At the end of last month and the beginning of this, I was in Britain marking the centennial of the Battle of Jutland, World War I’s largest naval battle. My great-grandfather was there as part of the Royal Navy, and it was meaningful in the extreme for me to be present at the commemorations.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy interpreted Jutland as “The Battle that Won the War,” and based its argument on the fact that the battle’s outcome led directly to German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which in turn brought the United States into the war, with all the resulting titanic effects. In other words, a naval battle which didn’t feature a single American had a profound impact on U.S. history.
If that sounds familiar to Revolutionary War scholars, that’s because the same description applies to the 1781 Battle of the Virginia Capes. Let me explain.
In 1781, the Earl Cornwallis had retreated his Anglo-German forces to Yorktown to base on the Chesapeake Bay. A French fleet under Comte de Grasse arrived, landed troops and siege artillery, and blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile George Washington moved toward Yorktown with a combined Franco-American force to besiege Cornwallis from landward.
On 5 September 1781, 19 British ships under Admiral Lord Graves sailed toward the Virginia Capes to break the blockade, and de Grasse met them off Cape Henry with 24 French ships. After a day of maneuvering and fighting, Graves broke off, having failed in his mission. Before another attempt could be made, Cornwallis had surrendered; the news of his capitulation brought down the government in London and was a long step toward peace between Great Britain and her enemies. This naval battle (the Virginia Capes) therefore sealed the fate of Cornwallis and his men, and profoundly influenced American destiny. However, not a single American had been present at the battle.
On 31 May 1916, a German battlefleet sallied forth into the North Sea to try and break the British blockade of Germany. The Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet engaged the Germans in the afternoon, settling off 12 hours of fighting that ended in the Germans heading for home to lick their wounds. The blockade remained intact, causing the Germans to despair of breaking it via any tactics other than submarine warfare. They started a submarine campaign on 31 January 1917; on 6 April 1917 the United States entered World War I as a result of American deaths at German hands. U.S. entry tipped the balance in favor of the Allies, and confirmed the U.S. forever after as a key world power. Thus in 1916 a naval battle, without a single American present, influenced U.S. destiny.
There is one other connection between these battles: one of Graves’ squadron commanders was Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, whose descendant Sir Horace Hood would be killed at Jutland while commanding 3d Battlecruiser Squadron aboard HMS Invincible.
Top image: The Battle of the Virginia Capes.
Bottom: The Grand Fleet’s battle line at Jutland.