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CHAPTER X

NAVAL OPERATIONS PRECEDING AND DETER– MINING THE FALL OF YORKTOWN. CORNWALLIS SURRENDERS

1781

AVING now brought the major naval transactions in the West Indies to the eve of the great events which determined the independence of the American States, it is expedient here to resume the thread of operations, both sea and land, on the American continent, so as to bring these also up to the same decisive moment, when the military and naval blended and in mutual support forced the surrender of the British army at Yorktown under Lord Cornwallis. It has been said that, to support the operations of Cornwallis in the Carolinas, Clinton had begun a series of diversions in the valley of the James River." The first detachment so sent, under General Leslie, had been transferred speedily to South Carolina, to meet the exigencies of Cornwallis's campaign. The second, of sixteen hundred troops under Benedict Arnold, left New York at the end of December, and began its work on the banks of the James at the end of January, 1781. It advanced to Richmond, nearly a hundred miles from the sea, wasting the country round about, and finding no opposition adequate to check its freedom of movement. Returning down stream, on the 20th it occupied Portsmouth, south of the James River; near the sea, and valuable as a naval station. Washington urged Commodore des Touches, who by de Ternay's death had been left in command of the French squadron at Newport, to interrupt these proceedings, by dispatching a strong detachment to Chesapeake Bay; and he asked Rochambeau also to let some troops accompany the naval division, to support the scanty force which he himself could spare to Virginia. It happened, however, that a gale of wind just then had inflicted severe injury upon Arbuthnot's squadron, three of which had gone to sea from Gardiner's Bay upon a report that three French ships of the line had left Newport to meet an expected convoy. One seventyfour, the Bedford, was wholly dismasted; another, the Culloden, drove ashore on Long Island and was wrecked. The French ships had returned to port the day before the gale, but the incident indisposed des Touches to risk his vessels at sea at that time. He sent only a sixty-four, with two frigates. These left Newport on February 9th, and entered the Chesapeake, but were unable to reach the British vessels, which, being smaller, withdrew up the Elizabeth River. Arbuthnot, hearing of this expedition, sent orders to some frigates off Charleston to go to the scene. The French division, when leaving the Bay, met one of these, the Romulus, 44, off the Capes, captured her, and returned to Newport on February 25th. On the 8th of March, Arnold reported to Clinton that the Chesapeake was clear of French vessels. On the same day Arbuthnot also was writing to Clinton, from Gardiner's Bay, that the French were evidently preparing to quit Newport. His utmost diligence had failed as yet to repair entirely the damage done his squadron by the storm, but on the 9th it was ready for sea. On the evening of the 8th the French had sailed. On the 10th Ar

* Ante, p. 153.

buthnot knew it, and, having taken the precaution to move 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 pursuerseast 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

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