FIRST NAVAL BATTLE
OF THE
VIRGINIA CAPES (1781)

The year 1781 began with some significant naval activities in the North American theater. Admiral de Ternay, commander of the naval squadron that brought Rochambeau's expeditionary army, died in December 1780. De Ternay was succeeded by Captain Destouches. The French naval squadron at Newport, Rhode Island, consisted of seven ships-of-the-line plus some transports and smaller vessels. The British held a superior number of warships in near by Gardiner's Bay that effectively blockaded the Newport squadron. However, a January 1781 storm seriously disable a number of British ships. Taking advantage of the situation, Destouches deployed in early February a sixty-four gun ship, Eveillé, and some smaller vessels to deal with English commerce raiders off the Chesapeake. The French flotilla was commanded by Captain le Gardeur de Tilly and managed to sail into the Chesapeake by mid February. Unfortunately, the French ships drew too deep to pursue Arnold's small ships that withdrew up the Elizabeth River. The French naval expedition did surprise the British naval forces in American waters and resulted in the capture the forty-four-gun Romulus without a fight. However, fearing the descent of the larger number of British vessels in American waters, Tilly rushed back to Newport by the end of February.
Even before Tilly returned, Washington was urging the French to send a larger number of ships. He laid out his plans at a March meeting with the Rochambeau and Destouches at Newport. The next French naval mission to the Chesapeake was to be part of a larger strategic scheme, and transport 1,120 French troops from Rochambeau's army to Virigina. In Virginia, the French force, under Rochambeau's second in command, Baron Vioménil, would conduct a campaign along with an American force that was concurrently marching by land under Major General Lafayette.

Following paragraph, briefly summarizes the 'First Naval Battle of the Virginia Capes', 16 March 1781. With some editing, it is from p.167, A History of the French Navy, From its Beginnings to the Present Day, E.H. Jenkins (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1973).

"In March, Destouches sailed with his whole squadron from Newport for the Chespeake, carrying troops who were to stop the English depredations in Virginia. The British admiral Arbuthnot followed the French squadron from New York and, outsailing Destouches, cut him off as he approached his destination. The two squadrons were of roughly equal strength, seven of the line with some lesser vessels, and their battle followed the usual course. With both heading east, away from the shore, Arbuthnot attacked from windward. As he did so, Destouches brought his line on to the opposite tack, heading for the bay. Arbuthnot followed suit. After a hot cannonade Destouches went about again, heading out to sea and neatly giving the leading English ships a concentration of fire as his line passed them. Three English vessels suffered much damage, but so did two of the French, and Arbuthnot was still between them and the Chesapeake. So Destouches gave up the attempt to get into the bay and returned to Newport. At Versailles he was considered to have done poorly, and it is typical of the French service of that day that some of his officers complained vigorously when no rewards and commendations were issued for the action."
The British commander, Arbuthnot, decided to abandon the engagement after three of his main ships became unmanageable due to an unusually heavy concentration of gun fire from the French fleet. On the other hand, the losses in men were: British, 30 killed, 73 wounded; French, 72 killed, 112 wounded. These figures reflect a general difference between the naval gunnery tactics of the two navies. The French gave priority to disabling an opponent by shooting at the ships' rigging. Whereas, the British directed their gun fire on the enemy's gun stations and hauls. Also, other French naval commanders – in contrast to the French court – approved of Destouches' prudence in not trying to force an entrance into the Chesapeake against a still well armed defense
The strategic result of this March encounter battle was nearly the opposite of the more famous 'Battle of the Virginia Capes' -- the 'second' naval engagement French and British fleets that occurred off the capes of Henry and Charles in September 1781. In this 'first' naval engagement off the capes, Arbuthnot kept open a line of communications to Arnold's British land army, which was conducting a campaign of devastation in Virginia. Destouches' failure to land about 1,200 troops compromised the efforts of an American force, commanded by Lafayette, that marched into Virginia in April of that year. The British were able to reinforce in Virginia with troops under General Phillips, who assumed British command in the theater until Cornwallis arrived in May. A link to a webpage describing how Lafayette prevailed in Virginia is given at the bottom of this webpage.

