1902 Encyclopedia > Horatio Nelson (1st Viscount Nelson)

Horatio Nelson
English admiral

NELSON, HORATIO NELSON, VISCOUNT (1758-1805), was a younger son of the Rev. Edmund Nelson, and was born at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, September 29, 1758. A love of adventure and a daring spirit, which developed itself from his earliest years, inclined the future admiral to the life of the sea, and, through the interest of a material uncle, the lad entered the navy in 1770. It is unnecessary to dwell on the career of Nelson as he passed through the first grades of his calling; as a midshipman or a lieutenant he saw ser vice in almost every division of the globe, and on several occasions he gave signal proof of extraordinary energy and fertility of resource, and above all, of a courage in danger which, if somewhat rash, was truly heroic. Already, too, he had shown an expertness in seamanship and in the art of the pilot often noticed by his superior officers, and he had displayed a singular aptitude for command in a variety of enterprises entrusted to him. He was made a post-captain at the age of twenty-one, a promotion due to merit alone, and remarkable in that aristocratic age; an during the next few years he was actively engaged in the vicissitudes of the American War. It was a period of chequered fortunes as regards the English navy; its supremacy on the ocean was not yet assured; and; though Rodney’s great victory in 1782 attested the excellence of British seamen, the flag of France was for a time dominant in the West Indies and Indian sea; the fleets of the French and Spanish monarchies insulted the English coasts for several weeks, and assailed Gibraltar in formidable strength; and the armed neutrality of the Northern power threatened England with no ordinary peril. Nelson, however, though his correspondence proves that he followed them with the eye of genius, took no part in these great operations; he was in command only of small vessels, and was chiefly employed in protecting convoys and in chasing cruisers of the same class as his own; and his most notable exploit was a bold descent on the shores of the South American isthmus, in which he gave fresh proofs of his habitual bravery. Yet his reputation was a promising officer was steadily growing during these years; he attracted the attention of every admiral on the different stations on which he served; and King William IV., at this time a midshipman, probably only echoed a general opinion in describing Nelson as a "boy captain with an enthusiasm that showed he was no common being." After the peace of Versailles in 1783, Nelson was in the West Indies for several years; and he gained credit for almost Quixotic zeal, and drew down on himself no little odium, by the efforts he made to prevent smuggling between the new United States and British colonies, and to expose the frauds of the greedy contractors who, especially on the Jamaica station, had been long permitted to plunder the navy. The time was now at hand when the commanding powers of this great seaman were to become manifest. War between England and revolutionary France was declared in the first month of 1793; and Nelson, on the recommendation of Lord Hood – a veteran who held him in high esteem – was made captain of the "Agamemnon," the first ship of the line commanded by him. He was dispatched under Hood to the Mediterranean; and, though his vessel was one of the worst in the fleet, he performed feats of daring and perfect seamanship which at once mark him our for applause and distinction. With a detachment of sailors who, when led by him, "minded shot," he declared, "as little as peas," he took a prominent part in the siege of Bastia; and the capitulation of the place was due, for the most part, to their determined valour. At the siege of Calvi also, where he lost an eye, he contributed largely to the result, his "seamen," as he reported, having "ought the guns" with the assistance only of "a single artilleryman." Nelson, however, was greatest on his own element; and soon after this he for the first time displayed conspicuously, and in a decisive manner, the transcendent gifts which made him pre-eminent. In March 1795 the British fleet, under Admiral Hotham – Lord Hood had by this time been replaced – was partially engaged of the coasts of Italy with a French fleet of superior force; and a French eighty-four, having been dismasted, sheered off, towed by a powerful frigate, and supported by two large ships of the line. The "Agamemnon," though only a sixty-four, stood out boldly after the retiring enemy; and Nelson’s manoeuvres were so skillful that he all but destroyed the crippled Frenchman, and kept the whole hostile squadron at bay, without incurring any serious loss. The injured ship, with one of her consorts, was easily captured a few hours afterwards; and, had the admiral followed Nelson’s advice, the whole French fleet would have been brought to action, and have probably met a complete defeat.

