Nelson’s First Fleet Command

HMS Captain capturing the San Nicolas and the San Josef at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797

It was not until March 1795, when Nelson had been a post-captain nearly 17 years, that he had his first opportunity to take part in a fleet action. The occasion was disappointing. By then, Hood had gone home, and had been replaced by Admiral Hotham, a man of less firm stamp: moreover, the relative strength of the maritime forces in the area of the Ligurian Sea had, at least on paper, altered greatly in favour of France. The enemy had had the necessary time to repair the Toulon armament, which had been incompletely destroyed at the time of the withdrawal, while through wear, detachment, sickness and the accidents of war, the British ships were by now seriously under-manned, and every spar and replacement had to reach Hotham by way of the long sea haul from home.

The French Directory, having got together some 17 sail-of-the-line, sent them from Toulon to seek and engage the British. In the event of success, so it was argued, Corsica could be re-taken, and the British would no longer be able to harry traffic along the coast of Italy. Hotham had news of the sortie at Leghorn, where he commanded 15 sail-of-the-line, one of them Neapolitan. He started off at once to face the challenge, and indeed came up with the French, but the result was typical of the many indecisive encounters of the era of sail.

Hotham found that the French, though superior in ships and fully manned, would not stand to meet him. When the conditions of wind at last permitted it, they actually allowed him to give chase, possibly because they were still under the influence of their defeat by Howe in the Atlantic, the result of the battle of the ‘Glorious First of June’ during the preceding summer. A chase was Nelson’s chance for distinction, for the Agamemnon was a fast sailer, and he took it. Those were days when the pace of sea warfare was such that it was possible for a captain to compose a letter home when actually within sight of the enemy, and Nelson wrote to his wife on 10 March as follows:

… Whatever may be my fate, I have no doubt in my own mind but that my conduct will be such as will not bring a blush on the face of my friends. The lives of all are in the hands of Him who knows best whether to preserve it or no, and to His will do I resign myself. My character and good name is in my own keeping. Life with disgrace is dreadful. A glorious death is to be envied, and, if anything happens to me, recollect death is a debt we must all pay, and whether now or in a few years hence can be but of little consequence….

In the stately but inconclusive manœuvring which occupied the next few days, a French ship, Le Ça Ira of 84 guns—‘the largest two decker I ever saw’, so Nelson told his brother—carried away her main and fore topmasts. A frigate took her in tow, and two other vessels, Le Sans Culotte and Le Barras kept within gun-shot for a time, but Nelson in the war-worn Agamemnon stood towards the disordered ships, proposing to withhold his fire until he actually touched her stern. This proved impossible, but he battered away at her for over two hours, and further reduced her fighting efficiency. Night then fell, but next day, after further fighting, the prize was his, and Le Censeur, 74 guns, fell to other ships of Hotham’s fleet.

Nelson was all for pressing the advantage, but he could not move the admiral. ‘We must be contented’, said Hotham. ‘We have done very well.’ ‘Now’, wrote Nelson to Fanny, ‘had we taken ten sail, and allowed the eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I could never have called it well done…. We should have had such a day as I believe the annals of England never produced.

Nelson’s first fleet action, though it had brought him distinction, and the honorary appointment of Colonel of Marines—which considering his military exploits was singularly appropriate—also brought bitterness, for he had a different conception of war from most of his fellows. He aimed at annihilation as the logical conclusion of bringing an enemy to action. It was a principle endorsed by Napoleon.

I wish [so Nelson confessed] to be an admiral, and in command of the English fleet; I should very soon either do much, or be ruined: my disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures. Sure I am, had I commanded on the 14th [the final day] that either the whole French fleet would have graced my triumph, or I should have been in a confounded scrape.

Just three months later, there came another opportunity. Nelson had been ordered on detached service, to co-operate with the Austrians in harassing the French then on the Genoese Riviera. Off Cape del Mele, he fell in with the main fleet of the enemy, who immediately gave chase. He retreated at once upon San Fiorenzo in north Corsica, where Hotham was watering and refitting, and for an hour or two was within possibility of capture while in sight of his friends.

