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Accounts of the Battle



'A Narrative of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent; with Anecdotes of Nelson, Before and After that Battle' - by Colonel Drinkwater Bethune

Colonel John Drinkwater BethuneBefore sun-set in the evening of the 13th, the signal had been made for the British squadron to prepare for battle, and the ships were also directed to keep in close order during the night.

At daybreak on the 14th (St. Valentine's day) the British fleet was in complete order, formed in two divisions, standing on a wind to the SSW.  The morning was hazy.  About half-past six o'clock AM, the Culloden made the signal for five sail in the SW by S quarter, which was soon after confirmed by the Lively and Niger frigates, and that the strange sail were by the wind on the starboard tack.  The Bonne Citoyenne sloop of war, Captain Lindsay, was therefore directed to reconnoitre.  At a quarter past eight o'clock, the squadron was ordered, by signal, to form in a close order; and in a few minutes afterwards the signal was repeated to prepare for battle. 

About half past nine o'clock, the Culloden, Blenheim, and Prince George, were ordered to chase in the S. by W. quarter; which, upon the Bonne Citoyenne's making a signal that she saw eight sail in that quarter, was afterwards strengthened by the Irresistible, Colossus, and Orion.

A little past ten o'clock, the Minerve frigate made the signal for twenty sail in the S. W. quarter, and a few minutes after, of eight sail in the S. by W.  Half an hour afterwards the Bonne Citoyenne made the signal that she could distinguish sixteen, and immediately afterwards twenty-five of the strange ships, to be of the line.  The enemy's fleet were indeed become now visible to the whole British squadron.  The ships first discovered by the Culloden, were separated from their main body, which being to windward, were bearing down in some confusion, with a few of joining their separated ships.  It appeared to have been the British Admiral's intention, upon discovering the separated ships of the enemy's fleet, to have cut them off, if possible, before their main body could arrive to their assistance; and, with this view, the fast sailing ships of his squadron were ordered to chace.

Assured now of the near position of their main body, he probably judged it most advisable to form his fleet into the line of battle, and the signal was made for their forming the the line of battle a-head and a-stern as most convenient.  A signal was made directing the squadron to steer S. S. W.

About twenty minutes past eleven o'clock, the Admiral pointed out that the Victory (his flag-ship) would take her station next to the Colossus.  Some variation in steering was afterwards directed, in order to let the rear ships close up.  At twenty-six minutes past eleven o'clock, the Admiral communicated his intention to pass through the enemy's line, hoisting his large flag and ensign, and soon after the signal was made to engage. 

The British van by this time had approached the enemy; and the distinction of leading the British line into action, fell to the lot of the Culloden, commanded by Captain Troubridge.  About half-past eleven o'clock, the firing commenced from the Culloden against the enemy's headmost ships to windward.

As the British squadron advanced, the action became more general; and it was soon apparent that the British Admiral had accomplished his design of passing through the enemy's line. 

The animated and regular fire of the British squadron was but feebly returned by the enemy's ships to windward, which, being frustrated in their attempts to join the separated ships, had been obliged to haul their wind on the larboard tack: those to leeward, and which were most effectually cut off from their main body, attempted also to form on their larboard tack, apparently with a determination of either passing through, or to leeward of our line, and joining their friends; but the warm reception they met with from the centre ships of our squadron, soon obliged them to put about; and excepting one, the whole sought safety in flight, and did not appear again in the action until the close of the day.

The single ship just mentioned persevered in passing to leeward of the British line, but was so covered with smoke, that her intention was not discovered until she had reached the rear, when she was not permitted to pass without notice, but received the fire of our sternmost ships; and as she luffed round the rear, the Lively and other frigates had also the honour of exchanging with this two-decker sevveral broadsides.

Sir John Jervis, having effected his first purpose, now directed his whole attention to the enemy's main body to windward, consisting at this time of eighteen sail of the line  At eight minutes past twelve, the signal therefore was made to the British fleet to tack in succession, and soon after he made the signal for again passing the enemy's line.

The Spanish Admiral's plan seemed to be to join his ships to leeward, by wearing round the rear of our line; and the ships which had passed and exchanged shots with our squadron, had actually borne up with this view.

This design, however, was frustrated by the timely opposition of Commodore Nelson, whose place in the rear of the British line afforded him an opportunity of observing this manoeuvre, and of penetrating the Spanish Admiral's intention.  His ship, the Captain, had no sooner passed the rear of the enemy's ships that were to windward, than he ordered her to wear, and stood on the other tack towards the enemy.

