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The Evacuation Of Corsica And The Battle Of Cape St Vincent






BY ROBERT SOUTHEY.


Sir John Jervis now became commander of the Mediterranean fleet, and
Nelson joined him in Fiorenzo Bay. The manner in which Nelson was
received is said to have excited some envy. One captain observed 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."

Had Nelson consulted his own inclinations at this time, he would have
returned for a short period of rest, but as Sir John Jervis put it, "We
cannot spare you, either as captain or admiral," and so he resumed his
station in the Gulf of Genoa.

The French had not followed up their successes in that quarter with
their usual celerity. Scherer, who commanded there, owed his advancement
to any other cause than his merit, was removed from a command for which
his incapacity was afterwards clearly proved, and Bonaparte was
appointed to succeed him. Bonaparte, with a celerity which had never
before been witnessed in modern war, pursued his advantages to the
uttermost; and, in a very short time, dictated to the court of Turin
terms of peace, or rather of submission, by which all the strongest
places of Piedmont were put into his hands.

On one occasion, and only on one, Nelson was able to impede the progress
of this new conqueror. Six vessels, laden with cannon and
ordnance-stores for the siege of Mantua, sailed from Toulon for St. Pier
d'Arena. Assisted by Captain Cockburn, in the Meleager, he drove them
under a battery, pursued them, silenced the batteries, and captured the
whole. Military books, plans, and maps of Italy, with the different
points marked upon them where former battles had been fought, sent by
the Directory for Bonaparte's use, were found in the convoy. The loss of
this artillery was one of the chief causes which compelled the French to
raise the siege of Mantua.

The successes of Bonaparte on land led the British government to order
the evacuation of Corsica, and Nelson undertook to protect the
embarkation of British property. The viceroy, Sir Gilbert Elliott,
deeply felt the impolicy and ignominy of this evacuation, and Nelson
exclaimed, when he heard that the fleet was to leave the Mediterranean,
"Do His Majesty's ministers know their own minds? They do not know what
this fleet is capable of performing--anything and everything. Much as I
shall rejoice to see England, I lament our present orders in sackcloth
and ashes, so dishonourable to the dignity of England, whose fleets are
equal to meet the world in arms." Sir Gilbert Elliott believed that the
great body of the Corsicans were perfectly satisfied with the British
government, but when they found that the English intended to evacuate
the island, they naturally and necessarily sent to make their peace with
the French. The partisans of France found none to oppose them. A
committee of thirty took upon them the government of Bastia, and
sequestrated all the British property; armed Corsicans mounted guard at
every place, and a plan was laid for seizing the viceroy. Nelson, who
was appointed to superintend the evacuation, frustrated these projects.
At a time when every one else despaired of saving stores, cannon,
provisions, or property of any kind, and a privateer was moored across
the mole-head to prevent all boats from passing, he sent word to the
committee that if the slightest opposition were made to the embarkment
and removal of British property, he would batter the town down. The
privateer pointed her guns at the officer who carried this message, and
muskets were levelled against his boats from the mole-head. Upon this
Captain Sutton, of the Egmont, pulling out his watch, gave them a
quarter of an hour to deliberate upon their answer. In five minutes
after the expiration of that time, the ships, he said, would open their
fire. Upon this the very sentinels scampered off, and every vessel came
out of the mole. A ship-owner complained to the commodore that the
municipality refused to let him take his goods out of the custom-house.
Nelson directed him to say that unless they were instantly delivered he
would open his fire. The committee turned pale; and without answering a
word gave him the keys. Their last attempt was to levy a duty upon the
things that were re-embarked. He sent them word that he would pay them a
disagreeable visit if there were any more complaints. The committee then
finding that they had to deal with a man who knew his own power and was
determined to make the British name respected, desisted from the
insolent conduct which they had assumed, and it was acknowledged that
Bastia never had been so quiet and orderly since the English were in
possession of it. In less than a week private property and public stores
to the value of L200,000 had been safely removed.

The French, favoured by the Spanish fleet, which was at that time within
twelve leagues of Bastia, pushed over troops from Leghorn, who landed
near Cape Corse on the 18th, and, on the 20th, at one in the morning
entered the citadel, an hour only after the British had spiked the guns
and evacuated it. Nelson embarked at daybreak, being the last person who
left the shore; having thus, as he said, seen the first and the last of
Corsica.

