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Decrepit ships, snarled signals, and indecision doomed the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes and secured America’s independence.

It is impossible to say who was more astounded that sunny morning of September 5, 1781, when lookouts in opposing French and British fleets reported ships off in the distance. Just six days earlier, Rear Adm. François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, commander of the French flotilla, had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, to the utter and obvious joy of the normally stoic Gen. George Washington. De Grasse’s ships had brought 3,000 crack troops of the Agenois, Gatinais, and Touraine regiments  to bolster the American-French coalition besieging the 8,000-man British army under Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The admiral, however, was expecting another eight French vessels laden with soldiers and heavy siege artillery from Newport, Rhode Island—not the Royal Navy.

Sailing on the northeast wind, British Rear Adm. Thomas Graves had trusted the intelligence gathered by his subordinate, Rear Adm. Sir Samuel Hood, who a week earlier, just a matter of hours before de Grasse arrived there, had observed no trace of enemy ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Eager to relieve Cornwallis, Graves was accustomed to British naval hegemony and did not expect to encounter the French, much less engage them. He had not called a council of captains to discuss tactics, nor had he coordinated a battle plan. Most significant for the upcoming naval melee, he and his fleet had neglected to synchronize their signals. Now the stunned English admiral found the entire French Caribbean fleet of 24 warships at anchor, outnumbering his 19 weather-beaten vessels.

De Grasse, on the Ville de Paris, the world’s largest warship, had his own concerns: His vessels were all inside Cape Henry; the tide was flooding; and 1,600 of his officers, sailors, and marines were ashore. Nonetheless, the intrepid admiral immediately ordered his ships to slip their anchor cables and form for battle.

The British ships, practically bowsprit to taffrail, bore down in a classic Royal Navy formation, typically so precise that, as a 17thcentury observer put it, “nothing equals the beautiful order of the English…line.” These ships sailing in a compact pattern conformed to the Royal Navy’s Permanent Fighting Instructions, which governed British naval warfare and maximized the firepower of the outnumbered fleet. Article 21 of the manual committed every vessel to remain in formation behind the lead vessel as long as the “line of battle” pennant flew from the flagship’s yard, but Graves knew that most of his ships, freshly arrived from the West Indies, had had no time to coalesce into efficient fighting machines.

De Grasse, the French commander, had taken 20 ships of the line and three frigates to escort some 150 transports across the Atlantic, had encountered an outnumbered British fleet under Hood in the Caribbean, blockaded Martinique, captured Tobago, and escorted another large convoy of merchantmen to Santo Domingo. There he received dispatches from the French minister to America, the chevalier de la Luzerne, and Lt. Gen. Jean Baptiste Donatien, comte de Rochambeau, asking him to sail for the Chesapeake.

De Grasse obeyed, expecting that Rochambeau would join him with troops to trap Cornwallis. In sailing, the admiral took a heavy risk, for he could do little without Rochambeau, and he left a single warship to protect a convoy of 126 merchantmen returning to France from the Caribbean. (That fleet arrived safely.)

De Grasse, borrowing artillery and troops from Caribbean garrisons, had staked much of his personal fortune and reputation on this bold, even reckless, maneuver to support Washington at Yorktown while leaving the Caribbean virtually defenseless. As one English officer reflected, “If the British government had sanctioned, or a British admiral had adopted, such a measure, the one would have been turned out and the other hanged.” Nevertheless, at Yorktown, he found both Washington and Rochambeau.

Now the British had found him. Sailors who feared the volatile temper of this bear of a man claimed de Grasse’s six-foot-two frame grew by inches before battle. As sails were raised, the admiral ordered cooking fires extinguished, marines to the fighting tops, and decks cleared for action. Although no vessel flew the American flag, the Battle of the Virginia Capes would decide the fate of the fledgling nation.

Not until the 1777 victory at Saratoga had Great Britain’s skeptical enemies believed that the ragtag Continental Army might actually achieve independence. Still, Washington concluded that “Whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest,” and since America’s infant fleet could no more than annoy the enemy, European alliances were imperative. Spain and Holland would join hostilities against Britain, but France was America’s staunchest ally, even before its formal declaration of war against Britain on July 10, 1778.

Since the humiliating military and territorial losses of the Seven Years’ War, France’s foreign policy focused on European peace, and vengeance against Britain. Observing the burgeoning postwar discontent in the colonies in 1770, the calculating French foreign minister, Étienne-François, duc de Choiseul, wrote that, “American independence was crucial…to prevent England’s further monopoly of transatlantic trade, to weaken its financial position, to tie up its manpower and seapower…, and to make more precarious England’s hold over its colonies.”

