The Battle of Cape Henry: Prelude to Final Victory

The scene should be familiar to any student of the American Revolution: two fleets fighting for control of Chesapeake Bay while a small army anxiously awaits the outcome, hoping that victory will bring needed reinforcements. Though it certainly describes the situation in which General Cornwallis found himself while defending Yorktown in September 1781, a similar drama had played out in these same waters six months earlier. While it did not bring the war to an end, the Battle of Cape Henry demonstrated the value of controlling the Chesapeake and gave American, British, and French forces alike a preview of the final showdown of the American Revolution.

When Benedict Arnold switched sides in September 1780he presented both an opportunity and a problem for the BritishThey were pleased to have won over a high-ranking officer from the Continental Army. Arnold had a reputation as a skilled, aggressive commander who was instrumental in halting two British invasions, one at Valcour Island and the second at Saratoga. Yet the British didn’t quite know if they could trust his military skills. The Commander in Chief, General Sir Henry Clinton, knew that Continental Army officers often obtained their commissions despite having no formal military training. Still, he needed somebody to support Cornwallis’ upcoming invasion of the South, so he assigned Arnold to conduct a series of raids in Virginia that would tie down local militia and prevent them from joining the main fight in the Carolinas. Clinton played it safe by imposing restrictions on Arnold’s movements. In all cases, he was to defend Portsmouth with an eye towards establishing a base for Cornwallis’ future operations.

To counter Arnold, George Washington formulated a plan to trap him between two converging forces. The first, composed of 1,200 soldiers under the Marquis de Lafayette, would march from New Jersey to Virginia and prevent Arnold from leaving Portsmouth. The second, a fleet of eight ships carrying another 1,200 soldiers, would sail from Newport, Rhode Island under the command of Commodore Charles-René Sochet, Chevalier des TouchesThe French vessels — seven ships of the line and one frigate — sailed from Newport on March 8, 1781Des Touches also carried instructions from General Washington to hang Benedict Arnold on the spot without the necessity of a trial for his treason.

Vice Admiral of the White Mariot Arbuthnot, the British fleet commander in North America, received intelligence reports indicating that the French were planning an operation, but did not learn of des Touches' sailing until March 10. He immediately led his fleet of eight warships out of Gardiner's Bay at the eastern tip of Long Island to pursue the FrenchTheir destination lay approximately 300 nautical miles to the south at Cape Henry, the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, through which all reinforcements bound for Portsmouth had to pass. The first fleet to arrive there would have the advantage and force the opposing fleet to either risk an attack or withdraw. Des Touches, wishing to surprise the British, took an indirect route farther out to sea to avoid being spotted. Arbuthnot, already having the advantage of faster ships due to their copper-clad hulls, decided to take the direct route. Despite leaving two days later, he arrived at Cape Henry slightly ahead of the French on March 16.

Diagram of the Battle of Cape Henry drawn by Alfred Thayer Mahan

At 6:00 that morning, the British frigate Iris reported that five sail of the line were in the haze astern to the north north-east, about forty miles northeast of Cape Henry. Arbuthnot immediately ordered his ships to close with the enemy. Both fleets maneuvered for several hours attempting to gain the weather gage. Des Touches initially held the advantageous upwind position, but strong winds and heavy seas convinced him to surrender it to the British. A ship firing downwind in heavy seas could not safely open its gunports on the lowest deck for fear of flooding. The French line turned 180 degrees and wore around to the starboard tack, now heading northwest toward the Cape Charles Peninsula. The ensuing battle lasted for an hour, during which Arbuthnot's three leading vessels, including his flagship, the 98-gun HMS London, were severely damaged. At the end of the engagement, superior British gunnery forced des Touches to break off the fight and return Lafayette's reinforcements to Rhode Island. British casualties were 30 killed and 73 wounded while the French suffered 72 killed and 112 wounded. Arbuthnot remained in the area to repair his ships and support the landing of 2,000 fresh troops for Arnold.

This painting illustrates the advantage of fighting downwind in heavy seas. The guns facing the viewer on the lowest deck may safely be fired, while those on the other (starboard) side may not.

From a tactical perspective, the French gave slightly better than they got. Though des Touches suffered higher casualties, he caused more damage to the British fleet and forced Arbuthnot’s squadron to remain out of action for two weeks while they made repairs. Writing in 1913, American naval strategist and former President of the Naval War College Alfred Thayer Mahan commended des Touches for outmaneuvering a superior opponent: “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.

At the operational and strategic levels, the battle must be judged a British victory. By chasing off the French and seizing control of Chesapeake Bay, Arbuthnot enabled Arnold with his reinforcements to launch further raids into the Virginia countryside. Opposing these raids drained valuable resources and prevented Virginia officials from sending soldiers and supplies to nearby Continental Army forces.

Model of the 80-gun Duc de Bourgogne, one of the French ships at the Battle of Cape Henry 
Naval War College Museum Collection

The Comte de Barras, who arrived in May to take command of the Newport station, supported des Touches' actions and argued that it was sound strategy to risk less on the attack than when fighting to defend a position. Mahan was not impressed with his reasoning, writing that “[t]his exaltation of the defensive above the offensive, this despairing view of probabilities, this aversion from risks, go far to explain the French want of success in this war. No matter how badly the enemy was thrashed, unless he were entirely destroyed, he was still a fleet in being,’ a paralyzing factor.

Indeed, the British fleet remained a threat to French and American forces throughout the summer of 1781. The two navies would meet again near Cape Henry in September, this time with the roles reversed as the French fought to maintain control of the Chesapeake and prevent the arrival of British reinforcements. In many ways, Cape Henry was a dress rehearsal for the larger showdown that sealed the fate of the British in the American Revolution.


Rob Doane
Curator
Naval War College Museum

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