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River, to prevent Cornwallis from crossing, and escaping to the southward into Carolina. Others were sent to close the mouth of the York. By these detachments the main fleet was reduced to twenty-four sail of the line.
On the 5th of September, at 8 A.m., the French look-out frigate, cruising outside Cape Henry, made the signal for a fleet steering for the Bay. It was hoped at first that this was de Barras's squadron from Newport, known to be on its way, but it was soon evident from the numbers that it must be an enemy. The forces now about to be opposed, nineteen British sail of the line to twenty-four French, were constituted as follows: British, two 98's (three-deckers); twelve 74's, one 70, four 64's, besides frigates; French, one 104 (three-decker),1 three 80's, seventeen 74's, three 64's.
The mouth of the Chesapeake is about ten miles wide, from Cape Charles on the north to Cape Henry on the south. The main channel is between the latter and a shoal, three miles to the northward, called the Middle Ground. The British fleet, when the French were first seen from it, was steering south-west for the entrance, under foresails and topgallant sails, and it so continued, forming line as it approached. The wind was north-north-east. At noon the ebb-tide made, and the French began to get under way, but many of their ships had to make several tacks to clear Cape Henry. Their line was consequently late in forming, and was by no means regular or closed as they got outside.
At 1 P.m. Graves made the signal to form column on an east and west line, which with the wind as it was would be the close-hauled line heading out to sea, on the other tack from that on which his fleet still was. In this order he continued to head in for the entrance. At 2 P.m. the French van, standing out, three miles distant by estimate, bore south
1 The Ville de Paris, to which Troude attributes 104 guns. She was considered the biggest and finest ship of her day.
from the London, Graves's flagship, and was therefore abreast of the centre of the British line. As the British van came near the Middle Ground, at 2.13 P.m., the ships wore together. This put them on the same tack as the French, Hood's division, which had been leading, being now the rear in the reversed order. The fleet then brought-to, — stopped, — in order to allow the centre of the enemy to come abreast of the centre of the British (aa, aa.) The two lines now were nearly parallel, but the British, being five ships fewer, naturally did not extend so far as the rear of the French, which in fact was not yet clear of the Cape. At 2.30 Graves made the signal for the van ship (the Shrewsbury), to lead more to starboard (1) — towards the enemy. As each ship in succession would take her course to follow the leader, the effect of this was to put the British on a line inclined to that of the enemy, the van nearest, and as the signal was renewed three quarters of an hour later, — at 3.17, — this angle became still more marked (bb).1 This was the original and enduring cause of a lamentable failure by which seven of the rear ships, in an inferior force undertaking to attack, never came into battle at all. At 3.34 the van was ordered again to keep still more toward the enemy.
At 3.46 the signal was made for ships to close to one cable, followed almost immediately by that to bear down and engage the enemy, — the signal for the line still flying. Graves's flagship, the London, 98 (f), which was hove-to, filled and bore down. Under the conditions, the van ships of course got first under fire, and the action gradually extended from them to the twelfth in the order, two ships astern of the London. According to the log of the latter, at 4.11 the signal for the line ahead was hauled down, that it might not interfere with that for close action, but at 4.22 it was rehoisted,
1 This reproduced the blunder of Byng, between whose action and the one now under discussion there is a marked resemblance.
"the ships not being sufficiently extended." The meaning of this expression may be inferred from Beatson's account: —
"The London, by taking the lead, had advanced farther towards the enemy than some of the ships stationed immediately ahead of her in the line of battle; and upon luffing up (f) to bring her broadside to bear, they having done the same thing, her second ahead (m) was brought nearly upon her weather beam. The other ships ahead of her were likewise too much crowded together."
As the ship on the London's weather beam could not fire upon the enemy unless she drew ahead, this condition probably accounts for the flagship being again hove-to, while firing, as Hood says that she was. The signal for the line was hauled down again at 4.27, by the London's log, that for close action being up, and repeated at 5.20, when Hood (h) at last bore down with his division (h'), but the French ships bearing up also, he did not near them. Firing ceased shortly after sunset. The loss of the British was 90 killed, 246 wounded; that of the French is given only in round numbers, as about 200 killed and wounded.
Hood's statement introduces certain important qualifications into the above account: —
"Our centre began to engage at the same time as the van, at four, but at a most improper distance, and our rear, being barely within random shot, did not fire while the signal for the line was flying. The London had the signal for close action flying, as well as the signal for the line ahead at half a cable was under her topsails, with the main topsail to the mast,1 though the enemy's ships were pushing on."
As showing the improper distance at which the London brought-to to fire, he says: —
"The second ship astern of her (of the London) received but trifling damage, and the third astern of her received no damage at all, which most clearly proves [at] how much too great a distance was the centre division engaged."
1 I.e. she had stopped.