The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned:
French Naval Superiority That Ensured Victory At Yorktown

By
William James Morgan

Map showing French naval superiority that ensured victory at Yorktown in 1781.
Rare original French map showing French naval superiority that ensured victory at Yorktown in 1781.


 

Naval Historical Foundation
Washington, D.C.
1981

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Preface

The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned is reprinted through the courtesy of the original publisher, The Iron Worker, (Spring 1958) in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of the battle off the Virginia Capes, which took place 5 September 1781. Dr. William James Morgan, the author of this very timely monograph, served as a naval officer during WW II and the Korean War, retiring with the rank of Commander. Dr. Morgan is now the senior Historian with the Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

A specialist in early naval history, Dr. Morgan is the editor of the Naval Historical Center's on-going multi-volume Naval Documents of the American Revolution, as well as co-editor of the Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy, 1798-1877. He is also the author of Captains to the Northward; The New England Captains in the Continental Navy; Civil War Chronology 1861-1865; U.S. Navy Chronology, WW II; and numerous articles in historical journals, magazines and encyclopedias. Dr. Morgan is a frequent speaker before professional meetings, university audiences and other groups.

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General Washington was at Chester in Pennsylvania on Seprember 5,1781 moving ahead of his southward marching Allied army when the great news he had been longing to hear reached him. Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, commanding the French Navy in America, had arrived in Chesapeake Bay six days earlier with a powerful fleet of 28 ships-of-the-line and 3000 troops embarked.

The usually taciturn Washington embraced Rochambeau and waved his hat furiously in unrestrained joy. At last the naval superiority for which the American commander in chief had pleaded unceasingly, and which he termed "the pivot upon which everything turned," was a reality.

Since the opening months of the Revolution in 1775, while Washington watched the steady flow of supply ships and the King's men-of-war into Boston harbor, the patriotic cause had been hamstrung by Britain's absolute control of the seas. Naval power enabled the British to occupy New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, and to strike at will anywhere along the coast. At the same time, Washington's ragged men were obliged to endure long forced marches and one dismal defensive campaign after another to keep the flame of resistance flickering.

The French-American Alliance of 1778 held out the bright prospect of a friendly naval force appearing to challenge the British stranglehold. French squadrons began operating on this side of the Atlantic immediately after the Alliance was formed, but for several disappointing years they were of insufficient strength, and for one reason or another nothing decisive was achieved. Nevertheless, Washington did not swerve from what was to him a fundamental principle --"whatever efforts are made by the Land Armies, the Navy must have the casting vote in the present contest." He sought every opportunity to urge a true naval superiority.

Toward the latter part of March 1781, Admiral de Grasse and 20 ships-of-the-line sailed from Brest, France, for the West Indian cruising grounds. On May 22


'Washington Visits the French Fleet,' from the painting by Percy Moran.
"Washington Visits the French Fleet," from the painting by Percy Moran.

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the Generals, Washington and Rochambeau, opened an all-important planning conference at Wethersfield, Connecticut. Whether or not de Grasse intended to come in force to the American theatre was not known to the military leaders.

Washington informed Rochambeau of his preference for a coordinated Allied land and naval attack against New York, seat of British administration in America. General Sir Henry Clinton's defensive capabilities at New York had been reduced by the diversion of troops and ships to the campaign in the Southern states.

Although the Wethersfield conferees set New York as the first objective "in present circumstances," they also agreed that the assault "may be directed against the enemy in some other quarter, as circumstances shall dictate." The "other quarter" to which the door was left open was, of course, the South, where at this time neither Washington nor Rochambeau could foresee that Lord Cornwallis would obligingly place his army on a narrow peninsula with its back to the water.

While preparations pointed at New York went forward along the Hudson after the Wethersfield meeting, the pieces leading to the drama of Yorktown began falling into place. By mid-June of 1781, Rochambeau had definite word, which he immediately passed on to Washington, that the French government had ordered de Grasse to bring the greater part of his fleet to North America.


Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse
Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse.

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Where and when the French naval force would appear off the coast was de Grasse's decision to make. However, in spite of Washington's known predilection for New York, Rochambeau helped shape the Admiral's thinking when he wrote: "There are two points at which to act offensively against the enemy: the Chesapeake and New York. The southeast winds and the distress of Virginia will probably cause you to prefer the Chesapeake Bay, and it is there where we think you can render the greatest service; besides, it would take you only two days to come to New York."

The swift and elusive frigate Concorde, acting as a courier, reached Newport on August 12 with dispatches making known de Grasse's intention to sail from Cape Haitien on August 3 (actually it was not until the 5th that he got underway) for the Chesapeake. De Grasse stressed that time was of the essence since a commitment to act with the Spanish in the West Indies precluded his remaining in American waters after October 15.

This was it. De Grasse was bringing a naval superiority to the Chesapeake, a "circumstance" provided for at Wethersfield, and which now dictated that the New York campaign be abandoned for the "other quarter." The French-American army broke camp and hastily started southward.

Meanwhile, unaware of the grand design taking shape against them, what moves were the British making? Cornwallis invaded Virginia from North Carolina in May 1781, and moved about the state while Lafayette and Wayne's small force snapped at his heels. By late August Cornwallis was encamped at Yorktown and fortifying that place as well as Gloucester on the opposire bank of the York River.

Lest we write off the English lord as a complete fool for putting his army in


The French Fleet coming out of the Chesapeake around Cape Henry.
The French Fleet coming out of the Chesapeake around Cape Henry.

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Left to right: Admirals Thomas Graves, Samuel Hood, and George Rodney.
Left to right: Admirals Thomas Graves, Samuel Hood, and George Rodney.


what proved to be an impossible position, let us record several salient facts. In the first place Cornwallis had been ordered by Sir Henry Clinton, his superior in New York, to occupy a naval station site in the Old Point Comfort--Yorktown area. Further, he was confident that Lafayette did not have the strength to contain him if he desired to move out, and he had no way of divining that Washington and Rochambeau were converging on him from the north. And lastly, but most significantly, he never for one moment entertained the thought that the Royal Navy would be forced to yield and abandon him. In short, there seemed to be nothing in the Yorktown situation which spelled "trap" to Cornwallis.

As soon as reliable intelligence established de Grasse's impending move to the American coast, Admiral Sir George Rodney, senior British naval officer on the West Indian station, detached a 14 ship squadron under Rear Admiral Samuel Hood as a reinforcement for New York. At this juncture, Rodney made a fatal miscalculation in estimating the size of the fleet de Grasse would bring to America. Consequently, he did not allow Hood a sufficient number of ships.

Admiral Hood departed Antigua in the West Indies on August 10, five days after de Grasse had sailed from Haiti. Both fleets took more or less parallel courses but did not fall in with each other on the northward passage. The coppered bottoms of the British ships made them faster sailers than the French. Hood reached the Capes of the Chesapeake August 25, took a look inside, found nothing amiss, and continued on to New York where the squadron passed under the command of the senior flag officer, Rear Admiral of the Red Sir Thomas Graves.

This then was the situation on August 30, 1781 when de Grasse's 28 ships entered Chesapeake Bay and came to anchor in Lynnhaven Roads. Cornwallis was digging in at Yorktown, and the British fleet numbering 19 line-of-battle ships

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was at New York. Washington and Rochambeau's combined armies had reached Philadelphia, while Lafayette waited in position to contest any attempt by Cornwallis to retreat into North Carolina. A French squadron, comprising eight of-the-line under Admiral de Barras, was at sea after clearing Newport for the Chesapeake on August 25 with heavy siege guns on board.