In executing this bold and decisive manoeuvre, the Commodore reached the sixth ship from the enemy's rear, which the Spanish Admiral's own ship, the Santissima Trinidad, of 136 guns, a ship of four decks, and said to be the largest in the world.  Notwithstanding the inequality of force, the Commodore instantly engaged this colossal opponent, and for a considerable time had to contend not only with her, but with her seconds a-head and a-stern, of three decks each.  While he maintained this unequal combat, which we viewed with admiration mixed with anxiety, his friends were flying to his support; and the enemy's attention was soon directed to the Culloden, Captain Troubridge, and in a short time after to the Blenheim, of 90 guns, Captain Frederick, who opportunely came to their assistance.

The intrepid conduct of the Commodore staggered the Spanish Admiral, who already appeared to waver in pursuing his intention of joining the ships cut off by the British fleet, when the Culloden's arrival, and Captain Troubridge's spirited support of the Captain, together with the approach of the Blenheim, followed by Rear-Admiral Parker, with the Prince George, Orion, Irresistible, and Diadem, not far distant, determined the Spanish Admiral to change his design altogether, and to make the signal for the ships of his main body to haul their wind, and make sail on the larboard tack. 

Advantage was now apparent in favour of the British squadron, and not a moment was lost in improving it.  As the ship's of Rear-Admiral Parker's division approached the enemy's ships, in support of the Captain and her gallant seconds, the Blenheim and Culloden, the cannonade became more animated and impressive.  The superiority of the British fire over that of the enemy, and its effects on the enemy's hulls and sails, were so evident, that we in the frigate no longer hesitated to pronounce a glorious termination of the contest. 

The British squadron at this time was formed in two divisions, both on the larboard tack; their situation was as follows: Rear-Admiral Parker, with the Blenheim, Culloden, Prince George, the Rear-Admiral's ship, Captain, Orion, Irresistible, composed one division, which was engaged with the enemy's rear.  Sir John Jervis, with the other division, consisting of the Excellent, Victory, Barfleur, Namur, Egmont, Goliath, and Britannia, was pressing forward in support of his advanced squadron, but had not yet approached the real scene of action. 

The Colossus having, in the early part of the day, unfortunately lost her fore-yard and fore-top-sail-yard, was obliged, in consequence of these losses, to fall to leeward, and the Minerve's signal was made to take her in tow, which was, however, handsomely declined by Captain Murray, when the Minerve had come within hail in execution of her orders.

While the British advanced division warmly pressed the enemy's centre and rear, the Admiral meditated, with his division, a co-operation, which must effectually compel some of them to surrender. 

In the confusion of their retreat, several of the enemy's ships had doubled on each other, and in the rear they were three or four deep.  It was therefore the British Admiral's design to reach the weathermost of these ships, then bear up, and rake them all in succession with the seven ships composing his division.  His object afterwards was to pass on to the support of his van division, which, from the length of time they had been engaged, he judged might be in want of it.  The casual position, however, of the rear ships of his van division, prevented his executing this plan; the Admiral, therefore, ordered the Excellent, the leading ship of his own division, to bear up; and, with the Victory, he himself passed to leeward of the enemy's rearmost and leewardmost ships, which, though almost silenced in their fire, continued obstinately to resist the animated attacks of all their opponents.

Captain Collingwood, in the Excellent, in obedience to the Admiral's orders, passed between the two rearmost ships of the enemy's line, giving to the one most to windward, a seventy-four, so effectual a broadside, that, with what she had received before, her captain was induced to submit.  The Excellent afterwards bore down on the ship to leeward, a three-decker; but observing the Orion engaged with her, and the Victory approaching her, he threw into her only a few discharges of musketry, and passed on to the support of the Captain, at that time warmly engaged with a Spanish three-decker carrying a flag.  His interference here was opportune, as the continual and long fire of the Captain had almost expended the ammunition she had at hand, and the loss of her fore-top-mast, and other injuries she had received in her rigging, had rendered her nearly ungovernable.

The Spanish three-decker had lost her mizen-mast; and before the Excellent arrived in her proper station to open on this ship, the three-decker dropped astern aboard of, and became entangled with, a Spanish two-decker that was her second: thus doubled on each other, the Excellent gave the two ships her fire, and then moved forwards to assist the headmost ships in their attack on the Spanish Admiral, and the other ships of the enemy's centre.

