THE LIFE OF NELSON
THE EMBODIMENT OF THE SEA POWER OF GREAT BRITAIN
CAPTAIN A.T. MAHAN, D.C.L., LL.D. UNITED STATES NAVY
AUTHOR OF "THE INFLUENCE OF SEA POWER UPON HISTORY, 1660-1783," "THE INFLUENCE OF SEA POWER UPON THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND EMPIRE," AND OF A "LIFE OF ADMIRAL FARRAGUT"
IN TWO VOLUMES VOL. I.
LONDON SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON, & COMPANY, LIMITED 1897
The Life of Nelson has been written so often, that an explanation—almost an apology—seems due for any renewal of the attempt; but, not to mention the attractiveness of the theme in itself, it is essential to the completeness and rounding off of the author's discussion of the Influence of Sea Power, that he present a study, from his own point of view, of the one man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends,—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together, to make him the personification of the Navy of Great Britain, the dominant factor in the periods hitherto treated. In the century and a half embraced in those periods, the tide of influence and of power has swelled higher and higher, floating upward before the eyes of mankind many a distinguished name; but it is not until their close that one arises in whom all the promises of the past find their finished realization, their perfect fulfilment. Thenceforward the name of Nelson is enrolled among those few presented to us by History, the simple mention of which suggests, not merely a personality or a career, but a great force or a great era concrete in a single man, who is its standard-bearer before the nations.
Yet, in this process of exaltation, the man himself, even when so very human and so very near our own time as Nelson is, suffers from an association which merges his individuality in the splendor of his surroundings; and it is perhaps pardonable to hope that the subject is not so far exhausted but that a new worker, gleaning after the reapers, may contribute something further towards disengaging the figure of the hero from the glory that cloaks it. The aim of the present writer, while not neglecting other sources of knowledge, has been to make Nelson describe himself, — tell the story of his own inner life as well as of his external actions. To realize this object, it has not seemed the best way to insert numerous letters, because, in the career of a man of action, each one commonly deals with a variety of subjects, which bear to one another little relation, except that, at the moment of writing, they all formed part of the multifold life the writer was then leading. It is true, life in general is passed in that way; but it is not by such distraction of interest among minute details that a particular life is best understood. Few letters, therefore, have been inserted entire; and those which have, have been chosen because of their unity of subject, and of their value as characteristic.
The author's method has been to make a careful study of Nelson's voluminous correspondence, analyzing it, in order to detect the leading features of temperament, traits of thought, and motives of action; and thence to conceive within himself, by gradual familiarity even more than by formal effort, the character therein revealed. The impression thus produced he has sought to convey to others, partly in the form of ordinary narrative,—daily living with his hero,—and partly by such grouping of incidents and utterances, not always, nor even nearly, simultaneous, as shall serve by their joint evidence to emphasize particular traits, or particular opinions, more forcibly than when such testimonies are scattered far apart; as they would be, if recounted in a strict order of time.
A like method of treatment has been pursued in regard to that purely external part of Nelson's career in which are embraced his military actions, as well as his public and private life. The same aim is kept in view of showing clearly, not only what he did, but the principles which dominated his military thought, and guided his military actions, throughout his life; or, it may be, such changes as must inevitably occur in the development of a man who truly lives. This cannot be done satisfactorily without concentrating the evidence from time to time; and it is therefore a duty a writer owes to his readers, if they wish such acquaintance with his subject as he thinks he has succeeded in acquiring for himself.
The author has received individual assistance from several persons. To a general expression of thanks he wishes to add his special acknowledgments to the present Earl Nelson, through whose aid he has obtained information of interest which otherwise probably would have escaped him; and to Lords Radstock and De Saumarez, both of whom have been good enough to place in his hands letters contemporary with Nelson, and touching incidentally matters that throw light on his career. Material of the same kind has also been furnished him by Professor John Knox Laughton, whose knowledge of Nelson and of the Navy of that period is second to none; it is not the least of the writer's advantages that he has had before him, to check possible errors in either fact or conclusions, the admirable, though brief, Life of Nelson published by Mr. Laughton two years since.
Illustrative anecdotes have also been supplied by Admiral Sir William R. Mends, G.C.B., who has shown his continued interest in the work by the trouble he has taken for it; by Mr. Stuart J. Reid, of Blackwell Cliff, East Grinstead; and by Mr. Edgar Goble, of Fareham, Hants. Mr. B.F. Stevens, of 4 Trafalgar Square, has also kindly exerted himself on several occasions to obtain needed information. To Mrs. F.H.B. Eccles, of Sherwell House, Plymouth, granddaughter of Josiah Nisbet, Nelson's stepson, the author is indebted for reminiscences of Lady Nelson, and for her portrait here published; and his thanks are also due to Lieutenant-Colonel W. Clement D. Esdaile, of Burley Manor, Ringwood, Hants, through whom he was brought into communication with Mrs. Eccles, and who has in other ways helped him.
Throughout the writing of the book constant assistance has been received from Mr. Robert B. Marston, to whom cordial acknowledgment is made for the untiring pains taken in prosecuting necessary inquiries, which could not have been done without great delay by one not living in England. Suggestions valuable to the completeness of the work have been given also by Mr. Marston.
For the portrait of Mrs. Philip Ward, the "Horatia" whom Nelson called generally his adopted daughter, but at times spoke of as his daughter simply, and whom, on the last morning of his life, he commended to the care of his Country, the author has to thank Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Ward, of 15 Lancaster Road, Belsize Park, London. Mr. Nelson Ward is her son.
To the more usual sources of information already in print, it is not necessary to refer in detail; but it is right to mention especially the collection of Hamilton and Nelson letters, published by Mr. Alfred Morrison, a copy of which by his polite attention was sent the writer, and upon which must necessarily be based such account of Nelson's relations with Lady Hamilton as, unfortunately, cannot be omitted wholly from a life so profoundly affected by them.
CONTENTS OF VOL. I.
THE FIRST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS.
Distinction of Nelson's career His extensive and varied correspondence Parentage and birth Delicacy of constitution First entry in the Navy Anecdotes of childhood Cared for by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling Serves in a West India merchantman Expedition to the Arctic Sea Cruise to the East Indies Acting lieutenant in the Channel Fleet Promoted lieutenant in the "Lowestoffe" Goes to the West Indies Incidents of service Transferred to the flagship "Bristol" Promoted to Commander and to Post-Captain Personal appearance, 1780 Youth when promoted Scanty opportunities for war service The Nicaragua Expedition Health breaks down Returns to England Appointed to the "Albemarle" Short trip to the Baltic Goes to the North American Station At New York, and transferred to the West Indies Personal appearance, 1782 Sentiments concerning honor and money Returns to England and goes on half-pay Visit to France Unsuccessful courtship
CRUISE OF THE "BOREAS."—CONTROVERSY OVER THE ENFORCEMENT OF THE NAVIGATION ACT.—RETURN TO ENGLAND.—RETIREMENT UNTIL THE OUTBREAK OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.—APPOINTED TO COMMAND THE "AGAMEMNON."
Appointed to command the "Boreas" Sails for the Leeward Islands Traits of character and manners Refuses to recognize a commodore's pendant, of a captain "not in commission" Indications of character in this act Controversy over the Navigation Act Refuses obedience to the Admiral's order, as illegal Persists in seizing vessels violating the Act Consequent legal proceedings Conduct approved by the Home Government Results of his action Characteristics shown by it Meets his future wife, Mrs. Nisbet Contemporary description of him Progress of courtship Reconciliation with the Admiral Characteristics manifested by Nelson in the controversy Left senior officer on the Station Health and marriage The "Boreas" returns to England Employed on the Impress Service Annoyances and dissatisfaction Prejudices against him The "Boreas" paid off Sensitiveness under censure Flattering reception at Court Efforts to suppress frauds in West Indies Breadth and acuteness of intellect Results of his efforts against frauds Prejudices against him at the Admiralty His partisanship for Prince William Henry Insubordinate conduct of the latter Nelson's difference with Lord Hood Out of favor at Court On half-pay, 1788-1792 Progress of the French Revolution Nelson applies for a ship Appointed to the "Agamemnon," 64 France declares war against Great Britain
NELSON'S DEPARTURE FROM ENGLAND IN THE "AGAMEMNON."—SERVICES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN UNTIL THE RECOVERY OF TOULON BY THE FRENCH.—LORD HOOD IN COMMAND.
Significance of Nelson's career Intimate association of the "Agamemnon" with his name Delay in her equipment Nelson's hatred for the French Sails for Spithead Cruising in the Channel Departure for Mediterranean, and arrival off Toulon Remarks on the Spanish Navy Professional utterances Services off Toulon and at Naples Toulon surrendered to the British and Spaniards Nelson's reconcilement with Hood Hardships of the cruise His intelligence and zeal Rejoins fleet off Toulon Constantly on detached, semi-independent, service Sent to Tunis Action with four French frigates Negotiations at Tunis Nelson's wish to go to the West Indies Ordered to command a division blockading Corsica The allies are forced to quit Toulon
REDUCTION OF CORSICA BY THE BRITISH.—DEPARTURE OF LORD HOOD FOR ENGLAND.—THE "AGAMEMNON" REFITTED AT LEGHORN.
