Admiral Samuel Graves (1713-1787) is best known for his role in the early years of the American War of Independence and was Commander-in-Chief, North America (1774-1776).
He was the scion of an Anglo-Irish family which provided many officers to the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Samuel Graves first went to sea aged 15 in the 60-gun H.M.S. Exeter and was promoted to lieutenant in 1740, and Captain in 1744. He is not to be confused with his cousin, Admiral Lord Thomas Graves (1725-1802), whose fleet was defeated at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in 1781, with whom he served on the 80-gun H.M.S. Norfolk.
Samuel Graves commanded the 14-gun sloop H.M.S. Bonetta in 1743. Other commands included Ripon's Prize (in which he captured a French ship of 30-guns and 116 men bound from Cadiz to Vera Cruz) and H.M.S. Enterprise in the West Indies. In the Seven Years' War, known in America as the French and Indian War, he commanded several line-of-battle ships, including H.M.S. St Albans, H.M.S. Princess Amelia and H.M.S. Barfleur.
At the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20th November 1759, Samuel Graves was in command of the 80-gun H.M.S. Duke when in a gale the British fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke sank, captured, or drove ashore a French fleet. The battle was one of the victories which led to the year being called the 'Annus Mirabilis', and the American historian Alfred Mahan called it "the Trafalgar of the war." In 1762, Samuel Graves was promoted to Rear-Admiral but on the outbreak of peace there followed several years of unemployment.
In March 1774, Graves was appointed to the command of the North American squadron, where his task was daunting. Boston, one of his bases, was seething with rebellion, and he had only 19 ships to patrol a 1,000 miles of coast. Parliament in Britain had passed the Boston Port Act, prohibiting the landing, loading, or shipping of goods to or from that port, and Graves's orders were to enforce the Act. Graves's predecessor had declared a blockade of Boston, but this was unenforceable: there were too many small channels into Boston, and by concentrating nine of his ships on this task he left the rest of the coast open to smuggling. Further orders which came to prohibit the import of gunpowder, arms, and ammunition, were wishful thinking in view of the length and nature of the coast. Graves asked for more ships but only received Third Rates, too large and clumsy for the task, his crews - unhappy at their work - were liable to desert, and attempts to press men infuriated the colonists. When he used his ships' boats to transport troops for an expedition to Lexington and Concord, they were harassed by the colonists, and even though supplies of provisions for the army dried up, Graves was forbidden to fire unless actually attacked. Hardliners in London were critical of Graves's performance and lack of vigour and urged stronger measures. So, in April 1775, boats from his fleet ferried British troops across the Charles River en route to Concord. Two months later, on 17th June 1775, he again ferried troops, to the Charlestown Peninsula, and landed sailors and marines to take part in what would prove to prove to be the Pyrrhic Victory at Bunker Hill. Then in October, Graves ordered a landing at Falmouth, Massachusetts (now Portland, Maine) which set fire to the town and aroused even greater fury among the colonists. The burning of Falmouth led to the Second Continental Congress and the foundation of the Continental Navy.
Graves had been faced with a difficult task, and he was not the man to meet it. However, his patron, Lord Sandwich, did not blame him and offered Graves alternative employment, but Graves declined, and retired to Hembury Fort, near Honiton, Devon. He married twice but had no children.