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
|Comte De Grasse
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.
|Sea battle of Virginia Capes
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.”
|Battle of the Capes diagram
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.
This piece, written by Bob, was originally posted on our website on January 15, 2012.