When hostilities opened on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775, Choiseul’s successor, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, began covertly supplying gunpowder, arms, and loans to the Americans through a sham trading firm, Roderique Hortalez & Co., while French harbors afforded a ready refuge for rebel privateers and ships. On February 6, 1778, the American delegation headed by Benjamin Franklin secured political recognition and a military alliance committing both allies not to accept peace with Britain until American independence had been achieved.

Whatever irony existed in a coalition between Europe’s oldest absolute monarchy and republican America, Washington welcomed the help of such volunteers as Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, to humble haughty Britain.

The English Channel, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean Sea became theaters of war again, amid the very waves where France had previously suffered the naval defeats of Quiberon Bay on the French Atlantic coast; Lagos, Portugal; and Negapatam and Porto Novo, both in the Bay of Bengal, during the Seven Years’ War.

The French and Indian War, as American historians call that conflict, had also left victorious England with onerous debts that not only led Great Britain to impose new taxes on its colonies but also forced Frederick North, Lord North, to make draconian cuts to the Royal Navy budget. When war broke out, William Barrington, Viscount Barrington, the secretary of war, believed the best use of the depleted Royal Navy was in a strict blockade, which by strangling commerce might bloodlessly bring the insurgent colonists to heel.

First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, ignored Barrington’s proposals. Americans slipped armaments the rebellion needed desperately past the porous British cordon, and American mariners raided English shipping even in the Irish Sea and the West Indies. “The sea is overspread with privateers,” grumbled Lord Sandwich, “and the demands for convoys and cruisers so great we know not how to handle them.” Meanwhile, the British army bungled every opportunity to crush the rebellion before French intervention could prop up the struggling revolution.

For the Royal Navy, however, the opening to the Battle of the Virginia Capes seemed auspicious, as the French struggled to form their line of battle. Admiral Graves on the 98-gun London commanded a squadron already in formation, with 1,400 guns and 13,000 mariners. Hood, his talented yet difficult subordinate, led the van on the 90-gun Barfleur.

Still, many British vessels were neglected and weathered. Loyalists had hailed Prince William Henry’s arrival in New York, but the shocked midshipman on HMS Prince George wrote his father, George III, that “The Fleet [is] in a most wretched condition…and there is a great scarcity of lower masts and…of all stores here.” During five years of occupation, the British had neglected to establish a naval yard, leaving Graves not only outnumbered but also supplied with mere “shadows of ships,” particularly the 74-gun Terrible, whose sailors were forced to man both pumps and cannons as it approached the formidable Gallic fleet.

For the colonies, however, French intervention had so far brought only disappointments and recriminations. The Toulon fleet under Adm. Charles Henri Jean-Baptiste, comte d’Estaing, whose martial talents never matched his courage, forced the British to evacuate Philadelphia and defend New York City, but his sluggish 12-week crossing of the Atlantic in 1778 precluded his interception of the outgunned Adm. Lord Richard Howe as he left the Delaware Bay for the safety of New York.

“Had a passage of even ordinary length taken place,” wrote a frustrated Washington, “Lord Howe with the British ships of war and all the transports in the River Delaware must inevitably have fallen,” giving France a nautical Saratoga. Those very same English vessels, which had escaped by just days, foiled his blockade of New York, and the admiral’s following strike on British-held Newport, Rhode Island, also failed. In 1779, d’Estaing led a catastrophic assault on Savannah, Georgia. Returning to France, he was placed in command of the National Guard at Versailles, protecting the royal family. (He was guillotined in Paris in 1794.)

Now, for this fateful 1781 Virginia campaign, Admiral de Grasse, who had stripped bare the West Indian defenses, informed Washington he could remain only six weeks, a brief opportunity against the many-months-long campaigns of the time.

His fleet, however, epitomized the revitalized French armada, rebuilt during a time of tremendous strides in gunnery, tactics, and signaling. King Louis XV had believed the future of Imperial France was the navy, and the establishment of the prestigious Académie de Marine in 1752 had trained a new generation of officers instilled with the duty to restore to the French flag the lustre with which it once shone.