In the winter of 1795-96 Nelson was employed in cutting off then supplies of the French army on the Italian seaboard; and, had he been well seconded by the Austrian generals, Napoleon would not have possessed the means of beginning his career of Italian conquest. Soon after this he became a commodore; and before long he had again performed one of those great feats of daring and skill which ordinary commanders would have deemed impossible. Spain, drawn into her old alliance with France, and declared war in 1796; and on 13th February 1797 a Spanish fleet met one of the English, a dew miles off Cape St Vincent. Though the enemy had twenty-seven ships of the line, and the British force was only fifteen, its admiral, Jervis, did not hesitate; and, skillfully employing a well-known maneuver, he broke the hostile line, cutting off nine ships. The Spanish admiral, however, endeavoured to rejoin this detachment by wheeling round his van; and the evolution might have been successful had not Nelson, placed at the British rear, immediately abandoned his own line, and, disregarding his superior’s orders, assailed with his single ship the advancing squadron. This audacious movement threw him in the way of three first and three second rates; and, though the "Captain" was ably seconded by the three nearest ships of the British line, Nelson was engaged for more than half an hour with a force immeasurably superior to his own. Yet British discipline and valour triumphed; the Spanish commander drew off beaten, and the "Captain" boarded and took two leading ships, each larger and more powerful than herself, Nelson leading his exulting crew in person to the cry of "Westminster Abbey or Victory." For this extraordinary passage of arms Nelson received the order of the Bath and was made an admiral, -- his splendid success and skillful promptitude having effaced, even in professional minds, his disregard of the rules of the service. During the following months he was engaged in operations against Spain and her colonies; and he lost an arm in an attack on Santa Cruz, a place famous for one of Blake’s victories. The time had now arrived when his genius and skill were to appear in full force in an independent command. In May 1798 he was dispatched by Jervis – now Lord St Vincent – to intercept a great French armament, which, under the guidance of Bonaparte, was intended to reach Egypt and to threaten India. His squadron, however, having been crippled in a gale, the hostile fleet escaped from Toulon and reached Alexandria on 1st July, the British admiral, who had made Aboukir on the 28th June, having just missed it. This misadventure deceived Nelson, who believed that the enemy was still at sea; and it was not until he had made a circuit by Crete t the coasts of Sicily, and back again to the shores of Greece, that he heard how the French had made good their landing. He set off from the Gulf of Coron, though his intelligence was a rumour only; and on the 1st August the enemy was descried. His plan of attack was quickly formed, and it was marked by his wonted insight and skill. The French fleet lay in front of the roads of Aboukir, the real supported by coast batteries, the centre and van more out at sea, but composed of new and formidable ships; and, as shoals stretched between it and the neighbouring shore, its admiral, Brueys, believed that no foe would thread the way between and attack from that side. Nelson, however, a dexterous pilot from boyhood, saw that with fine steering the feat was possible; and he directed part of his fleet to assail the enemy to the landward through this intricate passage, while the remaining part assailed from the seaward. As evening fell his preparations were complete; the shoal stopped only one of the British ships, and before an hour had passed his divided line had encompassed more than half the French fleet. The issue of the battle was never doubtful; the French, indeed, fought with heroic courage, but their rear and centre, placed between two fires, were gradually overpowered and destroyed; and their van, at anchor, like all their line, was either unable or perhaps unwilling to make sail and assist their consorts. The flagship of Brueys, the huge ‘Orient," blew up towards midnight in a volcano of flame, and by day break on the 2d the victory was complete. Of thirteen French ships two only escaped, and it should be added that the British fleet, though equal in numbers to that of the enemy, was wholly inferior in real force. The British seventy-fours were no match for the new and magnificent French eighties; and Nelson’s flagship, the "vanguard," had scarcely more than half the strength of the "Orient."

