Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"An Inquiry Into Naval Tactics," 9/5/1781

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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On June 26, 1781, the Continental Congress appointed John Paul Jones as Captain of America, a 74-gun warship under construction at John Langdon's shipyard across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  America's construction had been authorized in November 1776 and had been laid down the following May, but a chronic shortage of funds, skilled craftsmen, and well-seasoned timber delayed the work for years.  By the time Jones assumed command of the warship-to-be, construction had nearly stalled and America's previous commander, Captain John Barry, narrowly derailed a scheme to reduce her construction to that of a 54-gun heavy frigate.  Despite ongoing logistical difficulties, Jones worked tirelessly to forward the completion of the only ship-of-the-line to be launched by the United States during the American Revolution.  Sadly, two months before she entered the water on November 5, 1782, the nearly bankrupt Congress decided to gift America to the French Navy, replacing one of their own warships that had been wrecked near Boston that summer.

Hoping vainly to become the Continental Navy's first admiral, Jones eagerly began preparing himself for the role.  "Ever the self-improver," notes biographer Evan Thomas, "Jones had been reading tracts on naval tactics and architecture."  One tract that may well have been available to Jones is John Clerk's An Inquiry into Naval Tactics, published in January of 1782.  This work examines several naval battles from the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, and the War of the Austrian Succession where British fleets engaged with those of the French.  Among other things, Clerk notes that French naval doctrine of the time discourages attacking from the windward (commonly known as "the weather gague") in a fleet action, and concentrating their fire to damage an enemy's sails and rigging.  In nearly all of the actions described in the Inquiry, the French eagerly maintain a leeward position and will even delay an engagement to surrender the weather gauge.  In these actions, despite a valiant attack, many of the British vessels find themselves heavily disabled and unable to prevent the French from departing the scene or achieving any other objective they may have had.  The primary question Clerk poses is this: "Will we not have reason to believe, that the French have adopted, and put in execution, some system, which the British either have not discovered, or have not yet profited by the discovery?"

"Second Battle of the Virginia Capes," by V. Zveg, circa 1961.

One of the actions described is the one that took place on September 5, 1781 near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, commonly known as the (second) Battle of the Capes.  This battle would prove to be critical to the outcome of the war, as the ensuing French victory on the sea prevented British Admiral Graves from reinforcing Lord Cornwallis and contributed heavily to his surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.  Clerk's discussion of the battle begins with an excerpt from Grave's own report:

"EXTRACT of a LETTER from Vice-Admiral Graves, 31st August 1781, off Sandy-hook.

'I beg you will be pleased to acquaint my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that the moment the wind served to carry the ships over the bar, which was buoyed for the purpose, the squadron came out; and Sir Samuel Hood getting under sail at the same time, the fleet proceeded together on the thirty-first of August, to the Southward.

The cruisers which I had placed before the Delaware could give me no certain information, and the cruisers off the Chesepeak had not joined: The winds being rather favourable, we approached the Chesepeak the morning of the 5th of September, when the advanced ship made the signal of a fleet.  We soon discovered a number of great ships at anchor, which seemed to be extended across the entrance of the Chesepeak, from Cape Henry to the middle ground: They had a frigate cruising off the Cape, which stood in and joined them; and, as we approached, the whole fleet got under sail, and stretched out to sea, with the wind at N.N.E.  As we drew nearer, I formed the line first a-head, and then in such a manner as to bring his Majesty's fleet nearly parallel to the line of approach of the enemy; and when I found that our van was advanced as far as the shoal of the middle ground would admit of, I wore the fleet, and brought them upon the same tack with the enemy, and nearly parallel to them, though we were by no means extended with their rear.  So soon as I judged that our van would be able to operate, I made the signal to bear away and approach, and soon after, to engage the enemy close.  Somewhat after four, the action began amongst the headmost ships, pretty close, and soon became general, as far as the second ship from the center, towards the rear.  The van of the enemy bore away, to enable their center to support them, or they would have been cut up.  The action did not entirely cease till a little after sun-set, though at a considerable distance for the center of the enemy continued to bear up as it advanced; and, at that moment, seemed to have little more in view than to shelter their own van, as it went away before the wind.

His Majesty's fleet consisted of nineteen sail of the line; that of the French formed twenty-four sail in their line.  After night, I sent the frigates to the van and rear, to push forward the line, and keep it extended with the enemy, with a full intention to renew the engagement in the morning; but, when the frigate Fortune returned from the van, I was informed, that several of the ships had suffered so much, that they were in now condition to renew the action until they had secured their masts; we, however, kept well extended with the enemy all night.

We continued all day, the 6th, in sight of each other, repairing our damages.  Rear-Admiral Drake shifted his flag into the Alcide, until the Princess had got up another main-top mast.  The Shrewsberry, whose Captain lost a leg, and had the first Lieutenant killed, was obliged to reef both top-masts, shifted her top-sail yards, and had sustained very great damage.  I ordered Captain Colpoys of the Orpheus to take command of her, and put her into a state for action.

