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|François Joseph Paul, Comte De Grasse
[grahs] aka Admiral De Grasse, French naval hero of the Battle of Yorktown
François Joseph Paul was born into an old noble family on September 13, 1722. He entered the Naval Academy in Toulon at age 11, but left to join the Knights of Malta in 1734. Transferring to the French Navy upon outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740, Grasse spent the next 25 years serving in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. In July of 1779, Grasse commanded a quadron under Comte d'Estaing at Grenada. He became commanding officer of the French fleet in the Caribbean after d'Estaing left for Europe, and sailed for France himself in 1780 due to ill health.
On March 22, 1781, Grasse was promoted to Rear Admiral and sent back to the West Indies with 20 ships of the line, 3 frigates and 156 transports. His orders were to assist the Comte de Rochambeau's assistance of the Americans in their fight for independence. Upon receiving word that British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was entrenched at Yorktown, Virginia, and that American General George Washington had decided to attack Yorktown, Grasse agreed to sail to Chesapeake Bay and prevent any reinforcements from reaching Cornwallis by sea.
Upon arriving at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on August 30, Grasse detached three ships to blockade Cornwallis's position at Yorktown, while the rest of the fleet anchored behind Cape Henry. The British fleet, under Admiral Thomas Graves, arrived at the Chesapeake on September 5, and, upon seeing the French fleet, began maneuvering into a line ahead formation. While the British were busy trying to get into a proper formation, Grasse's ships cut their anchor lines and sailed out to meet them. The two fleets fired on each other throughout the day until the British withdrew around 6:30 p.m. The fleets spent the next four days maneuvering around each other, but never renewed the battle. On September 9, Grasse returned to the Chesapeake, where he was joined by another 7 ships under Comte de Barras. Although the Battle of the Chesapeake was itself indecisive, it successfully prevented the rescue of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, and ultimately led to Cornwallis's surrender.
Following his success in Chesapeake Bay, Grasse returned to the West Indies, where his fleet was defeated by Admiral Hood at the Battle of St. Kitts. In April of 1782, his fleet was defeated and he was taken prisoner by Admiral George Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes. He was eventually allowed to return to France, where he was cleared of wrong-doing by a court-martial. He died at Tilly on January 11, 1788.
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