Importance of Corsica Hood orders Nelson to open communications with Paoli Operations begun at San Fiorenzo Bastia blockaded by Nelson Description of Bastia The army refuses to undertake the siege Destitute condition of the "Agamemnon" Quarrel between Hood and General Dundas Nelson's opinions about besieging Bastia Comments Strength of the place Nelson's military character as shown by his opinion Instances in his correspondence Progress of the siege The place capitulates Nelson's part in the operations Inadequate credit from Hood Nelson's dissatisfaction, but continued zeal Loftiness of his motives Arrival of General Stuart to command army in Corsica Preparations for siege of Calvi News of the sailing of French Toulon fleet Hood sails in pursuit Development of Nelson's military opinions "Agamemnon" sent back to Bastia Proceeds thence to San Fiorenzo Nelson's meeting with General Stuart His opinions on a "fleet in being" Arrival off Calvi Nelson lands with the troops Arrival of Lord Hood Nelson's part in the siege of Calvi Defences of Calvi Nelson loses his right eye Friction between Army and Navy Nelson's tact towards both Feeling between Hood and Moore Progress of the siege Calvi capitulates Sickness among the British Condition of "Agamemnon's" crew Repose given at Leghorn Hood is relieved by Hotham and returns to England Nelson's criticisms on naval actions His distress at prolonged continuance in port Broods over Hood's inadequate mention of him Compliment from the Viceroy of Corsica
NELSON'S SERVICES WITH THE FLEET IN THE MEDITERRANEAN UNDER ADMIRAL HOTHAM.—PARTIAL FLEET ACTIONS OF MARCH 13 AND 14, AND JULY 13.—NELSON ORDERED TO COMMAND A DETACHED SQUADRON CO-OPERATING WITH THE AUSTRIAN ARMY IN THE RIVIERA OF GENOA.
General military conditions in Europe and Italy Importance of the British conquest of Corsica General character of Nelson's service He rejoins the fleet His speculations as to the French objects The French put to sea Action between "Agamemnon" and "Ca Ira" Characteristics displayed by Nelson Partial fleet action, March Nelson's urgency with Hotham Discussion of Hotham's action Nelson's share in the general result His affectionate correspondence with his wife Anxiety for Corsica Regret at Hood's detachment from command Receives Honorary Colonelcy of Marines Sent on detached service to the Riviera Encounters French fleet Rejoins Hotham at San Fiorenzo Partial fleet action of July Nelson's dissatisfaction with it Discussion of his criticisms Effects of Hotham's inertness
NELSON'S COMMAND OF A DETACHED SQUADRON ON THE RIVIERA OF GENOA, UNTIL THE DEFEAT OF THE AUSTRIANS AT THE BATTLE OF LOANO.—SIR JOHN JERVIS APPOINTED COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF IN THE MEDITERRANEAN.
Nelson takes command of a squadron on the Riviera Conditions of belligerents and neutrals on the Riviera Nelson's "political courage" Disregards Hotham's orders Hotham approves his action Effect of his action upon the enemy Evasion of his efforts by the coasters He proposes to the Austrians to occupy San Remo Discussion of this proposal The effect in his mind of a "fleet in being" Inactivity of the Austrians and of the fleet Menacing attitude of the French Hotham succeeded by Hyde Parker Battle of Loano.—Defeat of the Austrians Nelson's condemnation of the British admirals Increase of his own reputation Forcible letter repudiating an attack on his integrity Generally congenial character of his service on the Riviera Correspondence with home Passing desire to return to England
NELSON'S SERVICES IN THE MEDITERRANEAN DURING THE YEAR 1796.—BONAPARTE'S ITALIAN CAMPAIGN.—THE BRITISH ABANDON CORSICA, AND THE FLEET LEAVES THE MEDITERRANEAN.
The "Agamemnon" refits at Leghorn Nelson's sensitiveness to censure His vindication of his recent conduct His erroneous conceptions of French military aims Importance of Vado Bay First meeting between Nelson and Jervis Nelson's anxiety to remain on the station Coincidence of views between Nelson and Jervis Nelson sent again to the Riviera Reconnoitres Toulon Expects a French descent in force near Leghorn Analogy between this and Napoleon's plans in 1805 Nelson urges the Austrians to occupy Vado He hoists his broad pendant as Commodore The Austrian general, Beaulieu, advances Nelson accompanies the movement with his ships Premature attack by Austrians Nelson receives news of their defeat by Bonaparte Austrians retreat behind the Apennines Nelson resumes operations against the coasting-traffic His singleness of purpose and resoluteness His activity, difficulties encountered, and plans Transferred from the "Agamemnon" to the "Captain" Subsequent fortunes of the "Agamemnon" Bonaparte's designs upon Corsica The French seize Leghorn Nelson's inferences from that act Nelson and Bonaparte compared British blockade of Leghorn Occupation of Elba by the British The Austrians under Wurmser attack Bonaparte Nelson plans an assault on Leghorn He learns the Austrian defeat at Castiglione His gradual change of opinion as to leaving the Mediterranean His pride in the British fleet Genoa closes her ports against the British The fleet ordered to quit the Mediterranean Effect on Nelson He superintends the evacuation of Bastia The fleet withdraws to Gibraltar Growth of Nelson's reputation His susceptibility to flattery His home relations His inadequate appreciation of the character of the war
THE EVACUATION OF ELBA.—NIGHT COMBAT WITH TWO SPANISH FRIGATES.—BATTLE OF CAPE ST. VINCENT.—NELSON PROMOTED TO REAR-ADMIRAL.—SERVICES BEFORE CADIZ.
DECEMBER, 1796-JUNE, 1797.
Nelson sent to Elba to remove naval material Combat with Spanish frigates Arrival at Elba Hesitations of the General about evacuating Nelson leaves Elba with the naval vessels Deliberate reconnoissance of the enemy's coast Characteristic action of Nelson throughout this expedition Night encounter with the Spanish fleet Rejoins Jervis off Cape St. Vincent Battle of Cape St. Vincent Nelson's exceptional action His merit in taking it Takes possession of two Spanish ships-of-the-line Characteristics here evinced Controversy with Vice-Admiral William Parker Comments upon this Jervis's neglect to mention special services His sense of Nelson's merit Nelson's preferences in the matter of rewards Made a Knight of the Bath Promoted Rear-Admiral Cruises for treasure-ships from Mexico Anxiety about the Elba troops Sent by Jervis to escort them to Gibraltar Safe return to Gibraltar Provides protection for American merchant-ships against French privateers Rejoins Jervis off Cadiz Operations against Cadiz General good health and happiness Pride in his reputation
THE UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPT AGAINST TENERIFFE.—NELSON LOSES HIS RIGHT ARM.—RETURN TO ENGLAND.—REJOINS ST. VINCENT'S FLEET, AND SENT INTO THE MEDITERRANEAN TO WATCH THE TOULON ARMAMENT.
JULY, 1797-MAY, 1798.
Origin of the Teneriffe Expedition Conditions conducive to success Orders to Nelson to undertake it Failure of the first attempt Nelson determines to storm the town The assault and the repulse Nelson loses his right arm Rejoins the Commander-in-Chief off Cadiz Returns to England on sick-leave Painful convalescence Restoration to health His flag hoisted again, on board the "Vanguard" Rejoins St. Vincent off Cadiz Ordered to the Mediterranean to watch the Toulon Armament Close of the first period of his career Contrasts between his career hitherto and subsequently Relations with his wife while in England Quits the fleet to repair off Toulon
THE CAMPAIGN AND BATTLE OF THE NILE.
Changed political conditions in Europe, 1798 The British Cabinet decides to take the offensive The quarter in which to strike determined by the Toulon armament Orders issued to St. Vincent Preference for Nelson indicated by Government Nelson's flagship, the "Vanguard," dismasted at sea Indications of character elicited by the accident He is joined by ten ships-of-the-line, raising his squadron to thirteen Pursuit of the expedition under Bonaparte Nelson's fixedness of purpose Attitude of Naples Perplexities of the pursuit The light of the single eye Embarrassment from the want of frigates Squadron reaches Alexandria before the French Renewed perplexity Nelson returns to the westward Anchors at Syracuse Again goes east in search of the French The French fleet discovered at anchor in Aboukir Bay Prompt resolution to attack Disposition of the French fleet for battle Steadiness and caution of Nelson's advance The Battle of the Nile Nelson severely wounded The French flagship blows up Nelson's dissatisfaction with the results His orders after the battle Subsequent measures Effect of the news in Great Britain Nelson's rewards Reception of the news in Europe generally Nelson's concern about Troubridge Immediate effect of the victory upon the French in Egypt Nelson ordered with his fleet to the westward Sails for Naples
NELSON'S RETURN FROM EGYPT TO NAPLES.—MEETING WITH LADY HAMILTON.—ASSOCIATION WITH THE COURT OF NAPLES.—WAR BETWEEN NAPLES AND FRANCE.—DEFEAT OF THE NEAPOLITANS.—FLIGHT OF THE COURT TO PALERMO.
