The Battle of the Chesapeake was an incredibly important naval engagement late in the American Revolution. But it wasn’t the battle itself that was so important, as it essentially was a draw.
When we think of modern-day naval battles, we envision long-range standoff platforms like Aegis-class cruisers acting as vanguards for massive aircraft carriers that project power for hundreds of miles in any direction. Silent submarines patrol the ocean depths, nearly impossible to detect. And above it all, a series of satellites relay information at light-speed to help choreograph the nautical dance below.
In the 18th century, naval warfare looked a lot different. There were ships with giant masts and rows of cannon. Their “force projection” was measured in hundreds of feet. And there were rules of warfare. Like this one: if a captain came upon the enemy fleet anchored like sitting ducks in a harbor, he didn’t just unfurl the cannon, commence firing, and lay waste to their existance. Ships formed lines and fought against each other…that was just the way it was done.
So on September 5, 1781, when British Admiral Graves arrived at Chesapeake Bay and found much of the French fleet anchored and, in fact, unmanned, he simply waited for them to get going and form their battle line. It was conventional wisdom to fight the “conventional” way, but in this case, it turned out to be a bad (very bad) idea.
Admiral de Grasse’s French ships got underway and the fight took place during the afternoon. The results were rather inconclusive, with the French suffering more killed, but inflicting greater damage on their British opponent.
For the next several days, the two forces stalked each other until de Grasse turned around and headed for Chesapeake Bay, hoping his plan had worked. When they got back, he discovered it had. Comte de Barras had arrived from Rhode Island with his ships. Added to de Grasse’s forces, they now not only held Chesapeake Bay, but they soundly outnumbered the now-weakened British fleet.
The British Army, encamped at Yorktown (at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay), now had the French fleet as its nearest neighbor, and could not be resupplied by sea. It wasn’t long until General Washington’s army arrived and Yorktown would become the place of final defeat for Lord Cornwallis, his troops, and the British Crown in the Colonies.
The Battle of the Chesapeake wasn’t important for what it accomplished, but for the accomplishments it made possible a month later.
Recommended Reading: His Excellency: George Washington