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Decision at the Chesapeake by Harold Larrabee (111,000 words, 3 illustrations)

“The Battle of Chesapeake Bay was one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain.” — Michael Lewis, The History of the British Navy

“On the afternoon of September 5, 1781, off the Capes of Virginia, two and a half hours of cannonading between warships of the British and French navies determined the outcome of the American Revolution. It was the one decisive engagement of the bitter six-year struggle of the thirteen colonies against England, and it could have gone either way. Not many Americans have ever heard of it... Almost no one, at the time, seems to have grasped its full significance. George III called it ‘a drawn battle’; Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, ‘a lively skirmish’; Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, ‘a feeble action’; and George Washington, ‘a partial engagement.’ As modern battles go it was a small affair. Probably less than ten thousand men came under fire on each side, and the total casualties did not exceed six hundred... One of the many paradoxes about the Chesapeake struggle is that one of the greatest naval victories of all time was decisive because it was indecisive. Not a single ship was taken or sunk during the battle itself, although the British were forced to burn one afterwards; and neither admiral was driven from the field. Yet the result was as crushing to the hopes of General Earl Cornwallis as if every British warship had been sent to the bottom. To save his army of seven thousand men, the British fleet had to win control of Chesapeake Bay. This it failed to do. England lost naval supremacy just long enough to insure the winning of American independence. Once the sea-approaches to the Chesapeake were sealed the siege of Yorktown and Cornwallis’s surrender were foregone conclusions.” — Harold A. Larrabee, Introduction to
Decision at the Chesapeake


“[An] excellent study of the naval battle fought off the Chesapeake on Sept. 5, 1781, between French and English fleets... The account of the battle itself takes up only a small portion of the book, the rest being devoted to the backgrounds of the war, brief biographies of politicians and officers on both sides... the reasons behind Cornwallis’s fatal decision to fortify himself at Yorktown, and to puncturing long-accepted theories as to why France sent ‘foreign aid’ to America. Carefully documented and highly readable, filled with fascinating details of 18th-century naval warfare, the book will appeal to naval buffs ashore and afloat and to all historians of America’s first Civil War.” —
Kirkus Reviews

“Harold A. Larrabee does [the story of the Yorktown campaign] full justice... his lucid and fast-moving account will interest any one who cares to know the role of sea power in achieving American independence... The author’s treatment of the Yorktown campaign itself is excellent... In discussing the naval operations, Larrabee is at his best... The story is told in all its complexity, yet is never mystifying. It is so clear that the reader can follow it with ease, and so vivid that he feels like an eyewitness of a campaign that in its combination of brilliance and blunder is perennially fascinating.” — William B. Willcox,
The Journal of Modern History

Decision at the Chesapeake is a delight. It combines scholarly acumen, scholarly methodology, and a good style — not what is popularly labeled scholarly — with a sense of direction and purpose. The author endeavors to demonstrate, and to my mind does it very well, that the fate of Cornwallis was definitely determined not so much by his own actions but because the British lost control of the sea in early September 1781.” — S. W. Jackman, The William and Mary Quarterly

“For the student of sea power this is interesting reading, indeed. It has been written: ‘The Battle of Chesapeake Bay was one of the decisive battles of the world. Before it, the creation of the United States of America was possible; after it, it was certain.’ The author sets out to explore this thesis, and brings together from many sources-some of them obscure-most of what is known about this battle of the American Revolution. War, certainly, can and must be viewed from many perspectives, and the author is not unmindful of this.” — F. A. Baldwin,
Naval War College Review

“With a keen sense of the dramatic, a strict adherence to fact, and a facile pen, the author has created an outstanding contribution to the naval history of the American Revolution, and has presented another graphic illustration of the importance of sea power in warfare... Dr. Larrabee has written one of the most penetrating accounts of the events leading up to the battle and a vivid word picture of the battle itself. His device of creating a stage, whereon the various ‘Architects of Defeat’ exhibit either their incompetence or their blunders, is a piece of graphic historical writing. There are profiles of George III, and the Lords North, Germain and Sandwich, which clearly expose their fatuous belief that the American Colonies could be conquered with ease; of the Admirals Graves, Hood and Rodney, and the Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, which place them in no favorable light as strategists or tacticians.” — William Bell Clark,
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography