Count and Marquess de Grasse-Tilly, lieutenant-general of the naval forces; b. 1723; d. 1788
Grasse, Francois-Joseph-Paul, Count and Marquess de Grasse-Tilly, lieutenant-general of the naval forces; b. near Toulon, 1723; d. at Paris, January 11, 1788. His family was one of the oldest of the French nobility. His father, Francois de Grasse-Rouville, Marquess de Grasse, was a captain in the army. At the age of eleven, Francois-Joseph entered the naval service of the Knights of Malta (1734), and served during the Turkish and Moorish wars. In 1739 he entered the French navy, and, after serving on several vessels, was, in 1747, captured and taken prisoner to England, where he remained two years. Returning to France, he was made a lieutenant, and served under La Galissoniere during the Seven Years War, and under D’Ache in the East Indies. Promoted to captain in January, 1762, he received the brevet of Knight of St. Louis in 1764.
The treaty of alliance between France and the United States was signed February 6, 1778. The first naval engagement after the signing of the treaty took place off Ushant, July 27, 1778, between the French fleet under Count D’Orvilliers and the English under Admiral Keppel. Count de Grasse was in command of the “Robuste”, and was severely engaged during the action, which was undecisive in its results. Promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, he sailed from Brest in 1779, in command of a squadron, to the West Indies to join the fleet under Count d’Estaing, who was subsequently succeeded in command by Count de Guichen.
Returning to France, he was promoted to lieutenant-general des armees navales (admiral), and sailed from Brest for the West Indies on March 24, 1781, with a fleet of 23 ships of the line and a large convoy under his command. He arrived off Martinique, April 28, 1781, and next day had an engagement with the English fleet under Admiral Hood, which resulted in Hood‘s withdrawal. On June 2, 1781, he captured the Island of Tobago, and then proceeded to Cape Francais (now Cap Haitien), where he found awaiting him a French frigate bearing dispatches from Washington and Rochambeau, urging his cooperation in the proposed movement, by which it was hoped to strike a decisive blow at the English forces in Virginia. De Grasse acted promptly; the frigate that brought the dispatches was sent back to Newport, Rhode Island, and, by August 15, Washington and Rochambeau knew of the intended coming of the fleet. Three thousand five hundred soldiers under command of Marquess St Simon were taken on board and also a large sum of money, urgently needed by the Americans. On August 30, 1781, De Grasse anchored in Lynn Haven Bay, just within the Capes of the Chesapeake, with 28 ships of the line. Three days before (August 27, 1781), the French squadron at Newport, consisting of four frigates and eighteen transports, under Count de Barras, sailed for the rendezvous, making a wide detour to avoid the English fleet then at New York. Immediately on learning of De Barras’s departure, the English fleet under Admirals Graves and Hood sailed for the Chesapeake to intercept De Barras before he could join De Grasse. The English fleet arrived off the Chesapeake, September 5, 1781. De Grasse got under way, went out to meet them, and, without bringing on a general engagement, managed his fleet so skillfully that many of the English ships were very severely damaged. De Grasse kept the English fleet engaged for five days, and then returning found De Barras safely at anchor.
Graves returned to New York, and with him disappeared all hope of relieving or reinforcing the English forces at Yorktown under Lord Cornwallis. The siege of Yorktown continued, but the control of the sea made only one issue possible, and with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, the independence of the United States was virtually decided. On receiving the news of the surrender, Congress named December 13, 1781, a day of thanksgiving, and on October 29, 1781, the thanks of Congress were tendered to Washington, to Rochambeau, and to De Grasse. It was also voted to present to Rochambeau and to De Grasse two pieces of the field ordnance taken from the British at the capitulation of Yorktown, to be engraved with a short memorandum. The day after the capitulation Washington wrote to De Grasse: “The surrender of Yorktown, the honor of which belongs to your Excellency, has greatly anticipated (in time) our most sanguine expectations”.
On November 5, 1781, De Grasse sailed from the Chesapeake, arriving at Martinique on the 26th. In January, 1782, he captured the Island of St. Kitts. On April 8, 1782, the fleet under De Grasse was attacked by Admiral Rodney off Martinique, with no advantage resulting to either. On April 12, however, the greatest naval battle of the century (known as the Battle of the Saints, from the adjacent islands of Les Saintes) was fought. Both fleets engaged in desperate action, which lasted from daylight until after 6 P.M., when De Grasse’s flagship, the “Ville de Paris“, struck her colors after a brilliant but hopeless defense; the other ships of the fleet, except those captured, scattered and fled for safety.
After the surrender, De Grasse was taken by Rodney to Jamaica, and thence a prisoner to England, where he received a great deal of flattering attention, which he accepted with such complacency as to irritate his countrymen, by whom he was accused of not having maintained the dignity and reserve becoming one who had been vanquished. While a prisoner on parole in London he published a defense of his conduct of the battle, and accused his captains of disobedience, etc., blaming them for his defeat. In 1783, after peace was proclaimed, he returned to France. A court martial was ordered (1784), which entirely exonerated every one whom he had attacked. De Grasse was not satisfied with the finding of the court, protested against it, and demanded a new trial. The minister of marine, in acknowledging the receipt of his protest, replied in the name of the king: “His Majesty, dissatisfied with your conduct in this respect, Majesty, you to present yourself before him”. Viewed with disfavor by the king, De Grasse went into retirement, and his public career was closed. Four years afterwards he died, January 11, 1778.
He was married three times. His surviving children were driven into exile dunring the Revolution, and reached the United States. His son, Count Alexander de Grasse, Marquess de Tilly, was appointed by the United States Government engineer of Georgia and the Carolinas, and a pension of one thousand dollars a year was bestowed on his daughters. Two of the daughters died of yellow fever at Charleston, South Carolina, 1799, but the youngest, Madame de Pau, was long a resident of New York. She left two sons and five daughters; the daughters married leading merchants of New York.