Yorktown Campaign > Battle of the Chesapeake

Battle of the Chesapeake


The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, took place on September 5, 1781, off the coast of Virginia, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. This naval engagement between the French fleet, commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, and the British fleet, led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War. The French victory at the Chesapeake ensured the success of the subsequent Siege of Yorktown, leading to the ultimate American victory.


  1. Strategic Importance:

    • The Chesapeake Bay was a critical strategic location. Control of the bay would allow the British to reinforce and supply their troops under General Lord Cornwallis, who was fortifying his position at Yorktown, Virginia.
    • The French and American forces aimed to block British naval support, effectively trapping Cornwallis and preventing his escape or resupply.
  2. French and American Plans:

    • The French fleet, under Admiral de Grasse, had sailed from the Caribbean to support the American cause. De Grasse coordinated with General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau to time the arrival of the French fleet with the movements of the Continental Army.
    • The plan was for the French fleet to block the Chesapeake Bay while American and French troops moved to besiege Cornwallis at Yorktown.

The Battle:

  1. Forces Involved:

    • The French fleet consisted of 24 ships of the line and several smaller vessels.
    • The British fleet, commanded by Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, comprised 19 ships of the line.
  2. Initial Movements:

    • On August 30, 1781, de Grasse's fleet entered the Chesapeake Bay and began landing troops and supplies to support the American forces.
    • The British fleet, arriving from New York, aimed to engage the French and lift the blockade.
  3. Engagement:

    • On September 5, 1781, the two fleets sighted each other near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. The French fleet moved to engage the British outside the bay to prevent them from entering and disrupting their operations.
    • The battle began in the afternoon, with both fleets forming battle lines. The engagement lasted several hours, with both sides exchanging heavy cannon fire.
  4. Tactical Maneuvers:

    • The French fleet maintained a disciplined formation, effectively using their superior positioning to inflict damage on the British ships.
    • The British fleet, under Graves, suffered from poor coordination and signaling issues, leading to disjointed and ineffective attacks.
  5. Outcome:

    • By evening, the battle ended inconclusively, but the French fleet had maintained control of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.
    • The British fleet, having suffered significant damage, withdrew to New York for repairs, unable to break the French blockade.

Aftermath and Impact:

  1. French Control of the Bay:

    • The French victory at the Chesapeake ensured that the British could not reinforce or evacuate Cornwallis’s troops at Yorktown.
    • The French fleet's control of the bay allowed for the secure landing of additional French troops and supplies, bolstering the allied forces.
  2. Siege of Yorktown:

    • With the Chesapeake Bay effectively blocked, Washington and Rochambeau were able to march their troops to Yorktown and begin the siege.
    • The combined Franco-American forces successfully besieged Yorktown, leading to Cornwallis's surrender on October 19, 1781.
  3. Strategic Significance:

    • The Battle of the Chesapeake was a turning point in the American Revolutionary War. The French naval victory directly contributed to the success of the Yorktown campaign.
    • The inability of the British to control the Chesapeake Bay highlighted the importance of naval power and coordination in the war.
  4. End of Major Combat Operations:

    • The defeat at Yorktown, made possible by the French victory at the Chesapeake, effectively ended major combat operations in the American Revolutionary War.
    • The British defeat accelerated peace negotiations, culminating in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which recognized American independence.


The Battle of the Chesapeake was a decisive moment in the American Revolutionary War, leading directly to the successful Siege of Yorktown and the eventual independence of the United States.

Yorktown Campaign Battles


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