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Graves, Thomas, first Baron Graveslocked

  • Kenneth Breen

Graves, Thomas, first Baron Graves (1725–1802), naval officer, was born at Thanckes, Cornwall, on 23 October 1725, the second son of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves (d. 1755), and his second wife, Elizabeth Budgell. On 22 June 1771 he married Elizabeth (d. 1827), daughter of William Peere-Williams of Chudleigh in Devon; they had one son, Thomas North, second baron (1775–1835), and three daughters.

Early career

Graves entered the navy in the care of Commodore Henry Medley and was later present with his father in the Norfolk in the unsuccessful expedition against Cartagena in 1741. From the West Indies the Norfolk was sent to the Mediterranean. On 25 June 1743 Graves was promoted lieutenant in the Romney (50 guns) and on 11 February 1744 he was present in her in the action off Toulon in which Admiral Thomas Mathews commanded. In 1746 he was lieutenant in the Princessa with Admiral Richard Lestock in the expedition against Lorient, and on the admiral's death he was appointed to the Monmouth with Captain Harrison. In her he was present at the first and second battles of Cape Finisterre on 3 May and 14 October 1747. In 1751 he went to the coast of Africa as first lieutenant of the Assistance with Commodore Buckle and later with Commodore Stepney. On his return in 1754 he was promoted to the command of the sloop Hazard and on 8 July 1755 he was promoted captain in the frigate Sheerness (20 guns) in which he continued to be employed in the channel.

In the Sheerness, on 14 December 1756 off Ushant, Graves discovered six ships to windward of him and he sailed down to them and tacked across the squadron several times in order to ascertain their exact strength and destination. The precise detail he sent to the Admiralty was warmly approved by the board. The warmth of this approbation was diminished when, on the night of 26 December 1756, Graves saw another vessel which he judged also to be a French ship of the line, possibly separated from those seen earlier; because of the disparity in size he did not attempt to engage her. An Admiralty inquiry, deciding the ship was a French East-Indiaman and that Graves should have engaged, ordered his court martial. He was sentenced under article 36 to be publicly reprimanded for an error of judgement. His immediate career did not appear to suffer from this reprimand.

In January 1758 Graves was appointed to the Unicorn (28 guns), attached to the Grand Fleet under Anson, and in the following year to the squadron under Rear-Admiral George Rodney with whom he was at the bombardment of Le Havre. From September 1760 to May 1761 he had temporary command of the Oxford and then on 15 May 1761 he was appointed to the Antelope (50 guns) to carry out instructions given to the late Captain Webb to proceed to Newfoundland as governor and commander-in-chief. Arriving there on 5 July he learnt of the presence of the French Admiral de Ternay's squadron in St John's. Too weak to tackle the French head on, he made for Placentia, anchored in the bay, and put men ashore to strengthen the garrison. At the same time he sent urgent requests for reinforcements to Rear-Admiral Lord Colvill and General Amherst in Halifax. Colvill arrived on 14 August and noted that Graves had been 'employed in repairing the ruined fortifications of this Place and putting everything in a posture of Defence with all possible diligence …' (ADM 1/482). Colvill's presence caused the departure of de Ternay and the general expressed himself happy to leave Newfoundland's government to Governor Graves 'who is well qualified for such an office'.

Graves left Newfoundland on 21 November 1762 and in November 1764 was appointed captain of the Téméraire, guardship in Plymouth; from her he was sent on special service to the coast of Africa in January 1765 with a broad pennant in the Edgar. On his return in August he resumed the command of the Téméraire which he held for the two following years. During the dispute with Spain in 1770 over the Falkland Islands he was appointed to the Cambridge (80 guns). In 1773 he had command of the Raisonnable in the channel and in 1776 of the Nonsuch. In 1777 he moved into the Conqueror, one of the squadron which went with Vice-Admiral John Byron to North America and afterwards to the West Indies. Graves was recalled on his promotion on 19 March 1779 to rear-admiral of the blue. On his return to England he hoisted his flag on the London in the Channel Fleet under the command of Sir Charles Hardy. While in the Channel Fleet he joined with Richard Kempenfelt in experiments to devise a more flexible manner of signalling and command.

War with America

In March 1780 he was ordered to prepare a squadron to reinforce the North American station and in late April he sailed from Plymouth, having first resolved a mutiny in his squadron brought about by the failure to pay the sailors what was due to them. The king wrote to Sandwich, 'The conduct of the Rear-admiral on this occasion shows that he is both a man of sense and resolution' (Private Papers of … Sandwich, 3.243). Graves joined Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot in New York on 13 July 1780 and was with him at the action off the mouth of the Chesapeake on 16 March 1781. On 4 July 1781 Graves assumed command of the North American station in place of the ailing Arbuthnot whose tenure had left the station in need of considerable reform and re-equipment. From the outset Graves was faced with a number of serious problems: internally he had to bring back to fighting readiness ships damaged by storm and in action; he had to re-establish personal relationships riven by quarrels between Arbuthnot, Rodney, and Sir Henry Clinton. The French squadron of de Barras was at Rhode Island and externally there was the likely threat of a powerful French reinforcement coming to his zone of command from the West Indies.

