The Evacuation Of Corsica And The Battle Of Cape St Vincent


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-c

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


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


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.