Voyage to Naples Recovery from wound His views as to future operations Change of view after reaching Naples Arrival at Naples Meeting with the Hamiltons Previous career of Lady Hamilton Her political influence in Naples Her characteristics Her influence over Nelson Rapid progress of the intimacy His association with the Court He urges Naples to declare war against France Political situation of Naples relatively to France Nelson goes off Malta Returns to Naples Neapolitans advance against the French in Rome Their overthrow and rout The royal family and Court fly to Palermo Nelson in Palermo Scandals about his residence there Troubridge's remonstrances with him
NELSON'S CAREER, AND GENERAL EVENTS IN THE MEDITERRANEAN AND ITALY, FROM THE OVERTHROW OF THE ROYAL GOVERNMENT IN NAPLES TO THE INCURSION OF THE FRENCH FLEET UNDER ADMIRAL BRUIX.
The French enter Naples Nelson's distress and comments The Sidney Smith mission Nelson's indignation Modification of Smith's orders Nelson's diplomatic capacity Jealousy of Russian progress in the Mediterranean His expectations of Russian assistance Precautions against Russians in Malta His poor opinion of the Neapolitan troops Difficulties with the Barbary States Nelson's dealings with them His hatred of the French Deep depression of spirits Fears for Sicily French reverses in Germany and Italy British and Neapolitan successes about Naples The French evacuate the kingdom of Naples News of the approach of the French fleet under Bruix
FROM THE INCURSION OF THE FRENCH FLEET UNDER BRUIX TO THE RESTORATION OF THE ROYAL AUTHORITY AT NAPLES.—THE CARACCIOLO EXECUTION.—NELSON'S DISOBEDIENCE TO ADMIRAL LORD KEITH.
Nelson's measures to meet Bruix's fleet His perplexity and mental distress Concentrates his division off Maritimo His sagacity and resolution Growing infatuation about Lady Hamilton Learns that Bruix has gone to Toulon Takes his squadron to Palermo Distress at St. Vincent's intention to go home Movements of St. Vincent and of Keith with the main fleet Nelson starts from Palermo for Naples News from Keith causes him to return off Maritimo Dissatisfaction with Keith's measures Resolves to go to Naples with the squadron Arrival at Naples State of affairs there Nelson's powers as representative of the King of Naples Annuls the existing armistice Capitulation of the castles Uovo and Nuovo Discussion of Nelson's action at this time Justification of his conduct The Caracciolo incident Execution of Caracciolo Discussion of Nelson's action in this case His profound attachment to the royal family of Naples The King establishes his court on board Nelson's flagship Mutual admiration of Nelson and the Hamiltons Castle of St. Elmo capitulates Troubridge sent against Capua Keith orders Nelson to send ships to Minorca Nelson disobeys Keith repeats his orders Nelson again refuses obedience Discussion of this incident The Admiralty censure Nelson Nelson's discontent His complaints of his health
THE FIRST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS.
It is the appointed lot of some of History's chosen few to come upon the scene at the moment when a great tendency is nearing its crisis and culmination. Specially gifted with qualities needed to realize the fulness of its possibilities, they so identify themselves with it by their deeds that they thenceforth personify to the world the movement which brought them forth, and of which their own achievements are at once the climax and the most dazzling illustration. Fewer still, but happiest of all, viewed from the standpoint of fame, are those whose departure is as well timed as their appearance, who do not survive the instant of perfected success, to linger on subjected to the searching tests of common life, but pass from our ken in a blaze of glory which thenceforth forever encircles their names. In that evening light break away and vanish the ominous clouds wherewith human frailties or tyrant passions had threatened to darken their renown; and their sun goes down with a lustre which the lapse of time is powerless to dim. Such was the privilege of the stainless Wolfe; such, beyond all others, that of Nelson. Rarely has a man been more favored in the hour of his appearing; never one so fortunate in the moment of his death.
Yet, however accidental, or providential, this rarely allotted portion, this crowning incident of an heroic career, it is after all but an incident. It the man has not contrived; but to it he has contributed much, without which his passing hour would have faded to memory, undistinguished among those of the myriads, great and small, who have died as nobly and are forever forgotten. A sun has set; but before its setting it has run a course, be it long or short, and has gathered a radiance which fixes upon its parting beams the rapt attention of beholders. The man's self and the man's works, what he was and what he did, the nature which brought forth such fruits, the thoughts which issued in such acts, hopes, fears, desires, quick intuitions, painful struggles, lofty ambitions, happy opportunities, have blended to form that luminous whole, known and seen of all, but not to be understood except by a patient effort to resolve the great result into its several rays, to separate the strands whose twisting has made so strong a cord.
Concerning the man's external acts, it will often happen that their true value and significance can best be learned, not from his own personal recital, but from an analytic study of the deeds themselves. Yet into them, too, often enters, not only the subtile working of their author's natural qualities, but also a certain previous history of well-defined opinions, of settled principles firmly held, of trains of thought and reasoning, of intuitions wrought into rational convictions, all of which betray both temperament and character. Of these intellectual antecedents, the existence and development may be gleaned from his writings, confirming the inference reached somewhat mechanically by the scrutiny of his actions. They play to the latter the part of the soul to the body, and thus contribute to the rather anatomical result of the dissecting process a spiritual element it would otherwise lack. But if this is so even of the outward career, it is far more deeply true of the inner history, of that underlying native character, which masterfully moulds and colors every life, yet evades the last analysis except when the obscure workings of heart and mind have been laid bare by their owner's words, recording the feelings of the fleeting hour with no view to future inspection. In these revelations of self, made without thought of the world outside, is to be found, if anywhere, the clue to that complex and often contradictory mingling of qualities which go to form the oneness of the man's personality. This discordance between essential unity and superficial diversities must be harmonized, if a true conception of his being is to be formed. We know the faces of our friends, but we see each as one. The features can, if we will, be separately considered, catalogued, and valued; but who ever thus thinks habitually of one he knows well? Yet to know well must be the aim of biography,—so to present the traits in their totality, without suppression of any, and in their true relative proportions, as to produce, not the blurred or distorted outlines seen through an imperfect lens, but the vivid apprehension which follows long intimacy with its continual, though unconscious, process of correction.
For such a treatment of Nelson's character, copious, if imperfect, material is afforded in his extensive and varied correspondence. From it the author aims, first, to draw forth a distinct and living image of the man himself, as sketched therein at random and loosely by his own hand. It is sought to reach the result by keeping the reader in constant contact, as by daily acquaintance, with a personality of mingled weakness and strength, of grave faults as well as of great virtues, but one whose charm was felt in life by all who knew it. The second object, far less ambitious, is to present a clear narrative of the military career, of the mighty deeds of arms, of this first of British seamen, whom the gifts of Nature and the course of History have united to make, in his victories and in their results, the representative figure of the greatest sea-power that the world has known.
It will not be thought surprising that we have, of the first thirty years of Nelson's life, no such daily informal record as that which illustrates the comparatively brief but teeming period of his active fighting career, from 1793 to 1805, when he at once, with inevitable directness and singular rapidity, rose to prominence, and established intimate relations with numbers of his contemporaries. A few anecdotes, more or less characteristic, have been preserved concerning his boyhood and youth. In his early manhood we have his own account, both explicit and implied in many casual unpremeditated phrases, of the motives which governed his public conduct in an episode occurring when, scarcely yet more than a youth, he commanded a frigate in the West Indies,—the whole singularly confirmatory, it might better be said prophetic, of the distinguishing qualities afterwards so brilliantly manifested in his maturity. But beyond these, it is only by the closest attention and careful gleaning that can be found, in the defective and discontinuous collection of letters which remains from his first thirty years, the indisputable tokens, in most important particulars, of the man that was to be.
The external details of this generally uneventful period can be rapidly summarized. He was born on the 29th of September, 1758, the fifth son and sixth child of Edmund Nelson, then rector of the parish of Burnham Thorpe, in Norfolk, a county which lies along the eastern coast of England, bordering the North Sea. His mother, whose name before marriage was Catherine Suckling, was grandniece to Sir Robert Walpole, the famous prime minister of Great Britain during twenty years of the reigns of the first two Georges. Sir Robert's second brother was called Horatio; and it was from the latter, or from his son, that the future hero took his baptismal name, which, in a more common form, was also that of Sir Robert's younger son, the celebrated letter and memoir writer, Horace Walpole.
Of the eleven children borne by Nelson's mother in her eighteen wedded years, only two lived to grow old. She herself died at forty-two; and her brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, of the Royal Navy, was also cut off in the prime of his age. As the earlier Nelsons were unusually long-lived, it seems probable that a certain delicacy of constitution was transmitted through the Sucklings to the generation to which the admiral belonged. He was himself, at various periods through life, a great sufferer, and frequently an invalid; allusions to illness, often of a most prostrating type, and to his susceptibility to the influences of climate or weather, occur repeatedly and at brief intervals throughout his correspondence. This is a factor in his career which should not be lost to mind; for on the one hand it explains in part the fretfulness which at times appears, and on the other brings out with increased force the general kindly sweetness of his temper, which breathed with slight abatement through such depressing conditions. It enhances, too, the strength of purpose that trod bodily weakness under foot, almost unconsciously, at the call of duty or of honor. It is notable, in his letters, that the necessity for exertion, even when involving severe exposure, is apt to be followed, though without apparent recognition of a connection between the two, by the remark that he has not for a long time been so well. He probably experienced, as have others, that it is not the greater hardships of the profession, much less the dangers, but its uncertainties and petty vexations, which tell most severely on a high-strung organization like his own.