By dint of great exertions, Hotham, though taken by surprise, managed to get under weigh, and for five days gave chase to the enemy. When the main forces came within fighting distance for the second time, the baffling winds and sudden vexatious calms which are a feature of the area of Fréjus made it impossible to shorten the range. Although by the afternoon of 13 July the Agamemnon and the Cumberland were, in Nelson’s words:

… closing with an 80-gun ship with a Flag, the Berwick, and the Heureux … Admiral Hotham thought it right to call us out of Action, the wind being directly into the Gulf of Fréjus, where the Enemy anchored after dark.

Nelson had nearly two years to wait before he once again found himself in a position to affect the fortunes of a fleet engagement. By that time he had left the Agamemnon, and he had discovered, in Sir John Jervis, a kind of admiral very different from Hotham. ‘Entre nous’, wrote Sir William Hamilton from Naples, ‘I can perceive that my old friend, Hotham, is not quite awake enough for such a command as that of the British Fleet in the Mediterranean, although he is the best creature imaginable.’ Jervis was of another kind.

The war development, in the Mediterranean particularly, increasingly called for the exceptional man, for it was going from bad to worse. By land, France was everywhere successful, and the work which fell to Nelson and his fellow captains was of attempting to contain the uncontainable. Blockading in worn-out ships was gruelling, and in June 1796, when Nelson was acting as a Commodore, it became necessary for him to shift his pendant from the Agamemnon, which was almost falling apart, so much was she in need of a home refit, to the Captain. This ship, of 74 guns, was commanded by Ralph Miller, an officer who became one of a long series of men of rank who were Nelsen partisans. Miller had been born in New York, his parents being fervent Loyalists, and the Navy produced few better officers.

In the later part of the year it became urgent for Jervis to face the fact that it would soon be imperative for the British to withdraw altogether from the Mediterranean, so critical was the supply and health situation, so threatening the enemy dispositions, so uncertain the political climate in the Italian states, and so desperate had the need become to keep the strongest possible force based on Gibraltar and the Tagus. Portugal, which afforded facilities at Lisbon, was at that time Britain’s one reliable ally in the west, for active hostility on the part of Spain was a condition which, so it was realised, could not be long delayed. With the resources then at the Admiralty’s disposal, it was no longer possible to keep three powerful fleets on active watch, one at the western approaches of the Channel, one further south, and a third based on Corsica.

Nelson’s final days on the Mediterranean Station were full of incident. In September and October 1796 he was engaged in the withdrawal from Corsica, which had cost so much to secure. In December he was at Gibraltar, where he shifted his pendant to La Minerve, frigate, with orders to help in the withdrawal of troops and stores from Port Ferrajo, in Elba, which had served its turn as a base subsidiary to Corsica. By then, war with Spain was confirmed, and on 19 December, off Cartagena, Nelson had one of the smartest actions of his life. It was against the Spanish frigate La Sabina, commanded by Don Jacobo Stuart, an officer descended from James II of England, and renowned in his own navy.

Nelson described the action to his brother William, saying that it opened with his ‘hailing the Don’ and demanding immediate surrender. ‘This is a Spanish frigate’, came the dignified reply, ‘and you may begin as soon as you please!’ Nelson added: ‘I have no idea of a closer or sharper battle’, for Stuart’s reputation was soundly based.

The force to a gun the same, and clearly the same number of men; we have 250. I asked him several times to surrender during the action, but his answer was: ‘No, sir; not whilst I have the means of fighting left!’ When only he himself of all the officers was left alive, he hailed and said he could fight no more, and begged I would stop firing.

Hardly had the guns ceased, and a boarding party been sent across, than other Spanish ships were seen approaching. Next day, Nelson was forced to abandon the prize, together with his boarders, in order to protect his own ship. La Minerve was able to fight the enemy off, but she could not prevent Spanish colours being rehoisted in La Sabina. Stuart, who was enjoying Nelson’s hospitality, seemed likely to be the only Spanish prisoner of war.