The Intrepid had both top-sail yards shot down, her top-masts in great danger of falling, and her lower masts and yards very much damaged, her Captain having behaved with the greatest gallantry to cover the Shrewsberry.  The Montague was in great danger of losing her masts; the Terrible so leaky as to keep all her pumps going; and the Ajax also very leaky.

In the present state of the fleet, and being five sail of the line less in number than the enemy, and they having advanced very much in the wind upon us during he day, I determined to tack after eight, to prevent being drawn too far from the Chesepeak, and to stand to the Northward.'"

Using some plates and figures included in Clerk along with some analysis from late 19th/early 20th century naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, we can break down the action as follows:

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 1:
"F.  The French fleet at anchor, and extended across the entrance of the Chesepeak,
from Cape Henry to the middle ground, who, as soon as they perceived the British
fleet approaching, got under sail, and stretched out to sea upon the larboard tack, as at G.
B.  The British fleet advancing to the middle ground, but not till after the French had
left it, formed in a line nearly parallel to that of the French at G.
Mahan tells us that the British force included 19 sail of the line (two 98-gun ships, twelve 74's, one 70, and four 64's) opposing 24 French sail of the line (one 104-gun ship, three 80's, seventeen 74's, and three 64's).  The French ships were initially on station near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay south of the shoals at Middle Ground in the main channel (the open water between the Middle Ground and Cape Charles are relatively shallow...two to four fathoms deep until you clear Cape Charles, as opposed to eight to thirteen fathoms south of the shoal, according to a 1776 chart of the bay).  A French frigate on look out sights the approaching British near 8:00 AM, with wind from the NNE.  The French fleet gets underway with the ebb tide near noon, having to make several tacks in order to clear Cape Henry.  As a result, their line at G above forms late and was initially not very regular or close.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 2:
"B.  The British fleet, after having advanced as far as the shoal upon the middle ground,
as per course A, wore, and having stood after the enemy, are now upon the larboard
tack, extended in line of battle a-head, and almost a-breast of them."
At 2:00 PM, the French van bore directly south of Graves's flagship (putting the French van roughly abreast of the British center) at about three miles distance.  As the British fleet approached the Middle Ground around 2:13 PM, they wore together and hove to, allowing the French center to come abreast of the British center.  Although it isn't readily apparent from Clerk's figure above, the French line was significantly longer than the outnumbered British, and the rearmost French ships still hadn't completely cleared Cape Henry.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 3:
"Mr Graves says: 'So soon as I judged that our van would be able to operate, I made
the signal to bear away, and approach as at B; and, soon after, to engage the enemy close.'"
At 2:30 PM, Graves signals for HMS Shrewsbury (the British van ship) to lead farther starboard towards the enemy.  As each of the British ship maintained the line by following the course of the ship ahead, this put the British line on a course inclined towards the French, the angle of which became more marked as Graves renewed this signal at 3:17 and again at 3:34 PM.

Clerk refers to this inclined approach as "lasking."  This practice comes with several disadvantages, most of which were demonstrated during the battle.  Any ship attempting to bear down on an enemy at right angles must have their vulnerable bow pointed directly at the enemy's broadside, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to the enemy's full fire with little or no ability to respond in kind.  Lasking extends this vulnerable period by reducing the angle of approach; since it takes longer for the approaching fleet to reach their desired point of engagement, they will be exposed to unequal volumes of enemy fire that much longer.  As Mahan asserts, "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."  The larger the angle of approach between the two fleets grew, the farther away the British rear was forced to swing from the enemy in order to maintain their formation of line ahead.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 4:
"'Somewhat after four, the action began amongst the headmost ships, pretty close, and
soon became general, as far as the second ship from the center, towards the rear.  The van
of the enemy bore away,' as at G, 'to enable their center to support them,' as at F,  or they
would have been cut up.'" 
With the signal for line ahead still flying, Graves signals at 3:46 PM to close to one cable's length (240 yards) followed almost immediately by a signal to bear down and engage.  Due to the lasking approach, the British van is naturally the first to come under fire, the action extending to the twelfth ship in the British line, two behind the flagship London, which filled her sails and bore down.  At approximately 4:11, the signal for line ahead was hauled down to not interfere with the signal for close action, only to have the signal for line ahead raised again at 4:22 PM, as the British line was no longer well extended...London had in fact advanced farther towards the enemy than several ships stationed ahead of her in the line of battle.  As a result, when London luffed up to bring her broadside to bear on the enemy, the ships immediately ahead were practically on her weather beam, and could not open fire until London moved out of the way.  The signal for line ahead was hauled down again at 4:27, with the signal for close action still flying and being renewed at 5:20 PM.  The rear of the British line finally bore up at a distance conducive to joining the battle, but the French were now bearing away.  Firing ceased shortly after sunset.

