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Battle of Cape Henry, 16th March 1781

Historical Background

At the end of 1780 Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (who had switched sides to the British that year) was ordered to Virginia to fortify Portsmouth. In response George Washington sent the Marquis de Lafayette south to oppose Arnold. In an attempt to trap Arnold, Washington requested help from the French admiral Destouches.

The British had a larger fleet anchored at Gardiner Bay commanded by Vice Admiral of the White Mariot Arbuthnot, which initially deterred admiral Destouches from complying. However, gale force winds in January and February 1781 damaged part of Arbuthnot's fleet, leveling the naval force of the fleets. In February Destouches sent a squadron of three ships south to investigate the British ships supporting general Arnold at Chesapeake. At the same time Arbuthnot sent several ships to investigate the French movements. As a consequence, the French squadron managed to capture the British heavy frigate HMS Romulus.

Based on this modest success, Destouches launched a full scale operation sailing with his whole fleet (including the Romulus), carrying 1200 troops to be deployed in Chesapeake on the 8th March.

Arbuthnot learned of Destouches's sailing on the 10th March and immediately sailed from Gardiner Bay in pursuit. Due to advantageous wind and also copper-clad vessels, Arbuthnot reached Cape Henry on the 16th March slightly ahead of Destouches.

Of the two fleets the British had a slight advantage in firepower. The 90-gun HMS London was the largest ship of either fleet and the French fleet's complement of eight ships was completed by the recently captured 44-gun Romulus, the smallest vessel on either line.

At 06:00 on 16th March, on spotting the French fleet to the northeast, Arbuthnot came about, and Destouches ordered his ships to form a line of battle heading east, with the wind.

Between 08:00 and 09:00 the winds started changing, and the two fleets manoeuvred for several hours, both attempting to gain the advantage of the weather gage. By 13:00 the wind had stabilised from the northeast. Both fleets were heading east-southwest and Arbuthnot, was approaching the rear of the French line.

Destouches, gave orders to wear in succession, and brought his line around in front of the British line. With this manoeuvre he surrendered the weather gage, 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 followed the French manoeuvre by ordering his fleet to wear too. As the leading ships performed this manoeuvre they were exposed to the French line's fire. This lead to the Robust, Europe, and Prudent taking very heavy damage to their sails and rigging. The signal for maintaining the line was kept, and rest of the British fleet lined up behind the damaged vessels. At this point, Destouches again ordered his fleet to wear in succession, and his ships fired on the damaged British ships once more, this time taking off London's topsail yard.

As the fleets disengaged, the French fleet pulled away to the east, leaving Arbuthnot positioned to enter the Chesapeake, thereby frustrating Destouches’s objective.

by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013
Strategema Games

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