The most destructive engine of military power at the end of the 18th century was the ship-of-the-line. Serving virtually the same role as nuclear weapons in today’s world, the huge sailing warships mounting from 70 to more than 100 heavy cannon were the dominating force on the seas for more than 200 years. These ships, the largest of which could fire a half-ton broadside of iron death in a single devastating blast, had no equals except among themselves.
They were the largest wooden vessels ever built at the time, requiring up to 65 acres of old-growth oak and pine forests to provide the 3,500 tons of wood for their immense hulls and towering masts. With a crew of more than 700 officers and men, the ships-of-the-line carried 120 tons of shot and 35 tons of powder for their heavy guns.
But despite their immense power and influence, they were as vulnerable as any weapon when used improperly or, worse, confronted with radical new tactics. Thus it was in 1781 when the Royal Navy, whose supremacy on the seas had been virtually unbroken since the 1670s, was challenged and defeated by a French fleet off the coast of North America. But to add insult to that ignominy, the naval debacle led directly to the victory of General George Washington over Lieutenant General Charles, Earl Cornwallis at Yorktown.
From Doctrine to Doctrinaire
“Nothing equals the beautiful order of the English at sea. Never was a line drawn straighter than that of their ships; thus they bring all their fire to bear upon those who draw near them.”
Those words were written by an admiring French admiral in 1666, at a time when the Royal Navy was beginning its ascendancy in projecting the power of an expanding British Empire.
The core belief of the Admiralty was in the sheer power of the line of battle formed by several huge ships-of-the-line bombarding an enemy fleet into splinters. The ships-of-the-line were the very backbone of the navy.
During the 1588 battle with the Spanish Armada, warships acted independently, each captain moving against an enemy and delivering broadsides. This often led to total confusion for a fleet commander, and with no reliable means of communication between ships, often brought less of a victory than might have been achieved with a coordinated plan.
By the time of Oliver Cromwell, a supporter of an organized navy, the concept of concentrating a fleet’s firepower by following a single line under the command of a fleet admiral had become the Royal Navy’s standard formation. With all the large ships following in a single line, separated by a cable’s length or about 200 yards, the full might of all the ships could be concentrated on an enemy fleet. The doctrine was put into print in the Royal Navy’s bible, the Fighting Instructions, in 1663.
From the late 17th century to the mid-18th century, no seafaring nation on earth, including England’s longtime adversaries France and Spain, could successfully defeat a Royal Navy fleet or squadron in battle. By the time of the Seven Years’ War of 1756 to 1763, the Admiralty, flush with a string of victories by fleets using the tried and true line-ahead formation, had made it a punishable offense for any ship’s captain or fleet admiral to divert from it. No captain was allowed to move independently under any circumstance, even when a golden opportunity presented itself.
There were three essential factors in 18th-century naval warfare. First, the weather—specifically the wind direction. Second, the number of guns, the hitting power of the ships, the more the better. Last, and most important, the skill of the fleet commander and his captains. But by the early 1780s, the skill of British admirals was of little use against the French Navy; in fact, experience was a liability instead of a benefit.
While the ships-of-the-line were the most advanced sailing vessels of their era, they still were dependent on the direction of the wind. The most favorable position for any fleet was the weather gauge, or upwind of an enemy. With the wind behind it, a fleet could close with or refuse battle. With the maximum speed of the ship-of-the-line being between six and eight knots, simply moving a fleet into position could take several hours, during which the opposing force would be trying to do the same. Nothing happened fast in an 18th-century naval battle.
After losing several battles, the French Navy began a serious study of how it might gain an advantage over the larger Royal Navy. King Louis XVI, believing it to be the “First Service of the Realm,” provided large sums to renovate and improve his fleet. Beginning in 1765, the French designed and built dozens of large, powerfully armed, faster warships. New training academies were established for shipwrights, sailors, and gunners, resulting in a higher standard of gunnery and sail handling. Entire forests were cut down and transported to dozens of new dockyards along France’s southern and western coasts. By 1775, France possessed the most advanced navy in the world. Sixty-four ships-of-the-line and more than 50 frigates were manned by more than 10,000 trained gunners.
While this did not go unnoticed in England, the fossilized Admiralty saw no reason to spend huge amounts of money to improve its own fleet, neither in strength, tactics, nor efficiency. Every new ship was constructed under what was known as the “Rule of King’s Thumb,” meaning without any refinement nor change.
