In September 1781, a naval engagement between two powerful fleets denied British forces access to the Chesapeake Bay and trapped Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. This little known battle helped end British domination in America. What led to this dramatic turn of events? After six years of war, the colonies seemed far from independence. The young nation was almost bankrupt and the army seemed to be disintegrating. A decisive victory was essential to survival.
General Washington, camped outside of New York City, knew that only by the cooperative efforts of his small force of Continental Soldiers and the French Army (commanded by General Rochambeau), together with the French Navy (commanded by Admiral De Grasse) would any chance of victory be possible. On July 28 De Grasse, who was in the West Indies, informed Washington that his fleet would sail for the Chesapeake Bay. Washington moved his army south in hopes of capturing Cornwallis, who was fortifying Yorktown. The possibility of victory hinged on the arrival of De Grasse and his ability to maintain French naval supremacy in the Chesapeake Bay.
On August 30, the French fleet, consisting of 24 ships of the line, sailed past Cape Henry into the Bay, bringing reinforcements and supplies to the American forces near Yorktown. The British fleet of 19 ships, under Admiral Graves
sailed form New York on September 1, setting the stage for a dramatic confrontation. By September 5, at 9:30 a.m., the French were sighted within the Bay. The approaching British fleet had the advantage of the wind and the tide, while the French had not yet formed its line of battle. Graves, however, chose to follow the Royal Navy's fighting instructions and did not disrupt the French Fleet's emerging battle line. For six and one-half hours the fleets maneuvered for position. The French fleet gradually move out past Cape Henry into the Atlantic. Finally, at 4:15 p.m., the leading ships opened fire. An indecisive but vigorous cannonade continued until 6:30 p.m. The forward British ships were heavily engaged and suffered losses in masts and rigging. The British and French fleets continued to sail on parallel course for four days. On the evening of September 9, the French fleet slipped away and headed back to the Chesapeake Bay where it was joined by an additional French squadron which had arrived from Rhode Island. Graves decided his ships were too badly damaged to continue fighting. On September 13, he made the fateful decision to return to New York for repairs.
This action in which no Americans participated, and in which few men or ships were lost, gave America the opportunity it needed for independence. October 19, 1781, Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army to
Washington. Thus the English rule which had begun at Jamestown in 1607 was effectively ended at Yorktown in 1781. And Cape Henry, strategically located, played a role in the history of these two events.
Painting, "Battle of the Capes," credit to U.S. Navy