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Graves, Thomas (1725?-1802) (DNB00)

GRAVES, THOMAS, Lord Graves (1725?–1802), admiral, second son of Rear-admiral Thomas Graves (d. 1755) of Thanckes in Cornwall, entered the navy at an early age under the care of Commodore Medley, and afterwards in the Norfolk, commanded by his father, was present in the unsuccessful expedition against Cartagena in 1741. From the West Indies the Norfolk was sent into the Mediterranean, and on 25 June 1743 Graves was made lieutenant into the Romney of 50 guns, in which he was present in the notorious action off Toulon on 11 Feb. 1743–4. In 1746 he was a lieutenant of the Princessa, with Admiral Richard Lestock [q. v.], in the expedition against L'Orient, and, on the admiral's death, was appointed to the Monmouth, with Captain Harrison. In her he was present in Anson's action off Cape Finisterre, and Hawke's action in the Bay of Biscay (3 May, 14 Oct. 1747). In 1751 he went out to the coast of Africa in the Assistance with Commodore Buckle, and afterwards with Commodore Stepney. On his return in 1754 he was promoted to the command of the Hazard sloop, and the following year, 8 July 1755, was posted to the Sheerness, a 20-gun frigate, in which he continued to be employed on the home station and the coast of France. In this ship, on the night of 26 Dec. 1756, he met a large French ship, which he and all his officers concluded to be a ship of the line; in the morning she was still in sight, and shortened sail, offering the Sheerness battle, which Graves, still supposing her to be a ship of the line, refused. The admiralty, on the affair being reported, came to the conclusion that she was rather a homeward-bound East Indiaman, and that Graves ought to have engaged her. They therefore ordered him to be tried by a court-martial, which, on 27 Jan. 1757, decided that he ought to ‘have attempted to discover her force by going down and engaging her;’ that he had not ‘avoided coming to action through negligence, disaffection, or cowardice;’ that he did not ‘fall under any part of the 10th, 12th, or 13th articles of war;’ but ‘that his offence was owing to an error in judgment;’ that he fell under the 36th article of war; and sentenced him to be publicly reprimanded by the president (Minutes of the Court-Martial). Now the 36th article was to the effect that all crimes not specially mentioned, and for which no punishment was directed, should be punished according to the laws and customs used at sea. The case, of no great consequence in itself, derives a peculiar interest from the fact that this sentence was passed at Plymouth on the very same day as, at Portsmouth, Admiral John Byng [q. v.] was condemned to death under the 12th article; for it has frequently been argued that the court at Portsmouth wished to bring Byng in guilty of an error in judgment; but were, by the articles of war, unable to do so. The sentence on Graves proves this contention to be erroneous, and that a court-martial clearly understood the difference between ‘negligence’ under the 12th article and an ‘error in judgment’ under the 36th.

In January 1758 Graves was appointed to the Unicorn of 28 guns, attached to the grand fleet under Anson, and in the following year to the squadron under Rear-admiral Rodney, at the bombardment of Havre de Grace. From September 1760 to May 1761 he had temporary command of the Oxford; he was then appointed to the Antelope of 50 guns, and sent out in charge of convoy to Newfoundland, where, in the summer of 1762, he assisted in repelling an attack of the French under M. de Ternay. In November 1764 he was appointed captain of the Téméraire, guardship at Plymouth, and from her, in January 1765, was sent on special service to the coast of Africa, 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. On the dispute with Spain in 1770 he was appointed to the Cambridge of 80 guns. In 1773 he had command of the Raisonnable in the Channel, and in 1776 of the Nonsuch. In 1778 he was moved into the Conqueror, one of the squadron which went out with Vice-admiral Byron to North America, and afterwards to the West Indies, from which station Graves was recalled early in the following year, on his promotion to flag rank. On his return to England, he hoisted his flag on board the London in the Channel fleet, under the command of Sir Charles Hardy; and in 1780 sailed for North America in command of a reinforcement of six ships of the line, with which he joined Arbuthnot in July, and on 16 March 1781 took part in the action off the mouth of the Chesapeake [see Arbuthnot, Marriot]. On Arbuthnot's resigning the command in the following July, Graves remained as commander-in-chief. This squadron was not more than equal to that of the French at Rhode Island, and he had been given vaguely to understand that De Grasse might at any moment appear with a part or even the whole of the West Indian fleet. In this state of uncertainty, hearing of some reinforcements from Europe expected by the French squadron at Rhode Island, he went for a cruise off Boston, and on his return to New York on 18 Aug. found that a letter from Rodney, announcing that part of the enemy's fleet was reported to be destined for North America, had been intercepted by the French cruisers. Great stress has been laid on the miscarriage of this despatch; but, in fact, it conveyed no new intelligence, and was too vague to be of any service. Several of his ships were in immediate need of refitting, and in the meantime, on 28 Aug., Sir Samuel Hood [q. v.] with fourteen ships of the line, arrived on the coast, from the West Indies. Almost at the same time Graves had news that the French squadron had left Rhode Island. He conjectured that it had gone south, and resolved to follow. Some of his ships were not ready, but with five he crossed the bar on the 31st, and the fleet, thus consisting of nineteen sail of the line, put to sea. On the 30th De Grasse, with twenty-eight ships of the line, had anchored inside the Chesapeake, and there he was still lying when, on 5 Sept., the English fleet was sighted in the offing. Leaving four ships inside to co-operate with the troops which had been landed, and to guard the entrance of James River, the French fleet of twenty-four ships of the line put to sea, drawing out as they did so into line of battle towards the east. It was then only that Graves was aware that the enemy before him was something more than the Rhode Island squadron. The odds against him were very great, and he had neither the genius to redress the balance, nor the confidence to depart from the formal order of the fighting instructions with the risk of being shot if he failed. He formed his line also towards the east, nearly parallel to that of the enemy, and ran down to engage in the prescribed manner. The line became oblique, the rear did not get into action at all, and the van, after being engaged in succession by the whole French line, was disabled, while the French, reforming to leeward, waited a renewal of the attack. This the English fleet was in no condition to make: the French would not assume the offensive; on 10 Sept. they returned to their anchorage within the Chesapeake, and Graves went back to New York.