This great victory – perhaps Nelson’s masterpiece – marks a new epoch in British naval history. The superiority indeed, of the English fleets had been proved form the beginning of the war, especially on June 1, 1794,and the Revolution had injured the marine of France. But it was not until the Battle of the Nile – the name given to Nelson’s triumph – that the navy of England attained its complete ascendancy, and that it became the terror of even its bravest enemies. This change was due in the main to Nelson, and unquestionably the dread his name inspired was the principal cause that, years afterwards, Napoleon’s plan of invading England failed. From this period, too, the whole naval service, so to speak, was animated by a new spirit, and deeds of daring were done by men of the rising school which the Hawkes and Ansons would have never dreamt of. It is painful to turn from this blaze of glory to notice a dark passage in Nelson’s career. The battle of the Nile having again combined the Continent against revolutionary France, -- for Bonaparte and his army seemed lost, -- the court of Naples was drawn into the war; and, in the struggle that ensued, the king and queen were compelled to take refuge in Palermo. They soon, however, had returned to the capital, Suwaroff having driven the French from Italy; and they entered Naples on the faith of a treaty, which amnestied their revolted subjects. Nelson, who still held his Mediterranean command, and had taken the royal family under his protection, nevertheless declared the capitulation null, allowed the vindictive creatures of the court to work their will on disarmed enemies, and, hurrying on himself the trait and sentence, gave his sanction to what can he only called the judicial murder of Caraccioli, the admiral of the Neapolitan fleet, who had served in the "rebel" cause only under compulsion. History must severely condemn these acts, but there is reason to believe that they were not caused, as is commonly supposed, by female prompting; and we must not forget that, in that age, political passion ran furiously high, and often broke down all moral barriers, -- that it was the age of the assassinations at Rastadt, of the crime of Vincennes, of the execution of Ney. Nelson remained on his station after this tragedy; he shared in some of the short-lived triumphs of the allies in 1799-1800, had the satisfaction of hearing of the capture of the two ships which had escaped from Aboukir, and gave effectual aid in the siege of Malta, taken by Bonaparte on his way to Egypt. By the winter of 1800 he was again in England, having received a peerage for the well-merited rank of vice-admiral, and greeted by his country with general acclaim. He was called before long to perform another service, in which his great qualities became again manifest. The victory of Marengo, won by Bonaparte after his extraordinary return form Egypt, having broken up the coalition against France, and inclined the czar to a French alliance, the Northern courts, with Denmark at their head, renewed the armed neutrality of 1780; and, in the first months of 1801, a British fleet was fitted out for the Baltic to put an end to this menacing league. Sir Peter parker, a cautious veteran, was made chief of this expedition, Nelson being only the second in command, for negotiation was to be tried at first, and for this Nelson had no aptitude; but, though this arrangement promised well, it did nor prove, on the whole, fortunate. The fleet, an extremely powerful armament, had passed the Sound by the 31st March, -- Nelson chafing at the delays of his colleagues, and at diplomatic efforts which, he rightly thought, would give to the Danes what they wanted, time; and by the 7th April it cast anchor in the waters around the Danish capital. The enemy, however, and already prepared the means of making a stern resistance: Copenhagen was covered by strong batteries; and an imposing array of heavily armed craft, protected by a shoal, as was the case at Aboukir, presented a most formidable line of defence. Nelson, however, declared for an immediate attack; and on the 2d May the attempt was made, parker having judiciously left him to act for himself. Nelson’s tactics resembled those of the Nile; he closed on his foe by getting within the shoal; but, from the nature of the case, he had not the means of placing the Danes between two fires; he had to deal with forts, not with vessels only; and his operations were in part unfortunate, for three of his ships at the outset grounded. The result was that, although his squadron destroyed the first line of the Danish defences, and threatened the capital with ruinous injury, the hostile batteries were not silenced, and Nelson’s ships and suffered so much that he readily welcomed the terms of a truce which extricated him from no little danger. Parker, indeed, had been so alarmed at the prospect that he had actually signaled the fleet to retreat; but Nelson characteristically refused to obey until something like victory had been attained, -- on the whole, certainly, a wise resolve.

