Naval battles of the American Revolutionary War

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Naval battles of the American Revolutionary War
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Combat naval devant la Chesapeake, 3 septembre 1781.jpg
French and British ships at the Battle of the Chesapeake, 3 September 1781
Date 1775–1783
Location British North America and Atlantic Ocean
Result Franco-American victory
 United States
Kingdom of France France
Kingdom of Great Britain Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
United States Esek Hopkins
United States John Paul Jones
Kingdom of France Comte d'Estaing
Kingdom of France Comte de Grasse
Kingdom of Great Britain Lord Howe
Kingdom of Great Britain George Collier
Kingdom of Great Britain Mariot Arbuthnot
Kingdom of Great Britain Baron Graves

The American Revolutionary War was by no means confined to American soil; naval operations, by both the Continental Navy and privateers, ranged across the Atlantic. In 1777, American captains such as Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham, and William Day had made raids into British waters capturing merchant ships, which they took into French ports- although France was officially neutral. Day had even been given a gun-salute by a 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 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 wreak havoc among the many vessels which traded between Great Britain and Ireland.

France officially entered the war on June 17, 1778, and the ships of the French Navy sent to the Western Hemisphere spent most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed near the Thirteen Colonies during the Atlantic 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.[1] In 1779, a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Henri, comte d'Estaing assisted American forces attempting to recapture Savannah, Georgia.[2]

In 1780, a fleet with 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, and shortly afterwards the fleet was blockaded by the British. In early 1781, Washington and de Rochambeau planned an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area coordinated with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice Admiral François, comte de Grasse. Successfully deceiving the British that an attack was planned in New York, Washington and de Rochambeau marched to Virginia, and de Grasse began landing forces near Yorktown, Virginia. On September 5, 1781, a major naval action was fought by de Grasse and the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, ending with the French fleet in control of Chesapeake Bay. Protected from the sea by the French fleet, American and French forces surrounded, besieged and forced the surrender of British forces commanded by Lord Cornwallis, effectively winning the war and leading to peace two years later.[3]

Early actions, 1775–1778[edit]

Commodore Esek Hopkins (French engraving)

During the Siege of Boston, supplies in the city were short. British Troops were sent to some of the islands in Boston Harbour to raid farmers for supplies. In response, the colonials began clearing those islands of supplies useful to the British. The British contested one of these actions in the Battle of Chelsea Creek, but it resulted in the loss of two British soldiers and the British ship Diana.[4] The need for building materials and other supplies led Admiral Samuel Graves to authorize a loyalist merchant to send his ships from Boston to Machias in the District of Maine, accompanied by a Royal Navy schooner. The Machias townspeople seized the merchant vessels and the schooner after a short battle in which its commander was killed. Their resistance, and that of other coastal communities, led Graves to authorize a reprisal expedition in October whose sole significant act was the Burning of Falmouth.[5] The outrage in the colonies over this action contributed to the passing of legislation by the Second Continental Congress that established the Continental Navy.[6]

The US Navy recognises October 13, 1775, as the date of its official establishment —[7] the Second Continental Congress had established the Continental Navy in late 1775.[8] On this day, Congress authorized the purchase of two armed vessels for a cruise against British merchant ships; these ships became Andrew Doria and Cabot.[7] The first ship in commission was USS Alfred purchased on November 4 and commissioned on December 3 by Captain Dudley Saltonstall.[9] John Adams drafted its first governing regulations, adopted by Congress on November 28, 1775, which remained in effect throughout the Revolution. The Rhode Island resolution, reconsidered by the Continental Congress, passed on December 13, 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.[10]

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.[11] In early March, the fleet (reduced by one due to tangled rigging en route) landed marines on the island of New Providence and captured the town of Nassau in the Bahamas.[12][13] 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.[14] Outbreaks of a variety of diseases, including fevers and smallpox, resulting in significant reductions in crew effectiveness, marked the fleet's cruise.[15]

By April 4 the fleet had reached the waters off Long Island, and captured a prize, Hawk, which was also laden with supplies. The next day brought a second prize, Bolton.[16] 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, headed by Cabot, was followed by Hopkins' flagship, Alfred, at 20 guns the largest ship of the fleet, and the left column, headed by Andrew Doria, was followed by Columbus. Behind these came Providence, with Fly and Wasp trailing further behind as escorts for the prizes.[17] The need to man the prizes further reduced the fighting effectiveness of the fleet's ships.[15]

