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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

And Hood chose to stand on his dignity


[Illustration:

BATTLE OF THE VIRGINIA CAPES, SEPT. 5, 1781

(After diagram in Mahan's _Major Operations in the War of American Independence,_ p. 180.)]

Graves's method followed the orthodox tradition exactly, and with the unvarying result. As the attacking fleet bore down in line ahead at an angle, the van of course came into action first, unsupported for some time by the rest. As the signal for close action was repeated, this angle was made sharper, and in attempting to close up the line several ships got bunched in such a way as to mask their fire. Meanwhile the rear, the seven ships under Hood, still trailing along in line ahead, never got into the action at all. Graves had signaled for "close action," but Hood chose to believe that the order for line ahead still held until the signal was repeated, whereupon he bore down. As the French turned away at the same time, to keep their distance, Hood contributed nothing to the fighting of the day. At sunset the battle ended. The British had lost 90 killed and 246 wounded; the French, a total of 200. Several of the British ships were badly damaged, one of which was in a sinking condition and had to be burned. The two fleets continued on an easterly course about three miles apart, and for five days more the two maneuvered without fighting. Graves was too much injured by the first day's encounter to attack again and de Grasse was content to let him alone. Graves still had an opportunity

to cut back and enter the bay, taking a position from which it would have been hard to dislodge him and effecting the main object of the expedition by holding the mouth of the Chesapeake. But this apparently did not occur to him. De Grasse, who had imperiled Washington's campaign by cruising so far from the entrance, finally returned on the 11th, and found that the Newport squadron had arrived safely the day before. When Graves saw that the French fleet was now increased to 36 line-of-battle ships, he gave up hope of winning the bay and returned to New York, leaving Cornwallis to his fate. A little over a month later, October 19, the latter surrendered, and with his sword passed the last hope of subduing the American revolution.

This battle of the Capes, or Lynnhaven, has never until recent times been given its true historical perspective, largely because in itself it was a rather tame affair. But as the historian Reich[1] observes, "battles, like men, are important not for their dramatic splendor but for their efficiency and consequences.... The battle off Cape Henry had ultimate effects infinitely more important than Waterloo." Certainly there never was a more striking example of the "influence of sea power" on a campaign. Just at the crisis of the American Revolution the French navy, by denying to the British their communications by sea, struck the decisive blow of the war. This was the French _revanche_ for the humiliation of 1763.

[Footnote 1: FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN EUROPE, p. 24.]

The British failure in this action was due to a dull commander in chief carrying out a blundering attack based on the Fighting Instructions. Blame must fall also on his second in command, Hood, who, though a brilliant officer, certainly failed to support his chief properly when there was an obvious thing to do. Perhaps if the personal relations between the two had been more cordial Hood would have taken the initiative. But in those days the initiative of a subordinate was not encouraged, and Hood chose to stand on his dignity.

Although the war was practically settled by the fall of Yorktown, it required another year or so to die out. In this final year a famous naval battle was fought which went far toward establishing British predominance in the West Indies, and which revealed something radically different in naval tactics from the practice of the time.


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