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Naval Engagement off the Chesapeake

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

September 5.—This day an engagement between the British fleet, under Admiral Graves, and the French, commanded by De Grasse, took place off the Chesapeake. The first certain notice Admiral Graves received of the French fleet being actually upon the coast, was from the advanced ships of his fleet, this morning, when the French were seen at an anchor, extending from Cape Henry to the centre of the middle ground, (a shoal so called, which confines the entrance into the Chesapeake,) apparently in three divisions.

As the British fleet advanced with a fair wind, the French got their ships under sail, and extending themselves in a line of battle ahead, stretched out to seaward. The British ran down upon an east and west line, with the wind at N.N.E., formed, and put themselves into order and preparation for battle. As they advanced toward the shoal of the middle, they were prepared to veer by signal, the whole fleet together, to bring them upon the same tack with the French, who were all this time forming the line as they advanced to sea.

The moment it was no longer safe for the British van to advance further, on account of the shoal, the fleet wore together, and came to the same tack with the French, and formed a line ahead nearly parallel with them, with their main top-sails square, to let the French van-guard advance until the British could operate to advantage.

The French came forward slowly, and showed twenty-four large ships of their line of battle. The British formed nineteen in theirs.

The French van had extended themselves considerably too much from their own centre, and seemed to present the favorable moment for attack, while the British line had been continually pressed down to approach them as near as possible; and the moment the French van betrayed their apprehension of our design by bearing away, the signal for a close action was made, and the signal for the line taken down, that nothing might cross the opportunity.

Rear-Admiral Drake’s division composed the van of the British line; Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, Bart., that of the rear.

The action began at a quarter after four, about the fourth or fifth ship, and in a few minutes extended from the van to the second ship astern of the centre. In the van the fight was very close and sharp for some time, and continued so until the French ships put before the wind to prevent being cut up. Their centre and rear then pushed forward and kept much from the wind as they approached the British centre, appearing to have little more in view than to advance far enough to receive their own van, who were nearly before the wind, and the better to effect this purpose, they constantly declined close action with the centre of the British fleet.

Every necessary signal was made to urge a close as well as general action, which Count De Grasse appeared desirous to decline, and he did not permit the British rear to close with him, which prevented that part of the fleet from having any share of the action.

All firing ceased on both sides soon after sunset. About ten o’clock it was made known to the British admiral by two frigates, which had been sent throughout the line, that several of the ships of the van were not capable of keeping extended with the enemy, having suffered so much in their masts and rigging, they must attend to their security or be dismasted; that two of the ships which came very leaky from the West Indies, had aggravated their complaints, and one- of them could only be kept free with all her pumps.1


1 The two fleets remained near each other for five successive days, at times very close. The French, it was visible, had received much damage to their van ships, and from thence quite on me next ahead of the admiral’s ship ;—but our masts and yards had suffered much more, apparently. This enabled the French to gain the wind, and two changes of wind much in their favor, prevented the British recovering it. No time or effort was neglected which could put the British in proper order; for the French, with their superiority of numbers, ought certainly to have made an attack. On the tenth, the Terrible could no longer resist her leaks, and the fleet was obliged to bring to, as well to. examine as to give some time to shift some topmasts. This was done at night, and the next morning Admiral Graves saw no more of the French, who certainly pushed to regain the Chesapeake, having been driven a great way to the southward.

The day being calm, the Terrible was dismantled and set on fire, and several of the West India squadron, that had very little bread on board, and but a few days’ water, were supplied from other ships of the fleet, when the whole moved towards Cape Henry, which we made on the fourteenth. Here we found the French fleet had placed themselves so advantageously between the sands, as to give no probability of our being able to force them, or get any succor up to York River, and as it became absolutely necessary to shelter the fleet before the approaching equinox, (as a gale of wind, by dismantling our ships, might do us more injury than a general action,) we returned to New York.

The British lost in the action one lieutenant and ninety men killed, and two hundred and forty-six wounded,—one captain having lost his leg.—New York Gazette, Sept. 24.