Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Battle of the Chesapeake and the Significance of Food in Military History

The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes, was a critical naval battle in the Revolutionary War. It also provides a fabulous example of how world and military history has been partly shaped by food.

The battle took place near the mouth of the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781 between “a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse.” Although it didn't immediately end the war, the victory by the French was a major strategic defeat for the British because it prevented the Royal Navy from resupplying food, troops, and other provisions to General Charles Cornwallis’ blockaded forces at Yorktown.

Equally important, it prevented interference with the delivery of troops and provisions that were en route to General George Washington's army through the Chesapeake. Six weeks later, with the British forces tired, hungry, trapped, and depleted, General Cornwallis surrendered his army to General Washington after the Seige at Yorktown, which effectively ended the war and forced Great Britain to later recognize the independence of the United States of America.

Of course, many other critical political, economic, and military forces contributed to the end of the Revolutionary War, but that doesn't in any way diminish the fact that food (or the lack of it) has played an important role in the course of world and military history.

FAST FACT: During the Civil War, General Winfield Scott observed that, "The movements of an army are necessarily considerations of the belly." And the famous French emperor Napoleon valued pickles as a food source for his armies so much that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to the first person who discovered a way to safely preserve food. The man who won the prize in 1809 was a French chef and confectioner named Nicolas Appert who discovered that food wouldn’t spoil if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it long enough. This process, of course, is known as canning and Appert's discovery was one of the most pivotal events in the modern history of food and human nutrition.

Image: Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull (1787)