Having thus ably effected this humiliating service, Nelson was ordered
to hoist his broad pennant on board the Minerve frigate, Captain
George Cockburn, and, with the Blanche under his command, proceed to
Porto Ferrajo, and superintend the evacuation of that place also. On his
way he fell in with two Spanish frigates, the Sabina and the Ceres.
The Minerve engaged the former, which was commanded by Don Jacobo
Stuart, a descendant of the Duke of Berwick. After an action of three
hours, during which the Spaniards lost a hundred and sixty-four men, the
Sabina struck. The Spanish captain, who was the only surviving
officer, had hardly been conveyed on board the Minerve, when another
enemy's frigate came up, compelled her to cast off the prize, and
brought her a second time to action. After half an hour's trial of
strength, this new antagonist wore and hauled off; but a Spanish
squadron of two ships of the line and two frigates came in sight. The
Blanche, from which the Ceres had got off, was far to windward, and
the Minerve escaped only by the anxiety of the enemy to recover their
own ship. As soon as Nelson reached Porto Ferrajo, he sent his prisoner
in a flag of truce to Carthagena, having returned him his sword; this he
did in honour of the gallantry which Don Jacobo had displayed, and not
without some feeling of respect for his ancestry. By the same flag of
truce he sent back all the Spanish prisoners at Porto Ferrajo, in
exchange for whom he received his own men who had been taken in the
prize.

Nelson now sailed from Porto Ferrajo with a convoy for Gibraltar, and
thence proceeded westward in search of the admiral. Off the mouth of the
Straits he fell in with the Spanish fleet, and on February 13th, 1797,
reaching the station off Cape St. Vincent, informed Sir John Jervis of
its proximity.

He was now directed to shift his broad pennant on board the Captain,
seventy-four, Captain R. W. Miller; and, before sunset, the signal was
made to prepare for action, and to keep, during the night, in close
order. At daybreak the enemy were in sight. The British force consisted
of two ships of one hundred guns, two of ninety-eight, two of ninety,
eight of seventy-four, and one sixty-four: fifteen of the line in all;
with four frigates, a sloop, and a cutter. The Spaniards had one
four-decker, of one hundred and thirty-six guns, six three-deckers of
one hundred and twelve, two eighty-fours, eighteen seventy-fours: in
all, twenty-seven ships of the line, with ten frigates and a brig.
Their admiral, Don Joseph de Cordova, had learnt from an American, on
the 5th, that the English had only nine ships, which was indeed the case
when his informer had seen them; for a reinforcement of five ships from
England, under Admiral Parker, had not then joined, and the Culloden
had parted company. Upon this information, the Spanish commander,
instead of going into Cadiz, as was his intention when he sailed from
Carthagena, determined to seek an enemy so inferior in force; and
relying, with fatal confidence, upon the American account, he suffered
his ships to remain too far dispersed, and in some disorder. When the
morning of the 14th broke and discovered the English fleet, a fog for
some time concealed their number. The look-out ship of the Spaniards,
fancying that her signal was disregarded, because so little notice
seemed to be taken of it, made another signal that the English force
consisted of forty sail of the line. The captain afterwards said he did
this to rouse the admiral; it had the effect of perplexing him, and
alarming the whole fleet. The absurdity of such an act shows what was
the state of the Spanish navy under that miserable government, by which
Spain was so long oppressed and degraded and finally betrayed. In
reality, the general incapacity of the naval officers was so well known,
that in a pasquinade, which about this time appeared at Madrid, wherein
the different orders of the state were advertised for sale, the greater
part of the sea-officers, with all their equipments, were offered as a
gift; and it was added that any person who would please to take them
should receive a handsome gratuity.

