2. Early years
3. Service in the Mediterranean
4. Battles of Cape St. Vincent and the Nile
5. Blockade of Naples and battle of Copenhagen
6. Victory at Trafalgar
Nelson Horatio Nelson, Viscount Duca (duke) Di Bronte, also called (1797 -
1798) sir Horatio Nelson, or (1798 - 1801) baron Nelson of the Nile and
Burnham-Thorpe (b. September 29, 1758, Burnham Thorpe, Nor-folk, Eng. - d.
October 21, 1805, at sea, off Cap Trafalgar, Spain), British naval commander in
the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonie France, who won crucial victories in
such battles as those of the Nail (1798) of Trafalgar (1805), where he was
killed by enemy fire on the HMS "Victory". In private life he was known for his
extended love affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, while both were married.
Horatio Nelson was the sixth of 11 children of the village rector, Edmund
Nelson, and his wife, Catherine. The Nelson were genteel, scholarly, and poor.
The family's most important connection from which Nelson could expect preferment
was that with a distant relation, Lord Walpole, the descendant of sir Robert
Walpole, who had been prime minister earlier in the century. Decisive for
Nelson's life, however, was his mother's brother, Capt. Maurice Suckling, who
was to become comptroller of the British Navy. When Horatio's mother died,
Captain Suckling agreed to take the boy to sea.
Nelson's first years in the navy were a mixture of routine experience and
high adventure. The former was gained particularly in the Thames estuary, the
latter in voyage to the West Indies by merchant ship and a dangerous and
unsuccessful scientific expedition to the Arctic in 1773. Nelson had his first
taste of action in the Indian Ocean. Soon after, struck down by fever - probably
malaria - he was invalided home, and, while recovering from the consequent
depression, Nelson experienced a dramatic surge of optimism. From that moment,
Nelson's ambition, fired by patriotism tempered by the Christian compassion
instilled by his father, urged him to prove himself at least the equal of his
In 1777 Nelson passed the examination for lieutenant and sailed for the West
Indies, the most active theater in the war against the American colonies.
Promoted to captain in 1779, at the early age of the 20, he was given command of
frigate and took part in operations against Spanish settlements in Nicaragua,
which became targets once Spain joined France in alliance with the American
Revolutionaries. The attack on San Juan was militarily successful but ultimately
disastrous when the British force was almost wiped out by yellow fever; Nelson
himself was lucky to survive.
In 1783, after the end of the American Revolution, Nelson returned to England
by way of France. On his return to London he was cheered by the appointment, in
1784, to mand a frigate bound for the West Indies. But this was not to be a
happy commission. By rigidly enforcing the navigation Act against American ships,
which were still trading with the British privileges they had officially lost,
he made enemies not only among merchants shipowners but also among the resident
British authorities who, in their own interest, had failed to enforce the law.
Under the strain of his difficulties and of the loneliness of command. Nelson
was at his most vulnerable when he visited the island of Nevis in March 1785.
There he met Frances Nisbet, a widow, and her five-year-old son, Josiah. Nelson
conducted his courtship with formality charm, and in March 1787 the couple was
married at Nevis.
Returning with his bride to Burnham Trope, Nelson found himself without
another appointment and on half pay. He remained unemployed for five years,
aware of "a prejudice at the Admiralty evidently against me, which I can neither
guess at, nor in the least account for" - but which may well have been connected
with his enforcement of the Navigation Act Within a few days of the execution of
King Louis XVI of France in January 1793. However, he was given command of the
Service in the Mediterranean
From this moment, Nelson the enthusiastic professional was gradually replaced
by Nelson the commander of genius. The coming months were probably his most
tranquil emotionally. At home waited a living wife, whose son he had taken to
sea with him. His ship, fast and maneuverable, and his crew, superbly trained,
pleased him. His task was to fight the Revolutionary French and support British
allies in the Mediterranean. Assigned to the forlorn defense of the port of
Toulon against the revolutionaries - among them a 24-year-old officer of
artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte - Nelson was dispatched to Naples to collect
reinforcements. He later gratefully recognized that he owed the success of his
mission largely to the British minister - the adroit and scholarly Sir William
Hamilton, who was had lived at Naples for 30 years and whose vivacious young
wife, Emma was in the queen's confidence.
When Toulon fell, Lord Hood, Nelson's commander, moved his base to Corsica,
where Nelson and his ship's company went ashore to assist in the capture of
Bastia and Calvi, where a French shot flung debris into Nelson's face juring his
right eye and leaving it almost ughtless. At the end of 1794, Hood was replaced
by the uninspiring Admiral William Hotham, who was subsequently replaced by Sir
John Jervis, an officer more to Nelson's liking. At the age of 60, Jervis was an
immensely experienced seaman who quickly recognized Nelson's qualities and who
regarded Nelson "more as an associate than a subordinate officer". The arrival
of Jervis coincided with an upsurge of French success by the so that the British
were forced too abandon their Mediterranean bases and retreat upon Gibraltar and
Battles of Cape St. Vincent and the Nile
Making for a rendezvous with Jervis in the Atlantic off Cape St. Vincent,
Nelson found himself sailing in mist through a Spanish fleet of 27 ships. The
Spaniards were sailing in two divisions and Jervis planned to cut between the
two and destroy one before the other could come to its assistance. But he had
miscalculated, and it became clear that the British ships would not be able to
turn quickly enough to get into action before the Spanish squadrons closed up.