Graves was well informed of this danger by a letter from the Admiralty dated 5 April 1781 and confirmed by a letter from Rodney in the West Indies which announced the arrival of a very considerable French squadron on 29 April. Graves wrote immediately to Rodney and stressed the importance of 'the early intelligence and detachment upon the first movement of the enemy' (Graves Papers, 18). In the event this was the only positive information Graves received before the arrival of the French in North America yet, in less than eight weeks into his command, he found himself in an action which was to prove critical in the outcome of the American War of Independence.

Graves was distracted from concentrating his squadron at New York by compelling but false intelligence from London of a French convoy which would provide the rebels 'with the only possible means of carrying on the war' (ADM 2/1339). No admiral could ignore such a threat but the sole outcome of Graves's cruise towards Boston to seek the convoy was storm damage to his squadron which reduced his effective force to five ships of the line.

Sir Samuel Hood arrived off New York on 28 August from the West Indies with fourteen ships of the line and news of the departure from the West Indies of Admiral de Grasse. On the same day Graves received intelligence that de Barras had sailed from Rhode Island, destination unknown. He sought out the French as soon as the wind came free, sailing from New York with Hood on 31 August with a combined force of nineteen ships of the line. The squadron made a swift and stormy passage to the Chesapeake. On passage Graves discovered that many of Hood's squadron 'were but shadows of ships' (Private Papers of … Sandwich, 4.183). Landfall was made early on 5 September and by 10 a.m. up to twenty-six sail of large ships could be picked out within the river. Only now was it clear that Graves was faced with a more formidable force than that of de Barras. Graves immediately ordered a line of battle and, with a favourable wind, ran towards the Chesapeake. By 1 p.m. the fleet was rapidly approaching the shoal water of the Middle Ground and soon after 2 p.m. the squadron veered, ship by ship, until sailing seawards on a west/east line in reverse order of divisions. The French were less well placed because of foul wind and tide but by noon the first ships were struggling to weather the capes and heading to sea on a line parallel to that of the British. Graves continued to order his line, signalling the rear (Hood's) division to make more sail to get closer to the enemy as the rear was sagging to leeward while the van and centre was close and parallel. It was not until shortly after 4 p.m. that the van and centre divisions began their engagement.

From the centre to the van of each line the action was spirited, French ships were forced out of the line and significant casualties and damage were sustained. The rear was unscathed. By evening the French appeared to be breaking off the engagement which ended soon after sunset. For the next few days the fleets manoeuvred in sight of each other without renewing the engagement and at this time Graves ordered the Terrible to be sunk. Contact was lost on the night of 9/10 September and Graves steered for the Chesapeake on 11 September to discover that de Grasse, joined by de Barras, was once more at anchor within the capes, now with thirty-six line ships. Graves, with only eighteen, had no alternative but to return to New York which he reached on 20 September. Lord Cornwallis's position in Yorktown was critical and at once Graves and Clinton prepared a relief expedition of 7000 soldiers which sailed on 19 October, arriving off the Chesapeake on 24 October with an augmented naval force now increased to twenty-five line and two 50-gun ships as a result of the arrival from England of Rear-Admiral Robert Digby with three ships and the tardy arrival of two ships from the West Indies. When it was discovered that Cornwallis had surrendered on the day that Graves had left New York and that de Grasse and de Barras had combined their forces and were anchored within the capes, the relief force, no longer with an attainable objective, returned to New York. Graves handed over his command to his successor, Rear-Admiral Digby, and sailed in the London to the West Indies on 10 November.

Career and reputation after the loss of Yorktown

The initial reaction in London had been that a modestly successful action had been fought. Swiftly following the arrival of Graves's dispatches, though, had come the news of Cornwallis's surrender combined with critical and bitter letters from Sir Samuel Hood condemning the whole conduct of Graves in the battle. Hood appeared to have better access to public opinion than Graves and the biased descriptions and assessment of the Chesapeake which are still repeated by reputable historians are to be found directly in the dispatches and letters of Samuel Hood. Graves found himself unjustifiably the principal candidate for naval failure and George Germain even proposed he should be court martialled, a course which Lord Sandwich refused to countenance. The reality was that Graves went to the capes with a force made inadequate by wrong decisions in the West Indies and that in the battle half of Graves's squadron, Hood's division, did not get into action.