Alfred.T. Mahan's The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (London, 1913) also has a description of the tactical aspects. His pages 173-174 have a particularly interesting summary:

"In this encounter, both sides had eight ships in line, besides smaller craft. The advantage in force was distinctly with the British, who had one three-decked ship, three 74's, three - 64's, and a 50; while the French had one 84, two 74's, four 64's, and the late British Romulus, 44. Because of this superiority, probably, the action was considered particularly discreditable by contemporaries; the more so because several vessels did not engage closely, - a fault laid to the British admiral's failure to make the signal for close action, hauling down that for the line. This criticism is interesting, for it indicates how men's minds were changing; and it shows also that Arbuthnot had not changed, but still lived in the middle of the century. The French commodore displayed very considerable tactical skill; his squadron was handled neatly, quickly, and with precision. With inferior force he carried off a decided advantage by sheer intelligence and good management. Unluckily, he failed in resolution to pursue his advantage. He probably could have controlled the Chesapeake had he persisted."

Some interesting and surprising results of the 'First Naval Battle of the Virginia Capes' are discussed in Lee Kennett's The French Forces in America 1780-1783 (Greenwood, Westport, Connecticut, 1977), pp.100-101, given below:

"The [French] squadron made it back [to Newport] on March 26. It had not been expected so soon, so when the ships first appeared out of the mist the garrison took them to be English. The alarm was sounded, and troops rushed to the fortifications. Once ashore, Destouches gave Rochambeau an account of the sortie and drafted a dispatch for the court. The story would have been different, he insisted, if all of his ships had been 'coppered like the English'. Rochambeau was not too surprised. The episode had a moral, he wrote Washington, since it demonstrated 'the uncertainty of engagements at sea and of operations combined upon that element'. Washington had gotten his hopes up and found it hard to be so philosophical. He had gone to considerable trouble in sending Lafayette south with men he could well have used before New York. The Americans had done their part, but the French had dragged their feet. He wrote a private letter to his cousin Lund Washington in which he lamented that the French had not acted on the plan 'when I first proposed it to them'. The criticism was unfair, since Destouches's departure had coincided almost exactly with the target date Washington himself had fixed back in February. Unfortunately, the affair did not stop there, for the letter was captured and published in the April 4 edition of Rivington's Gazette. Rochambeau received a copy and wrote Washington immediately, asking if it were genuine and adding that the French were convinced they had done their best. Washington acknowledged authorship, but added that it was a private letter, written without full information, and that it 'might have been inaccurately expressed'. He deeply regretted its disclosure. Biographers of the two men seldom fail to mention this affair, seeing in it a mutual effort to redeem a bad situation. Actually, it is doubtful if Rochambeau was deeply offended. He happened to agree with Washington that the navy, as always, was slow to act. He said so in his dispatches to Versailles, and he said as much in a letter to Washington dated May 5, in which he proposed they not mention the affair to Destouches, and thus 'smother up that trifle'."
"The American public knew little of the intricate plan that had failed to come off in the Chesapeake. On the other hand, they learned with pleasure that their allies had gone out and challenged the vaunted Royal Navy-with some success, since Arbuthnot had not chosen to renew the action. La Luzerne reported from Philadelphia that the battle of March 16 had 'completely changed the thinking of these people and given them a high opinion of what we can do when we have more considerable forces'. Congress formally voted its thanks to Destouches on April 5. In turn, the Hermione made a goodwill trip to Philadelphia, where the dinners and parties took on the color of a victory celebration. That the French had indeed won the day on March 16 seemed to be confirmed by the British government itself when it recalled Arbuthnot."
"For naval operations, the March expedition had the effect of a spring thaw. Ships long frozen in immobility now stirred to action. After March, the Royal Navy ceased to keep permanent watch from Gardiner's Bay. Some of its ships needed extensive refitting, and others were occupied with the developing effort in Virginia. Destouches ordered the Astrée to escort and cruising duties out of Boston. He began to send frigates south for flour so regularly that the British spoke of his 'Philadelphia packet'. Destouches was even willing to make a third sortie to the Chesapeake, taking 2,000 soldiers this time. But he found Rochambeau hostile to the idea. He wrote the minister of marine that the general preferred to await further developments, "still persuaded that land forces from Europe would soon reach us."
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This page was created 14 December 2003; revised 23 January 2004.