleet. Since d'Estaing's largest ships were believed (by the French and their American pilots) to be unable to cross the bar into New York harbor, French and American leaders decided to deploy their forces against British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island. While d'Estaing was outside the harbor, British General Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Lord Richard Howe dispatched a fleet of transports carrying 2,000 troops to reinforce Newport via Long Island Sound; these reached their destination on July 15, raising the size of Major General Robert Pigot's garrison to over 6,700 men.
French arrival at Newport
On July 22, when the British judged the tide high enough for the French ships to cross the bar, d'Estaing instead sailed from his position outside the New York harbor. He initially sailed south before turning northeast toward Newport. The British fleet in New York, eight ships of the line under the command of Lord Richard Howe, sailed out after him once they discovered his destination to be Newport. D'Estaing arrived off Point Judith on July 29, and immediately met with Generals Greene and Lafayette to develop their plan of attack. Sullivan's proposal was that the Americans would cross over to Aquidneck Island's eastern shore from Tiverton, while French troops, which would use Conanicut Island as a staging ground, would cross from the west, cutting off a detachment of British soldiers at Butts Hill on the northern part of the island. The next day, d'Estaing sent frigates into the Sakonnet River (the channel to the east of Aquidneck) and into the main channel leading to Newport.
As allied intentions became clear, General Pigot decided to redeploy his forces in a defensive posture, withdrawing troops from Conanicut Island and from Butts Hill. He also decided to move nearly all livestock into the city, ordered the levelling of orchards to provide a clear line of fire, and destroyed carriages and wagons. The arriving French ships drove several of his supporting ships aground, which were burned to prevent their capture. As the French worked their way up the channel toward Newport, Pigot ordered the remaining ships scuttled to hamper French access to Newport's harbor. On August 8, d'Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport Harbor.
On August 9 d'Estaing began disembarking some of his 4,000 troops onto nearby Conanicut Island. The same day, General Sullivan learned that Pigot had abandoned Butts Hill. Contrary to the agreement with d'Estaing, Sullivan then crossed troops over to seize that high ground, concerned that the British might reoccupy it in strength. Although d'Estaing later approved of the action, his initial reaction and that of some of his officers was one of disapproval. John Laurens wrote that the action "gave much umbrage to the French officers". Sullivan was en route to a meeting with d'Estaing when the latter learned that Admiral Howe's fleet had arrived.
French pullback to Boston
Admiral d'Estaing, despite pressure from his captains to immediately sail for Boston to make repairs, instead sailed for Newport to inform the Americans he would not be able to assist them. Upon his arrival on August 20, he informed Sullivan, and rejected entreaties that, with their help, the British could be compelled to surrender in just one or two days. Of the decision, d'Estaing wrote, "It was ... difficult to persuade oneself that about six thousand men well entrenched and with a fort before which they had dug trenches could be taken either in twenty-four hours or in two days." Any thought of the French fleet remaining at Newport was also opposed by d'Estaing's captains, with whom he had a difficult relationship due to his arrival in the navy at a high rank after service in the French army. D'Estaing sailed for Boston on August 22.
The French decision brought on a wave of anger in both the American rank and file, and its commanders. Although General Greene penned a complaint that John Laurens termed "sensible and spirited", General Sullivan was less diplomatic. In a missive containing much inflammatory language, he called d'Estaing's decision "derogatory to the honor of France", and included further complaints in orders of the day that were later suppressed when cooler heads prevailed. American writers from the ranks called the French decision a "desertion", and noted that the "left us in a most Rascally manner".
The French departure prompted a mass exodus of the American militia, significantly shrinking the American force. On August 24, Sullivan was alerted by General Washington that Clinton in New York was assembling a relief force. That evening his council made the decision to withdraw to positions on the northern part of the island. Sullivan continued to seek French assistance, dispatching Lafayette to Boston to negotiate further with d'Estaing.
In the meantime, the British in New York had not been idle. Lord Howe, concerned about the French fleet and further reinforced by the arrival of ships from Byron's storm-tossed squadron, sailed out to catch d'Estaing before he reached Boston. General Clinton organized a force of 4,000 men under Major General Charles Grey, and sailed with it on August 26 destined for Newport.
On December 20, 1780, Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. On his way, he raided Richmond, defeating the militia, from January 5–7 before falling back to Portsmouth. Admiral Destouches, who had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July of 1780 with a fleet with 5,500 soldiers, was encouraged by Washington and French Lieutenant General Rochambeau to bring his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops. The Marquis de Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault. However, Destouches was reluctant to dispatch many ships, and only sent a few to start with. After they proved to be ineffective, he sent a larger force of 11 ships in March 1781, leading to an indecisive action with the British Fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
French and American planning for 1781
French military planners had to balance competing demands for the 1781 campaign. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at cooperation with the Americans (leading to failed assaults on Newport, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia), they realized more active participation in North America was needed. However, they also needed to coordinate their actions with Spain, where there was potential interest in making an assault on the British stronghold of Jamaica. It turned out that the Spanish were not interested in operations against Jamaica until after they had dealt with an expected British attempt to reinforce besieged Gibraltar, and merely wanted to be informed of the movements of the West Indies fleet.