De Barras' direction made it clear to the British command that the major Allied effort was being aimed against Cornwallis. Admiral Graves' fleet weighed from Sandy Hook on the first of September hoping to snare de Barras enroute and still reach the Chesapeake before de Grasse. The French squadron out of Newport was not found, and the British held their southerly heading without incident to the mouth of the Chesapeake. On Wednesday morning September 5, the scout frigate Solebay signalled the presence of a fleet inside the Bay at anchor from Cape Henry to the Middle Ground Shoal. Standing on the quarterdeck of his 98-gun flagship London , all Admiral Graves had to do was rapidly scan a long glass over the forest of tall masts to recognize at once that this was not de Barras, but de Grasse with the main French body. The supreme moment was at hand.

If the Frenchman elected to come out and fight, as most assuredly he would, Graves held the tactical whip hand oft discussed over wardroom pipe and glass but seldom realized. The English ships were in open water bearing down before the wind. On the other hand, de Grasse's lumbering fleet had to gather up crewmen scattered around the harbor on various duties, take in their boats, prepare to get underway, and, when ready, beat out through a narrow channel a few ships at a time.

Graves could fall on the disordered French van in force as it straggled out; that is, "gang-up" on the first ships to clear the Bay. In this manner, de Grasse's superiority in ship numbers and weight of metal would have been nullified, and to use the language of military science, the French fleet might well have been


HMS London, flagship of Admiral Graves at the Bartle off the Virginia Capes.
HMS London, flagship of Admiral Graves at the Battle off the Virginia Capes.

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The English fleet under Graves and the French squadron of de Barras.
The English fleet under Graves and the French squadron of de Barras head for the Chesapeake. De Grasse is already within the Capes.


destroyed "in detail," i.e. piece by piece.

A Rodney or a Nelson would not have muffed such a golden opening to land the knockout blow, but fortunate it was for American independence that Thomas Graves was neither. His tactical precepts were those of the Royal Navy's venerable and encrusted "Fighting Instructions," based on the classic concept of two opposing lines of battle with ship against ship slugging it out broadside to broadside in the manner of jousting knights. And this is how Graves would fight de Grasse. From the London went the Admiral's signal to form the "line of battle ahead," distance between ships one cable length (608 feet in the British Navy).

About noon the French fleet began standing out on the ebb tide. By two o'clock, the van and center, 16 ships including the huge 104-gun Ville de Paris in which de Grasse flew his flag, were well outside the Bay on an easterly course. Graves, still holding the weather gage, ordered his ships to wear, thus bringing the English line parallel to the French and on the same heading. De Grasse's lead ships were then opposite the English center, and Graves did not break the signal "bear down and engage the enemy" until the French line had advanced to a position where van opposed van.

The French ships were all out and formed up at four o'clock when the cannonade opened on both sides. Graves hoisted conflicting signals which utterly baffled the English division commanders and captains as to whether it was the Admiral's intention to maintain the strict line ahead or release ships to seek targets of opportunity. Therefore, the action never became general. Only the van ships were closely engaged, the centers partially at long range, and the rears not at all.

Darkness broke off the fight. Both fleets drifted with wind and water to the south taking stock of damages and casualties. Killed or wounded numbered several

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hundred on each side. No ship had been taken or sunk, although several were cut up severely, and a British 74, the Terrible, was in such distress that Graves ordered her to be destroyed by burning.

The day following the battle, the antagonists lay becalmed licking their wounds within sight of each other. For two more days de Grasse and Graves exchanged the weather advantage, yet neither showed any disposition to renew the engagement. The French and British commanders alike during this period seem to have suffered mental lapses regarding their primary missions which were, of course, for the one to hem in Cornwallis and for the other to rescue him if need be. This realization returned to de Grasse first. He crowded on sail and took the wind for the Chesapeake where he arrived on September 11 to find himself happily strengthened by de Barras' squadron.

