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The French and British Fleets meet off Virginia

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

March 28.—Chevalier d’Astouches, with the French fleet, lately returned to Rhode Island from an unsuccessful encounter with the British squadron in the Chesapeake. The subjoined relation of his recent operations, is given by a writer at Newport:—The gale of wind on the 21st of January, having consequences which put some equality in the naval forces of France and Great Britain, in North America, the Chevalier d’Astouches took advantage of the circumstance to stop the depredations and plunders of the British on the coast of Virginia. For that purpose he sent with the greatest speed a sixty-four gun ship and two frigates, under the orders of Mons. de Tilly, captain of the navy. His orders were to go to Chesapeake Bay, and to endeavor to destroy the little British fleet there, and the frigates which protected it. The enemy having taken the precaution to put their vessels out of danger in the small river of Elizabeth, Mons. Tilly could not completely carry out the object of his mission; his expedition, however, was not fruitless; he took or destroyed ten ships, and carried into Newport, Rhode Island, the Romulus, of forty-four guns, which he had taken at the entrance of the bay.

“The success of this undertaking, and the great desire of Mons. d’Astouches to give an efficacious succor to the State of Virginia, made him take the resolution to renew the attempt with greater force. He fitted out his squadron, armed the Romulus, and to insure as much as it was possible the success of the expedition, the Count de Rochambeau sent on board his men-of-war and the Fantasque, a detachment of his army, under the orders of the Baron de Viomenil.

“On the 8th of March, in the evening, the fleet got under way; the contrary winds drove it the following days to the south-east; however, they took the advantage of the variety of the winds, approached the coast, and on the 14th, in the morning, discovered Cape Charles, in Chesapeake Bay. The south winds which blew very hard, did not allow them to rise in the wind so as to go into Cape Henry; on the contrary, they were driven northward, and tacked about two whole days. On the 16th, at daybreak, the wind still continuing to blow from the same quarter, but with less force, and the weather foggy, the fleet having their larboard tacks on, a frigate was discovered two gunshots to windward; the admiral made signals for chasing, but a short time after, many large ships appearing through the fog, he did not in the least doubt but the British had got intelligence, by some enemy to America, of his going out, and that the west and north-west winds having made them run more rapidly, they had arrived almost as soon as the French fleet on the coast of Virginia. In consequence of that reflection, he called back the chase, and the wind shifting to the north-east in the same instant, he made signal to form the line, with the larboard tacks on. The British fleet were then two leagues off to the southward, steering the same course. At nine o’clock the French fleet wore round ahead by the counter march, and in half an hour after, the British did the same. At half-past ten the admiral, seeing that the wind increased, and that he was approaching the shallows on the north coast of Virginia, made signals to take the larboard tacks on board, and to wear round before the wind by the counter march.

“The Chevalier d’Astouches was conscious that not having got into the Chesapeake before the British, his expedition could not take place; he knew it was impossible to land his troops, even from the men-of-war, under the fire of a superior fleet; his only care was for the glory of the arms of his king, without endangering his fleet.

“The British taking advantage of their superiority in sailing and force, continued to rise in the, wind, crowding a great deal of sail, having their starboard tacks aboard. At noon they were in the French fleet’s wake; a little before one, their van approached within half a league of the rear of the French line, and they seemed to have a mind to attack to the leeward. Till then the Chevalier d’Astouches had worked his ships so as neither to avoid nor seek the engagement, because he was sure that even the happiest issue of it would hinder him from fulfilling his principal object; but the honor of the king’s arms, which he must sustain before America, would not let him give room to the British to boast that they had pursued him, even with a superior force, and he took the resolution of attacking by falling on their van, wearing round by a counter march, and fighting them on opposite tacks to leeward, that his ships might with facility make use of their lower deck guns.

“At one o’clock, the headmost ship of the French line was within gunshot of the British, and a few minutes after the engagement began. The van of the British fell to leeward, and the van of the French fleet did the same, to keep up with the enemy, so that those two parts of the fleet fought for some time, running before the wind. A little before two o’clock, the admiral seeing that the manoeuvre of the British van did not allow it to run more to leeward, made his fleet haul in the wind, with larboard tacks aboard by a successive, motion, which made his whole line file off upon the van of the enemy. This manoeuvre had a complete success; their foremost ship had scarce received the fire of the fifth French ship, when she fell to leeward, took the wind on his starboard side, and left the line, accompanied by a frigate which came to her relief; however, the rear of the British fleet had kept to windward, and was near enough to fight the French rear while it was making a motion to get in the wake of the head of the line. This attack of the enemy’s van did very little damage to the ships that sustained it. The Conquerant, however, suffered a great deal, because, after having fought with the British van, she sustained all the fire of the centre. She especially fought with a three-decker, the loss of whose maintopsail yard, and of a great part of her rigging, compensated the damage done the Conquerant.

“A quarter before three, the fire having ceased on both sides, and the French fleet being ahead and to leeward of the British, the admiral made signal to form promiscuously the line, larboard tacks aboard. In a short time this was done, and the fleet ran under small sail in expectation that the enemy would attack a second time. The admiral then proposed to wear round them, and fall upon their van, but they had been so ill-used in the first encounter, that they did not think it prudent to expose themselves to a second, and during the rest of the day they kept to windward and astern, without taking advantage of their superiority in sailing, to renew the fight.

“In the beginning of the night the British fleet fell to leeward, and the French fleet continued to run to the south-east with very little sail, and all its lights hung out. The next day the British were not to be seen, and the Chevalier d’Astouches, though the advantage was on his side, was obliged to renounce his hopes of succoring Virginia. Consequently he steered towards Newport, to repair his ships that had been damaged, and to put them in a condition of undertaking new operations.

“Too much praise cannot be given to the intrepid firmness shown by the captains, officers, crews, and troops; their courage has made a compensation for the number and superior strength of the enemy’s ships, and the expedition would have been successful had it been depending on the superiority of courage. The loss of the fleet amounts to eighty men killed, or dead of their wounds, and one hundred and twenty wounded. Among the first are sincerely lamented, M. de Cheffontaine, captain of the navy, and Mons. de Kergu, ensign.”1


1 Newport Mercury, March 31; and Rivington’s Gazette, April 18.