Public subscriptions and donations had built vessels such as the Marseilles, Languedoc, Bretagne, Bourgogne, and de Grasse’s huge Ville de Paris. Recouping its nautical prestige had become such a national obsession that ladies of the Versailles court sported “la Belle Frégate” and “Belle Poule” hairstyles, with ship models nestled among their towering locks. Following the 17th-century manual, L’Art des Armées Navales, written after severe losses to the British and Dutch, Gallic strategy emphasized defensive fighting.

Still, de Grasse, who had battled the English most of his 59 years, could not remain at anchor without forfeiting the eight ships under Count Jacques-Melchior Saint Laurent de Barras, already underway from Newport with 4,000 soldiers, provisions, and vital Gribeauval siege cannon; the Royal Navy just offshore would make short work of that small fleet. Painstakingly, de Grasse’s vessels, manned by 15,000 sailors, began tacking out through the channel to confront the British.

If the Royal Navy formed the “wooden walls of England,” then those walls were a bit rickety when the Revolutionary War commenced. Many of Great Britain’s best seamen and ship- yards were American. Eighteen thousand highly skilled Colonial mariners had manned one-third of England’s naval and merchant vessels, while its shipyards launched hosts of seaworthy and speedy vessels. Since it took a huge number of century-old trees to construct just one 74-gun two-decker, the sturdy English oak faced decimation. Britain’s shipyards looked to the Baltic region and particularly to rebellious America’s virgin forests for the magnificent pines needed for masts and spars, or compass timber to form knees and ribs. English naval architecture, however, lagged behind French, Spanish, and American designs, and in the dockyards, corrupt bureaucrats, timber trust contractors, and thieving victuallers made cheating the Royal Navy a national sport.

On deck, the wretched pay, monotony, brutal discipline, and danger of naval service enticed few volunteers. Dying for king and country meant only having their battered remains unceremoniously hurled overboard. Crews consisted largely of criminals pulled from jails or press gang recruits seized from passing merchantmen, urban gutters, and village greens. Of the 175,990 British sailors inducted between 1774 and 1780, 19,784 died from combat or disease—and 42,069 deserted.

Besides melding fractious and motley crews into fighting forces, commanders were hampered by the cumbersome and outdated Permanent Sailing and Fighting Instructions and haunted by the specter of Adm. John Byng. After his 1757 failure to relieve the Mediterranean island of Minorca, besieged during the Seven Years’ War, Byng was executed not for “cowardice or…disaffection” but “failure to do his utmost.” In his novel Candide, the philosopher Voltaire wrote derisively “in [England] it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Byng himself had served on the board that after the 1744 Battle of Toulon condemned Adm. Thomas Mathews with nine of his captains and four lieutenants for attacking before his line was complete. Admiral Byng, though, would crumble to the Monarch’s deck before a firing squad because he had waited for his fleet to form, in accordance with the Fighting Instructions, albeit too late to win the battle.

This signal book codified the tactical maneuvers of the age of fighting sail where communications through the cacophony of horns, speaking trumpets, bugles, drums, and guns proved unreliable along the lines of battle extending for miles. Flags and lamps displayed from the masts and yards sought to preserve order and coordinate maneuvering amidst the chaos of cannon smoke, flying splinters and shot, falling rigging, and decks slick with gore.

The earliest surviving copy from 1711 contains “134 day signals, six fog signals made with guns and twenty night signals” that were hoisted high above the fog of battle or oceanic haze. Attending frigates streamed pennants to relay the signals from flagship to fleet. To compound the confusion, admirals inserted personal signals among their standing orders, complementing, complicating, and occasionally contradicting the Fighting Instructions. British officers courageously faced grapeshot, ball, storms, and disease. Still, these brave mariners could escape the disgrace of censure, cashiering, or execution under Article No. 12 of the Naval Discipline Act of 1749 only by clinging to signal book strictures so tyrannical and conservative that “an admiral who obeyed it,” wrote historian Nathan Miller, “could not lose a battle…. But neither could he win.”

But win England must—King George III, Prime Minister Lord North, and Colonial Secretary Lord George Germain, Viscount Sackville, could not afford another defeat on the scale of Saratoga. On December 20, 1780, Britain declared war on the waning maritime power of Holland, risking further escalation with the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who, angered at England’s interference in Baltic commerce, had formed the Armed Neutrality Alliance. War with Spain had broken out on June 15, 1779; Pierre André de Suffren Saint-Tropez, the brilliant French admiral, threatened India; Florida and Minorca would fall; Gibraltar was besieged; and the vulnerable Sugar Islands of the Caribbean were ripe for plucking. British attacks on Dutch Cape Town were also repulsed, while England itself had narrowly escaped invasion by the French and Spanish in the summer of 1779.