Before the enemy could form a regular order of battle, Sir John Jervis,
by carrying a press of sail, came up with them, passed through their
fleet, then tacked, and thus cut off nine of their ships from the main
body. These ships attempted to form on the larboard tack, either with a
design of passing through the British line, or to leeward of it, and
thus rejoining their friends. Only one of them succeeded in this
attempt, and that only because she was so covered with smoke that her
intention was not discovered till she had reached the rear: the others
were so warmly received that they put about, took to flight, and did not
appear again in the action till its close. The admiral was now able to
direct his attention to the enemy's main body, which was still superior
in number to his whole fleet, and more so in weight of metal. He made
signal to tack in succession. Nelson, whose station was in the rear of
the British line, perceived that the Spaniards were bearing up before
the wind, with an intention of forming their line, going large, and
joining their separated ships; or else, of getting off without an
engagement. To prevent either of these schemes, he disobeyed the signal
without a moment's hesitation, and ordered his ship to be wore. This at
once brought him into action with the Santissima Trinidad, one hundred
and thirty-six, the San Joseph, one hundred and twelve, the Salvador
del Mundo, one hundred and twelve, the San Nicolas, eighty, the San
Isidro, seventy-four, another seventy-four, and another first-rate.
Trowbridge, in the Culloden, immediately joined, and most nobly
supported him; and for nearly an hour did the Culloden and Captain
maintain what Nelson called "this apparently, but not really, unequal
contest;"--such was the advantage of skill and discipline and the
confidence which brave men derive from them. The Blenheim then passing
between them and the enemy, gave them a respite, and poured in her fire
upon the Spaniards. The Salvador del Mundo and San Isidro dropped
astern, and were fired into, in a masterly style, by the Excellent,
Captain Collingwood. The San Isidro struck; and Nelson thought that
the Salvador struck also. "But Collingwood," says he, "disdaining the
parade of taking possession of beaten enemies, most gallantly pushed up,
with every sail set, to save his old friend and messmate, who was, to
every appearance, in a critical situation;" for the Captain was at
this time actually fired upon by three first-rates, by the San
Nicolas, and by a seventy-four, within about pistol-shot of that
vessel. The Blenheim was ahead, the Culloden crippled and astern.
Collingwood ranged up, and hauling up his main sail just astern passed
within ten feet of the San Nicolas, giving her a most tremendous fire,
then passing on for the Santissima Trinidad. The San Nicolas luffing
up, the San Joseph fell on board her, and Nelson resumed his station
abreast of them, and close alongside. The Captain was now incapable of
farther service, either in the line or in chase: she had lost her
foretop-mast; not a sail, shroud, or rope was left, and her wheel was
shot away. Nelson, therefore, directed Captain Miller to put the helm
a-starboard, and, calling for the boarders, ordered them to board.

Captain Berry, who had lately been Nelson's first lieutenant, was the
first man who leaped into the enemy's mizen chains. Miller, when in the
very act of going, was ordered by Nelson to remain. Berry was supported
from the spritsail yard, which locked in the San Nicolas's main
rigging. A soldier of the 69th broke the upper quarter-gallery window,
and jumped in, followed by the commodore himself, and by others as fast
as possible. The cabin doors were fastened, and the Spanish officers
fired their pistols at them through the window; the doors were soon
forced, and the Spanish brigadier fell while retreating to the
quarter-deck. Nelson pushed on, and found Berry in possession of the
poop, and the Spanish ensign hauling down. He passed on to the
forecastle, where he met two or three Spanish officers, and received
their swords. The English were now in full possession of every part of
the ship; and a fire of pistols and musketry opened upon them from the
admiral's stern gallery of the San Joseph. Nelson having placed
sentinels at the different ladders, and ordered Captain Miller to send
more men into the prize, gave orders for boarding that ship from the
San Nicolas. It was done in an instant, he himself leading the way,
and exclaiming--"Westminster Abbey, or victory!" Berry assisted him into
the main chains; and at that very moment a Spanish officer looked over
the quarter-deck rail and said they surrendered. It was not long before
he was on the quarter-deck, where the Spanish captain presented to him
his sword, and told him the admiral was below, dying of his wounds.
There, on the quarter-deck of an enemy's first-rate, he received the
swords of the officers, giving them, as they were delivered, one by one,
to William Fearney, one of his old "Agamemnons," who, with the utmost
coolness, put them under his arm. One of his sailors came up, and, with
an Englishman's feeling, took him by the hand, saying he might not soon
have such another place to do it in, and he was heartily glad to see him
there. Twenty-four of the Captain's men were killed, and fifty-six
wounded; a fourth part of the loss sustained by the whole squadron
falling upon this ship. Nelson received only a few bruises.