A popular dictum in the Royal Navy was, “Just lay a Frenchman close alongside, and you will defeat him every time.” This certainly was true, but only if the Frenchman was unwise enough to come within close range of the British guns. British gunners were trained to fire into enemy hulls, intending to stove in and crush ribs and inflict other structural damage. Even with heavy 32-pound cannon firing solid shot as large as a man’s head, however, it could take dozens of broadsides to do significant damage to stout oak timbers.
But the better-trained French gunners aimed higher. Masts, yardarms, sails, and rigging, not to mention the men who handled them, were far more vulnerable. A single well-directed broadside of chain or bar shot could seriously impair a ship’s ability to maneuver or maintain her position in the line of battle. In short, the French had learned to destroy not a ship’s hull, but her ability to navigate. With shredded sails and toppled masts, British ships were unable to catch the faster French ships, which were able to sail away at their leisure. The French now had a decided lead over the conceited Royal Navy.
Sea Power = Victory for Lady Liberty
By 1780 the American Revolution had turned from a series of land battles to one defined by the actions of the British and French navies. While the land armies fought from the Canadian border to the Carolinas, it was a single sea battle that decided the final outcome of the war for American independence. When it made its alliance with the American colonies in 1778, France possessed 80 modern, fast ships-of-the-line. The still-larger Royal Navy had more of the large ships-of-the-line, but their design—and how they were commanded—fell far short of the French. This was how affairs stood during the the late summer of 1781 when George Washington made one of the most important decisions of the war.
His army was facing the 7,000 redcoats of Lieutenant General Cornwallis encamped on the Yorktown Peninsula along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. With Washington were the French troops of Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. If the Continental Army could be reinforced by more troops, artillery, cavalry, and supplies, there was a good chance that the combined American-French force could surround and defeat the British.
At that time the bulk of the French fleet was in the West Indies, where Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse was making plans to retake the islands seized by the British during the Seven Years’ War. Writing via the French minister to the colonies, Washington sent word to de Grasse to come as fast as possible. He hoped the French fleet could bring the needed reinforcements to the combined army, while blocking the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. This would not only support Washington’s army, but also would deny the British any help from their own fleet, at that time anchored in New York.
The French admiral responded by turning his fleet north through the Bahamas Channel and working up the Florida coast. On the way, the 74-gun Intrepide and 40-gun Inconstante were lost to identical accidents. While a quartermaster doled out portions of Tafia brandy, the French equivalent of grog, a candle was knocked over and started a fire. To lose two powerful warships to such avoidable mishaps was inexcusable, and de Grasse took steps to ensure it never happened again. His force consisted of 28 ships-of-the-line, carrying three regiments of infantry and 350 artillerymen. Accompanying the warships were 15 merchantmen that de Grasse had chartered with his own funds, each carrying a portion of the supplies, cannon, and ammunitions.
Rear Admiral Samuel Hood, the British commander in the Caribbean, learned of de Grasse’s departure and rightly assumed the French were headed to support Washington and Lafayette. On board his 92-gun flagship HMS Barfleur, Hood sailed from Antigua with 14 ships-of-the-line on 10 August and set a direct course for Virginia. But de Grasse had taken a circuitous route before heading west into the Chesapeake Bay. When Hood reached the entrance to the bay on 25 August, he found no French fleet. He continued north toward New York.
It would be a fateful decision.
Decisive Showdown on the Chesapeake
Four days later, the French warships and transports entered the Chesapeake. The transports moved north toward the rendezvous with the allied forces while the warships anchored in Lynnhaven Roads at Cape Henry. Twelve miles across the mouth of the Chesapeake was Cape Charles, at the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. While the bay’s mouth was wide, the dredged ship channel was only three miles across.
Hood reached New York and met with the senior British admiral in North America, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. At 52, Graves was a respected and experienced commander who was confident he and his force could defeat the French fleet coming from the south. But he had other prey in mind. Commodore Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras was bringing eight warships loaded with heavy siege artillery, men, and ammunition from Rhode Island. He was to rendezvous with de Grasse coming from the Caribbean. Knowing that the Royal Navy was hunting him, de Barras sailed far out to sea and south to the Carolinas before turning west.