Meanwhile, Sir John Jervis, disappointed in his plan of raking the enemy's rear ships, and having directed, as before observed, the Excellent to bear up, ordered the Victory to be placed on the lee-quarter of the rearmost ship of the enemy, a three-decker, and having, by signal, ordered the Irresistible and Diadem to suspend their firing, threw into the three-decker so powerful a discharge, that her commander, seeing the Barfleur, carrying Vice-Admiral the Hon. W. Waldegrave's flag, ready to second the Victory, thought proper to strike to the British chief.  Two of the enemy's ships had now surrendered, and the Lively frigate and Diadem had orders to secure the prizes.  The next that fell were the two with which Commodore Nelson was engaged. 

While Captain Collingwood so nobly stepped in to his assistance, as has been mentioned before, Captain R. W. Miller, the Commodore's Captain, was enabled to replenish his lockers with shot, and prepare for a renewal of the fight: no sooner, therefore, had the Excellent passed on, than the gallant Commodore renewed the battle.

The three-decker with which he was before engaged having fallen aboard her second, that ship, of 84 guns, became now the Captain's opponent.  To her Commodore Nelson directed a vigorous fire; nor was it feebly returned, as the loss of the Captain evinced, near twenty men being killed or wounded in a very few minutes.  It was now that the various damages already sustained by that ship through the long and arduous conflict which she had maintained, appearing to render a continuance of the contest in the usual way precarious, or perhaps impossible; and the Commodore not bearing to part with an enemy of whom he had assured himself, he instantly resolved on a bold and decisive measure, and determined, whatever might be the event, to attempt his opponent sword in hand.  The boarders were summoned, and orders given to lay the Captain on board the enemy. 

Fortune favours the brave; nor on this occasion was she unmindful of her favourite.  Captain Miller so judiciously directed the course of the Captain, that she was laid aboard the starboard quarter of the eighty-four gun ship, her spritsail yard passing over the enemy's poop, and hooking her mizen shrouds; and the word to board being given, the officers and seamen destined for this duty, headed by Lieutenant Berry, together with the detachment of the 69th regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Pearson, then doing duty as marines on board the Captain, passed with rapidity on board the enemy's ship; and in a short time the San Nicolas was in the possession of her intrepid assailants.  The Commodore's impatience would not permit him to remain an inactive spectator of this event.  He knew the attempt was hazardous; and his presence, he thought, might contribute to its success.  He therefore accompanied the party in this attack, passing from the fore chains of his own ship into the enemy's quarter galley, and thence through the cabin to the quarter-deck, where he arrived in time to receive the sword of the dying commander, who was mortally wounded by the boarders.  For a few minutes after the officers had submitted, the crew below were firing their lower-deck guns: this irregularity, however, was soon corrected, and measures taken for the security of the conquest.  But this labour was no sooner achieved, than he found himself engaged in another and more arduous one.  The stern of the three-decker, his former opponent, was directly amidships on the weather-beam of the San Nicolas; and, from her poop and galleries, the enemy sorely annoyed, with musketry, the British on board the San Nicolas.  The Commodore was not long in resolving on the conduct to be observed upon this momentous occasion.  The alternative that presented itself, was to quit the prize, or advance.  Confident in the bravery of his seamen, he determined on the latter.  Directing therefore an additional number of men to be sent from the Captain, on board the San Nicolas, the undaunted Commodore headed himself the assailants in this new attack, and success crowned the enterprise.  Such, indeed, was the panic occasioned by his preceding conduct, that the British no sooner appeared on the quarter-deck of their new opponent, than the Commandant advanced, and asking for the British commanding officer, dropped on one knee, and presented to him his sword; making, at the same time, an excuse for the Spanish Admiral's not appearing, as he was dangerously wounded.  For a moment Commodore Nelson could scarcely persuade himself of this second instance of good fortune; he therefore ordered the Spanish Commandant, who had the rank of a Brigadier, to assemble the officers on the quarter-deck, and direct steps to be taken instantly for communicating to the crew the surrender of the ship.  All the officers immediately appeared, and the Commodore found the surrender of the San Josef ascertained, by each of them delivering to him their sword.

The coxswain of Nelson's barge had attended him throughout this perilous adventure.  To his charge the Commodore gave the swords of the Spanish officers as he received them; and the jolly tar, as they were delivered to him, tucked these honourable trophies under his arm, with all the sang-froid imaginable.

