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down to the entrance of the bay, he was able to follow at once. On the 13th he spoke a vessel which had seen the enemy and gave him their course. Favoured by a strong north-west wind, and his ships being coppered, he outstripped the French, only three of which had coppered bottoms. At 6 A.m. of March 16th a British frigate reported that the enemy were astern — to the north-east — about a league distant, a thick haze preventing the squadron from seeing them even at that distance (A, A). Cape Henry, the southern point of the entrance to the Chesapeake, then bore southwest by west, distant forty miles. The wind as stated by Arbuthnot was west; by the French, south-west.
The British admiral at once went about, steering in the direction reported, and the opposing squadrons soon sighted one another. The French finding the British between them and their port, hauled to the wind, which between 8 and 9 shifted to north by west, putting them to windward. Some preliminary manoeuvres then followed, both parties seeking the weather-gage. The weather remained thick and squally, often intercepting the view; and the wind continued to shift until towards noon, when it settled at north-east. The better sailing, or the better seamanship, of the British had enabled them to gain so far upon their opponents that at 1 P.m. they were lying nearly up in their wake, on the port tack, overhauling them; both squadrons in line of battle, heading east-south-east, the French bearing from their pursuers east by south,—one point on the weather bow (B, B). The wind was rising with squalls, so that the ships lay over well to their canvas, and the sea was getting big.
As the enemy now was threatening his rear, and had the speed to overtake, des Touches felt it necessary to resort to the usual parry to such a thrust, by wearing his squadron and passing on the other tack. This could be done either together, reversing the order of the ships, or in succession, preserving the natural order; depending much upon the distance of the enemy. Having room enough, des Touches chose the latter, but, as fighting was inevitable, he decided also to utilise the manoeuvre by surrendering the weather-gage, and passing to leeward. The advantage of this course was that, with the existing sea and wind, and the inclination of the ships, the party that had the opponent on his weather side could open the lower-deck ports and use those guns. There was thus a great increase of battery power, for the lower guns were the heaviest. Des Touches accordingly put his helm up, his line passing in succession to the southward (c) across the head of the advancing British column, and then hauling up so as to run parallel to the latter, to leeward, with the wind four points free.
Arbuthnot accepted the position offered, stood on as he was until nearly abreast of the French, and at 2 P.m. made the signal to wear. It does not appear certainly how this was executed; but from the expression in the official report, "the van of the squadron wore in the line," and from the fact that the ships which led in the attack were those which were leading on the port tack, — the tack before the signal was made, — it seems likely that the movement was made in succession (a). The whole squadron then stood down into action, but with the customary result. The ships in the van and centre were all engaged by 2.30, so Arbuthnot states; but the brunt of the engagement had already fallen upon the three leading vessels, which got the first raking fire, and, as is also usual, came to closer action than those which followed them (C). They therefore not only lost most heavily in men, but also were so damaged aloft as to be crippled. The British Vice-Admiral, keeping the signal for the line flying, and not hoisting that for close action, appears to have caused a movement of indecision in the squadron, — an evidence
again of the hold which the line then still had upon men's minds. Of this des Touches cleverly availed himself, by ordering his van ships, which so far had borne the brunt, to keep away together and haul up on the other tack (e), while the ships behind them were to wear in succession; that is, in column, one following the other. The French column then filed by the three disabled British vessels (d), gave them their broadsides one by one, and then hauled off to the eastward, quitting the field (D). Arbuthnot made signal to wear in pursuit, but the Robust and Prudent, two of the van ships, were now wholly unmanageable from the concentration of fire upon them caused by des Touches's last movement; and the maintopsail yard of the London, the only British three-decker, had been shot away. The chase therefore was abandoned, and the squadron put into Chesapeake Bay, for which the wind was fair (D). The French returned to Newport. The respective losses in men were: British, 30 killed, 73 wounded; French, 72 killed, 112 wounded.
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