Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s decisive victories at the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar are studied by naval professionals worldwide. His controversial personal life has been featured in a stream of biographies that stretches over nearly 200 years, and his naval exploits have inspired works of adventure fiction, including such literary best-sellers as C. S. Forester’s Horn- blower series and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. Noted British historical biographer and journalist Tom Pocock summarized Nelson’s unique place in history: “He has not only been the national hero who secured a century of maritime supremacy for his country but also the focus of British identity and aspirations.”
In recognition of his position in the annals of naval history, in 1995 Great Britain inaugurated a Decade of Nelson, which will culminate on 21 October 2005, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. There no doubt will be numerous events commemorating many aspects of Nelson’s entire life and amazing naval career; however, it was his last ten years that raised him to his pinnacle of fame. An examination of the major milestones marking those years is particularly instructive.
Cape Saint Vincent, February 1797
As part of a British fleet that met a Spanish force off the southwest comer of Portugal, Nelson was instrumental in achieving a decisive British victory. There, at a crucial point in the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent, he disobeyed his Commander-in-chiefs signal and broke out of the British line-ahead formation. The maneuver, although in direct violation of Admiral Sir John Jervis’s instructions, actually accomplished Jervis’s overall objective of bringing the Spanish fleet to action. And during the fighting, Nelson did more. He demonstrated exceptional personal bravery by boarding and capturing two of the Spanish ships in hand-to-hand action.
Nelson put both his career and life on the line, and even the tough-minded Jervis recognized the importance of Nelson’s quick reaction to the shifting tactical situation. When his flag captain pointed out that Nelson had violated the order to maintain a line-ahead formation, Admiral Jervis responded, “It certainly was so, and if ever you commit such a breach of your orders, I will forgive you also.”
Two letters that reached Nelson after the victory are particularly interesting. One, from the wife of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Peter Parker, under whom Nelson previously had served, was typical of the acclaim heaped on him. It said, “Your conduct on the memorable 14 February, a proud day for old England, is above all praise.” Lady Parker’s letter reflected the kind of glorification that led Nelson at a later and less successful point in his career to observe ruefully, “I have had flattery enough to make me vain.”
The second letter, from Nelson’s wife, Frances, expressed grudging recognition of her husband’s achievements and emphasized her hope “that all these wonderful and desperate actions—such as boarding ships—you will leave to others.” Her ongoing lack of enthusiasm for Nelson’s combat accomplishments was to become a factor in the disintegration of her relationship with her egocentric husband.
Santa Cruz, July 1797
The attack that Rear Admiral Nelson led on Santa Cruz, Tenerife, in July 1797 was a disaster. The objectives of the assault were the capture a Spanish treasure ship believed to be in Santa Cruz, neutralization of the port as a Spanish military base in the Canary Islands, and the capture or destruction of any Spanish ships encountered. Planning for the operation by Nelson and Jervis—still his commander-in-chief—grossly underestimated the skill and determination of the opposition. Nelson and the British paid heavily.
After a bad beginning, and in the course of a boat landing in Santa Cruz harbor with elements of the British force, Nelson was struck in the right arm by grapeshot. With the admiral only semiconscious, his stepson, Josiah, got Nelson back to his flagship, HMS Theseus, where his shattered arm was amputated above the elbow.
During the return to his flagship, Nelson insisted that the boat be diverted to assist the survivors of one of the British ships that had been sunk nearby. In addition, he ordered that he be taken to the Theseus, rather than to HMS Culloden, which was closer, because he feared that his condition would frighten the wife of Culloden's captain, who was on board while her husband led one of the British groups ashore.
The British attack was crushed. It was only through the audacity of then-Captain Thomas Troubridge—who threatened to burn the town unless the British were allowed to return to their ships—and the humanitarianism of the Spanish commander, General Gutierrez, that Nelson and the surviving British were able to withdraw.
It was a deeply depressed Nelson who returned to Jervis’s command. He wrote—for the first time with his left hand— that his career was at an end and that he would return to England to be “no more seen.” Jervis did his best to ease Nelson’s physical and mental pains, anticipating the time when he would be anxious to return to duty.
The Battle of the Nile, August 1798
After nearly a year of recuperation in London, Nelson returned to active service as the war between Britain and France reached a critical juncture. Napoleon was assembling a powerful army-navy force centered at Toulon, and that knowledge, combined with other strategic factors on the Continent, convinced the British that the Mediterranean had become a crucial arena. A decision was made to reinsert a Royal Navy squadron into the Mediterranean.
At 39, Nelson was a relatively junior flag officer; nevertheless, he was given the Mediterranean command. Writing to Admiral Jervis—now the Earl of St. Vincent—who would be in overall command, First Lord of the Admiralty Earl Spencer was explicit: “I think it almost unnecessary to suggest to you the propriety of putting [the squadron] under the command of Sir H. Nelson.”
What happened before the actual battle was just as important as the battle itself. During the several months when he doggedly searched the Mediterranean for the French fleet, many of Nelson’s most important leadership qualities came into sharp focus—a resolute determination in the face of obstacles, an ability to focus on a mission’s primary objective, and his method of establishing tactical doctrine with his captains in frequent meetings before battle.