It was at this moment also that an honest Jack Tar, an old acquaintance of Nelson's, came up to him in the fulness of his heart, and excusing the liberty he was taking, asked to shake him by the hand, to congratulate him upon seeing him safe on the quarter-deck of a Spanish three-decker.

This new conquest had scarcely submitted, and the Commodore returned on board the San Nicolas, when the latter ship was discovered to be on fire in two places.  At the first moment appearances were alarming; but presence of mind and resources were not wanting to the British officers in this emergency.  The firemen were immediately ordered from the Captain; and proper means being taken, the fires were soon got under.

A signal was now made by the Captain, for boats to assist in separating her from her prizes; and as the Captain was incapable of further service until refitted, the Commodore hoisted his pendant, for the moment, on board the Minerve frigate, and in the evening removed it to the Irresistible, Captain Martin.

Four of the enemy's ships were now in possession of the British squadron (two of three decks, the Salvador del Mundo, and the San Josef, of 112 guns each; one of 84, the San Nicolas; and the San Ysidro, of 74 guns;) and the van of the British line still continued to press hard the Santissima Trinidad, and others in the rear of the enemy's flying fleet.  The approach, however, of the enemy's ships which had been separated from their main body in the morning, two new ships also bearing down from to windward, and two of the enemy's flying ships wearing to support their chief, at that time severely pressed, add to which, the closing of the day - these circumstances, but more particularly the lateness of the hour, while the prizes were not yet properly secured, determined the British Admiral to bring to.  The headmost of the enemy's approaching ships (in all nine in number, two of which were of three decks) had indeed advanced to fire on the Britannia, in which Vice-Admiral Thompson carried his flag, and the sternmost ships of the rear-division, which were fortunately, at this period, in a situation to keep the enemy in check.  The Victory likewise, with the Barfleur and Namur, had formed to cover the prizes.  The British Admiral, therefore, a little before four o'clock pm, made the preparative, and soon after the signal for the British fleet to bring to.  The enemy's fresh ships, on approaching, opened a fire on our covering ships; but, though both fresh, and so superior in numbers, they contented themselves with the noise of a few irregular broadsides, leaving their captured friends, and seeming too happy to be allowed to escape with their discomfited chief, and his disabled companions, to think of molesting our squadron in bringing to on the starboard tack. 

The frigates having orders to take in charge the prizes not already taken possession of, the four were soon secured as well as circumstances permitted; and the Captain having suffered very considerably in her masts and rigging, the Minerve was ordered to take her in tow. 

At the close of the evening, the British fleet was again formed in most admirable line of battle, on a wind with their heads to the southward, and the Niger frigate ordered to look out during the night.

The close of the day, before the four prizes were secured, undoubtedly saved the Spanish Admiral's flag from falling into the hands of the victors.  The Santissima Trinidad, in which he carried it, had been so much the object of attention, that the ship was a perfect wreck when the action ceased.  Many indeed aver, that she actually struck both her flag and ensign, hoisting a flag as a signal of submission; but as she continued her course, and afterwards hoisted a Spanish jack, others doubt this circumstance.  It is however a truth that her fire had been silent for some time before this event is reported to have occurred.

The loss of the enemy in this engagement must have been very considerable.  The fire of the British squadron was, throughout the action, superior in the proportion of five or six to one; and if we were to judge from the number of killed and wounded found on board the prizes, their casualties must greatly exceed the numbers that have been usually computed.  Almost all their wounded that had lost limbs died for want of assistance; and many others, who were wounded in other parts, were found dead in the holds. 

The loss of the British squadron, in killed and wounded, amounted to exactly three hundred: moderate indeed, when compared with that of the enemy, and considering the duration of the action!  But the expenditure of ammunition was, I am told, beyond any recent example.  The Culloden expended, it is said, one hundred and seventy barrels of powder; the Captain, one hundred and forty six; and the Blenheim, one hundred and eighty; other ships expended in the same proportion.  It is not unworthy of remark also, that not a single gun in the British squadron burst in this action.

The Captain fired more shot than are usually given to a ship of her rate, at her first equipment in England; and it was observed, that when shot or grape were wanting on board this ship for the carronades, the tars substituted in their place nine-pounds shot, seven of which were frequently discharged at one time, and then at so short a distance, that every shot of the seven must have had effect.


