On September 28, 1781, the Battle of Yorktown (Virginia) took place during which the United States would gain independence from the English. General George Washington commanded the US Army. But he could not have achieved victory without a man from our region, Admiral de Grasse.
“He was the arbiter of war!”, Washington has repeatedly said.
This man was born exactly three hundred years ago, on September 13, 1722.
Let us pay homage to him.
The enigma of the place of his birth
Where was he born? In the Alpes-Maritimes village of Bar-sur-Loup. Nobody disputes it. But historians are divided on the exact place of birth. Some think it was in the village castle (bought in 1235 by the admiral’s ancestor, a certain Rambaud, from the count of Provence Raymond Béranger).
Others believe that it is at the Château des Valettes, which was a hunting lodge belonging to the lords of Bar, below the village on the road to Nice.
How to decide between the proposals?
Supporters of the Château de Bar point out that the day after the birth, on September 14, 1722, the baptism of the newborn took place in the church. To go from the castle to the church, it was enough to cross the street. While to come from the Château des Valettes you had to take the royal road linking Cagnes to Grasse passing below the Bar then take on foot or on the back of a donkey a steep path up to the village (the direct access that we know today, did not exist). Would a mother who had just given birth the day before have been able to make this trip?
The question remains open….
11 years in the Navy
It was at the age of 11 that François Joseph de Grasse, a minor in the order of Saint John of Jerusalem, entered the navy as a page. He begins to sail and takes a liking to the profession. He will be a sailor – maybe even a captain!
In 1740, he entered the service of the King of France. In 1743, he was engaged in the battles of the War of Austrian Succession and, in February 1744, in the battle of Cape Sicié off Toulon where the French and the Spaniards united against the English.
In 1762, he became captain of a ship, commanded the protea in the West Indies during the War of Seven. Bad memory for the French Royal Navy…
But it was in 1776, during the War of Independence of the United States that he will conquer glory.
The French fleet leaves Toulon under the command of Admiral Henri d’Estaing. At first, it suffered a succession of failures: in New York in July 1778, in Newport in August 1778 – and this despite our André Suffren, bailiff of Saint-Tropez, having succeeded in destroying several English frigates – then in West Indies in the fall.
It was then that a reinforcement of the French fleet intervened. François Joseph de Grasse is there on board the Robust.
We imagine the captain at the bow of the ship, his finger pointing towards the enemy, in this imperious attitude where he is represented in the two statues which are in front of the church of Bar-sur-Loup and on the Cours Honoré-Cresp in Grasse.
The course of the War of Independence of the United States will then change.
On July 6, 1779, the French managed to retake the island of Grenada. A thousand English dead, two hundred French dead, eight hundred French wounded. Admiral d’Estaing is among the wounded. From now on, De Grasse will replace him in command of the French fleet.
Leading a large squadron aboard the City of Paris
Here he is at the head of a large squadron comprising twenty ships, three frigates and a hundred and twenty other buildings. He himself is on board the City of Paris. It is one of the most beautiful ships ever built in France with its three decks and its hundred guns.
On April 28, 1781, De Grasse forced the English Admiral Hood to lift the blockade of Fort Royal in Martinique. On June 2, he took the island of Tobago from the English. On July 5, he won in Santo Domingo.
It was then that he received the call from George Washington. The Americans are losing their footing on the continent. De Grasse flies to their aid. Everything will be played in the Chesapeake Bay, south of New York, near the current city of Washington, between Virginia and Maryland.
On August 4, De Grasse arrived on site. August 30, 1781, with twenty-eight vessels and three thousand five hundred men. Among these vessels, several were manufactured in Toulon: the Marseillesthe Holy Spiritcommanded by the Toulonnais the Marquis de Chabert (who will be seriously wounded during this battle), the Caesarthe LanguedocI’Hector.
September 5 begins the Battle of Chesapeake. The goal is to defeat the English navy, to prevent the supply of the English army on land and to establish a junction with the troops of La Fayette and Rochambeau who, having come as reinforcements, encircle the town of Yorktown on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. More than twenty-five thousand men are engaged on both sides. The cannonade lasts several hours. The British ships are almost all damaged. De Grasse won the first battle.
A meeting with Washington
You have to consider what’s next. On September 17, Washington and De Grasse meet aboard the City of Paris. Great reception. Everyone is in full dress.
Everything seems ready. From September 28 to October 19 will take place the decisive battle of Yorktown. The French are under the command of De Grasse. The English, surrounded on land and asphyxiated by the maritime blockade, could not take it any longer. The Americans, who were on the verge of collapse, saw, on October 19, 1781, the British generals Cornwallis and O’Hara withdraw (O’Hara was the same general whom Bonaparte put in difficulty at La Seyne during the siege of Toulon in 1793).
The victory is considerable. This is the turning point of the American War of Independence which began six years earlier.
King Louis XVI orders to sing Te Deum in all the churches of France. Since then, Le Bar-sur-Loup has never wavered from tradition. Every year a ceremony is organized in memory of the Battle of Chesapeake (last year, the celebration was canceled by the French Embassy in Washington following the breakdown of the sale of French submarines to Australia , in which the United States was involved).
The independence of the United States will be definitively acquired on September 3, 1783 during the Treaty of Paris.
Captured but honored by the English
The rest of Admiral De Grasse’s career will be less glorious. For the English, defeated on land, driven out of America, have not said their last word at sea. They want their revenge.
Exhausted by months of combat, De Grasse sees two new admirals arrive in front of him, Rodney and Hood, who have come from England on brand new, new generation ships, whose hulls are covered with copper panels. On April 12, 1782, De Grasse lost the Battle of Les Saintes in Guadeloupe.
He is taken prisoner by the English. But they have respect for him. In London, Admiral De Grasse is received by King George III who gives him back his sword. He was then welcomed by the court and the London aristocracy.
Abandoned by the French
This complicity with the English begins to irritate the French, who decide – supreme humiliation – to organize a council of war to analyze the causes of the defeat of the Saints. Admiral De Grasse may be acquitted, but he is rejected by King Louis XVI who refuses to receive him. His career is shattered.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to revere him. In 1786, he received the honors of the American Congress. When he died in 1788, he enjoyed more consideration in America than in France.
A statue in 1988
Thus it was not until 1933 that a bas-relief was dedicated to him at the Trocadero in Paris and 1988 for the statue to be erected on the square of the town hall of Bar-sur-Loup, another copy of which can be found at Grasse.
The Americans, they had placed in 1931 a plaque in the Saint-Roch church in Paris, where he had been buried before his tomb was destroyed during the Revolution. You can always read there: “Here was buried François Joseph Comte de Grasse, who died on January 14, 1788. By the naval victory he won over the English at Chesapeake, he made possible the capitulation of Yorktown, besieged by the Franco-American army under the orders of General Washington and Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau. Thus, he acquired with them the immortal glory of securing the independence of the United States of America.”