In his biography of Nelson, Captain A. T. Mahan zeroed in on Nelson’s resoluteness and its relation to his command of the Mediterranean squadron when he noted “the peculiar energy and unrelaxing forward impulse which eminently fitted Nelson for his present high charge.” The extended periods of blockade off French ports that preceded the Battle of the Nile also demonstrated the importance of the Royal Navy’s seakeeping abilities.
Nelson finally caught the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, just east of Alexandria. During the battle on 1 August, Nelson’s grasp of both the strategic and tactical situation, his prebriefing of his captains, and his commitment to attack all were factors in the outcome. Despite the fact that it was a night action in unfamiliar waters and that they were outnumbered and outgunned, the British claimed a resounding victory. Only 2 of the 13 French ships of the line escaped, and the French army in Egypt was cut off.
Nelson Returns to Naples, September 1798
Nelson’s action at Aboukir Bay also significantly reduced the Napoleonic threat against the Kingdom of Naples. At the royal palace in Naples, Nelson was received with adulation, and none praised him more emotionally than the wife of Britain’s ambassador to the court, Lady Emma Hamilton. Perhaps not surprisingly, Emma and Nelson fell in love and began one of history’s most notorious romances.
Although protecting the Kingdom of Naples was part of Nelson’s assignment, his inordinate attention to this aspect of his responsibility was not well received in Whitehall or at the Admiralty. In truth, a strong case can be made that his professional judgment had become warped by his relationship with Emma. His superiors no doubt were relieved when Nelson departed with Lord and Lady Hamilton to return overland, through Germany to Hamburg, then by mail packet to Yarmouth.
Although Nelson’s trip with the Hamiltons was marked by enthusiastic receptions along the way, there was an underlying disapproval of Nelson in Britain’s high places that cast a shadow over the hero of Cape Saint Vincent and the Nile. “Discredited if not disgraced” was the way one biographer described Nelson’s status when he arrived back in London in August 1800.
The Battle of Copenhagen, 1801
Notwithstanding Nelson’s insecure standing, on 2 April 1801, he found himself under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and in charge of a squadron attacking the Danish defenses of Copenhagen. Again, Nelson’s tactical skills, seamanship, and aggressive attitude stood him in good stead.
In this instance, the combat results of Nelson’s leadership were less clear-cut than at Cape Saint Vincent or Aboukir Bay. In fact, his military effort against the Danes was only marginally successful, but his skill in negotiating during a truce resulted in a strategic victory for the British. Nelson was hailed as a hero and honored with a viscountcy.
The Battle of Copenhagen also gave rise to one of the more colorful anecdotes about Nelson. Having observed the Danish resistance and intense return fire, Admiral Parker signaled for Nelson to break off the action. Despite the carnage around him, Nelson ignored the signal. As the story goes, he put his glass to his right eye—blinded in an action at Calvi—and said, “I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.” Then he pressed the attack until an advantage was achieved.
The Battle of Trafalgar, 1805
Trafalgar brought together all of Nelson’s strengths: determination, seamanship, a grasp of a tactical situation, the ability to establish a clear combat doctrine before battle, and above all, a fierce commitment to total victory.
On 14 September 1805, Nelson rehoisted his flag aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth. In an exchange with her captain, Thomas Hardy, he remarked on his special relation ship with the British public. As the crowd that had assembled to see them off cheered, Nelson turned to Hardy and said, “I had their huzzas before. Now I have their hearts.”
By the 28th, Nelson had rejoined the British fleet off Cadiz, where he received an equally enthusiastic welcome from his senior officers. Nelson wrote, “The reception I met with on joining the fleet caused the sweetest sensation of my life.”
True to his style, he immediately set about establishing a combat doctrine and a range of tactics for the anticipated battle. After considerable discussion with his senior officers, Nelson’s instructions were outlined in several memos. The last, dated 9 October, contained one of the most concise summaries of a combat doctrine on record: “But in case Signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy.”
When the battle began on 21 October, as was often the case, Nelson was outnumbered—33 Franco-Spanish ships of the line against 27 comparable British ships. Nelson sought and achieved a general melee in which the British fleet was concentrated against the center and rear of the enemy. His officers were so well prepared that only one signal was made by Nelson as the battle was joined, “Engage the enemy more closely.” By the end of the day, 18 of the Franco-Spanish ships had been destroyed or captured—a victory that electrified Europe.
In the course of the battle, Nelson was felled on the Victory’s quarterdeck by a French sharpshooter. He was carried below to the cockpit, where he died several hours later, but not before learning that he had achieved a great victory. His last words were a simple, “Thank God I have done my duty.”
Interment in St. Paul’s, January 1806
On 9 January 1806, after an emotional funeral procession up the Thames and through London, Nelson’s body was interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The outpouring of public and private sentiment was underscored by the deep affection demonstrated so openly by his former shipmates.
The impact of Nelson’s life was captured by Mahan in his Nelson biography. He describes the victor at Trafalgar as “the man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which seapower comprehends—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together.” The last lines of that biography provide one of the best summations of Nelson’s life: “He needed, and left, no successor. . . . There is but one Nelson.”