The immediate occasion of his going to sea was as follows. In 1770 the Falkland Islands, a desolate and then unimportant group, lying in the South Atlantic, to the eastward of Patagonia, were claimed as a possession by both Spain and Great Britain. The latter had upon them a settlement called Port Egmont, before which, in the year named, an overwhelming Spanish squadron suddenly appeared, and compelled the British occupants to lower their flag. The insult aroused public indignation in England to the highest pitch; and while peremptory demands for reparation were despatched to Spain, a number of ships of war were ordered at once into commission. Among these was the "Raisonnable," of sixty-four guns, to the command of which was appointed Nelson's uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. The latter had some time before promised to provide for one of his sister's children, the family being very poor; and, the custom of the day permitting naval captains, as a kind of patronage, to take into the King's service on board their own ships a certain number of lads, as midshipmen or otherwise, the opportunity of giving a nephew a start in life was now in his hands. The story is that Horatio, though then but twelve years old, realized the burden of pecuniary care that his father was carrying, and himself volunteered the wish that his uncle would take him to sea. However it happened, the suggestion staggered Suckling, who well knew the lad's puny frame and fragile constitution. "What has poor little Horatio done," cried he, "that he, being so weak, should be sent to rough it at sea? But let him come, and if a cannon-ball takes off his head, he will at least be provided for." Under such gloomy foreboding began the most dazzling career that the sea, the mother of so many heroes, has ever seen. Spain, after a short hesitation, yielded the British demands, so that war did not come, and the "Raisonnable," with other ships, was again put out of commission. The incident of the Falkland Islands, however, had served the purpose of introducing Nelson to his profession, for which otherwise the opportunity might not have offered. Being so young when thus embarked, he, in common with many of the most successful seamen of that day, got scanty schooling; nor did he, as some others did, by after application remedy the eccentricities of style, and even of grammar, which are apt to result from such early neglect. His letters, vigorous and direct as they are, present neither the polished diction of Collingwood, nor the usual even correctness of St. Vincent and Saumarez, but are, on the contrary, constantly disfigured by awkward expressions and bad English. There was rarely, however, danger of mistaking his meaning, as was sometimes charged against Lord Howe.
Here, before fairly parting with the humble home life, of which the motherless boy had seen, and was throughout his career to see so little, is a fit place to introduce two anecdotes associated with those early days which his biographers have transmitted to us. We of these critical times have learned to look with incredulity, not always unmixed with derision, upon stories relating to the childhood of distinguished men; but it can safely be said that the two now to be given are in entire keeping, not merely with particular traits, but with the great ruling tenor of Nelson's whole life. He and his elder brother were going to school one winter day upon their ponies. Finding the snow so deep as to delay them seriously, they went back, and the elder reported that they could not get on. The father very judiciously replied: "If that be so, I have of course nothing to say; but I wish you to try again, and I leave it to your honour not to turn back, unless necessary." On the second attempt, the elder was more than once for returning; but Horatio stuck it out, repeating continually, "Remember it was left to our honour," and the difficult journey was accomplished.
The children in this instance seem to have felt that there was danger in going on. The other recorded occurrence shows in the lad that indifference to personal benefit, as distinguished from the sense of conspicuous achievement, which was ever a prominent characteristic of the man. The master of his school had a very fine pear-tree, whose fruit the boys coveted, but upon which none dared hazard an attempt. At last Nelson, who did not share their desires, undertook the risk, climbed the tree by night, and carried off the pears, but refused to eat any of them,—saying that he had taken them only because the others were afraid.
Trivial though these incidents may seem, they are so merely because they belong to the day of small things. To those accustomed to watch children, they will not appear unworthy of note. Taken together, they illustrate, as really as do his greatest deeds, the two forms assumed at different times by the one incentive which always most powerfully determined Nelson's action through life,—the motive to which an appeal was never made in vain. No material considerations, neither danger on the one hand, nor gain on the other, ever affected him as did that idealized conception which presented itself, now as duty, now as honor, according as it bore for the moment upon his relations to the state or to his own personality. "In my mind's eye," said he to his friend Captain Hardy, who afterwards bent over him as his spirit was parting amid the tumult of his last victory, "I ever saw a radiant orb suspended which beckoned me onward to renown." Nelson did not often verge upon the poetical in words, but to the poetry of lofty aspiration his inmost being always answered true.
To the young naval officer of a century ago, especially if without political or social influence, it was a weighty advantage to be attached to some one commanding officer in active employment, who by favorable opportunity or through professional friendships could push the fortunes of those in whom he was interested. Much of the promotion was then in the hands of the admirals on foreign stations; and this local power to reward distinguished service, though liable to abuse in many ways, conduced greatly to stimulate the zeal and efforts of officers who felt themselves immediately under the eye of one who could make or mar their future. Each naval captain, also, could in his degree affect more or less the prospects of those dependent upon him. Thus Suckling, though not going to sea himself, continued with intelligent solicitude his promised care of the young Nelson. When the "Raisonnable" was paid off, he was transferred to the command of the "Triumph," of seventy-four guns, stationed as guard-ship in the river Medway; and to her also he took with him his nephew, who was borne upon her books for the two following years, which were, however, far from being a period of inactive harbor life. Having considerable professional interest, he saw to the lad's being kept afloat, and obtained for him from time to time such service as seemed most desirable to his enterprising spirit.
The distinction between the merchant seaman and the man-of-war's man, or even the naval officer, in those days of sailing ships and simple weapons was much less sharply marked than it has since become. Skill in seamanship, from the use of the marlinespike and the sail-needle up to the full equipping of a ship and the handling of her under canvas, was in either service the prime essential. In both alike, cannon and small arms were carried; and the ship's company, in the peaceful trader as well as in the ship of war, expected to repel force with force, when meeting upon equal terms. With a reduced number of naval vessels in commission, and their quarter-decks consequently over-crowded with young officers, a youth was more likely to find on board them a life of untasked idleness than a call to professional occupation and improvement. Nelson therefore was sent by his careful guardian to a merchant-ship trading to the West Indies, to learn upon her, as a foremast hand, the elements of his profession, under conditions which, from the comparative fewness of the crew and the activity of the life, would tend to develop his powers most rapidly. In this vessel he imbibed, along with nautical knowledge, the prejudice which has usually existed, more or less, in the merchant marine against the naval service, due probably to the more rigorous exactions and longer terms of enlistment in the latter, although the life in other respects is one of less hardship; but in Nelson's day the feeling had been intensified by the practice of impressment, and by the severe, almost brutal discipline that obtained on board some ships of war, through the arbitrary use of their powers by captains, then insufficiently controlled by law. In this cruise he seems to have spent a little over a year; a time, however, that was not lost to him for the accomplishment of the period of service technically required to qualify as a lieutenant, his name continuing throughout on the books of the "Triumph," to which he returned in July, 1772.
Suckling's care next insured for him a continuance of active, semi-detached duty, in the boats of the "Triumph,"—an employment very different from, and more responsible than, that in which he had recently been occupied, and particularly calculated to develop in so apt a nature the fearlessness of responsibility, both professional and personal, that was among the most prominent features of Nelson's character. "The test of a man's courage is responsibility," said that great admiral and shrewd judge of men, the Earl of St. Vincent, after a long and varied experience of naval officers; and none ever shone more brightly under this supreme proof than the lad whose career is now opening before us. It may be interesting, too, to note that this condition of more or less detached service, so early begun, in which, though not in chief command, he held an authority temporarily independent, and was immediately answerable for all that happened on the spot, was the singular characteristic of most of his brilliant course, during which, until 1803, two years before Trafalgar, he was only for brief periods commander-in-chief, yet almost always acted apart from his superior. Many a man, gallant, fearless, and capable, within signal distance of his admiral, has, when out of sight of the flag, succumbed with feeble knees to the burden of independent responsible action, though not beyond his professional powers. This strength, like all Nature's best gifts, is inborn; yet, both for the happy possessor and for the merely average man, it is susceptible of high development only by being early exercised, which was the good fortune of Nelson.
Of these two years of somewhat irregular service, while nominally attached to the "Triumph," it will be well to give the account in his own words; for, having been written a full quarter of a century later, they record the deepest and most lasting impressions made upon him during that susceptible period when first becoming familiar with the calling he was to adorn:—
"The business with Spain being accommodated, I was sent in a West India ship belonging to the house of Hibbert, Purrier, and Horton, with Mr. John Rathbone, who had formerly been in the Navy, in the Dreadnought with Captain Suckling. From this voyage I returned to the Triumph at Chatham in July, 1772; and, if I did not improve in my education, I returned a practical Seaman, with a horror of the Royal Navy, and with a saying, then constant with the Seamen, 'Aft the most honour, forward the better man!' It was many weeks before I got the least reconciled to a Man-of-War, so deep was the prejudice rooted; and what pains were taken to instil this erroneous principle in a young mind! However, as my ambition was to be a Seaman, it was always held out as a reward, that if I attended well to my navigation, I should go in the cutter and decked long-boat, which was attached to the Commanding officer's ship at Chatham. Thus by degrees I became a good pilot, for vessels of that description, from Chatham to the Tower of London, down the Swin, and the North Foreland; and confident of myself amongst rocks and sands, which has many times since been of great comfort to me. In this way I was trained, till the expedition towards the North Pole was fitted out; when, although no boys were allowed to go in the Ships, (as of no use,) yet nothing could prevent my using every interest to go with Captain Lutwidge in the Carcass; and, as I fancied I was to fill a man's place, I begged I might be his cockswain; which, finding my ardent desire for going with him, Captain Lutwidge complied with, and has continued the strictest friendship to this moment. Lord Mulgrave, whom I then first knew, maintained his kindest friendship and regard to the last moment of his life. When the boats were fitting out to quit the two Ships blocked up in the ice, I exerted myself to have the command of a four-oared cutter raised upon, which was given me, with twelve men; and I prided myself in fancying I could navigate her better than any other boat in the Ship."
