Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: March 17, 2010

"The Battle of The Capes," John Quarstein

John Quarstein was ably introduced by Bruce Venter, our Vice President. Mr. Quarstein is an award winning historian, preservationist and author and since February of 2008 has been the City Historian for the City of Hampton. He previously served as Director of the Virginia War Museum and of course he has been very involved in the future of Fort Monroe.

The Battle of the Capes, fought on September 5, 1781, really involved no Americans, but was a naval battle between the British and the French. It’s interesting to note that the fate of the New World depended upon a naval battle between two European countries! Ever since the Seven Years’ War when Edward Hawk won a major naval battle for the British, one would have thought that the French ships would have been much better during the American Revolution. That’s because since the French lost so many ships during the Seven Years War, they had to rebuild their fleet and thus their warships were more modern.

However, the British also made major improvements to their ships since the Seven Years’ War especially with respect to signaling, putting copper on the bottom of the wooden boats (to increase speed and thus reduce “drag” from all of the crustaceans which attached to the wood), the establishment of “carronade” (which involved short, smoothbore, cast iron cannons with an approximately 200 yard range which were used when the ships were very close to each other), and finally the “musket lock system” for firing the cannons so that they didn’t have to light the fuse from afar.

Mr. Quarstein also pointed out that the British form of naval warfare involved shooting at the hulls and the broadsides of enemy vessels and thus having cannons pointing straight across or down, whereas the French had their cannons pointed upward towards the mast of enemies, thus seeking to cripple those ships.

However, one of the issues that really was an “Achilles heel” for the British was that their Fighting Instructions “in use” for many years was that they organized themselves “in line”.

In any event in the Battle of the Capes Compte De Grasse had approximately twenty-one ships whereas the American Station of the British had probably only about seven or so and thus were greatly out-numbered. The French won the battle and thus were able to seal off Yorktown, which of course permitted the Americans to prevail. Mr. Quarstein also showed his splendid knowledge of the many important admirals and prominent figures in the two navies.

We had quite a turnout for this meeting and of course the question and answer period was quite long and interesting as well and was not restricted to just to the Battle of Capes but involved other battles in other times in history as well.