In North America, Cornwallis had marched a grueling 1,500 miles from Charleston, South Carolina, winning a series of Pyrrhic victories before his exhausted troops joined Maj. Gen. William Phillips’s army ravaging Virginia in 1781.

Yet now, though Yorktown was accessible by sea, for 8,000 British soldiers, bolstered by the 44-gun Charon, frigates, and transports, the tobacco port had become a trap. Washington, supported by French General Rochambeau, had feinted first toward New York, then marched 400 miles to his real target, the army of Cornwallis.

The American commander felt equally compelled to win: “We are at the end of our tether…now or never our deliverance must come.” The Revolution was sputtering to a pathetic close, as the hungry, ragged, unpaid Continental Army grew mutinous and France grew dubious about “the firmness…of [the American] allies.” Washington and Cornwallis knew that the victor of this siege would most likely win this protracted war.

Commodore Louis-Antoine Bougainville’s 80-gun Auguste formed the van of the French fleet sailing from the Chesapeake Bay. The leading four French vessels emerged in battle formation, but those following lagged in a ragged pattern, with de Grasse’s flagship 12th in line. Graves might have closed and concentrated fire on the weak French van, since with land astern and to the south, de Grasse was committed to his easterly course and could not maneuver to escape. Instead, at one o’clock, Graves reorganized his fleet abreast into an east-west line of bearing while still 12 miles from the enemy, but steadily approaching Middle Ground shoals. Shortly after two o’clock, signals sent aloft commanded the fleet not to close for battle, but to “wear,” or turn in formation, giving the French line time to form. An exasperated Hood declared, “The British fleet had a rich and most plentiful harvest of glory in view, but the means to gather it was omitted.”

Attacking the French van, nonetheless, was a risky maneuver that in a test of nerves and seamanship exposed the vulnerable ship bows to devastating broadsides. Still, the misgivings Hood had serving under Graves were typical of the dissension that wracked the Royal Navy.

Rancor toward Lord Sandwich was as divisive as partisan politics between Whig and Tory officers. Sandwich had alienated so many talented mariners that in 1779 there remained only 63-yearold Adm. Sir Charles Hardy, a man possessing “not a grain of the commander-in-chief in him,” to command the Channel Fleet and fend off the 66 French and Spanish ships threatening England. Poor organization and disease afflicting the Bourbon fleet had proved far more decisive than British seamanship in thwarting the invasion of the “Second Armada.”

After Adm. Richard Howe resigned over Sandwich’s policies, the North American Station became a refuge for the elderly and incompetent, such as Rear Adm. James Gambier and particularly Vice Adm. Marriot Arbuthnot.

In the Caribbean, the celebrated but avaricious Sir George Rodney pleaded poor health to return to England—and to escort his loot seized from the captured Dutch trading emporium of St. Eustatius. He did send Arbuthnot warnings of de Grasse’s approach and instructions that he sail for the Chesapeake. Meanwhile, Graves replaced the aged and indecisive Arbuthnot. But American privateers seized the sloop Dispatch, underway with Rodney’s vital message, and when the Hornet brought news of an enemy convoy approaching New England, Graves sailed to intercept that fleet.

Missing the convoy, Graves’s weathered ships returned to receive confirmation that Commodore de Barras had sailed from Newport on August 25. Combining his fleet with Hood’s Caribbean squadron, Graves sailed southward expecting to find only eight French vessels, not a veritable forest of masts.

Graves’s decision to wear the line placed the 74-gun Shrewsbury in the van, closing at an angle toward the French fleet, which was sailing on a port tack. At 2:30 that afternoon, Graves, seizing the advantage of the windward, or weather gauge, raised the blue-and-white checkered flag to “bear down.” Aghast, he saw his fleet maneuver in succession according to Arbuthnot’s standing orders, not simultaneously as he intended. That left the van within pistol range but the English rear was becoming far too wide to engage the emerging French ships that currents were carrying southward. De Grasse’s square-rigged vessels in turn, could point no more than six compass points (67 degrees) into the wind and remained far to leeward.

An impatient Graves then signaled for the rear to make more sail. Daylight was waning and evening approached when finally, at 4:11 in the afternoon, he hauled down the “line of battle” pennant and raised the “engage close” signal. The 74- gun Montagu, 12th in line, opened the battle with a broadside.