Without orders from Jervis. Nelson hauled out of line and attacked the head of
the second Spanish division. While the rest of Jervis' fleet slowly turned and
came up in support. Nelson held the two Spanish squadrons apart, at one time
fighting seven enemy ships. The efficiency of British gunnery was decisive and
he not only boarded and captured one enemy man-of-war but, from her deck,
boarded and took a second.
The Battle of Cape St. Vincent won for Jervis the earldom of St. Vincent and for
Nelson a knighthood, which coincided with his promotion by seniority to rear
admiral. His first action in command of major independent force, however was
disastrous. In the cours4e of an assault on Tenerife, a grapeshot shattered his
right elbow, and back in his flagship the arm was amputated. In the spring of
1798 Nelson was fit enough to rejoin the Earl of St. Vincent, who assigned him
to watch a French fleet waiting to embark an expeditionary force.
Cruising off the port in his flagship, the Vanguard, Nelson was struck by a
violent northwesterly gale that blew his squadron off station and carried the
French well on their way to their destination, Egypt. The British set out in
pursuit, Nelson believing that the French were going either to Sicily or Egypt.
After a somewhat confused chase the British caught up with the French squadron
in the harbour at Alexandria near the mouth of the Nail. There the British saw
the harbour crowded with empty French transports and, to the east, an escorting
French squadron of 13 ships anchored in a defensive line across Abu Qir Bay near
the months of the Nile. Once the signal to engage had been hoisted in the
Vahguard, Nelson's ships attacked the French. With the French ships immobilized,
the attacking British ships could anchor and concentrate their fire on each
enemy before moving on to demolish their next target. Its outcome never in doubt
from its beginning at sunset, the battle raged all night. By dawn the French
squadron had been all annihilated. The strategic consequences of the Battle of
the Nile were immense, and Nelson took immediate steps to broadcast the news
throughout the Mediterranean as well as hastening it to London.
At Naples, the most convenient port for repairs, he was given a hero's
welcome stagemanaged by Lady Hamilton. A prolonged British naval presence in
Naples was useful in supporting the shaky of King Ferdinand, the one major ruler
in Italy to be resisting the southward march of the French, who had already
taken Rome and deposed the pope.
The love affair that developed between Nelson and Emma Hamilton came at a
time of crisis. With Nelson's encouragement, King Ferdinand had indulged his own
fantasies of glory and, openly joining the alliance of Great Britain, Russia and
Austria against the French, led his own insignificant army to recapture Rome.
Not only was this a disastrous failure but the French counteroffensive drove him
back to Naples, which itself then fell. Nelson had to evacuate the Neapolitan
royal family to Sicily, and at Palermo it became obvious to all that his
infatuation with Emma Hamilton was complete. She had proved herself
indispensable company to him.
Blockade of Naples and battle of Copenhagen
In the summer of 1799, Nelson's squadron supported Ferdinand's successful
attempt to recapture Naples, but word of his dalliance with Emma had reached the
Admiralty, and his superiors began to lose patience. Bonaparte had escaped from
Egypt to France, and the French still held Malta when Lord Keith, who had
replaced ST. Vincent as commander in chief, decided that the enemy's next
objective would be Minorca. Nelson was ordered to that island with all available
ships but refused on the grounds that he expected the threat to be toward
Naples. Events justified him, but to disobey orders so blatantly was
unforgivable. The Admiralty, also angered by his acceptance of the dukedom of
Bronte in Sicily from King Ferdinand, sent him an icy return home.
In 1800 he returned, but across the continent in company with the Hamilton.
When the curious little party in England, it was at once clear that he was the
nation's hero, and his progress to London was triumphal. Emma was pregnant by
Nelson when he was appointed second in commanded to the elderly admiral Sir Hyde
Parker, who was to command an expedition to the Baltic, Shortly before sailing,
Nelson heard that Emma had borne him a daughter named Horatia.
Parker's fleet sailed the first objective, Copenhagen, early in 1801. At
first Nelson's advice was not sought; then, as Danish resistance became
increasingly likely, he could record, "Now we are sure of Fighting, I am sent
for." By the stratagem of talking the fleet's ships of shallower draught through
a difficult channel, Nelson bypassed the shore batteries covering the city's
northern approaches. The next morning, April 2, he led his squadron into action.
