Review: Crisis at the Chesapeake


August 23, 2021
by John R. Maass Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Crisis at the Chesapeake: The Royal Navy and the Struggle for America, 1755-1783 by Quintin Barry (Warwick, UK: Helion and Company, 2021)

Although the main title of this book implies a focus on the 1781 naval operations in the Yorktown campaign, the subtitle is more accurate: a comprehensive look at the Revolutionary War and the Royal Navy primarily from the British perspective. The author provides quite a bit of detail on naval operations, strategy, and the navy’s role in major campaigns, including Charleston, New York, the crucial year 1781, and, of course, the West Indies. The several maps provided are useful as well. Moreover, Quintin Barry writes with an authoritative voice familiar with naval warfare, although at times he uses of maritime terminology that may not be known to many readers.

As part of Barry’s narrative, he provides excellent biographies at appropriate moments in his story, and examines the often-contentious relationships between Royal Navy and French admirals, and their counterparts on land. These include Sandwich, Howe, D’Estaing, Byron, Rodney, Graves, Hood, Washington, Cornwallis, and de Grasse—all colorful characters.

One of Barry’s most important points in this study is that the British Navy was significantly over-stretched during the entire War for American Independence, in waters at home and across the Atlantic. This was particularly true by mid-1778, when France and Great Britain were at war after French recognition of the United States, precipitated by the American victory at Saratoga in October 1777. London authorities had to balance the needs of the war in the mainland colonies against protecting their West Indian island colonies. Moreover, the British had to dedicate enough ships to protect the home island and other possessions such as Gibraltar, especially once Spain joined the war on France’s side. These commitments made for fewer available ships to support operations off the American coast.

Most of the second half of Barry’s study concerns the Yorktown campaign, which includes the planning and movements of the Royal Navy in 1780-81, as well as a helpful account of French and American efforts to coordinate a joint offensive on land and sea. This part of the war is extraordinarily complex, and Barry handles the various facets of it well. He’s also not afraid to make judgements about the commanders and their performances, notably regarding rear admirals Sir Samuel Hood and Sir Thomas Graves, Commander-in-Chief of the North American fleet,at the Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781. While Barry does find some fault on Graves’s part for hoisting confusing signals at the battle’s outset, he also blames Hood for his rigidity in following these signals despite recognizing a clear need for closing with the French line of battle under Admiral Louis Jacques Comte de Barras. In fact many of the rearmost British ships did not engage their counterparts at all.

The day after the battle, Graves sailed with his fleet back to New York. This left the French as masters of the Chesapeake Bay and sealed the fate of the large British force at Yorktown under Lord Cornwallis, who was compelled to surrender in October to the Franco-American army led by Washington and Rochambeau.

Overall Crisis at the Chesapeake is a valuable study of a widespread campaign, along with a narrative of the Royal Navy’s previous maneuvers and actions starting in 1775. Despite Barry’s use of some very dated sources and the absence of readily available modern studies, readers will likely find this overview well worth reading.

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