Revolutionary War Naval Battle



Battle Summary
Details Stats Colonists/Allies British/Allies
Name: Battle of Cape Henry (Naval Battle) Total Forces:
Date(s): 03/16/1781 Killed: 72 30
Location: Cape Henry, Virginia Wounded: 112 73
Duration (days): 1 Captured:
Victory: Neutral Total Ships: 8 8
Col./Ally Cmdr.: Des Touches Ships Lost:
Brit./Ally Cmdr.: Mariot Arbuthnot Ships Captured:


The Battle of Cape Henry was a naval battle in the American War of Independence which took place near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on 16 March 1781 between a British squadron led by Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot and a French fleet under Admiral Charles René Dominique Sochet, Chevalier Destouches. Destouches, based in Newport, Rhode Island, had sailed for the Chesapeake as part of a joint operation with the Continental Army to oppose the British army of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold that was active in Virginia.

Admiral Destouches was asked by General George Washington to take his fleet to the Chesapeake to support military operations against Arnold by the Marquis de Lafayette. Sailing on 8 March, he was followed two days later by Admiral Arbuthnot, who sailed from eastern Long Island. Arbuthnot’s fleet outsailed that of Destouches, reaching the Virginia Capes just ahead of Destouches on 16 March. After manoeuvring for several hours, the battle was joined, and both fleets suffered some damage and casualties without losing any ships. However, Arbuthnot was positioned to enter the Chesapeake as the fleets disengaged, frustrating Destouches’ objective. Destouches returned to Newport, while Arbuthnot protected the bay for the arrival of additional land troops to reinforce General Arnold.


In December 1780, British General Sir Henry Clinton sent Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (who had changed sides to the British the previous September) with about 1,700 troops to Virginia to do some raiding and to fortify Portsmouth. General George Washington responded by sending the Marquis de Lafayette south with a small army to oppose Arnold. Seeking to trap Arnold between Lafayette’s army and a French naval detachment, Washington asked the French admiral Destouches, the commander of the fleet at Newport, Rhode Island for help. Destouches was wary of the threat posed by the slightly larger British North American fleet anchored at Gardiner’s Bay off the eastern end of Long Island, and was reluctant to help.

A storm in early February damaged some of Arbuthnot’s fleet, which prompted Destouches to send a squadron of three ships south shortly after. When they reached the Chesapeake, the British ships supporting Arnold moved up the shallow Elizabeth River, where the French ships were unable to follow. The French fleet returned to Newport, having as their only success the capture of {HMS|Romulus|1777|6}, a heavy frigate that was one of several ships sent by the British to investigate the French movements. This modest success, and the encouragement of General Washington, prompted Destouches to embark on a full-scale operation. On 8 March, Washington was in Newport when Destouches sailed with his entire fleet, carrying 1,200 troops for use in land operations when they arrived in the Chesapeake.

Vice Admiral of the White Mariot Arbuthnot, the British fleet commander in North America, was aware that Destouches was planning something, but did not learn of Destouches’ sailing until 10 March, and immediately led his fleet out of Gardiner Bay in pursuit. He had the speed advantage of copper-clad vessels and a favourable wind, and reached Cape Henry on 16 March, slightly ahead of Destouches.


Although the two fleets both had eight ships in their lines, the British had an advantage in firepower: the 90-gun {HMS|London|1766|6} was the largest ship of either fleet (compared to the 84-gun Duc de Bourgogne), while the French fleet also included the recently captured 44-gun Romulus, the smallest vessel on either line. When Arbuthnot spotted the French fleet to his northeast at 6 am on 16 March, they were about {convert|40|nmi|km|abbr=on} east-northeast of Cape Henry. Arbuthnot came about, and Destouches ordered his ships to form a line of battle heading west, with the wind. Between 8 and 9 am the winds began shifting, but visibility remained poor, and the two fleets manoeuvred for several hours, each seeking the advantage of the weather gage. By 1 pm the wind had stabilised from the northeast, and Arbuthnot, with superior seamanship, was coming up on the rear of the French line as both headed east-southeast, tacking against the wind. Destouches, in order to escape this position, gave orders to wear ship in sequence, and brought his line around in front of the advancing British line. With this manoeuvre he surrendered the weather gage (giving Arbuthnot the advantage in determining the attack), but it also positioned his ships relative to the wind such that he could open his lower gundecks in the heavy seas, which the British could not do without the risk of water washing onto the lower decks.