With 19 ships-of-the-line, Graves sailed south to Virginia in his flagship, the 90-gun London. The fleet carried 2,000 fresh troops to reinforce Cornwallis, as well as 400 New Yorkers forcibly impressed into the Royal Navy. It was a clear indication of the poor state of the British fleet that Graves had to kidnap colonists, even those who were not loyal to the Crown, into servitude in the fleet.
Graves and Hood reached the mouth to the bay on the late morning of 5 September 1781. At first, the leading ships reported masts visible just past Cape Henry, and Graves assumed it to be de Barras’ ships. They would be an easy target for the big British men-of-war. But when his masthead lookouts reported a veritable “forest of masts,” it was obvious there were far more than the eight ships they had expected. What they were seeing were 24 of de Grasse’s ships-of-the-line.
The Advantage Shifts
Admiral de Grasse found himself at a disadvantage. The British had the weather gauge, with the wind out of the northeast and the tide coming in. Worse, the French warships were anchored on the lee shore of Virginia with little room to maneuver.
Yet that was not what worried de Grasse. The 15 transports that had sailed up the Chesapeake estuary were accompanied by some of his frigates and more than 1,300 of his men. His own flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris, was short almost 200 men. Upon sighting the big British warships bearing down on the entrance to the bay, he gave orders to clear for action. Immediately his captains responded to the signal by casting off anchor lines and buoying them, loosing sail and loading the guns. But time was short. The only edge de Grasse had was in numbers. He had 24 ships-of-the-line to the British 19.
But what the French commander did not yet know was that he had another element in his favor. Vice Admiral Thomas Graves was an ardent follower of the Fighting Instructions. He vowed to do exactly as the Royal Navy had been doing since 1663.
Graves had the French fleet and transports in his grasp. If he simply moved in among the French fleet, he could destroy them with near impunity. Yet, true to the Admiralty’s standing orders, he raised the signal to form a line ahead, with his flagship, the London, in the vanguard.
Admiral de Grasse must have felt like cheering as he saw the perfect orchestration of the British men-of-war lining up to enter the bay through the channel. It was a splendid sight with all the sails set along the British line, hundreds of black gun muzzles bared like iron teeth, flags and signals flying and white bones churning at their bows. Graves’ ships executed the maneuver to perfection. It was magnificent and imposing.
But it was also useless. By the time Graves’ London had entered the wide bay, de Grasse’s ships had managed to clear Lynnhaven Roads and had formed up in the open ocean.
With startling speed for an 18th-century naval battle, the advantage had gone to the French. Now Graves found himself inside the bay with de Grasse to his rear and widening the gap. If he had been a bit cleverer, he might have moved up the estuary, where his ships could have destroyed the transports carrying troops and guns for Lafayette and Washington.
But Graves saw only de Grasse in his sights. With the signal for line ahead still flying, he ordered his fleet to turn about in place and pursue the fleeing French. With this order, each ship turned and headed east. The tide and wind were now against him. This took nearly an hour, during which de Grasse took up a heading of northeast. Graves had to chase the French fleet, but instead of having his most powerful ships in the van, the weakest, the 74-gun Shrewsbury and 64-gun Intrepid, were leading. The London was tenth in the line of battle.
In addition, Graves was facing a situation for which he and the vaunted Fighting Instructions had no answer. Admiral de Grasse’s ships had managed to reach open waters off the coast—but had not formed into a line of battle. The French ships were in small knots. The neat British line of battle was useless. By late afternoon de Grasse had formed his ships into a loose line, which was intended as a way of maintaining control rather than being used in ship-to-ship battle.
With his line-ahead signal still flying, Graves sent his leading ships at the French vanguard. But because of the wind and the ragged enemy formation, the Shrewsbury approached at an angle, so the two fleets formed a “V” pointed east. This meant that only the lead British warships were able to engage the French. The following ships-of-the-line were still too far away to begin firing.
Graves compounded the worsening situation by raising the signal to “bear down and engage the enemy more closely.” While this signal by itself meant for each captain to order his ship to break out of the line and attack the nearest French ship, the line-ahead signal was sacrosanct. In other words, the two signals contradicted each other. Confusion reigned in the British fleet. Far to the rear, Admiral Hood followed the Fighting Instructions dictum that the “line ahead” superseded every other order, while Rear Admiral Francis Samuel Drake chose to follow the second signal. On board the 70-gun Princessa, he led the lead ships at the French van. But this only created more havoc.