Graves's posting to the West Indies predated the Chesapeake battle by some months but he was sensitive to the opportunities this move would give to his critics, enabling them to suggest that his move from the command in North America indicated a lack of confidence in him at the Admiralty. Accordingly he requested permission to return to England to rebut the mounting criticism in press and parliament of his conduct of the battle. His request was granted but it did not break this period of misfortune. His return was to include the task of escorting a convoy of merchantmen with a squadron of warships that were largely unfit for sea. His squadron ran foul of an Atlantic storm of unusual severity and he had the misfortune to lose many ships of the convoy. His flagship, the Ramillies, was one of the vessels which foundered but only after a feat of superb seamanship enabled Graves to save his whole crew. Graves got on board the Belle merchant ship in which he reached Cork on 10 October 1782, having lost many of his personal papers left behind in the Ramillies.

Graves returned to an England of furious charge and counter-charge for the loss of Yorktown. Public opinion was stirred against him by the letters of Hood from America, by Rodney's speeches in the House of Commons, and by his letter from Bath which reveals either a faulty recollection of events or a deliberate distortion of the instructions he claims to have given. Yet the criticisms levelled by Hood, Rodney, and their followers were demonstrably false. It would not have been possible for Graves to reach the Middle Ground or enter the river before the French could get out of the Chesapeake, and it would have been strategically unsound for Graves to enter the Chesapeake after the action and risk being shut in the river by the French, inevitably losing command of the sea with the dire consequences to New York that would have followed.

Graves's reputation was damaged by the criticisms initiated by Hood yet he had been caught in the pincers of other people's incompetence. Rodney and Hood had dealt no significant blow to de Grasse in the four months that they had faced him in the West Indies. They had made significant errors of judgement in their appraisals of de Grasse's possible moves to North America and, as a consequence, they had failed to send adequate advance information or reinforcements to Graves. Hood and Rodney, it could be argued, were anxious, sometimes by distorting the facts, to divert attention from their own shortcomings. The failure to impose naval superiority at the Chesapeake had far-reaching consequences for the war with America and for the government at home leading, as it did, to a demand for a parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the war. In the longer term Graves emerged from this period of criticism with continued employment and promotion and ended his career honoured and praised for his part in the battle of 1 June 1794.

On 24 September 1787 Graves was promoted vice-admiral of the blue and in 1788 became commander-in-chief at Plymouth. On the outbreak of war with France in 1793 he was appointed second in command of the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe. He became admiral of the blue on 12 April 1794 and, aboard his flagship the Royal Sovereign, played an important part in the success of 1 June 1794, for which he was raised to the Irish peerage as Baron Graves, and received the gold medal and chain and a pension of £1000 per annum. This action marked the end of his active career, however, as he was badly wounded in the right arm and was obliged to resign his command. He had no further service and died at Thanckes, Cornwall, on 9 February 1802. He was buried at Thanckes. Graves was survived by his wife who died in 1827, before April.

Graves's naval career may be judged by the praise with which it was frequently marked by his contemporaries and superiors, from the commendation he received early in his career for his work in Newfoundland to the final honours awarded to him for his support as second in command to Lord Howe in 1794. Earlier, while in the Channel Fleet in 1779–80, he was a convinced supporter of the experiments and innovations in signalling undertaken by Richard Kempenfelt and took many of these ideas with him to North America. As Captain Sir John Jervis wrote to Clinton on Graves's appointment to America in 1780, 'He is very knowing in his profession, distinct and clear in his understanding' (Letters, 7.101).


  • GM, 1st ser., 50 (1780), 249
  • GM, 1st ser., 51 (1781), 487, 539
  • GM, 1st ser., 52 (1782), 501
  • Annual Register (1781)
  • Graves papers relating to naval operations of Yorktown campaign, ed. F. Chadwick (1916)
  • Sir Henry Clinton's narrative of his campaigns, ed. W. Willcox (1954)
  • G. B. Mundy, The life and correspondence of the late Admiral Lord Rodney, 2 vols. (1830)
  • K. Breen, ‘The navy in the Yorktown campaign, the battle of the Chesapeake, 1781’, MPhil. diss., U. Lond., 1971
  • K. Breen, ‘Graves and Hood at the Chesapeake’, Mariner's Mirror, 66 (1980), 53–64
  • K. Breen, ‘Divided command: the West Indies and North America, 1780–1781’, The British navy and the use of naval power in the eighteenth century, ed. J. Black and P. Woodfine (1988), 191–206
  • ‘Letters of Captain John Jervis to Sir Henry Clinton, 1774–1782’, ed. M. M. Hatch, American Neptune, 7 (1947), 87–106


  • NMM, logbooks, letter-books, and papers
  • NMM, corresp. with Lord Sandwich


  • Bartolozzi, Landseer, Ryder, and Stow, group portrait, line engraving, pubd 1803 (Commemoration of the victory of June 1st 1794; after Naval victories by R. Smirke), BM, NPG
  • F. Bartolozzi, mezzotint (after J. Northcote), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

estate, house, and all buildings and fields adjacent; annuity to wife of £900, then to son: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1378

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Gentleman's Magazine
National Maritime Museum, London