September 5, 1781 – Battle of the Chesapeake & Review of “In the Hurricane’s Eye” by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick delivers yet another different perspective on the American Revolution in a very entertaining and readable manner.

When most Americans think of the Revolutionary War, they think of George Washington and his troops slogging through the snow or over the frozen Hudson River to defeat the British in land battles. Philbrick argues that it was a naval battle in which Washington was not even involved that enabled the Americans to prevail against Cornwallis at Yorktown.

By 1781, Philbrick informs us, the Revolutionary Army was on the verge of collapse. The soldiers were starving, underfunded, and mutinous. Washington wrote his former aide-de-camp, “We are at the end of our tether and … now or never our deliverance must come.” Thus, Philbrick claims, the Battle of the Chesapeake between the British and the French navies (the French acting on the side of the Americans) was one of the most important naval engagements in the history of the world. The reason is that the defeat of a British fleet by a French fleet enabled the Revolutionary Army to prevail on land. The French in turn were aided by the Spanish in Cuba, thanks to a Spanish government envoy and “fixer” in Cuba named Francisco Saavedra de Sangrois, who obtained money both to sustain the French fleet and to pay Washington’s mutinous soldiers. Philbrick writes:

“…it cannot be denied that the Spanish residents of Cuba provided what one commentator has called, ‘the bottom dollars upon which the edifice of American independence was raised.’”

But it might have been the weather that played the largest role. Three large hurricanes in 1780 ripped through the Caribbean, sending the French fleet up north at the Chesapeake to ride out the 1781 hurricane season. This move proved pivotal for both sides in the war.

George Washington

As Philbrick observes, France joined the War not so much out of a desire to aid America but to strike a blow against Great Britain. But France could have easily chosen to challenge Great Britain in Europe by sending warships into the Channel between the two countries, and Britain would have had to divert military resources from its fight in America. However, it was the islands of the Caribbean that attracted the fleets of both France and England. The “sugar islands” of the Caribbean accounted for more than a third of France’s overseas trade. Britain too saw these islands as a priority. Philbrick writes:

“…when the war for American independence broke out, Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean were worth much more to her than all thirteen of her colonies in North America.”

Thus both countries were concentrating on the Caribbean; Britain had 33 percent of her total navy in that area compared to just 9 percent in the coastal waters of North America.

By the fall of 1780, Philbrick writes, “it seemed as if France’s preoccupation wit the Caribbean might prevent a significant-sized fleet from ever making its way to the shores of the United States to aid the Continental army.”

Then, amazingly enough, not one, but three huge hurricanes hit the Caribbean. These were some of the deadliest hurricanes in recorded history, with one estimate putting the total death count at 22,000 just from the second hurricane alone. (The hurricanes hit on October 3, October 10, and October 18.) Both the English and French took their surviving ships and fled the area, heading north.

Estimated Tracks of October 1780 Hurricanes
(After David M. Ludlum, Early American Hurricanes 1492-1870, 1963)

They had a fateful meeting in the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, in an exciting battle that changed everything for the combatants on land. Philbrick shows how the defeat of the British navy in the Chesapeake led inexorably to the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis to George Washington in Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781.

Discussion: Philbrick is great at describing the intricacies of battles both on sea and land without being ponderous; on the contrary, he is consistently interesting, and explains every aspect of what occurred in a way not only to educate the reader but in a manner highlighting the most fascinating aspects of the battles. For example:

  • Benjamin Franklin wrote about the significance of the Gulf Stream and where to find it, but the British refused to pay attention to “simple American fishermen” and ignored what he had to say. Thus their trips back and forth across the Atlantic took longer than necessary;
  • Just a single typical battleship at that time, called “the 74” (because the ship had 74 cannons arranged on two decks), took 2,000 oak trees to make, or fifty-seven acres of forest;
  • The best way to destroy those wooden ships? “Hotshot” – or cannonballs heated in a furnace until they were red-hot and could start fires;
  • British ships had bottoms sheathed in plates of copper, which gave them a significant speed advantage;
  • The British fired low, to inflict more casualties, but the French fired high to disable the ships, which proved to be a more efficacious tactic;
  • Washington, who knew much of his mail was being intercepted and the contents reported to Britain, regularly wrote misinformation, as we might say today, to keep his actual plans a secret;
  • England also received misinformation about the course of the war from its own people, because the British generals over in America wanted to make themselves look better than they were;
  • Benedict Arnold’s treason and bad behavior continued to motivate the Patriot Army throughout the War to avenge those he had betrayed;
  • During the Siege of Yorktown, there were more than 6,000 British and German soldiers, along with thousands of escaped slaves, cooped up in a space just 500 yards wide and 1200 yards long;
  • No portion of the U.S. suffered more deaths in the War of Independence than New York.

Storming of a redoubt at Yorktown, via U. S. Army Center of Mlitary History

Philbrick also describes the power struggles between the French and the Americans, and how deftly Washington tried to assuage the sensibilities of the French, even while he was often furious at them. Power struggles within each army affected the fate of the armies as well, as did weaknesses for luxury and gambling, and even health issues, which came to play a major role.

The book ends with an Epilogue that reminded me of the end of the movie “American Graffiti.” Philbrick devotes a few paragraphs to each of the major players in this history, telling what happened to them after the American Revolution was over.

Evaluation: Philbrick does an excellent job of making history exciting. He also provides welcome explanations of necessary nautical details that add to the color and atmosphere of the story, such as the ways in which naval battles are fought, and how ships were constructed at the time. So much of military history is devoted to armies on land; this engrossing book helps balance that coverage.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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