Soon afterwards, in an exchange of courtesies not uncommon between Spanish and British, Stuart returned home, Hardy and another officer being released, Hardy having commanded the boarding party. It was the beginning of a bond between Nelson and Hardy which was to continue for the rest of Nelson’s life, and it was cemented by a startling incident. As La Minerve was leaving the Mediterranean on her return to join Jervis in the Atlantic, she was sighted and chased by two Spanish ships-of-the-line. Colonel Drinkwater, a military friend of Nelson’s who was taking passage with him, asked if there was likely to be an action. ‘Very possibly’, said the Commodore, ‘but before the Dons get hold of that bit of bunting’—looking up at his pendant—‘I will have a struggle with them, and sooner than give up the frigate I’ll run her ashore.’

A little later, Nelson and his staff were at dinner, but the meal had hardly begun when it was interrupted by the cry, ‘Man overboard!’ Hardy went off in the jolly-boat to attempt rescue, but the sailor had been caught in a current which was flowing towards the pursuing Spaniards. He was never seen again. Presently, Hardy and his boat’s crew got into difficulty, making no headway towards the ship.

‘At this crisis’, so Drinkwater related, ‘Nelson, casting an anxious look at the hazardous situation of Hardy and his companions, exclaimed: “By G—, I’ll not lose Hardy. Back the mizzen topsail.”’ The order had the intended effect of checking the frigate’s speed, and an encounter between unequal forces now seemed certain. But the Spaniards were surprised and confused by Nelson’s action. The leading ship suddenly shortened sail, allowing La Minerve to drop down to the jolly-boat and pick up Hardy and his men. Once under way again, she was soon safe—at least for the moment.

That same evening, the frigate ran into fog, and when it began to lift, Nelson saw that he was in the middle of an enemy fleet. Spanish look-outs were, so he had long discovered, fallible creatures, and conditions of visibility were such as to make his escape almost a certainty. It was so, and when La Minerve reached Jervis’s rendezvous off Cape St Vincent on 13 February, Nelson was able to bring him valuable first-hand information. He was ordered to rejoin the Captain, and make ready for the battle which obviously could not be long delayed.

Córdoba, the Spanish admiral, had orders to protect a valuable convoy of mercury, and his fleet was also to form part of a larger Franco-Spanish armament whose purpose was invasion of the British Isles. The threat was real. The French had already made a landing at Bantry Bay the previous December, eluding the watch of Howe’s successor, Lord Bridport, but bungling their opportunity; and there was another attempt on Wales during this very month of February, which also ended ignominiously. Whatever the result of such sorties, the fact had become evident that they could and might succeed, and as Jervis remarked, a victory was very necessary to the welfare of the country.

When the Commander-in-Chief sighted the Spaniards, on 14 February, Valentine’s Day, they were in no regular order. Córdoba himself was to windward of the British, and another group of ships—among which were the mercury-laden urcas—were to leeward, making for Cadiz. Jervis had with him 15 ships-of-the-line and four frigates. Córdoba’s force was 27, of which one vessel, the Santissima Trinidad, was a four-decker, and the largest warship then afloat. Jervis’s plan was to lead his well-disciplined line like a wedge between the two Spanish divisions, and then to turn to windward to attack Córdoba. He succeeded, though he may have left his turn somewhat late.

The Captain, wearing Nelson’s pendant, was the third from the last in Jervis’s line. Before the Commander-in-Chief had made his crucial signal to ‘tack in succession’, that is, to change direction, Nelson realised that the leading ships might well be unable to prevent Córdoba from effecting his junction with the group to leeward. He also realised that if he himself wore out of the line and made at once for the nearest Spaniards, he would disorganise their movements, and allow the head of the British line time to do what Jervis had intended.

Such an act of initiative was unparalleled on the part of a subordinate, and it has never been repeated in a major action. In the Georgian navy, the line of battle was sacred. To leave it, without a direct order, meant court-martial and probably disgrace. Under an extreme disciplinarian like Jervis, disobedience of any kind, however intelligent, demanded supreme courage, and would need to be justified, up to the hilt, by success.