Admiral Graves,
commanding the British
at the Battle of the Capes.
Admiral de Grasse,
commanding the French
at the Battle of the Capes.
Commanding the ships at the rear of the British line, Rear Admiral Samuel Hood would prove to be quite critical of Graves's tactics following the battle.  Among Hood's points was that the French line was very disorderly in forming up, giving Graves nearly an hour and a half where he could have engaged the French van without the possibility of support from the French rear.  Hood also criticized Graves's angular approach, which forced the British vessels to come into action successively instead of simultaneously.  Finally, Hood chastises Graves for keeping the signal for line ahead raised nearly until the end of the action; while this signal was up, each British ship was ordered to maintain its station in the line of battle, and captains could not use their own initiative to advance and support the ships of the British van and center as they came under fire.  Hood believes that if the signal for line ahead had been lowered much earlier, the British rear could have effectively entered the action, and at the very least, the French van would have been cut to pieces.

As it was, Graves made plans to renew the action the following morning, though he was soon informed by his subordinates that several of his van ships were too crippled to do so.  As the British fleet struggles to make repairs, Graves keeps his own ships within sight of the French line, disregarding advice from Admiral Hood to turn away and attempt to beat the French back to the Chesapeake and put themselves in a position to support Cornwallis.  The two fleets remain within sight of one another until September 9th, when the French vessels were seen for the last time, "They were then under a cloud of sail, and on the morning of the 10th had disappeared."  On the morning of the 10th, Graves is forced to order the 74-gun HMS Terrible burned (she had only just been kept afloat during the days following the battle) before turning back to Virginia.

Meanwhile, another French fleet under Admiral de Barras had arrived at the entrance to the Chesapeake on September 10 (having taken a circuitous route from Newport, Rhode Island to avoid British forces), and was joined by the returning de Grasse on the 11th.  Admiral Graves and the British fleet arrive at the Virginia Capes on the 13th to discover that the French now had 36 sail of the line protecting entrance to the bay.  Graves reluctantly decides to return to New York.  In the meantime, General Washington arrives at Yorktown on September 14th, beginning the siege that eventually compels General Cornwallis to surrender on October 19th.  At that point, the outcome of the American Revolution was effectively decided.

In addition to commentary on the various battles, Clerk goes on to make several observations about the Royal Navy of the time:

-Due to the conditions and extensive coastlines of the British Isles, British seamen tend to be better trained navigators and shiphandlers than their counterparts in France and elsewhere.
-British seamen are also renowned for their courage under fire.  This trait is supported by British warships tenaciously seeking the windward position, and eagerly bearing down on their enemies to attack.  The tendency of the French and Spanish fleets to work to avoid a direct engagement suggests they acknowledge the superior courage of the British.
-Despite and advantage in the skill and courage of their seamen, British vessels tended to be of slightly inferior design to other European-built warships.  Clerk uses this point to insert an admonition for Royal Navy shipwrights and dockyards to step up their game.
-In single ship actions, British warships can be expected to prevail under most circumstances.  That being the case, is there not some way to adapt this skill so that the British can perform with equal success in fleet engagements?

Clerk concludes his Inquiry by suggesting a new approach to fleet engagements, where the British can still make use of the weather gauge and prove victorious in fleet engagements.  Rather than approaching an enemy fleet with the goal of coming directly alongside the enemy fleet and engaging them as a whole (which usually results in British ships, especially in the van, of becoming so disabled upon the approach that they are unable to prosecute the battle to a successful conclusion), Clerk proposes approaching in divisions rather than in line ahead.  The first British division will approach and engage the rearmost ships of the enemy fleet, with subsequent divisions in such a position to support/reinforce the first as possible, almost guaranteeing that the enemy rear will be defeated.  The enemy fleet then has the choice of either abandoning their rear or coming about by tacking or wearing to support them.  In almost every case, this situation seems to result in an enemy fleet finding themselves forced into a series of single ship actions as successive British divisions joining the fight, a circumstance that is sure to favor the British.  Clerk goes on to suggest a variety of means for attacking an enemy fleet by divisions, listing advantages and disadvantages of each, before noting that it will take active sea-officers attempting these new tactics in battle to determine which method is best.

Perhaps in the decades following the Battle of the Capes in 1781, a British naval officer will arise and make a name for himself by completely eschewing the traditional line of battle tactics of previous years.  Maybe he will even win his most celebrated battle by attacking a larger fleet by driving his own vessels in two divisions, breaking the enemy line, and then enveloping and overcoming them piecemeal.

Time will tell...

1. Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2003).
2. Clerk, John.  An Inquiry into Naval Tactics.  (Edinburgh, 1782).
3. Mahan, Alfred Thayer.  The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence.  (Amazon Digital Services, 2011).