Nelson was made a viscount for Copenhagen, and the league of the North was soon dissolved, for, though his success had not been perfect, it had taught the enemy a severe lesson. During the summer of 1801 he was engaged in watching the first preparations for a descent on the English coast already contemplated by Napoleon; and he directed a boat attack on what was ere long to grow into the formidable and threatening flotilla of Boulogne. The peace of Amiens brought the war to a close; and Nelson stood on a pinnacle of fame, the acknowledged chief of the navy of England. His life, however, had become unhappy, for his private as well as his public character was not, it must be confessed, spotless. He was singularly susceptible to female influences; and he had formed for some years an erring attachment for Emma, the wife of Sir William Hamilton, ambassador at Naples in 1798. She was an adventuress of great beauty and parts; and, though his conduct at Naples does not seem to have been due to her evil counsels, he became almost her slave in his wild passion; and this had not only led to a separation from his wife, but had given him many wretched moments, and had caused much pain to his aged sovereign. Discredit, however, of this kind could not detract from his splendid services; and on the renewed of the war in 1803 Nelson was appointed to the Mediterranean command. He took up his station off Toulon; and for nearly two years he kept the French in port, in spite of repeated efforts of escape, and of the vicissitudes of all kinds of weather – an example of endurance never equaled. Meanwhile Napoleon had been maturing his deep-laid plan for invading England; the army which afterwards subdued the Continent had been marshaled along the cliffs of Boulogne; a vast and armed flotilla had been assembled; and the descent was to be covered by an immense fleet, collected from many points of the compass, and concentrated in suitable force in the Channel. A variety of circumstances, however, the principal being the timidity of the French admirals, alarmed at the recollections of the Nile, and fearing attempts to break the blockade, delayed the execution of the enemy’s design, though certainly it was formidable in the extreme, and was unsuspected until the last moment. At last, at the end of March 1805, the French admiral, Villenueve, escaped from Toulon, -- his mission being to rally a Spanish squadron, to cross the Atlantic and reach the West Indies, and then, returning to the seas of Europe, to liberate the French and Spanish squadrons blockaded at Ferrol, Rochefort, and Brest, and to attain the Channel with a great armada of from fifty to sixty ships of the line. Villeneuve’s operations were at first successful: he was at Martinique by the middle of May, having been joined by a fleet from Cadiz; and, though haunted, as it were, by the thought of Nelson, he was in full sail for Europe by the 1st June, having as yet completely eluded the enemy. Meantime Nelson had sought for Villeneuve on the Mediterranean for several days; he had been long delayed by contrary winds; and, though he had crossed the Atlantic with extreme rapidity when apprised of the destination of his foe, he had been lured away by a false report to the shores of the South American continent, and he only reached the latitude of Martinique to find that Villeneuve and his fleet were gone. He sailed from Antigua on the 13th June, pursuing with eleven sail a fleet of nineteen or twenty; and, as he feared that he might not come up with Villeneuve, he dispatched several light craft to warn the Admiralty – though not suspecting Napoleon’s design – that a hostile fleet was on the way to Europe. This precaution proved of the highest moment. Nelson missed Villeneuve in the Atlantic wastes, but one of these vessels conveyed his message. Sir Robert Calder, sent off for the purpose, intercepted Villeneuve of the coasts of Spain, and though the action was not decisive the Frenchman was compelled to put into Ferrol, and was thus prevented from making northwards. Before long Nelson, still chasing Villeneuve, but ignorant where his enemy was, had approached Europe and made for England; and at this intelligence the French admiral sailed from Ferrol southward, and put into Cadiz, completely frustrating his master’s projects. The position of affairs had now become clearer, -- though Collingwood alone of British seamen had even an inkling of Napoleon’s purpose; and the admiralty made preparations at once at attack the fleet that had fled into Cadiz. Nelson was placed in supreme command, and he was off Cadiz in the last days of September. His fleet numbered thirty-three of thirty-four sail to the line; that of Villeneuve was of the same force, the Ferrol squadron having joined his own; but, as Nelson knew that the French chief would not venture to fight on equal terms, he actually sent away seven or eight ships, in order to bring about an engagement which, he had resolved, should prove decisive.

