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Evil Empire Endures…

Admiral Graves - The Man Who Saved The Empire

By 'PG Tips'

The Battle of Chesapeake Bay

The Solebay, being the advanced frigate, at 9:30 am made signal that she had seen the French fleet at anchor, bearing sou-west. At this time the wind was moderate from nor-east. They had the weathergauge and the weather was fine. The British fleet continued in to shore and at 11:00 am could easily make out the enemy's fleet at anchor within the Capes of  Virginia.


Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood (blue) signals from the 98 gun first rate Barfleur that he has the enemy in sight and is engaging them at anchor. As Captain of the Van ships he leads the line, but it is Rear Admiral Thomas Graves (red) who is in overall charge of the fleet. Admiral  Graves is furious that Hood has presumed to dictate their course. What does that fool think he is doing? Reluctantly he passes signal to the rest of the fleet to follow the Van. Much as he would like to countermand his subordinate there is no time and the line must not be separate in the face of the enemy. He would have to see Hood shot for this later. The British fleet bore down past Cape Henry onto the French fleet laying at anchor.

Hood knew that he had taken a terrible risk committing his commander to this course of action (this would, so he said later, inspire Nelson to do something similar at Cape St.Vincent). He also knew that the British fleet were outnumbered, out gunned and in a poor state of repair. A static close quarter pell-mell would suit them better than giving the French time to sail out in line for battle. He gambled that when the battle was won that Admiral Graves would see that. Sailing along the line of French ships at anchor he drove his van into the centre of the French line of battle. Admiral Graves soon found his centre ships engaged with those in the rear half of the French line and Admiral Drake's (One of the great Drake's nephew's grandsons*) rear ships soon joined him.

The French ships were in disarray. Some officers and crew were missing or still trying to cut anchor cables when the close quarter grape shot sprayed their decks with lead and the remains of their fallen comrades. Grave's ships were able to manoeuvre between the French ships to fire the length of the decks for little return of shot. The victory was so complete that the French ship Hector struck her colours without firing a shot. At the van HMS Alfred, a 74 under Captain Bayne and HMS Belliqueux
a 64 under Captain 'salty' Brine engaged Ville de Paris. Alfred was across her bow, but Belliqueux drew up alongside her and initially took heavy fire (she would later be beached as scrap) before the combined 138 guns sent the French flag to the bottom.

The César and Destin tacked to starboard with the French van. They were hoping to drop back on the opposite tack behind the British line, but by the time they returned much of the centre and rear of the French fleet was captured or sunk and the British line was able to offer a dedicated broadside that even included the Hector, now flying a blue ensign. Sainte-Esprit, Diadème and Auguste lost enough rigging in the exchange that, despite the weather gauge they were caught later and scuttled to
avoid capture. Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville was picked up from one of the boats by the frigate HMS Sibyl. Only seven ships of the French fleet of twenty four survived the engagement to fight another day. Of the other seventeen, eight were captured. Sceptre, Northumberland and Solitaire from the centre, although the Solitaire was so badly damaged that she later sunk. Scipion, Magnanime, Hercule, Zélé and Hector from the rear were captured, some with half their crews still in boats in the bay, looking on uselessly.

Finally, in the night of September 9 to September 10, the French squadron from Newport (eight ships), Rhode Island under the Comte de Barras arrived. When they arrived at Cape Henry they found that de Grasse had lost the French fleet. Thus Chesapeake Bay was indisputably under British control, and the artillery brought by de Barras which would have been the key to a relatively short siege at Yorktown was sailed away before the British fleet could sail out in pursuit. They would later be
lost when Graves met them and the seven survivors of the Battle of Chesapeake at New York with a fleet of 25 ships of the line, cementing British naval dominance in the rebellious colonies.

Yorktown would be the undoing of General Washington. The siege ground on for months, with the British better supplied than their besiegers. The losses were unsustainable and the purpose hard to see let alone justify to a continental army starving in the field while British reinforcements flooded in to every port. The remains of the rebellion would hold out for years, far inland, in the woods and hills, but Britain controlled the major ports and cities. In effect, the rebellion was over and any further resistance was a lost cause fought with nowhere else to go.

* Drake was fêted as the spirit of his famous ancestor, Hood was noted as a maverick genius that rewrote the rules of naval warfare, but the highest praise was saved for Graves; The Man Who Saved the Empire (and accepted the humble apology of his subordinate, Rear-Admiral Hood. Since he planned to do the very same thing, the signal was acceptable)

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