Columbus in a later action, painting by William Nowland Van Powell

Although Continental Congress President John Hancock praised Hopkins for the fleet's performance, its failure to capture 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."[18] Abraham Whipple, captain of 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 criticised for errors of judgment.[19] John Hazard, captain of Providence, was not so fortunate. Charged by his subordinate officers with a variety of offences, including neglect of duty during the Glasgow action, he was convicted by court-martial and forced to surrender his commission.[20]

Commodore Hopkins came under scrutiny from Congress over matters unrelated to this action. He had violated his written orders by 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.[21] 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 became trapped at Providence, Rhode Island by the British occupation of Newport late in 1776).[22]

On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold ordered the construction of 12 Navy vessels to slow down the British fleet which was invading New York from Canada. The British fleet destroyed Arnold's, but the US fleet managed to slow down the British after a two-day battle, known as the Battle of Valcour Island, and slowed the progression of the British Army.[23] 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.[24]

Privateers had some success with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. Individual states and American agents in Europe and in the Caribbean also issued commissions. Taking duplications into account, various authorities issued more than 2,000 commissions. Lloyd's of London estimated that Yankee privateers captured 2,208 British ships, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.[25]

France enters the theatre, 1778–1780[edit]

French movements[edit]

Arrival of d'Estaing's squadron at Newport on 8 August. Engraving by Pierre Ozanne.

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.[26] 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, allowing 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.[27][28] D'Estaing's Atlantic crossing 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 did not reach New York until mid-August.[26][29]

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.[26] D'Estaing decided to sail for New York, but its well-defended harbour presented a daunting challenge to the French fleet.[30] Since the French and their American pilots believed his largest ships were unable to cross the sandbar into New York harbour, their leaders decided to deploy their forces against British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island.[31] While d'Estaing was outside the harbour, 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.[32]

French arrival at Newport[edit]

On July 22, when the British judged the tide high enough for the French ships to cross the sandbar, d'Estaing sailed instead from his position outside New York harbour.[31] He sailed south initially before turning northeast toward Newport.[33] 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 was Newport.[34] D'Estaing arrived off Point Judith on July 29, and immediately met with Generals Greene and Lafayette to develop a plan of attack.[35] Sullivan's proposal was that the Americans would cross over to Aquidneck Island's (Rhode Island) eastern shore from Tiverton, while French troops using 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.[36] 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.[35]

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.[37] The arriving French ships drove several of his supporting ships aground, which were then 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 harbour. On August 8 d'Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport Harbour.[34]

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".[38] Sullivan was en route to a meeting with d'Estaing when the latter learned that Admiral Howe's fleet had arrived.[39]

Storm damage[edit]

Comte d'Estaing, 1769 portrait by Jean-Baptiste Lebrun

Lord Howe's fleet was delayed departing New York by contrary winds, and he arrived off Point Judith on August 9.[40] Since d'Estaing's fleet outnumbered Howe's, the French admiral, fearful that Howe would be further reinforced and eventually gain a numerical advantage, reboarded the French troops, and sailed out to do battle with Howe on August 10.[34] As the two fleets prepared to battle and maneuverered for position, the weather deteriorated, and a major storm broke out. Raging for two days, the storm scattered both fleets, severely damaging the French flagship.[41] It also frustrated plans by Sullivan to attack Newport without French support on August 11.[42] While Sullivan awaited the return of the French fleet, he began siege operations, moving closer to the British lines on August 15 and opening trenches to the northeast of the fortified British line north of Newport the next day.[43]

As the two fleets sought to regroup, individual ships encountered enemy ships, and there were several minor naval skirmishes; two French ships (including d'Estaing's flagship), already suffering storm damage, were badly mauled in these encounters.[41] The French fleet regrouped off Delaware, and returned to Newport on August 20, while the British fleet regrouped at New York.[44]

French pullback to Boston[edit]

Despite pressure from his captains to sail immediately for Boston to make repairs, Admiral d'Estaing instead sailed for Newport to inform the Americans he would be unable to assist them. Upon his arrival on August 20 he informed Sullivan, and rejected entreaties that the British could be compelled to surrender in just one or two days with their help. 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".[45] Any thought of the French fleet remaining at Newport was also opposed by d'Estaing's captains, with whom he had a difficult relationship because of his arrival in the navy at a high rank after service in the French army.[45] D'Estaing sailed for Boston on August 22.[46]

