Cape Henry, Virginia – Battle of the Capes

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There are two inland seas adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean. One is in Europe and is called the Mediterranean. The other is in North America and is called Chesapeake Bay. Even though the latter is much the smaller sea, it’s nevertheless 200 miles long and 30 miles wide in parts, which surely qualifies it as a sea. There are narrow entrances leading from the ocean into both seas. The entrance to the Mediterranean is at Gibraltar and was known to the ancients as The Pillars of Hercules. They believed that it was dangerous to pass The Pillars of Hercules and sail out into the ocean. One risked sailing off the edge of the world! Chesapeake Bay has its own Pillars of Hercules, which are called The Capes. To enter Chesapeake Bay from the ocean, one must pass between Cape Charles to the North and Cape Henry to the south. In September 1781, this entrance was the site of the most consequential naval battle in American history, The Battle of the Capes.

Cape Charles is at the southern or bottom end of the Delmarva Peninsula, sometimes known as the Eastern Shore. The Peninsula separates Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. In June 2011, we drove down the Delmarva Peninsula from the north, eventually arriving at Cape Charles. From there we wanted to cross 23 miles of sea to reach Cape Henry. This is exactly the same distance across as the Straits of Dover, between England and Continental Europe where in the 1980s they built the Channel Tunnel for trains only. Fortunately, America is much more convenient. Long before the Channel Tunnel existed, they built the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel linking Cape Charles and Cape Henry. It was not just for trains. We were therefore able to drive across on this combination of tunnel and bridges, as over 100 million vehicles had done before us. By this route we reached Cape Henry, close to the City of Virginia Beach. Nearby is the Fort Story Military reservation, where the First Landfall is commemorated.

Prince Henry eldest son of King James I
Prince Henry eldest son of King James I

In 1607, Cape Henry was where the first permanent colonists from England landed. The colonists that landed a few years earlier on Roanoke Island must be disregarded, because they disappeared. This First Landing at Cape Henry pre-dated the Mayflower landing by 14 years. The colonists explored the cape and named it after Prince Henry, the eldest son of King James I. Henry never became king because he died before his father at the age of 18. His place was taken by his younger brother Charles, who was later beheaded, so Henry’s early death may have been for him a blessing in disguise. The colonists erected a cross at Cape Henry and then moved on up the James River, where they built the Jamestown settlement which survived.

Comte De Grasse
Comte De Grasse
Battle of Virginia Capes
Battle of Virginia Capes
Sea Battle of Virginia Capes
Sea Battle of Virginia Capes

We also saw on Cape Henry the statue and memorial to Admiral Comte de Grasse, who led the French fleet at The Battle of the Capes, referred to above. Lafayette and Rochambeau are often hailed as the Frenchmen, who made possible Washington’s victory over the British in the War of American Independence. Yet, it is difficult to see how their assistance to Washington could have exceeded that provided by de Grasse. It is ironic that, despite this, de Grasse never set foot on American soil.

De Grasse was in Haiti in August 1781, when he took 3200 troops on board and sailed for Chesapeake Bay with his entire fleet, 28 ships of the line. Two weeks later, he arrived at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. He disembarked the troops so that they could assist in the blockade of British troops under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown nearby. He then engaged the British fleet to prevent it from reinforcing or evacuating the blockaded British Army at Yorktown. De Grasses’ fleet also supplied provisions to the French and American troops, reinforced the blockade and delivered 500,000 silver pesos from the Caribbean to finance the American war effort.

Yorktown was the last major battle of the war. After a few weeks, the forces of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown had no option but to surrender. This in turn led to peace negotiations and to British recognition of an independent United States of America.  George Washington was the first to acknowledge the importance of the part played by De Grasse in achieving victory. He said, “You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest.”

The following year, De Grasse was not so lucky. In the Caribbean at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, de Grasse’s attempts to capture Jamaica from Britain ended in his defeat and surrender. He was taken prisoner and brought to London, where he played a pivotal part in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

 

 

Before leaving Cape Henry, we also visited its two lighthouses. The older lighthouse, built of stone in 1792, was damaged during the Civil War. It was the first ever federal construction project and even, in those days, there was a substantial cost overrun. Who could then have anticipated how much the federal government would subsequently spend on such projects? The second lighthouse was built of iron nearby in 1881, because of the damage to the first one, and remains in use today. The two lighthouses stand together, on the sea shore, overlooking the waters where history was made.