There was to be no room for tactical brilliance; only superior gunnery would
tell. The Danes resisted bravely, and Parker, fearing that Nelson was suffering
unacceptable losses, hoisted the signal to disengage. Nelson disregarded it,
and, an hour later, victory was his; the Danish ships lay shattered and silent,
their losses amounting to some 6,000 dead and wounded, six times than those of
Before this success could be followed by similar attacks on the other
potential enemies, Tsar Paul of Russia died and the threat faded. Parker was
succeeded by Nelson, who at last became a commander in chief. The Admiralty,
well aware of his popular appeal now made maximum use of it by giving him a home
command. At once he planned an ambitious attack on the naval base of Boulogne in
order to foil a possible French invasion. He did not take part himself, and the
operation was a glory failure. A second attempt was abandoned because of peace
negotiations with France, and in March 1802 the Treaty of Amiens was signed.
At last there was time to enjoy the fruits of his victories. Emma had , on
Nelson's instructions, bought an elegant country house, Merton Place, near
London, and transformed it into an expensive mirror for their vanities. At last
her husband rebelled, but it was too late for change, and he appeared reconciled
to his lot when, early in 1803, he died with his wife and her lover at his side.
Victory at Trafalgar
Bonoparte was known to be preparing for renewed war, and, two days before it
broke out, Nelson, in May 1803, was given command in the Mediterranean, hoisting
his flag in the Victory. Once again he was to blockade Toulon, now with the
object of preventing a rendezvous between the French ships there with those at
Brest in the Atlantic and, after Spain declared war on Britain, with Spanish
ships from Cartagena and Cadiz. A combined force of that size could well enable
Bonaparte to invade England; and early 1805, Napoleon, who the previous year had
crowned himself emperor, ordered the fleets to converge for this purpose. In
March, Admiral Pierre Villeneuve, who was to be in overall command, broke out of
Toulon under cover of bad weather and disappeared. Nelson set off in pursuit.
Villeneuve cut short his marauding, but his fleet was intercepted and damaged by
a British squadron, Failing to win control of the English Channel, he ran south
Nelson put into Gibraltar, made dispositions for the blockade of Cadiz, and
returned to England. During his 25 days at home, he planned the strategy for the
confrontation with the Franco-Spanish fleets that seemed inevitable; 34 enemy
ships were blockaded in Cadiz by smaller numbers under Admiral Cuthbert
Collingwood. Although Napoleon, abandoning the plan of a cross-Channel invasion,
began to redeploy the Grand Army, in Britain the danger of invasion seemed as
pressing as ever, and Nelson appeared the country's hope.
When his orders came, Nelson on September 15 sailed in the Victory. He was
now at the height of his professional powers. Worshiped by his officers and
sailors alike, he was confident that his captains understood his tactical
thinking so well that the minimum of consultation would be required. On his 47th
birthday he dined 15 captains in his flagship and outlined his plans to bring on
a "pell-mell battle" in which British gunnery and offensive spirit would be
decisive. He planned to advance on the Franco-Spanish fleets in two divisions to
break their line and destroy them piecemeal. This was the final abandonment of
the traditionally rigid tactics of fighting in line of battle.
After receiving Napoleon's orders that he must break the blockade, Villeneuve,
on October 20, sailed out of Cadiz. At dawn next day, the Franco-Spanish fleets
were silhouetted against the sunrise off cape Trafalgar, and the British began
to form the two divisions in which they were to fight, one by Nelson, the other
by Collingwood. As the opposing fleets closed, Nelson made signal. "England
expects that every will man do his duty". The Battle of Trafalgar raged at its
fiercest around the victory. A French sniper from the mast of the Redoutable,
shot Nelson through the shoulder and chest. He was carried below to the surgeon,
and it was soon clear that he was dying. When told that 15 enemy ships had been
taken, he replied, "That is well, but I had bargained for 20". Thomas Hardy, his
flag captain, kissed his forehead in farewell and Nelson spoke his last words, "Now
I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty".
Although the victory of Trafalgar finally made Britain safe from invasion, it
was, at the time, overshadowed by the news of Nelson's death. A country racked
with grief gave him a majestic funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral, and his
popularity in countless monuments, streets, and inns named after him and,
eventually, in the preservation at Portsmouth of the Victory. Emma Hamilton and
his daughter, however, were ignored. Emma died, almost destitute, in Calais nine
years later. Horatia, showing her father's resilience, married a clergyman in
Norfolk and became the mother of large and sturdy family.
Nelson had finally broken the unimaginative strategical and tactical
doctrines of the previous century and taught individual officers to think for
themselves. His flair and forcefulness as a commander in battle were decisive
factors in his two major victories- the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. In
the former, he had destroyed the French fleet upon which Napoleon Bonaparte had
based his hopes of Eastern conquest, and in the latter he had destroyed the
combined French and Spanish fleets, thus ensuring the safety of the British
Isles from invasion and the supremacy of British sea power for more than a
century. Spectacular success in battle, combined with his humanity as a
commander and his scandalous private life, raised Nelson to godlike status in
his lifetime, and after his death at Trafalgar in 1805, he was enshrined in
popular myth and iconography. He is still generally accepted as the most
appealing of Britain’s national heroes.
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