As the French fleet was preparing to depart Brest in March 1781, several important decisions were made. The West Indies fleet, led by the Comte de Grasse, after operations in the Windward Islands, was directed to go to Cap-Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) to determine what resources would be required to assist Spanish operations. Due to a lack of transports, France also promised six million livres to support the American war effort instead of providing additional troops. The French fleet at Newport was given a new commander, the Comte de Barras. De Barras was ordered to take the Newport fleet to harass British shipping off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and the French army at Newport was ordered to combine with Washington's army outside New York. In orders that were deliberately not fully shared with General Washington, De Grasse was instructed to assist in North American operations after his stop at Cap-Français. The French general, the Comte de Rochambeau was instructed to tell Washington that de Grasse might be able to assist, without making any commitment. (Washington learned from John Laurens, stationed in Paris, that de Grasse had discretion to come north.)
Arrival of the fleets
The French fleet sailed from Brest on March 22. The British fleet was busy with preparations to resupply Gibraltar, and did not attempt to oppose the departure. After the French fleet sailed, the packet ship Concorde sailed for Newport, carrying the Comte de Barras, Rochambeau's orders, and credits for the six million livres. In a separate dispatch sent later, de Grasse also made two important requests. The first was that he be notified at Cap-Français of the situation in North America so that he could decide how he might be able to assist in operations there, and the second was that he be supplied with 30 pilots familiar with North American waters.
On 21 May Generals George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, respectively the commanders of the American and French armies in North America, met to discuss potential operations against the British. They considered either an assault or siege on the principal British base at New York City, or operations against the British forces in Virginia. Since either of these options would require the assistance of the French fleet then in the West Indies, a ship was dispatched to meet with French Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse who was expected at Cap-Français (now known as Cap-Haïtien, Haiti), outlining the possibilities and requesting his assistance. Rochambeau, in a private note to de Grasse, indicated that his preference was for an operation against Virginia. The two generals then moved their forces to White Plains, New York to study New York's defenses and await news from de Grasse.
De Grasse arrived at Cap-Français on 15 August. He immediately dispatched his response, which was that he would make for the Chesapeake. Taking on 3,200 troops, he sailed from Cap-Français with his entire fleet, 28 ships of the line. Sailing outside the normal shipping lanes to avoid notice, he arrived at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on August 30, and disembarked the troops to assist in the land blockade of Cornwallis. Two British frigates that were supposed to be on patrol outside the bay were trapped inside the bay by de Grasse's arrival; this prevented the British in New York from learning the full strength of de Grasse's fleet until it was too late.
British Admiral George Brydges Rodney, who had been tracking de Grasse around the West Indies, was alerted to the latter's departure, but was uncertain of the French admiral's destination. Believing that de Grasse would return a portion of his fleet to Europe, Rodney detached Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with 14 ships of the line and orders to find de Grasse's destination in North America. Rodney, who was ill, sailed for Europe with the rest of his fleet in order to recover, refit his fleet, and to avoid the Atlantic hurricane season.
Sailing more directly than de Grasse, Hood's fleet arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake on 25 August. Finding no French ships there, he then sailed for New York. Meanwhile his colleague and commander of the New York fleet, Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, had spent several weeks trying to intercept a convoy organized by John Laurens to bring much-needed supplies and hard currency from France to Boston. When Hood arrived at New York, he found that Graves was in port (having failed to intercept the convoy), but had only five ships of the line that were ready for battle.
De Grasse had notified his counterpart in Newport, the Comte de Barras Saint-Laurent, of his intentions and his planned arrival date. De Barras sailed from Newport on 27 August with 8 ships of the line, 4 frigates, and 18 transports carrying French armaments and siege equipment. He deliberately sailed via a circuitous route in order to minimize the possibility of an encounter with the British, should they sail from New York in pursuit. Washington and Rochambeau, in the meantime, had crossed the Hudson on 24 August, leaving some troops behind as a ruse to delay any potential move on the part of General Clinton to mobilize assistance for Cornwallis.
News of de Barras' departure led the British to realize that the Chesapeake was the probable target of the French fleets. By 31 August, Graves had moved his ships over the bar at New York harbour. Taking command of the combined fleet, now 19 ships, Graves sailed south, and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on 5 September. His progress was slow; the poor condition of some of the West Indies ships (contrary to claims by Admiral Hood that his fleet was fit for a month of service) necessitated repairs en route. Graves was also concerned about some ships in his own fleet; Europe in particular had difficulty manoeuvring.
The British fleet's arrival in New York set of 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 de Barras assigned their smaller vessels to assist in the transport of Washington's and Rochambeau's forces from Head of Elk to Yorktown.
It was not until 23 September that 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 17th, accompanied by a plea for help: "If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst." After effecting repairs in New York, Admiral Graves sailed from New York on 19 October with 25 ships of the line and transports carrying 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis. It was two days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. General Washington acknowledge 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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