Nelson was not long unsupported. His old friend Troubridge, commanding the Culloden and leading the line, was soon in the thick of it, and so was Collingwood in the Excellent, another lifelong friend who, incidentally, had brought gunnery drill in his ship to the highest pitch of efficiency then obtainable. The Captain was quickly in trouble. Her sails and rigging were shot about, her wheel was smashed, and seeing that she would be able to do no further service in the line that day, or even in a chase, Nelson ordered Miller to close with the nearest Spaniard. Then he called for boarders. It was no duty of a high-ranking officer to engage in hand-to-hand fighting, his life was far too valuable, but Nelson was no ordinary commodore, and what followed in the Spanish San Josef needs to be told in his own words.

The first man who jumped into the enemy’s mizzen-chains was Captain Berry, late my first lieutenant. He was supported from our spritsail yard…. A soldier of the 69th Regiment, having broke the upper quarter-gallery window, jumped in, followed by myself and others, as fast as possible. I found the cabin doors fastened, and the Spanish officers fired their pistols at us through the windows, but having broke open the doors, the soldiers fired, and the Spanish brigadier fell as retreating to the quarter-deck.

A detachment of the 69th—later the Welch Regiment—was serving as marines, and did splendidly throughout, and within a few moments the San Josef was in British hands. Just beyond her was an even larger ship, the San Nicolas, which had been run alongside her compatriot. Nelson ordered Captain Miller to send a party across the San Josef to take the San Nicolas by the same methods. Nelson followed.

When I got into the main chains [he reported] a Spanish officer came upon the quarter-deck rail, without arms, and said that the ship surrendered. From this welcome information it was not long before I was on the quarter-deck, when the Spanish captain, with bended knee, presented me his sword and told me the admiral was dying with his wounds below … and on the quarter-deck of a Spanish first-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of the vanquished Spaniards.

Jervis took four Spanish ships on 14 February, without loss to his own fleet. It was thought at one time that the towering Santissima Trinidad had struck her colours, but she got away in the murk and confusion of the winter afternoon, though the admiral had to shift his flag to a less damaged vessel.

Having won his prizes by what he called his ‘patent bridge’, Nelson had now to face his chief. He need not have worried, for Jervis knew a man when he saw one. Nelson was received with the greatest affection. Jervis, he said ‘used every kind expression’, which ‘could not fail to make me happy’.

Nelson had been bruised in the stomach during the fighting, and although he thought nothing of the matter, pain from this injury was to trouble him on occasion for the rest of his life. The Captain’s injuries were still more serious, and Nelson moved to the Irresistible, flying his flag as rear-admiral of the Blue, for promotion by seniority came his way almost immediately after the action. He made one more foray into the Mediterranean, withdrawing the last men and supplies from Corsica and Elba, and then settled down to command of the inshore watch on Cadiz. It was an active post for a very active man, about to become Sir Horatio Nelson, Knight of the Bath, with a star and a ribbon for his coat in recognition of his feats on Valentine’s Day.

Fanny Nelson, when she hear the news of the battle, begged her husband to ‘leave boarding to captains!’, but it was as an admiral that Nelson, in company with Captain Fremantle, who had been with him in the frigate Inconstant during the attack on the Ça Ira, had yet another extraordinary adventure, the details of which would be barely credible did they not appear in Nelson’s ‘Sketch of my Life’.

It was during this period [he wrote in his uninhibited way] that perhaps my personal courage was more conspicuous than at any other period of my life. In an attack of the Spanish gun-boats [which had made a sortie from their port], I was boarded in my barge with its common crew of ten men, Cockswain, Captain Fremantle and myself, by the Commander of the Gunboats. The Spanish barge rowed twenty-six oars, besides Officers, thirty in the whole; this was a service hand to hand with swords, in which my Cockswain, (now no more), saved my life twice. Eighteen of the Spaniards being killed and several wounded, we succeeded in taking their Commander.

Nelson never questioned the Spaniards’ courage, but he had experience of their efficiency, or lack of it, dating back to his service in Nicaragua, and such episodes merely confirmed his view that liberties could be taken with ‘the Dons’ which would not other-wise be justified. Yet the next fighting in which he was involved showed that military contempt was rash, and could cost him dearly.