Its fire was ineffectual at that distant range, however. Inexplicably luffing her sails, the Montagu spilled the wind from the canvas to slow the vessel, forcing the rear to fall farther behind. At 4:22 in the afternoon, Graves hoisted the “line of battle” flag again to restore order, but five minutes later displayed the “close action” signal. Hoping to set an example, he veered his London toward the French line, only to obscure the firing of two English ships he overlapped. At the van, Capt. Mark Robinson on the Shrewsbury had already lost fore, main, and mizzen topsails to Pluton’s 74 guns.

Targeting the rigging rather than the timbered hulls was an integral part of French strategy because fragmented spars, shredded sails, and parted halyards hampered or destroyed the mobility of a ship and could put the entire line in disarray. The Intrepid, Montagu, and Princessa, behind the Shrewsbury, fired furiously, but the French reply brought down Ajax’s topgallant and hulled the leaking Terrible. Captain Robinson, losing his leg, his first lieutenant, and the Shrewsbury’s ability to maintain position, veered off, allowing the 64-gun Intrepid to take the van, where she quickly received 65 holes on her starboard side and incurred 60 casualties.

Sensing a kill, the 80-gun Auguste closed to board the 70-gun Princessa. Nine British ships in the rear, scarcely firing or receiving a shot, either did not see the signals or, assuming the “line of battle” pennant took precedence over “engage close,” did not advance to support the embattled English van. Admiral Graves, shuffling signals like a deck of playing cards, repeatedly raised and lowered “engage the enemy” until 6:23 in the evening, when the “line of battle” pennant alone was displayed. Darkness soon overwhelmed the diminishing cannonades, as the opposing fleets sailed out to sea.

That evening, British frigates brought Graves reports that were hardly sanguine; casualties included 90 dead, the Terrible was taking on two feet of water every 20 minutes, the Ajax was also hulled, and rigging had been shot away in the three van ships. Rear Adm. Francis Drake on the Princessa felt “momentous apprehension of the main top mast going over the side,” and even the flagship London was “in a most wretched plight.” Though exhausted by battle, carpenters and crews sawed, spliced, and jury-rigged damaged spars and rigging while surgeons in the cockpits tended the 206 wounded.

By morning, Graves sensed his fleet was in no shape to resume battle. Fortunately, it was becalmed. Graves, in a council of war, chastised his rear captains, but Hood, adhering as well to the Fighting Instructions, countered that Graves’s “line of battle” signal proscribed the rear from coming up to offer support. Accusations between commander and subordinate would resound in logbooks, personal journals, and into the halls of the Admiralty.

For the next three days, the two battered fleets eyed each other warily. De Grasse, who had been forced to leave many skilled gunners and officers ashore, suffered 209 casualties, mostly on the 74- gun Diadème, whose Captain de Monteclerc was among those killed. Overall, his ships emerged from the battle in better condition. Nevertheless, the admiral sought no decisive victory—support of the siege at Yorktown remained his mission, not risking or sinking ships. Indeed, de Grasse’s ostensible inactivity belied a strategy of drawing the English out to sea to allow de Barras to enter the Chesapeake unmolested.

Currents and wind carried the adversaries southward, but Captain Bougainville was “very much afraid” that the English would simply slip into the bay and seize control—exactly the plan Hood encouraged Graves to attempt. With the superior French fleet off shore, the British commander countered that such a scheme would reinforce Cornwallis’s army but trap the British squadron in the Chesapeake.

Freshening winds on September 8 gave the British the weather gauge for a halfhearted attack that Graves quickly aborted, but at nightfall on September 9, the stalemate ended as the fleets separated to race back for the Chesapeake. De Grasse easily won this desperate regatta because damaged rigging slowed the British squadron, as did the sinking Terrible, which had to be scuttled the next day. By September 13, the frigate Medea, scouting ahead, reported to Graves that the eight ships of de Barras had arrived, giving de Grasse, when he reached the bay the night before, a total of 36 ships. The French had become absolute masters of the Chesapeake Bay.

At another council, according to one account, the acerbic Hood became uncharacteristically terse, not knowing “what to say in the truly lamentable state we have brought ourselves.” Graves, considering “the position of the enemy, [and] the present condition of the British fleet…resolved that the British squadron…should proceed with all dispatch to New York.”

Washington would call the Battle of the Virginia Capes, “a partial engagement,”and historians portray the 90-minute confrontation as one of the least inspired decisive naval battles of the century.