Arbuthnot responded to the French manoeuvre by ordering his fleet to wear. When the ships in the van of his line made the maneuver, they were fully exposed to the French line’s fire, and consequently suffered significant damage. Robust, Europe, and Prudent were virtually unmanageable due to damage to their sails and rigging. Arbuthnot kept the signal for maintaining the line flying, and the British fleet thus lined up behind the damaged vessels. Destouches at this point again ordered his fleet to wear in succession, and his ships raked the damaged British ships once more, taking off London{‘s} topsail yard before pulling away to the east.


French casualties were 72 killed and 112 wounded, while the British suffered 30 killed and 73 wounded. Arbuthnot pulled into Chesapeake Bay, thus frustrating the original intent of Destouches’ mission, while the French fleet returned to Newport. After transports delivered 2,000 men to reinforce Arnold, Arbuthnot returned to New York. He resigned his post as station chief due to age and infirmity in July and left for England, ending a stormy, difficult, and unproductive relationship with General Clinton.

General Washington, unhappy that the operation had failed, wrote a letter that was mildly critical of Destouches. This letter was intercepted and published in an English newspaper, prompting a critical response to Washington by the Comte de Rochambeau, the French army commander at Newport. The Comte de Barras, who arrived in May to take command of the Newport station, justified Destouches’ failure to pursue the attack: “It is a principle in war that one should risk much to defend one’s positions, and very little to attack those of the enemy.” Naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan points out that “this aversion from risks […] goes far to explain the French want of success in the war.”

Lafayette, when he learned of the French failure, turned back north to rejoin Washington. Washington then ordered Lafayette to stay in Virginia, having learned of the reinforcements sent to Arnold. Although the French operation to support Lafayette was unsuccessful, the later naval operations by the Comte de Grasse that culminated in the French naval victory in the September 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake paved the way for a successful naval blockade and land siege of Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, Virginia.

The battle has been memorialized by American singer-songwriter Todd Snider in “The Ballad of Cape Henry”. Although there is a marker commemorating the Battle of the Chesapeake at the Cape Henry Memorial in Virginia, there is no recognition of this battle at the site.

==Order of battle==

Basic information (ship names and gun counts) are provided by Morrissey unless otherwise cited. The names of ship captains are provided by Mahan unless otherwise cited, and casualty figured are provided by Lapeyrouse. Mahan and Lapeyrouse disagree on the casualty count; Mahan reports that the British had 30 killed and 73 wounded, and that the French had 72 killed and 112 wounded.

Sources also disagree on which ship carried Destouches and his flag. The English-language sources (Mahan, p. 492, and Morrissey, p. 51) list his flag on board the Neptune, while Lapeyrouse (p. 170) lists the Duc de Bourgogne. The Duc de Bourgogne was the flagship of Destouches’ predecessor, the Chevalier de Ternay, during which time Destouches was captain of the Neptune; Destouches may have moved to the Duc de Bourgogne upon Ternay’s death.

– Other ships

* Guadalupe (frigate, 28, Hugh Robinson)
* Pearl (frigate, 32, George Montagu)
* Iris (frigate, 32, George Dawson)
* Medea (frigate, 28, Henry Duncan)

– Other ships

* Hermione (frigate, 36, Latouche)
* Gentille (frigate, 32, M. de Maingand)
* Fantasque (14, M. de Vaudoré)