The Battle of the Capes featured 19 British and 24 French warships battling to a standstill leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. Because the battle preserved the French blockade of the Chesapeake and occupied the British Navy, General Charles Cornwallis was unable to secure the supplies and reinforcements that might have allowed him to fight his way from Yorktown. Instead, he surrendered to the American rebels-an action that ended the Revolutionary War.
On September 5, 1781, off the coast of Virginia, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most critical naval battles in United States history took place. The Battle of the Capes only lasting two and a half hours and did not involve any Americans, but this battle was one of the decisive factors that assured the United States would win independence from Great Britain.
The success of the French fleet in gaining control of the Chesapeake Bay prevented Cornwallis from receiving reinforcements and helped ensure that Washington could use the bay to transport troops and supplies to Yorktown. Without De Grasse's fleet gaining control of the Chesapeake Bay from the British, victory by the American and French armies at Yorktown would have been impossible. Without the French victory at the Battle of the Capes, American independence from Great Britain might never have been achieved.
With the British ships in black and the French in white the two sides formed a parallel line of attack near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and continued to sail in an eastward direction away from the bay. The
French had a firing advantage, since the wind conditions meant they could open
their lower gun ports, while the British had to leave theirs closed to avoid
water washing onto the lower decks. The French fleet, which was in a better
state of repair than the British fleet, outnumbered the British in the number
of ships and total guns, and had heavier guns capable of throwing more weight. The
French, in a practice they were known for, tended to aim at British masts and
rigging, with the intent of crippling their opponent's mobility.
This battle was the beginning of the end for the British empire in its fight for the Americas and thus lead to a stronger defense lead by Washington which in turn lead to the
surrender of Lord
Cornwallis, October 19, 1781 at Yorktown. Even though the British fleet's arrival in New York set off a flurry of
panic amongst the Loyalist population. The news of the defeat was also not
received well in London by King George III who is noted as saying that after the knowledge of the defeat of our
fleet, I nearly think the empire ruined.
With the French success there was a firm control of Chesapeake
Bay, completing the encirclement of Cornwallis. In addition to capturing a
number of smaller British vessels, de Grasse and Barras assigned their smaller
vessels to assist in the transport of Washington's and Rochambeau's forces from
Head of Elk to Yorktown.
No land force can act decisively unless it is accompanied by maritime superiority
---General George Washington
The Battle of Chesapeake Bay was one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain. ---Michael Lewis, The History of the British Navy
Few naval battles have decided more. ---Professor Randolph G Adams
It deserves the name of 'British Naval Waterloo of Cape Henry.' ---Emil Reich (European Historian)