Almost immediately, the Shrewsbury received heavy damage from the leading French ship, the Pluton. After two French broadsides, 27 of her crew were dead, including the captain. With her masts teetering and rigging shot apart and more than 50 of her crew wounded, the British ship veered away. Then the 64-gun Intrepid moved in and was battered by the bigger Marseillois. With 20 men killed and 35 wounded, the Intrepid also left the broken British line. The French gunners were proving the merit of their training. Every British ship that came near de Grasse’s guns had her rigging and masts shredded by chain and bar shot.
Orange and yellow flashes strobed like lightning in the thick clouds of white smoke while the roar of cannon vied with the dull thud of impacting balls on solid oak hulls. Tall waterspouts erupted from the blue sea from cannonballs around and beyond the two fleets. The sea air was rent with the stink of gunsmoke. Hundreds of men lay in pools of blood that ran across the scrubbed decks. Tarred rigging hung like torn black webs while shredded sails flapped in the wind. The Terrible was so battered that Graves ordered her to be scuttled.
Graves’ big guns did damage the French ships. Drake’s Princessa delivered a withering broadside against the Réfléchi, shattering planking, ribs, and bulwarks. Jagged splinters of wood tore across the desks, killing and dismembering men as they worked the guns and sails.
The first shots of the Battle of the Capes were fired just after noon, but it was late afternoon before Graves at last lowered his “line ahead” signal. This was the point where all his captains were free to steer independently at the French line and engage them in a series of ship-to-ship fights. But it was far too late to matter now.
Stage Set for Yorktown Finale
By now, de Grasse was far out into the Atlantic with plenty of room to maneuver. What is more, his ships had suffered no crippling damage, while nearly every British ship had torn sails and fallen masts. As night fell, Graves was determined to catch and stop de Grasse from reinforcing Lafayette. The following morning, with temporary repairs made to his ships, Graves ordered Hood and Drake to resume the chase. But the wily de Grasse led the British far from the coast, using his fleet’s better maneuverability to keep the lumbering British ships within view. It was cat-and-mouse for the next five days while de Grasse remained enticingly close. By the time the French turned back to the entrance to the bay, Commodore de Barras had entered and sent his transports north to deliver the siege artillery to Washington and Lafayette.
When de Grasse at last took up a blocking position between Capes Henry and Charles, Graves was forced to accept defeat. His weakened fleet of 18 battered ships was now facing 33 fully manned and ready men-of-war.
Consultations with Hood and Drake led Graves to order the fleet to return to New York for repairs and reinforcements. By 20 October, with 25 ships-of-the-line, Graves headed for the Chesapeake Bay to confront de Grasse again. But he learned that the Americans and French already had done what they had intended: Washington and Lafayette had bombarded Cornwallis’ troops until, on 19 October, the British surrendered.
While this was not the end of land fighting, the American victory was sealed at Yorktown.
As for Admiral Graves, he faced a court-martial in England, not only for losing the battle, but also to explain how the line-ahead tactics had failed to beat the French. He was forced to defend himself against criticism of his handling of the fleet.
But the Admiralty refused to accept that the line ahead, their sacred cow, was flawed and responsible for the loss at Chesapeake Bay. They also refused to see any alternative to the old system, insisting that what had always worked in the past was still the best way to fight at sea.
It would take almost 20 years and a series of minor and major battles—and the audacity of men such as Admirals George Bridges Rodney, Sir John Jervis, and, most notably, Horatio Lord Nelson—to cast the useless Fighting Instructions into the sea forever.
And it is not a stretch to say that the United States owes its very existence to the refusal of the Royal Navy to see the writing on the wall in September of 1781.
Roy Adkins, Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World (New York: Penguin, 2006).
Terry Coleman, The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Laura Foreman and Ellen Blue Phillips, Napoleon’s Lost Fleet: Bonaparte, Nelson, and the Battle of the Nile (New York: Discovery Books, 1999).
J. F. C. Fuller, A Military History of Warfare in the Western World, vol. 2: From the Defeat of the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Waterloo (New York: Da Capo, 1987).
John Keegan, Intelligence in War: The Value—and Limitations—of What the Military Can Learn About the Enemy (New York: Vintage, 2004).
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897).
James L. Nelson, George Washington’s Great Gamble and the Sea Battle that Won the American Revolution (Camden, ME: International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2010).