By 20th October Villeneuve had put to sea with the combined fleets of France and Spain. He obeyed a peremptory command of Napoleon, who had stigmatized him as a feeble coward; he left Cadiz trusting to a false report that Nelson had only twenty ships; and yet, with thirty-three, he dreaded a battle. Nelson, eager to decoy the Frenchman out, had kept a considerable distance from land, but the enemy’s movements were watched by his frigates, and he was informed of them throughout the night. His plan of attack had been made some time ; the ships of the allied being very numerous, he had resolved to break their line at two points; and in this way the results, he believed, of the manoeuvre would be more quick and effective. By daybreak on the 21st the fleet of Villenueve was descried off the Cape of Trafalgar; and the English fleet was formed into two columns, the northern led by Nelson in the "Victory," the southern under Collingwood in the "Royal Sovereign." The wind was light, and there was an ocean swell; Nelson’s ships slowly advanced on the waters; and, as they approached it, the hostile fleet, the sun shining on the masses of sails, presented a grand and imposing appearance. Villeneuve, a skilful seaman though a timid leader, had arranged his squadrons ably to meet the attack; he had formed them into two parallel lines, the vessels of the second commanding the spaces between the vessels of the first line; and they were thus marshaled in a compact array, each division giving support to the other, and offering a continuous front of fire to the enemy. Deafening cheers broke from the flagship, "England expects every man to do his duty"; and it is said that Villeneuve, as he heard the shouting, exclaimed to his officers that "all was lost," The southern column came into action towards noon; and Collingwood first broke the hostile line, pouring a destructive broadside into the "Santa Anna," and then ranging alongside the "Fougueux." The "Royal Sovereign," however, had out-sailed her consorts, and he was surrounded by enemies for many minutes before a friendly ship could come to her aid; and this circumstance not only proves how absolute had become the confidence of the British chiefs, but how the manoeuvre of piercing the line requires a better fleet to have a chance of success. By this time the northern column was engaged; the "Victory," assailed by a tremendous fire, broke through the enemy soon after twelve, making immense havoc in Villeneuve’s flagship, and exchanging broadsides with the "Redoubtable" and with the huge ‘Santissima Trinidad," by far the largest man-of-war afloat; and here again some moments elapsed before the "Temeraire" gave her partial relief. The action had now become general; and the British ships in the rear came up, reducing the great inferiority in the first attack. Six or seven ships of the enemy’s first line made a stern and noble resistance; but the second line gradually fell to leeward; the van, as the Nile, scarcely fired a shot; and, divided, scattered, and overpowered at every point where the defence was maintained, the allied fleet ere long was a mass of fragments, disabled, helpless, and pursued by their conquerors. Nevertheless the victory, splendid as it was, dearly bought by the loss of the life of the illustrious warrior who had prepared it. A musket ball from the "Redoutable’s" tops inflicted a mortal wound on Nelson about an hour after the battle began, and he died towards evening to the unspeakable grief of all who witnesses the sorrowful scene in the "Victory." He retained, however, his great faculties to the last; he lived to hear that almost two-thirds of the enemy’s fleet had been destroyed or captured; and, though he passed away in the prime of manhood, it can hardly be said that his death was premature, for the foes of England had been swept from the ocean. We have indicated Nelson’s undoubted error; and he was inferior to several of England’s naval chiefs in political sagacity and calm forethought. But he was the greatest of her commanders at sea; he was unrivalled, in and eventful age of war, for resource, daring, professional skill, and the art of winning the hearts of men; and, on the whole, he was beyond comparison the first of the naval worthies of his country. His remains were conveyed to England and interred in St Paul’s Cathedral on January 9, 1806.

See The Dispatches and Letters of Nelson, 7 vols., London, 1844-46; the Life of Clarke and M’Arthur (1806), and that by Southey (1828); Alison, History of Europe; Thiers, French Revolution and History of the Consulate and the Empire. (W. O. M.)

The above article was written by: William O'Connor Morris, author of The French Revolution and the French Empire, Great Commanders of Modern Times, and The Land System of Ireland.

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