The Spaniards had still eighteen or nineteen ships, which had suffered
little or no injury; that part of the fleet which had been separated
from the main body in the morning was now coming up, and Sir John Jervis
made signal to bring-to. His ships could not have formed without
abandoning those which they had captured, and running to leeward: the
Captain was lying a perfect wreck on board her two prizes; and many of
the other vessels were so shattered in their masts and rigging as to be
wholly unmanageable. The Spanish admiral meantime, according to his
official account, being altogether undecided in his own opinion
respecting the state of the fleet, inquired of his captains whether it
was proper to renew the action: nine of them answered explicitly that it
was not; others replied that it was expedient to delay the business. The
Pelayo and the Principe Conquistador were the only ships that were
for fighting.

As soon as the action was discontinued Nelson went on board the
admiral's ship. Sir John Jervis received him on the quarter-deck, took
him in his arms, and said he could not sufficiently thank him. For this
victory the commander-in-chief was rewarded with the title of Earl St.
Vincent. In the official letter of Sir John Jervis Nelson was not
mentioned. It is said that the admiral had seen an instance of the ill
consequence of such selections, after Lord Howe's victory, and therefore
would not name any individual, thinking it proper to speak to the public
only in terms of general approbation. His private letter to the first
lord of the Admiralty was, with his consent, published for the first
time in a "Life of Nelson," by Mr. Harrison. Here it is said that
"Commodore Nelson, who was in the rear on the starboard tack, took the
lead on the larboard, and contributed very much to the fortune of
the day." It is also said that he boarded the two Spanish ships
successively; but the fact that Nelson wore without orders, and thus
planned as well as accomplished the victory, is not explicitly stated.
Perhaps it was thought proper to pass over this part of his conduct in
silence, as a splendid fault: but such an example is not dangerous.
The author of the work in which this letter was first made public,
protests against those over-zealous friends "who would make the
action rather appear as Nelson's battle than that of the illustrious
commander-in-chief, who derives from it so deservedly his title. No
man," he says, "ever less needed, or less desired, to strip a single
leaf from the honoured wreath of any other hero, with the vain hope of
augmenting his own, than the immortal Nelson; no man ever more merited
the whole of that which a generous nation unanimously presented to Sir
J. Jervis, than the Earl St. Vincent." Certainly Earl St. Vincent well
deserved the reward which he received: but it is not detracting from his
merit to say that Nelson is as fully entitled to as much fame from this
action as the commander-in-chief; not because the brunt of the action
fell upon him; not because he was engaged with all the four ships which
were taken, and took two of them, it may almost be said, with his own
hand; but because the decisive movement which enabled him to perform all
this, and by which the action became a victory, was executed in neglect
of orders, and upon his own judgment, and at his peril. Earl St. Vincent
deserved his earldom; but it is not to the honour of those by whom
titles were distributed in those days that Nelson never obtained the
rank of earl for either of those victories which he lived to enjoy,
though the one was the most complete and glorious in the annals of naval
history, and the other the most important in its consequences of any
which was achieved during the whole war.

Before the news of the action reached England, Nelson was advanced to
the rank of rear-admiral, and now his gallantry was rewarded by the
Order of the Bath. The sword of the Spanish rear-admiral, presented to
Nelson when he boarded his ship, and which Sir John Jervis insisted on
his keeping, he presented to the mayor and corporation of Norwich,
saying that he knew no place where it could give him or his family more
pleasure to have it kept than in the capital city of the county where he
was born. The freedom of that city was voted to him on that occasion.

But of all the numerous congratulations which he received, none could
have affected him more deeply than that which came to him from his
venerable father. "I thank my God," said that excellent man, "with all
the power of a grateful soul, for the mercies He has most graciously
bestowed on me in preserving you. Not only my few acquaintances here,
but the people in general, met me at every corner with such handsome
words that I was obliged to retire from the public eye. The height of
glory to which your professional judgment, united with a proper degree
of bravery, guarded by Providence, has raised you, few sons, my dear
child, attain to, and fewer fathers live to see. Tears of joy have
involuntarily trickled down my furrowed cheeks. Who could stand the
force of such general congratulations? The name and services of Nelson
have sounded throughout this city of Bath from the common ballad singer
to the public theatre." The good old man concluded by telling him that
the field of glory in which he had so long been conspicuous was still
open, and by giving him his blessing.





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