Cornwallis was now blocked up in his position at York and Gloucester [see Cornwallis, Charles, first marquis], and the situation was one of extreme peril. It was obviously necessary that he should be relieved, but the fleet under Graves was not equal to the task. On 24 Sept. a reinforcement of three ships arrived under Rear-admiral Robert Digby [q. v.], and with them an order to Graves to go with the London to Jamaica. It was agreed, however, that in the existing emergency the London could not be spared, and Digby, being junior to Graves, begged him to retain the command till the present operations were brought to an end. On 11 Oct. two more ships arrived from Jamaica; and by the 17th, the fleet, now consisting of twenty-five ships of the line and two of 50 guns, was ready; on the 18th it embarked the general with upwards of seven thousand men, and on the 19th crossed the bar and made sail for the Chesapeake. On this very day Cornwallis surrendered. The relieving force arrived on the 24th, too late to be of any assistance, too weak to attempt any return blow. The French fleet, swelled by the junction of the Rhode Island squadron to thirty-five sail of the line, lay securely at anchor within the Capes, and refused to meet the English outside. To cruise in sight of an unwilling and unapproachable enemy at this advanced season could do no good; Graves therefore returned to New York, where he handed over the command to Digby, and on 10 Nov. sailed in the London for Jamaica.

In the course of the long and angry controversy which afterwards raged on the subject of Cornwallis's surrender, some attempt was made to throw blame on Graves for not having his fleet already within the Chesapeake before De Grasse's arrival on the coast. But Graves as well as Clinton believed correctly that New York was the object of the intended attack, and we know now that it was almost of the nature of an accident that the blow fell instead on the post within the Chesapeake (Sparks, Writings of George Washington, viii. 62–113; Mémoires de Rochambeau, ii. 277; Clinton, Narrative, p. 17). Had De Grasse found that sufficiently guarded he would certainly have passed on to New York. The causes of the disaster must be looked for, not only in the weakness of the force at Graves's disposal, but in the division of the army, and in other measures entirely beyond Graves's control.

Graves was still at Jamaica when Rodney came in with the fleet after the battle of 12 April 1782; and was ordered to take command of a squadron, consisting principally of the prizes, bound for England. They sailed on 25 July, the craziest squadron perhaps that ever put to sea. Some of them parted company at a very early stage of the voyage, and returned to Port Royal or bore up for Halifax; the rest got into a violent storm in mid-ocean on 16 Sept. when several of them went down, some with all hands. Of nine ships of the line that left Jamaica, two only got to England, and those with much difficulty (Nautical Magazine, September 1880, xlix. 719) [see Cornwallis, Sir William; Inglefield, John Nicholson]. The Ramillies of 74 guns, in which Graves had hoisted his flag, was one of those that were lost. She was lying-to on the wrong tack, and was taken aback in a violent and sudden shift of the wind. Her masts went by the board; within a few minutes she was reduced to a mere wreck, the violent straining opened her seams, she filled with water, and all efforts to save her proving vain, she was deserted and blown up on the forenoon of the 21st. Graves himself got on board the Belle merchant ship, in which he arrived safely in Cork harbour on 10 Oct.

On 24 Sept. 1787 Graves was promoted to be vice-admiral, and in the following year was appointed commander-in-chief at Plymouth. On the outbreak of the war with France in 1793, he was appointed to command the Channel fleet in the second post, under Lord Howe; he became admiral on 12 April 1794, and with his flag in the Royal Sovereign had an important share in the success of 1 June. For his conduct on this occasion he was raised to the peerage on the Irish establishment as Baron Graves, received the gold medal and chain, and a pension of 1,000l. per annum. He was, however, badly wounded in the right arm, and was obliged to resign his command. He had no further service, and died in February 1802. He married in 1771 Elizabeth, daughter and coheiress of Mr. William Peere Williams of Cadhay, Devonshire, and left issue three daughters and a son, Thomas North Graves, who succeeded as second baron.

[Official letters and other documents in the Public Record Office; Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 126; Ralfe's Nav. Biog. i. 174; Naval Chronicle (with a portrait), v. 377; Narrative of Lieutenant-general Sir Henry Clinton relative to his conduct … in 1781; the copy of this in the British Museum (1061, h. 14 (1)) is bound up with Cornwallis's reply and other interesting pamphlets on this subject; another collection with introduction and notes has been published by Henry Stevens (1888). The article ‘Some Account of Admiral Lord Graves’ in European Mag. (September 1795), xxviii. 144 (with a portrait), appears by a separate copy in the Brit. Mus. (B. 735 (10)) to be by William Graves, the admiral's elder brother and a master in chancery; its purely personal narrative may therefore be depended on, but its account of affairs in America is far from accurate. See also Two Letters from W. Graves, esq., respecting the Conduct of Rear-admiral Thomas Graves in North America during his accidental Command there for four months in 1781 (privately printed, apparently in 1783).]

J. K. L.