While Nelson was off Cadiz, Jervis, now Earl of St Vincent, heard that a Spanish treasure-ship had put into Santa Cruz in the Canaries, and he planned to cut her out. Teneriffe, the island concerned, was well defended, and the operation would require a force of some size. Nelson was the obvious man to lead it.

He was given four ships-of-the-line, with his flag in the Theseus, together with three frigates and a cutter. He chose his own officers, who included Troubridge in the Culloden and Fremantle, now in the Seahorse, successor to Nelson’s East Indian vessel. Fremantle actually had his young wife aboard, which was due to the fact that she was a special favourite with Lord St Vincent.

Nothing went right. Owing to unfavourable weather and unsuspected inshore currents, the boats were unable to reach their landing-place during the hours of darkness, and the attack thus lost all element of surprise. The few parties able to get ashore were soon withdrawn, since they found the garrison formidable and ready. Nelson then decided that he would lead a second night attack in person. ‘Tomorrow’, he wrote to St Vincent on 24 July, ‘my head will probably be covered with laurel or cypress.’

Josiah Nisbet pleaded to go with his stepfather. ‘No’, said Nelson, ‘should we both fall, what would become of your poor mother?’ ‘I will go with you tonight’, said the youth, ‘if I never go again!’ Nelson let him have his way, and it was well that he did so, for his boat was heavily fired upon as she neared the shore, and just as the admiral was about to land, a shot shattered his right arm. Josiah, who was near, saw that Nelson could not stand, and heard him exclaim: ‘I am a dead man!’ The youngster placed him in the bottom of the boat, took a silk handkerchief from his neck, and with the help of one of the bargemen made a rough tourniquet. The boat then withdrew into the darkness, picking up survivors from the cutter Fox as she made her way back to the squadron.

It was the Seahorse that Nisbet first sighted, but nothing would induce Nelson to board her, even at risk of his life, for he. needed instant attention. ‘I would rather surfer death’, he said, ‘than alarm Mrs Fremantle in this state, and when I can give her no tidings of her husband.’

When the Theseus was found at last, Nelson refused help in getting aboard. ‘Let me alone’, he said. ‘I have yet my legs left, and one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste and get his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it is off the better.’

The amputation was done in the early hours of the morning of 25 July, and it was successful. Next day, so the surgeon noted, Nelson ‘rested pretty well and quite easy. Tea, soup and sago. Lemonade and tamarind drink.’ The ‘rest’ was comparative. The expedition was in ruins, and although the gallant Troubridge got a party ashore he could do little. His ammunition was soaked, his men were outnumbered, and there was nothing for it but retreat. It was Turks Island all over again.

The Spaniards, courteous as ever, were ready to parley. They behaved, said Troubridge, ‘in the handsomest manner, sending a large proportion of wine, bread, etc., to refresh the people, and showed every mark of attention.’ They even lent boats so that the British could withdraw in comfort! Nelson, not to be outdone in politeness, begged the Spanish governor’s acceptance of a cask of English beer and a large cheese.

It was just as well that Nelson had not boarded the Seahorse, for when Fremantle did return to his wife, he was also wounded, and his injury, though slighter, was as troublesome as Nelson’s, and needed constant dressing. By an odd chance, he too had been hit in the right arm when landing.

On 16 August the force rejoined Lord St Vincent at sea. On the way to the rendezvous Nelson had written, slowly and painfully, to say that ‘a left-handed admiral will never again be considered useful…. The sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve….’ Less accurate words were never penned, though Nelson indeed went home in the Seahorse with the Fremantles, joining his wife and father after more than four years’ arduous service abroad. He seemed to them to possess all the eager, affectionate zest they had loved of old. Convalescence would obviously be protracted, and that he returned a hero, even though a battered one, was a fact which all could rejoice in.

Unbelievably, it was within a year that Nelson was again in action. This time, the story would echo throughout Europe, and the news would come from Egypt.