It will be recognized from this brief yet suggestive and characteristic narrative, that, however valuable and even indispensable may have been his uncle's assistance in forwarding his wishes, it was his own ambition and his own impulse that even at this early day gave direction to his course, and obtained opportunities which would scarcely have been offered spontaneously to one of his physical frailty. In this Arctic expedition he underwent the experiences common to all who tempt those icebound seas. During it occurred an incident illustrative of Nelson's recklessness of personal danger,—a very different thing from official recklessness, which he never showed even in his moments of greatest daring and highest inspiration. The story is so hackneyed by frequent repetition as to make its relation a weariness to the biographer, the more so that the trait of extreme rashness in youth is one by no means so rare as to be specially significant of Nelson's character. It will be given in the words of his first biographers:—
"There is also an anecdote recollected by Admiral Lutwidge, which marked the filial attention of his gallant cockswain. Among the gentlemen on the quarter-deck of the Carcass, who were not rated midshipmen, there was, besides young Nelson, a daring shipmate of his, to whom he had become attached. One night, during the mid-watch, it was concerted between them that they should steal together from the ship, and endeavour to obtain a bear's skin. The clearness of the nights in those high latitudes rendered the accomplishment of this object extremely difficult: they, however, seem to have taken advantage of the haze of an approaching fog, and thus to have escaped unnoticed. Nelson in high spirits led the way over the frightful chasms in the ice, armed with a rusty musket. It was not, however, long before the adventurers were missed by those on board; and, as the fog had come on very thick, the anxiety of Captain Lutwidge and his officers was very great. Between three and four in the morning the mist somewhat dispersed, and the hunters were discovered at a considerable distance, attacking a large bear. The signal was instantly made for their return; but it was in vain that Nelson's companion urged him to obey it. He was at this time divided by a chasm in the ice from his shaggy antagonist, which probably saved his life; for the musket had flashed in the pan, and their ammunition was expended. 'Never mind,' exclaimed Horatio, 'do but let me get a blow at this devil with the but-end of my musket, and we shall have him.' His companion, finding that entreaty was in vain, regained the ship. The captain, seeing the young man's danger, ordered a gun to be fired to terrify the enraged animal. This had the desired effect; but Nelson was obliged to return without his bear, somewhat agitated with the apprehension of the consequence of this adventure. Captain Lutwidge, though he could not but admire so daring a disposition, reprimanded him rather sternly for such rashness, and for conduct so unworthy of the situation he occupied; and desired to know what motive he could have for hunting a bear? Being thought by his captain to have acted in a manner unworthy of his situation, made a deep impression on the high-minded cockswain; who, pouting his lip, as he was wont to do when agitated, replied, 'Sir, I wished to kill the bear, that I might carry its skin to my father.'"
Upon his return to England from the Arctic Seas, Nelson again by his own choice determined his immediate future. Within a fortnight of leaving the "Carcass," he was, through his uncle's influence, received on board by the captain of the "Seahorse," of twenty guns, one of the ships composing a squadron that was just then fitting out for the East Indies. To quote himself, "Nothing less than such a distant voyage could in the least satisfy my desire of maritime knowledge." During an absence of three years he for much of the time, as formerly in his West India cruise, did the duty of a seaman aloft, from which he was afterwards rated midshipman, and placed, this time finally, upon the quarter-deck as an officer. In the ordinary course of cruising in peace times, he visited every part of the station from Bengal to Bussorah; but the climate, trying even to vigorous Europeans, proved too much for his frail health. After a couple of years he broke down and was invalided home, reaching England in September, 1776. His escape from death was attributed by himself to the kind care of Captain Pigot of the "Dolphin," in which ship he came back. At this period we are told that, when well, he was of florid countenance, rather stout and athletic; but, as the result of his illness, he was reduced to a mere skeleton, and for some time entirely lost the use of his limbs,—a distressing symptom, that returned upon him a few years later after his Central American expedition in 1780, and confirms the impression of extreme fragility of constitution, which is frequently indicated in other ways.
During this absence in the East Indies Captain Suckling, in April, 1775, had been named Comptroller of the Navy,—a civil position, but one that carried with it power and consequent influence. This probably told for much in obtaining for Nelson, who was but just eighteen, and had not yet passed the examinations for his first promotion, an acting appointment as lieutenant. With this he joined a small ship-of-the-line, the "Worcester," of sixty-four guns, on board which he remained for six months, engaged in convoy duty between the Channel and Gibraltar, seeing from her decks for the first time the waters of the Mediterranean and its approaches, since then indissolubly associated with his name and his glory. He took with him a letter from his uncle to the captain of his new ship; but while such introduction, coming from so influential a quarter, doubtless contributed powerfully to clear from his path the obstacles commonly encountered by young men, Nelson had gained for himself a reputation for professional capacity, which, here as throughout his life, quickly won him the full confidence of his superiors. In later years, when his admiral's flag was flying, he recorded, with evident pride in the recollection, that while on board the "Worcester," notwithstanding his youth, his captain used to say, "He felt as easy when I was upon deck as any officer of the ship." It is doubtful, indeed, whether Nelson ever possessed in a high degree the delicate knack of handling a ship with the utmost dexterity and precision. He certainly had not the reputation for so doing. Codrington,—a thorough Nelsonian, to use his own somewhat factious expression—used to say in later years, "Lord Nelson was no seaman; even in the earlier stages of the profession his genius had soared higher, and all his energies were turned to becoming a great commander." His apprenticeship, before reaching command, was probably too short; and, as captain, his generous disposition to trust others to do work for which he knew them fitted, would naturally lead him to throw the manipulation of the vessel upon his subordinates. But although, absorbed by broader and deeper thoughts of the responsibilities and opportunities of a naval commander, to which he was naturally attracted by both his genius and his temperament, he was excelled in technical skill by many who had no touch of his own inspiration, he nevertheless possessed a thoroughly competent knowledge of his profession as a simple seaman; which, joined to his zeal, energy, and intelligence, would more than justify the confidence expressed by his early commander. Of this knowledge he gave full proof a year later, when, before a board of captains, strangers to him, he successfully passed his examinations for a lieutenancy. His uncle Suckling, as Comptroller of the Navy, was indeed on the Board; but he concealed the fact of relationship until the other members had expressed themselves satisfied.
His examination was held within a week of his leaving the "Worcester," on the 8th of April, 1777; and Suckling once more, but for the last time in his life, was able to exert his influence in behalf of his relative by promptly securing for him, not only his promotion to lieutenant, which many waited for long, but with it his commission, dated April 10, to the "Lowestoffe," a frigate of thirty-two guns. This class of vessel was in the old days considered particularly desirable for young officers, being more active than ships-of-the-line, while at the same time more comfortable, and a better school for the forming of an officer, than were the smaller cruisers; and his uncle probably felt that Nelson, whose service hitherto had been mainly upon the latter, needed yet to perfect the habits and methods distinctive of a ship of war, for he now wrote him a letter upon the proprieties of naval conduct, excellently conceived, yet embracing particulars that should scarcely have been necessary to one who had served his time on board well-ordered ships. The appointment to the "Lowestoffe" was further fortunate, both for him and for us, as in the commander of the vessel, Captain William Locker, he found, not only an admirable officer and gentleman, but a friend for whom he formed a lasting attachment, ending only with Locker's death in 1800, two years after the Battle of the Nile. To this friendship we owe the fullest record, at his own hands, of his early career; for Locker kept the numerous letters written him by Nelson while still an unknown young man. Of sixty-seven which now remain, covering the years from 1777 to 1783, all but thirty were to this one correspondent.
