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Graves, Samuellocked

  • A. W. H. Pearsall

Graves, Samuel (1713–1787), naval officer, was born on 17 April 1713, fourth son of Samuel Graves and his wife, whose maiden name was Moore. The family originated in Yorkshire but came to have many ramifications. He entered the navy in the Exeter (Captain Robert Trevor) on 21 November 1732, and in March 1733 he moved to the Swallow, in which he spent two and a half years, first under Captain Trevor, and then with his uncle, Thomas Graves; after this he served in several other ships for short periods, until he passed for lieutenant on 6 October 1739. He was appointed lieutenant of the fireship Aetna on 3 March 1740, but was shortly afterwards moved into the Norfolk, with his uncle again, in which ship he distinguished himself at the capture of the batteries at Cartagena. After being for a time in the Cumberland he was promoted by Sir Chaloner Ogle to the command of the sloop Bonetta on 5 December 1743, still in the West Indies. On 11 September 1744 he was promoted captain into the Rippon's Prize, and in 1747–8 he commanded the Enterprise in the West Indies. In the early part of the Seven Years' War he commanded several line-of-battle ships—the Duke, St Albans, Princess Amelia, and the Barfleur—in which he was in the Rochefort expedition in 1757 and with the main fleet in 1758. Again in the Duke, he fought at Quiberon Bay and continued in her until promoted rear-admiral in 1762. Up to this time his career was creditable, but with little sign of exceptional ability. A long period of unemployment was to follow.

On 28 March 1774 Graves, a vice-admiral since October 1770, was appointed by Lord Sandwich to the command of the North American squadron, and proceeded to his station in the Preston. His task was daunting. Boston, one of the squadron's main centres, was the focal point of the increasing difficulties with the North American colonies. Moreover, his squadron was small (nineteen ships and vessels), and by long practice they were dispersed, with one at each of the colonies, a situation which in the existing circumstances was difficult to alter. Parliament had passed the Boston Port Act, prohibiting the landing, loading, or shipping of goods to or from that port, and the only addition to the usual orders for the station, which normally enjoined the commander-in-chief to assist the governors and local magistrates, was the order to enforce this act. John Montagu, his predecessor, had declared a blockade of Boston, but this proved difficult to carry out owing to the many channels of entry, even by concentrating nine vessels on the task. Moreover the rest of the coast was left clear, and smuggling, one of the normal problems of the station, therefore increased. Further orders came to prohibit the import of gunpowder, arms, and ammunition, another wishful hope in view of the great length and indented nature of the coast and the wide oceanic approaches. From the outset Graves requested more ships, but he received only third-rates, too large and clumsy for the task. There were loopholes in the Port Act which made captures difficult to uphold, and the constant sea time wore out the ships and predisposed their crews, probably unhappy at their duties, to desertion—and seamen could not be replaced, especially as attempts to press infuriated the colonists.

Events worsened Graves's problems. Although he used his ships' boats to transport troops for the expedition to Lexington and Concord, Graves, in deference to the views of Thomas Gage, the governor and army commander, would only act when attack was imminent. There was constant harassment by the colonists' small craft in and near Boston, which was difficult to stop and wore out the crews. Supplies of provisions for the army dried up, as producers were hostile or intimidated. Graves, however, would not, without authority, authorize his ships to fire unless actually attacked, a policy perhaps creditable enough at first but which became increasingly unrealistic. He received authority to seize American vessels only in September 1775. Although more ships were sent out later that year the needs were also becoming greater.

Meanwhile discontent with Graves's performance and lack of vigour was growing in London among the advocates of strong measures, and Lord Sandwich, who always supported him, urged attacks on coastal towns, but the only one—on Falmouth, Massachusetts, on 18 October 1775—merely aroused more colonist fury. Sandwich's efforts to justify Graves failed in the face of George III's personal call for his dismissal. Sandwich was thus obliged to appoint Molyneux Shuldham, originally as a second-in-command, but soon as a successor, and Graves handed over on 27 January 1776, and returned home. While Graves was faced with an impossible situation, he does not appear to have been the man to meet it. Moreover, rumours spread of bad blood between him and the army commander, General Gage, although Burgoyne's criticism of him for not supplying the army with sheep and oxen gives the navy tasks it did not have. One critic even termed him 'a corrupt admiral without any shadow of capacity'.

Graves was not blamed for his actions, and Sandwich continued to favour him, especially in advancing his several nephews, and then by offering him another command. This episode became complicated, but does illustrate Graves's weaknesses. Originally the offer was for the Mediterranean, but other factors intervened, including a lack of confidence in him among ministers, and it had to be amended to the Plymouth command. Graves angrily declined, though stating that he was ready for any active command. He did not seem to recognize that Sandwich was trying to make some amends, and continued an indignant correspondence. He then signed a memorial critical of the Admiralty board in 1779, but even afterwards still sought another command, but without success.

Graves rose in the usual course to admiral of the blue and then admiral of the white. He was twice married, first to Elizabeth Sedgwick of Staindrop, co. Durham, and secondly to Margaret (d. in or after 1787), daughter of Elmes Spinckes of Aldwincle, Northamptonshire, but he had no children. He held property in Devon, Durham, Northampton, Huntingdon, and Middlesex, as well as in Ireland and Nova Scotia, which in his will he went to great lengths to preserve in the family. He died at his home, Hembury Fort, near Honiton, Devon, on 8 March 1787 of a haemorrhage of the bladder, and was probably buried at Buckerell church, Devon. His obituary stated that he would be a great loss to the neighbourhood for his Christian and charitable virtues.


  • P. Mackesy, The war for America, 1775–1783 (1964)
  • N. A. M. Rodger, The insatiable earl: a life of John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich (1993)
  • J. A. Tilley, The British navy and the American revolution (1987)
  • A. Valentine, Lord George Germain (1962)
  • D. A. Yerxa, ‘Vice Admiral Samuel Graves and the North American squadron, 1774–76’, Mariner's Mirror, 62 (1976), 371–85
  • GM, 1st ser., 57 (1787), 277
  • J. Charnock, ed., Biographia navalis, 5 (1797), 301
  • TNA: PRO, ADM 1/485, 578 [letters]
  • TNA: PRO, ADM 107/3, 351 [passing certificate]
  • TNA: PRO, ADM 36/372 Bonetta, 1044 Enterprise, 1059 Exeter, 3465 Swallow [muster bks]
  • D. A. Baugh, ‘The politics of British naval failure, 1775–1777’, American Neptune, 52 (1992), 221–46
  • D. Syrett, The Royal Navy in American waters, 1775–1783 (1989)
  • N. R. Stout, The Royal Navy in America, 1760–1775 (1973)
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1151, fols. 182r–188r


  • NMM, corresp. with Lord Sandwich
  • U. Mich., Clements L., corresp. with Thomas Gage

Wealth at Death

considerable property; total bequests almost £2500 besides main estate: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1151, fols. 182r–188r

Gentleman's Magazine
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)