The French decision brought on a wave of anger in the American ranks and its commanders. Although General Greene penned a complaint that John Laurens termed "sensible and spirited", General Sullivan was less diplomatic.[46] 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.[47] American writers from the ranks called the French decision a "desertion", and noted that they "left us in a most Rascally manner".[48]

The French departure prompted a mass exodus of the American militia, significantly shrinking the American force.[49] On August 24, Sullivan was alerted by General Washington that Clinton was assembling a relief force in New York. That evening his council made the decision to withdraw to positions on the northern part of the island.[50] Sullivan continued to seek French assistance, dispatching Lafayette to Boston to negotiate further with d'Estaing.[51]

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 organised a force of 4,000 men under Major General Charles Grey, and sailed with it on August 26, destined for Newport.[52]

Other actions[edit]

Royal Governor James Wright, portrait by Andrea Soldi

In the fall of 1779, a combined French and American siege to recapture Savannah failed with significant casualties.[53] Control of Georgia was formally returned to its royal governor, James Wright, in July 1779, but the backcountry would not come under British control until after the 1780 Siege of Charleston.[54] Patriot forces recovered Augusta by siege in 1781, but Savannah remained in British hands until 1782.[55] The damage sustained at Savannah forced Marseillois, Zélé, Sagittaire, Protecteur and Experiment to return to Toulon for repairs.[56]

On December 20, 1780, Benedict Arnold sailed from New York with 1,500 troops to Portsmouth, Virginia. On his way, he raided Richmond from January 5–7, defeating the militia before falling back to Portsmouth.[57] Washington and French Lieutenant General Rochambeau encouraged Admiral Destouches, who had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1780 with a fleet with 5,500 soldiers, to bring his fleet south, and launch a joint land-naval attack on Arnold's troops.[57] The Marquis de Lafayette was sent south with 1,200 men to help with the assault.[58] 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.[58]

Full-scale war[edit]

Main article: Yorktown campaign

French and American planning for 1781[edit]

Map of the eastern seaboard showing naval movements prior to the siege

French military planners had to balance competing demands for the 1781 campaign. After the unsuccessful American attempts of cooperation leading to failed assaults at Rhode Island and Savannah, they realised more active participation in North America was needed.[59] 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.[60]

As the French fleet was preparing to depart Brest, France 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, Haiti) to determine what resources would be required to assist Spanish operations. Because of a lack of transports, France also promised six million livres to support the American war effort instead of providing additional troops.[61] The French fleet at Newport was given a new commander, the Comte de Barras. He 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.[62] 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).[63][64]

Arrival of the fleets[edit]

Formation of fleets: British ships are black, French ships are white. The Middle Ground to the left are the shoals that Graves tacked to avoid.

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.[65] 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.[61] 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,[64] and the second was that he be supplied with 30 pilots familiar with North American waters.[65]

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, outlining the possibilities and requesting his assistance.[66] 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 defences and await news from de Grasse.[67]

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[67] and disembarked the troops to assist in the land blockade of Cornwallis.[68] 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.[69]

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.[70]

Sailing more directly than de Grasse, Hood's fleet arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake on August 25. Finding no French ships there, he then sailed for New York.[70] Meanwhile, his colleague and commander of the New York fleet, Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, had spent several weeks trying to intercept a convoy organised by John Laurens to bring much-needed supplies and hard currency from France to Boston.[71] 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.[70]

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 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 August 24, leaving some troops behind as a ruse to delay any potential move on the part of General Clinton to mobilize assistance for Cornwallis.[70]

News of de Barras' departure led the British to realise that the Chesapeake was the probable target of the French fleets. By August 31 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 September 5.[70] 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.[72] The squadrons' clash started with Marseillois exchanging shots with the 64-gun HMS Intrepid, under Captain Anthony Molloy.[73]


The British retreat in disarray set off a flurry of panic among the Loyalist population.[74] 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".[75]

The French success at completely encircling Cornwallis left them firmly in control of Chesapeake Bay.[76] 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, Maryland to Yorktown.[77]

It was not until September 23 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".[78] After effecting repairs in New York, Admiral Graves sailed from New York on October 19 with 25 ships of the line and transports carrying 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis.[79] It was two days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.[80] 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".[81] The eventual surrender of Cornwallis led to peace two years later and British recognition of the independent United States of America.[80]

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.[82] 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. Despite the controversy over his conduct in this battle, Graves continued to serve, rising to full admiral and receiving an Irish peerage.[83]



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