In another respect the appointment to the "Lowestoffe" was fortunate for Nelson. The ship was destined to the West Indies—or, to speak more precisely, to Jamaica, which was a command distinct from that of the eastern Caribbean, or Lesser Antilles, officially styled the Leeward Islands Station. Great Britain was then fully embarked in the war with her North American colonies, which ended in their independence; and the course of events was hastening her to the rupture with France and Spain that followed within a year. In this protracted contest the chief scene of naval hostilities was to be the West Indies; but beyond even the casualties of war, the baneful climate of that region insured numerous vacancies by prostration and death, with consequent chances of promotion for those who escaped the fevers, and found favor in the eyes of their commander-in-chief. The brutal levity of the old toast, "A bloody war and a sickly season," nowhere found surer fulfilment than on those pestilence-stricken coasts. Captain Locker's health soon gave way. Arriving at Jamaica on the 19th of July, 1777, we find Nelson in the following month writing to him from the ship during an absence produced by a serious illness, from which fatal results were feared. The letter, like all those to Locker, was marked by that tone of quick, eager sympathy, of genial inclination always to say the kindest thing, that characterized his correspondence, and, generally, his intercourse with others,—traits that through life made him, beyond most men, acceptable and beloved. He was, from first to last, not merely one of those whose services are forced upon others by sheer weight of ability, because indispensable,—though this, too, he was,—but men wanted him because, although at times irritable, especially after the wounds received in later years, he was an easy yoke-fellow, pleasant to deal with, cordial and ready to support those above him, a tolerant and appreciative master to subordinates. It may even be said that, in matters indifferent to him, he too readily reflected the feelings, views, and wishes of those about him; but when they clashed with his own fixed convictions, he was immovable. As he himself said in such a case, "I feel I am perfectly right, and you know upon those occasions I am not famous for giving up a point."
Of his connection with the "Lowestoffe" he himself, in the short autobiographical sketch before quoted, mentions two circumstances, which, from the very fact of their remaining so long in his memory, illustrate temperament. "Even a frigate," he says, "was not sufficiently active for my mind, and I got into a schooner, tender to the Lowestoffe. In this vessel I made myself a complete pilot for all the passages through the [Keys] Islands situated on the north side Hispaniola." This kind of service, it will be noted, was in direct sequence, as to training, to his handling of the "Triumph's" long-boat in the lower waters of the Thames, and would naturally contribute to increase that "confidence in himself among rocks and sands," which was afterwards to be so "great a comfort" to him. In his later career he had frequent and pressing need of that particular form of professional judgment and self-reliance for which these early experiences stood him in good stead. As he afterwards wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, when pleading the cause of a daring and skilful officer who had run his ship ashore: "If I had been censured every time I have run my ship, or fleets under my command, into great danger, I should long ago have been out of the service, and never in the House of Peers." At the critical instants of the Nile and Copenhagen, as well as in the less conspicuous but more prolonged anxieties of the operations off Corsica and along the Riviera of Genoa, this early habit, grafted upon the singularly steady nerve wherewith he was endowed by nature, sustained him at a height of daring and achievement to which very few have been able to rise.
The other incident recorded by him as happening while on board the "Lowestoffe," he himself cites as illustrative of temperament. "Whilst in this frigate, an event happened which presaged my character; and, as it conveys no dishonour to the officer alluded to, I shall insert it. Blowing a gale of wind, and a very heavy sea, the frigate captured an American letter-of-marque. The first Lieutenant was ordered to board her, which he did not do, owing to the very heavy sea. On his return, the Captain said, 'Have I no officer in the ship who can board the prize?' On which the Master ran to the gangway, to get into the boat: when I stopped him, saying, 'It is my turn now; and if I come back, it is yours.' This little incident," he continues, "has often occurred to my mind; and I know it is my disposition, that difficulties and dangers do but increase my desire of attempting them." An action of this sort, in its results unimportant, gives keener satisfaction in the remembrance than do greater deeds, because more purely individual,—entirely one's own. It is upon such as this, rather than upon his victories, that Nelson in his narrative dwells caressingly. His personal daring at St. Vincent, and against the gunboats off Cadiz, ministered more directly to his self-esteem, to that consciousness of high desert which was dear to him, than did the Battle of the Nile, whose honors he, though ungrudgingly, shared with his "band of brothers."
When the "Lowestoffe" had been a year upon the station, it became very doubtful whether Locker could continue in her, and finally he did go home ill. It was probably due to this uncertainty that he obtained the transfer of Nelson, in whom he had become most affectionately interested, to the "Bristol," flagship of Sir Peter Parker, the commander-in-chief. Here, under the admiral's own eye, warmly recommended by his last captain, and with a singular faculty for enlisting the love and esteem of all with whom he was brought into contact, the young officer's prospects were of the fairest; nor did the event belie them. Joining the "Bristol" as her third lieutenant, not earlier than July, 1778, he had by the end of September risen "by succession"—to use his own phrase—to be first; a promotion by seniority whose rapidity attests the rate at which vacancies occurred. Both Parker and his wife became very fond of him, cared for him in illness, and in later years she wrote to him upon each of the occasions on which he most brilliantly distinguished himself—after St. Vincent, the Nile, and Copenhagen. "Your mother," said she after the first, "could not have heard of your deeds with more affection; nor could she be more rejoiced at your personal escape from all the dangers of that glorious day;" and again, after the Nile, "Sir Peter and I have ever regarded you as a son." The letter following the victory at Copenhagen has not been published; but Nelson, whose heart was never reluctant to gratitude nor to own obligation, wrote in reply: "Believe me when I say that I am as sensible as ever that I owe my present position in life to your and good Sir Peter's partiality for me, and friendly remembrance of Maurice Suckling."
This last allusion indicates some disinterestedness in Parker's patronage, and its vital importance to Nelson at that time. Captain Suckling had died in July, 1778, and with him departed the only powerful support upon which the young lieutenant could then count, apart from his own merits and the friends obtained by them. There was in those days an immense difference in prospects between the nephew of the Comptroller of the Navy and a man unknown at headquarters. By what leading principles, if any, Sir Peter Parker was guided in the distribution of his favors, can scarcely now be ascertained; but that he brought rapidly forward two men of such great yet widely differing merit as Nelson and Collingwood, is a proof that his judgment was sound and the station one where vacancies were frequent. Collingwood, who was then a lieutenant on board a sloop-of-war, went to the "Lowestoffe" in Nelson's place. When the latter, in December, 1778, was made commander into the brig "Badger," the other was transferred to the vacant room in the "Bristol;" and when Nelson, on the 11th of June, 1779, became post-captain in the "Hinchinbrook" frigate, Collingwood again followed him as commander of the "Badger." Finally, when through a death vacancy a better frigate offered for Nelson, Collingwood also was posted into the "Hinchinbrook;" this ship thus having the singular distinction of conferring the highest rank obtainable by selection, and so fixing the final position of the two life-long friends who led the columns at Trafalgar, the crowning achievement of the British Navy as well as of their own illustrious careers. The coincidence at the earlier date may have been partly factitious, due to a fad of the commander-in-chief; but it assumes a different and very impressive aspect viewed in the light of their later close association, especially when it is recalled that Collingwood also succeeded, upon Nelson's death, to the Mediterranean command, and was there worn out, as his predecessor fell, in the discharge of his duty upon that important station, which thus proved fatal to them both. Few historic parallels are so complete. Sir Peter Parker, living until 1811, survived both his illustrious juniors, and at the age of eighty-two followed Nelson's coffin, as chief mourner at the imposing obsequies, where the nation, from the highest to the lowest, mingled the exultation of triumph with weeping for the loss of its best-beloved.
Of Nelson's exterior at this time, his early biographers have secured an account which, besides its value as a portrait, possesses the further interest of mentioning explicitly that charm of manner which was one of his best birth-gifts, reflecting, as it did, the generous and kindly temper of his heart. "The personal appearance of Captain Nelson at this period of his life, owing to his delicate health and diminutive figure, was far from expressing the greatness of his intellectual powers. From his earliest years, like Cleomenes, the hero of Sparta, he had been enamoured of glory, and had possessed a greatness of mind. Nelson preserved, also, a similar temperance and simplicity of manners. Nature, as Plutarch adds of the noble Spartan, had given a spur to his mind which rendered him impetuous in the pursuit of whatever he deemed honourable. The demeanour of this extraordinary young man was entirely the demeanour of a British seaman; when the energies of his mind were not called forth by some object of duty, or professional interest, he seemed to retire within himself, and to care but little for the refined courtesies of polished life." No saving sense of humor seems to have suggested that the profane might here ask, "Is this the British seaman?" "In his dress he had all the cleanliness of an Englishman, though his manner of wearing it gave him an air of negligence; and yet his general address and conversation, when he wished to please, possessed a charm that was irresistible."
In June, 1779, when posted into the "Hinchinbrook," Nelson wanted still three months of being twenty-one. By the custom of the British Navy, then and now, promotions from the grade of Captain to that of Admiral are made by seniority only. Once a captain, therefore, a man's future was assured, so far as concerned the possibility of juniors passing over his head,—neither favor nor merit could procure that; his rank relatively to others was finally fixed. The practical difficulty of getting at a captain of conspicuous ability, to make of him a flag-officer, was met by one of those clumsy yet adequate expedients by which the practical English mind contrives to reconcile respect for precedent with the demands of emergency. There being then no legal limit to the number of admirals, a promotion was in such case made of all captains down to and including the one wanted; and Lord St. Vincent, one of the most thorough-going of naval statesmen, is credited with the declaration that he would promote a hundred down the list of captains, if necessary, to reach the one demanded by the needs of the country. Even with this rough-riding over obstacles,—for the other officers promoted, however useful in their former grade, not being wanted as admirals, remained perforce unemployed,—the advantage of reaching post-rank betimes is evident enough; and to this chiefly Nelson referred in acknowledging his permanent indebtedness to Sir Peter Parker. With this early start, every artificial impediment was cleared from his path; his extraordinary ability was able to assert itself, and could be given due opportunity, without a too violent straining of service methods. He had, indeed, to wait eighteen years for his flag-rank; but even so, he obtained it while still in the very prime of his energies, before he was thirty-nine,—a good fortune equalled by none of his most distinguished contemporaries.