At Yorktown, Cornwallis, pounded by newly arrived French siege guns, warned his commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to “be prepared to hear the worst.” Returning to New York, the ineffectual debated the inept about diversionary attacks on Philadelphia or a reckless amphibious storming of the Chesapeake Bay. “Desperate cases require bold remedies,” Admiral Hood declared, and off they went, but the fleet of 25 ships and 7,000 troops rescued only three men in a small boat off the Virginia Capes. They bore the news that Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington on October 19, the very day the British flotilla had sailed.

Lord North received the news “as he would have taken a ball in his breast.” “Oh God, it is all over! It is all over!” he exclaimed, referring to British hopes of subduing the thirteen colonies. The sentiment also accurately reflected the state of his Tory administration, about to fall from power. Across the Channel, Louis XVI jubilantly gave this order: “All the inhabitants of Paris will illuminate…the front of their houses to celebrate…the great victory gained in America.”

By February 1782, Parliament suspended all American military operations, and soon the British evacuated Charleston, Wilmington, Savannah, and New York. Numbers of American Loyalists fled into exile. The Treaty of Paris, ending the conflict, was not signed until September 3, 1783, but America became a minor theater in a war still being waged relentlessly in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

France’s decisive intervention gave the Americans the confidence to spurn Britain’s conciliatory proposals and pursue independence because, as the Vicomtesse de Fars-Fausselandry expressed, “The American cause seemed our own.”

In return, France gained renewed vestiges of military pride and bastions in India, Senegal, and the Caribbean island of Tobago. However, it was left with financial and political insolvency that would culminate in calamity. “The French Revolution without any question began in America,” said aristocratic officer Gabriel de Sartine. Off to war across the Atlantic, he said, “I would like my own country to enjoy [America’s] liberty…compatible with our monarchy, our position and our manners.” Instead, the entire ancien régime “stepped out gaily on a carpet of flowers, little imagining the abyss beneath.” King Louis XVI and Admiral d’Estaing were among the thousands guillotined. Eventually, an obscure Corsican artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, rose to challenge England to its utmost.

For Great Britain, French intervention reconciled ardent Whigs such as Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Adm. Lord Augustus Keppel who had opposed fighting the Americans but rallied against an ancient enemy in a war ending in defeats as well as triumphs. On April 12, 1782, admirals Rodney and Hood captured de Grasse’s flagship and four of his Caribbean squadron in the Battle of Les Saints (Dominica), which thwarted the invasion of Jamaica. The imposing Ville de Paris was crippled, seized, and then lost in a storm. Hood later assisted Adm. Lord Richard Howe in relieving Gibraltar, after it had withstood an epic four-year siege.

Naval warfare remains a battle between innovation and tradition, but to defeat Napoleon, the Royal Navy shook off the inertia, corruption, and nepotism that had brought it to its nadir. The Admiralty adopted copper-sheathed hulls that allowed ships to retard the growth of barnacles, retain speed, and remain longer at sea. Rations of lemon juice, required in 1794, vanquished deadly scurvy, “the Scourge of the Sea and the Spoyle of Mariners.”

Advancements in armaments included faster firing of guns by lanyard. Significant changes in casting improved cannons. Vice Adm. Sir Charles Douglas’s innovative block-and-tackle rigs increased the horizontal range of cannons to 90 degrees, and the introduction of the short but powerful carronade earned it the moniker “the smasher” because it could hurl 68-pound balls devastatingly at close range. Tactically, admirals Sir Charles Knowles, Lord Richard Howe, and Richard Kempenfelt revamped the Sailing and Fighting Instructions with a revolutionary numerical signal system.

Still, it took an obscure son of a Norfolk parson to ultimately redeem the Royal Navy’s sullied legacy. Horatio Nelson rejected the prevailing pedantry over a “properly formed line” and transformed the last chapters in the age of fighting sail by declaring, “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.”

In the audacious Battle of the Nile on the night of August 1, 1798, the one-eyed, one-armed admiral displayed only nine signals to destroy the French flotilla and thwart Napoleon’s vainglorious Egyptian campaign. At Copenhagen, he ignored the pennants ordering his squadron to withdraw from the engagement with the Danish fleet on April 2, 1801, and triumphed. Of the handful of signals displayed at Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty,” was the most decisive. Had Britain’s fleet been in top condition and commanded by such an admiral, the outcome at the Battle of the Capes and the fate of the thirteen rebellious colonies might have been quite different.


Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.