Graves was shackled by indecision and, much to the disgust of his second in command (Admiral Hood), he delayed some forry-eight hours before following de Grasse. Once it was firmly established rhat the French had reentered the Chesapeake, a Council of War among the senior British officers considered "the position of the Enemy, the present condition of the British Fleet, the season of the year so near the Equinox, and the impracticability of giving any effectual succour to General Earl Cornwallis in the Chesapeake" and unanimously resolved to return to New York. From the hour of this decision, made necessary by the reentry of de Grasse into the bay, Cornwallis was lost.

As a naval engagement, the action of September 5 off the Virginia Capes was


The Battle off the Virginia Capes.
The Battle off the Virginia Capes. Note van ships of both sides closely engaged.

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a mere brush rather than a head-on clash. Yet, in its results it has been called, and with good reason, one of the most decisive battles in world history--fought for the prize of a continent. Command of the sea, albeit local and temporary, passed to the French and American Allies. Neptune smiled on the Americans with a light that was to bring independence.

Washington hastened from Williamsburg, where he had joined Lafayette on September 14, to the Ville de Paris with warm personal congratulations for de Grasse. During the shipboard visit he extracted an agreement from the Admiral to remain in the Chesapeake until the end of October to prevent their quarry from making an eleventh hour escape.

Cornwallis found it hard to accept the fact that the stout wooden wall at his back was not the heretofore omnipotent Royal Navy, and that he had been left irrevocably to his fate. "Nothing," he said dolefully, "but the hope of relief would have induced me to attempt its [Yorktown's] defense." So the land siege with the thundering artillery bombardments, the digging of earthwork "parallels," customary sorties, and gallant storming of redoubts was played out to the inevitable conclusion. But this was anticlimactic, for as the British historian Captain W. M. James states: "the victory in the end was to the holder of the sea line of communications." Lord Cornwallis surrendered over seven thousand men on October 19, 1781.

When the last red-coated British trooper had stacked his arms, and the final drum beats of a melancholy march, "The World Turned Upside Down," had died on the crisp fall air, Washington gratefully wrote de Grasse to thank him "in the name of America, for the glorious event for which she is indebted to you ..." The Admiral responded with a masterful understatement: "I consider myself infinitely happy to have been of some service to the United States."


Model in the U.S. Naval Academy of the 'Ville lde Paris.'
Model in the U.S. Naval Academy of the Ville lde Paris, flagship of Admiral de Grasse at the Battle off the Virginia Capes.

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A GLOSSARY OF TERMS

BEAT OUT. To make progress against the wind by a series of zigzag courses.

BREAK THE SIGNAL. To display or fly a signal flag.

CENTER. That part of the fleet in the center of the line.

FORMED UP. To be in a line of battle preparatory to engaging the enemy.

HOLDlNG THE WEATHER GAGE. Keeping to the windward of your opponent; an advantageous position to maneuver a warship under sail.

KING'S MEN-OF-WAR. Regular vessels of the Royal Navy as contrasted to privateers.

REAR. That part of the fleet which forms the rear of the line.

SHIPS-OF-THE-LINE, or LINE-OF-BATTLE SHIPS. Largest ships in sailing navies; carried 74 or more guns on three decks; the "battleships" of their day; the ships which made up the line.

STANDING OUT ON THE EBB TIDE. Putting to sea by taking advantage of the flow of water as the tide runs out.

VAN. The part or division of a fleet which is in the front.

WEAR. To put a ship on the other track by turning her bow away from the wind.


Meeting of the Generals of the American and French Armies at Yorktown after the Surrender, 1781, from an oil painting by James Peale.
Meeting of the Generals of the American and French Armies at Yorktown after the Surrender, 1781, from an oil painting by James Peale.

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USS 'Comte de Grasse'
A de Grasse returns in the form of the USS Comte de Grasse.

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Source: Morgan, William James. The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned: French Naval Superiority That Ensured Victory At Yorktown. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Foundation, 1981.


Acknowledgements: The Naval Historical Center gratefully acknowledges the Naval Historical Foundation for their support and encouragement in posting this online edition.