A somewhat singular feature of this early promotion of Nelson is that it was accorded without the claim of service in actual battle,—a circumstance that seems yet more remarkable when contrasted with the stormy and incessant warfare of his later career. While he was thus striding ahead, his equals in years, Saumarez and Pellew, were fighting their way up step by step, gaining each as the reward of a distinct meritorious action, only to find themselves outstripped by one who had scarcely seen a gun fired in anger. The result was mainly due to the nature of the station, where sickness made vacancies more rapidly than the deadliest engagement. But while this is true, and must be taken into the account, it was characteristic of Nelson that his value transpired through the simplest intercourse, and amid the commonplace incidents of service. Locker and Parker each in turn felt this. A little later, while he and Collingwood were still unknown captains, the latter, usually measured and formal in his language, wrote to him in these singularly strong words: "My regard for you, my dear Nelson, my respect and veneration for your character, I hope and believe, will never lessen." So, some years afterwards, but before he became renowned or had wrought his more brilliant achievements, an envious brother captain said to him, "You did just as you pleased in Lord Hood's time, the same in Admiral Hotham's, and now again with Sir John Jervis; it makes no difference to you who is Commander-in-chief." This power of winning confidence and inspiring attachment was one of the strongest elements in Nelson's success, alike as a subordinate and when himself in chief command.
With his mind ever fixed upon glory, or rather upon honor,—the word he himself most often used, and which more accurately expresses his desire for fame; honor, which is to glory what character is to reputation,—the same hard fortune persisted in denying to him, during the War of the American Revolution, the opportunities for distinction which he so ardently coveted. In the "Badger" and in the "Hinchinbrook," during the year 1779, his service was confined to routine cruising about Jamaica and along the Mosquito coast of Central America. A gleam of better things for a moment shone upon him in August of that year, when the French fleet, under Count D'Estaing, appeared in Haiti, numbering twenty-two ships-of-the-line, with transports reported to be carrying twenty thousand troops. All Jamaica was in an uproar of apprehension, believing an attack upon the island to be imminent; for its conquest was known to be one of the great objects of the enemy. Nelson was at the time living on shore, the "Hinchinbrook" seemingly not having returned to the port since his appointment to her, and he eagerly accepted the duty of commanding the land batteries. The odds were great,—"You must not be surprised to hear of my learning to speak French," he wrote, laughingly, to Locker in England,—but if so, the greater the honor attendant, whether upon success or defeat. D'Estaing, however, passed on to America to encounter disaster at Savannah, and Nelson's hopes were again disappointed.
In January, 1780, an opportunity for service offered, which ended in no conspicuous or permanent result, but nevertheless conferred distinction upon one who, to use his own expression, was determined to climb to the top of the tree, and to neglect no chance, however slight, that could help him on. War with Spain had then been about seven months declared, and the British governor of Jamaica had sagaciously determined to master Lake Nicaragua, and the course of the river San Juan, its outlet to the Caribbean Sea. The object of the attempt was twofold, both military and commercial. The route was recognized then, as it is now, as one of the most important, if not the most important, of those affording easy transit from the Pacific to the Atlantic by way of the Isthmus. To a nation of the mercantile aptitudes of Great Britain, such a natural highway was necessarily an object of desire. In her hands it would not only draw to itself the wealth of the surrounding regions, but would likewise promote the development of her trade, both north and south, along the eastern and western coasts of the two Americas. But the pecuniary gain was not all. The military tenure of this short and narrow strip, supported at either end, upon the Pacific and the Atlantic, by naval detachments, all the more easily to be maintained there by the use of the belt itself, would effectually sever the northern and southern colonies of Spain, both by actual interposition, and by depriving them of one of their most vital lines of intercommunication. To seek control of so valuable and central a link in a great network of maritime interests was as natural and inevitable to Great Britain a century ago, as it now is to try to dominate the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, which fulfil a like function to her Eastern possessions and Eastern commerce.
Preoccupied, however, with numerous and more pressing cares in many quarters of the world, and overweighted in a universal struggle with outnumbering foes, Great Britain could spare but scanty forces to her West India Islands, and from them Governor Dalling could muster but five hundred men for his Nicaraguan undertaking. Nelson was directed to convoy these with the "Hinchinbrook" to the mouth of the San Juan del Norte, where was the port now commonly called Greytown, in those days a fine and spacious harbor. There his charge ended; but his mental constitution never allowed him to look upon a military task as well done while anything remained to do. In the spirit of his famous saying, fifteen years later, "Were ten ships out of eleven taken, I would never call it well done if the eleventh escaped, if able to get at her," he determined to go with the troops. With his temperament it was impossible to turn his back upon the little body of soldiers, whose toilsome advance up the tropical stream might be aided and hastened by his ready seamen.
The first objective of the expedition was Fort San Juan, a powerful work controlling the river of the same name, and thereby the only natural water transit between the sea and Lake Nicaragua. Upon the possession of this, as a position of vantage and a safe depot for supplies and reinforcements, Dalling based his hopes of future advance, both west and south. Nelson took with him forty-seven seamen and marines from his ship's company; the former, aided by some Indians, doing most of the labor of forcing the boats against the current, through shoal and tortuous channels, under his own constant supervision and encouragement. A small outpost that withstood their progress was by him intrepidly stormed, sword in hand, by sudden assault; and upon reaching Fort San Juan he urgently recommended the same summary method to the officer commanding the troops. The latter, however, was not one of the men who recognize the necessity for exceptional action. Regular approaches, though the slower, were the surer way of reducing a fortified place, and entailed less bloodshed. Professional rule commonly demanded them, and to professional rule he submitted. Nelson argued that through delays, which, however incurred, were now past discussion, the expedition had reached its destination in April, at the end of the healthy, dry season, instead of shortly after its beginning, in January. Consequently, owing to the fall of the water, much additional trouble had been experienced in the advance, the men were proportionately weakened by toil and exposure, and the wet months, with their dire train of tropical diseases, were at hand. Therefore, though more might fall by the enemy's weapons in a direct attack, the ultimate loss would be less than by the protracted and sickly labors of the spade; while with San Juan subdued, the force could receive all the care possible in such a climate, and under the best conditions await the return of good weather for further progress.
In military enterprises there will frequently arise the question, Is time or life in this case of the greater value? Those regularly ordered and careful procedures which most economize the blood of the soldier may, by their inevitable delays, seriously imperil the objects of the campaign as a whole; or they may even, while less sanguinary, entail indirectly a greater loss of men than do prompter measures. In such doubtful matters Nelson's judgment was usually sound; and his instinct, which ever inclined to instant and vigorous action, was commonly by itself alone an accurate guide, in a profession whose prizes are bestowed upon quick resolve more often than upon deliberate consultation. The same intuition that in his prime dictated his instant, unhesitating onslaught at the Nile, depriving the French of all opportunity for further preparation,—that caused him in the maturity of his renown, before Copenhagen, to write, "every hour's delay makes the enemy stronger; we shall never be so good a match for them as at this moment,"—that induced him at Trafalgar to modify his deliberately prepared plan in favor of one vastly more hazardous, but which seized and held the otherwise fleeting chance,—led him here also at San Juan, unknown, and scarcely more than a boy, to press the policy of immediate attack.
The decision was not in his hands, and he was overruled; whereupon, with his usual readiness to do his utmost, he accepted the course he disapproved, and, without nursing a grievance, became at once active in erecting batteries and serving the guns. "When unfortunate contentions," says one dispassionate narrator, "had slackened the ardour for public service, Captain Nelson did not suffer any narrow spirit to influence his conduct. He did more than his duty: where anything was to be done, he saw no difficulties." Great as his merits were, he was never insensible to them; and, in the sketch of his career, furnished by him to his chief biographers, he records his exploits with naive self-satisfaction, resembling the sententious tablets of Eastern conquerors: "I boarded, if I may be allowed the expression, an outpost of the enemy, situated on an island in the river; I made batteries, and afterwards fought them, and was a principal cause of our success." But this simple, almost childlike, delight in his own performances, which continually crops out in his correspondence, did not exaggerate their deserts. Major Polson, commanding the land forces, wrote to Governor Dalling: "I want words to express the obligations I owe to Captain Nelson. He was the first on every service, whether by day or night. There was not a gun fired but was pointed by him, or by Captain Despard, Chief Engineer." Dalling, after some delay, wrote in the same sense to the Minister of War in London, warmly recommending Nelson to the notice of the home Government.
While the siege was in progress, Nelson received word of his appointment to a better ship, the "Janus," of forty-four guns, and it became necessary for him to join her. He left Fort San Juan only the day before it surrendered, and returned to Jamaica; but his health now gave way wholly, and his command of the "Janus," for the most part merely nominal, soon came to an end altogether. Dalling had truly said, "Captain Nelson's constitution is rather too delicate for service in this northern ocean." Before starting on the expedition, he had himself written to his friend Locker: "If my health is not much better than it is at present, I shall certainly come home after this trip, as all the doctors are against my staying so long in this country. You know my old complaint in my breast: it is turned out to be the gout got there. I have twice been given over since you left this country with that cursed disorder, the gout." In such weakness he lived and worked through a month of a short campaign, in which, of the "Hinchinbrook's" crew of two hundred, one hundred and forty-five were buried in his time or that of his successor, Collingwood,—a mortality which he justly cites as a further proof of the necessity for expedition in such climates. But, though he survived, he escaped by the skin of his teeth. Worn out by dysentery and fatigue, he was carried ashore in his cot, and soon after taken to Sir Peter Parker's house, where Lady Parker herself nursed him through. Her kindness to him and his own debility are touchingly shown by a note written from the mountains, where he was carried in his convalescence: "Oh, Mr. Ross, what would I give to be at Port Royal! Lady Parker not here, and the servants letting me lay as if a log, and take no notice." By September, 1780, it was apparent that perfect restoration, without change of climate, was impossible, and in the autumn, having been somewhat over three years on the station, he sailed for home in the "Lion," of sixty-four guns, Captain Cornwallis, to whose careful attention, as formerly to that of Captain Pigot, he gratefully attributed his life. The expedition with which he had been associated ended in failure, for although a part of the force pushed on to Lake Nicaragua, sickness compelled the abandonment of the conquests, which were repossessed by the Spaniards.
Arriving in England, Nelson went to Bath, and there passed through a period of extreme suffering and tedious recovery. "I have been so ill since I have been here," says one of his letters, "that I was obliged to be carried to and from bed, with the most excruciating tortures." Exact dates are wanting; but he seems to have been under treatment near three months, when, on the 28th of January, 1781, he wrote to Locker, in his often uncouth style: "Although I have not quite recovered the use of my limbs, yet my inside is a new man;" and again, three weeks later, "I have now the perfect use of all my limbs, except my left arm, which I can hardly tell what is the matter with it. From the shoulder to my fingers' ends are as if half dead." He remained in Bath until the middle of March, latterly more for the mild climate than because feeling the necessity of prosecuting his cure; yet that his health was far from securely re-established is evident, for a severe relapse followed his return to London. On the 7th of May, 1781, he writes to his brother: "You will say, why does not he come into Norfolk? I will tell you: I have entirely lost the use of my left arm, and very near of my left leg and thigh." In estimating Nelson's heroism, the sickly fragility of his bodily frame must be kept in memory; not to excuse shortcomings of nerve or enterprise, for there were none, but to exalt duly the extraordinary mental energy which rather mocked at difficulties than triumphed over them.
While yet an invalid he had again applied for employment, and, as the war was still raging, was appointed in August, 1781, to the "Albemarle," a small frigate of twenty-eight guns. He was pleased with the ship, the first commissioned by himself at home, with a long cruise in prospect; and, together with his expressions of content with her, there appears that manifestation of complete satisfaction with his officers and crew, with those surrounding him as subordinates, that so singularly characterized his habit of mind. "I have an exceeding good ship's company. Not a man or officer in her I would wish to change.... I am perfectly satisfied with both officers and ship's company." Down to the month before Trafalgar, when, to the bidding of the First Lord of the Admiralty to choose his own officers, he replied, "Choose yourself, my lord; the same spirit actuates the whole profession, you cannot choose wrong," there is rarely, it might almost be said never, anything but praise for those beneath him. With the "Agamemnon," "We are all well; indeed, nobody can be ill with my ship's company, they are so fine a set." At the Nile, "I had the happiness to command a band of brothers; therefore night was to my advantage. Each knew his duty, and I was sure each would feel for a French ship. My friends readily conceived my plan." His ships in the Mediterranean, in 1803, "are the best commanded and the very best manned" in the navy. So his frequent praise of others in his despatches and letters has none of the formal, perfunctory ring of an official paper; it springs evidently from the warmest appreciation and admiration, is heartfelt, showing no deceptive exterior, but the true native fibre of the man, full of the charity which is kind and thinketh no evil. It was not always so toward those above him. Under the timid and dilatory action of Hotham and Hyde Parker, under the somewhat commonplace although exact and energetic movements of Lord Keith, he was restive, and freely showed what he felt. On the other hand, around Hood and Jervis, who commanded his professional respect and esteem, he quickly threw the same halo of excellence, arising from his tendency to idealize, that colored the medium through which he invariably saw the men whom he himself commanded. The disposition to invest those near to him with merits, which must in part at least have been imaginary, is a most noteworthy feature of his character, and goes far to explain the attraction he exerted over others, the enthusiasm which ever followed him, the greatness of his success, and also, unhappily, the otherwise almost inexplicable but enduring infatuation which enslaved his later years, and has left the most serious blot upon his memory.
Though thus pleased with his surroundings, his own health continued indifferent. He excuses himself for delay in correspondence, because "so ill as to be scarce kept out of bed." In such a state, and for one whose frame had been racked and weakened by three years spent in the damp heat of the tropics, a winter's trip to the Baltic was hardly the best prescription; but thither the "Albemarle" was sent,—"it would almost be supposed," he wrote, "to try my constitution." He was away on this cruise from October to December, 1781, reaching Yarmouth on the 17th of the latter month, with a large convoy of a hundred and ten sail of merchant-ships, all that then remained of two hundred and sixty that had started from Elsinore on the 8th. "They behaved, as all convoys that ever I saw did, shamefully ill; parting company every day." After being several days wind-bound in Yarmouth Roads, he arrived in the Downs on the first day of 1782. The bitter cold of the North had pierced him almost as keenly as it did twenty years later in the Copenhagen expedition. "I believe the Doctor has saved my life since I saw you," he wrote to his brother. The ship was then ordered to Portsmouth to take in eight months' provisions,—a sure indication that she was intended for a distant voyage. Nelson himself surmised that she would join the squadron of Sir Richard Bickerton, then fitting out to reinforce the fleet in the East Indies. Had this happened, he would have been on hand to hear much and perchance see something of one of his own professional forerunners, the great French Admiral Suffren, as well as of the latter's doughty antagonist, Sir Edward Hughes; for Bickerton arrived in time to take part in the last of the five pitched battles between those two hard fighters. Unluckily, a severe accident had befallen the "Albemarle,"—a large East Indiaman having dragged down upon her during a heavy gale in the Downs. The injuries received by this collision were so extensive that the ship was under repairs at Portsmouth for six weeks, during which time Bickerton sailed.
While thus detained in one of the principal dockyards and naval stations of the kingdom, another large detachment, belonging to the Channel fleet, assembled before Nelson's eyes. It comprised twelve sail-of-the-line, under Admiral Barrington; and among these was the "Foudroyant," the most famous ship of her time, then commanded by Captain John Jervis, with whom, as the Earl of St. Vincent, Nelson was afterwards closely associated; but the young frigate captain did not now come in contact with his stately superior, who in later years so highly valued and loved him. It was for him still the day of small things. Though thus thrown in the midst of the din and bustle of extensive naval preparations, he had not the fortune to be directly connected with them; and consequently no occasion arose for becoming known to admirals who could recognize his worth, and give him the opportunities without which distinction cannot be achieved. It is, however, a significant and instructive fact that, while thus persistently dissociated from the great operations then in progress, and employed wholly in detached service, Nelson's natural genius for war asserted itself, controlling the direction of his thoughts and interests, and fixing them to that broad field of his profession from which he was as yet debarred. "The height of his ambition," an acquaintance of this period tells us, "was to command a line-of-battle ship; as for prize money," for which frigates offered the best chances, "it never entered his thoughts." A few months later, while still in the "Albemarle," it was said of him by Lord Hood, the most original tactician of the day, that he knew as much about naval tactics as any officer in the fleet. When this high encomium was bestowed, Nelson had barely passed his twenty-fourth birthday.
Meanwhile the "Albemarle" was again ordered upon convoy duty, this time to Quebec. This destination also was distasteful on account of the climate. "I want much to get off from this d——d voyage," he wrote. "Mr. Adair," an eminent London surgeon, who the year before had treated him for the paralysis of his limbs, "has told me that if I was sent to a cold damp climate it would make me worse than ever." He himself had scruples about applying for an exchange, and the efforts of some friends who interfered proved useless. The "Albemarle" started with a convoy of thirty-odd vessels on the 10th of April, 1782; and after a short stop at Cork, anchored at St. John's, Newfoundland, on May 27, whence she reached Quebec July 1. Three days later she again sailed on a cruise that lasted over two months, spent chiefly about Boston Bay and Cape Cod. During this time several enemy's vessels were taken or destroyed; but, with the bad luck that so often followed Nelson in the matter of prize-money, none of the captures reached port, and the cruise was pecuniarily unprofitable. It afforded him, however, an opportunity for displaying conduct and gaining deserved reputation, which he valued more highly. On the 14th of August the sudden lifting of a fog showed the "Albemarle" within gunshot of a French squadron, of four ships-of-the-line and a frigate, that had just come out of Boston. A close chase followed, lasting nine or ten hours; but Nelson threw off the heavy ships by running among the shoals of George's Bank, which he ventured to do, trusting to the cool head and aptitude for pilotage acquired in earlier life. The frigate followed warily, watching for a chance to strike at advantage; but when the ships-of-the-line had been dropped far enough to be unable to help their consort, the British vessel hove-to in defiance, and the enemy fell back upon his supports.