On the morning of the 15th, Sir Gilbert Elliot proceeded to offer to the British Admiral his congratulations on the success of the previous day.  Lord Garlies of course accompanied him.  I was to have been of this party, and was actually descending the side ladder, when, being in uniform, it was discovered that I was without side-arms, for which I returned; but, when I got back to the gangway, the place destined for me was occupied by another person.  My friends kindly offered to make room for me, but as this could not be done without occasioning great inconvenience to the whole party, I reluctantly gave up the intention of accompanying them.

My disappointment, however, was amply made up by what took place immediately after the Lively's barge had left the frigate.  A boat was seen approaching the Lively on the opposite side, and I heard with surprise, and no little pleasure, that Nelson was on board of her.  Seeing me on the quarter-deck, the Commodore immediately approached me, offering his hand, which I seized with a most cordial grasp, expressing, at the same time, my high admiration of the gallant conduct of the Captain on the preceding day, and my warmest congratulations on the success of the battle.

"Where is Sir Gilbert?" was his first inquiry.

"Gone with Lord Garlies to the Victory," was my reply.

"I hoped," he rejoined, "to have caught him before he saw the Admiral, but come below with me," and he led the way to the cabin.

Seated alone with the Commodore, I renewed in the most expressive terms, my congratulations on his safety from the perils of such a fight, and on the very distinguished part he had personally taken in the action, of which many particulars had by this time reached the Lively.  He received my compliments with great modesty, though evidently with great satisfaction.  I then remarked that, as the Lively would bear the glorious news to England, I should feel much obliged by his giving me as many particulars of the proceedings of his ship, the Captain, and of his own conduct in the capture of the two ships, as he was disposed to communicate.  Our intimacy was such that I felt no difficulty in drawing from him these details, and this circumstance will be an apology for my making these remarks with such great freedom.  I observed to him that the position of the Captain appeared to all of us in the Lively to be for a long time most extraordinary and unaccountable.  We had expected every instant to see the ship annihilated by the overpowering force to which she was singly opposed.  In the animation of the conversation, I went so far as to ask,

"How came you, Commodore, to get into that singular and perilous situation?"

He good-naturedly replied, "I'll tell you how it happened.  The Admiral's intention, I saw, was to cut off the detached squadron of eight sail, and afterwards attack the main body, weakened by this separation.  Observing, however, as our squadron advanced and became engaged with the enemy's ships, that the main body of the enemy were pushing to join their friends to leeward, by passing in the rear of our squadron, I thought, unless by some prompt and extraordinary measure, the main body could be diverted from this course, until Sir John (at that time in action in the Victory) could see their plan, his well arranged designs on the enemy would be frustrated.  I therefore ordered the Captain to wear, and passing the rear of our squadron, directed Captain Miller to steer for the centre of the enemy's fleet, where was their Admiral-in-Chief, seconded by two three-deckers, hoping by this proceeding to confound them and, if possible, make them change their course (as he did), and thus afford Sir John Jervis time to see their movements and take measures to follow up his original intention."

I do not say that Nelson expressed himself in exactly the above words, but his statement was to the same effect.

In compliance with my request, he then gave me the details of his boarding the St Nicolas, and afterwards the St Josef, which are given in the original Narrative, adding the following particulars:

"I saw (and then he spoke with increased animation) that from the disabled state of the Captain, and the effective attack of the approaching British ships, I was likely to have my beaten opponent taken from me; I therefore decided to board the St Nicolas, which I had chiefly fought, and considered to be my prize.  Orders were given to lay the Captain aboard of her: the spritsail-yard passed into her mizen rigging.  Lieutenant Berry with the ship's boarders, and Captain Pearson with the 69th regiment, (acting as marines on board the Captain) soon got possession of the enemy's ship.  Assisted by one of the sailors, I got from the fore-chains into the quarter-gallery through the window, and thence through the cabin onto the quarter-deck, where I found my gallant friends already triumphant."

He then gave me details of the extraordinary circumstances attending his afterwards getting possession of the St Josef.  Of course, my high admiration of his conduct was often expressed as he proceeded in giving me these very interesting particulars, of which I made pencil notes on a scrap of paper I found at hand; and these communications from my gallant friend were the more valuable from their being made before he had seen any other officer of the fleet, except Captain G. Martin, of the Irresistible, to which ship he had repaired for refreshment and repose, until the Captain, his own ship, almost a wreck in her rigging, &c., could be put into manageable order. 

Towards the conclusion of this interesting interview, I repeated my cordial felicitations at his personal safety, after such very perilous achievements.  I then adverted to the honours that must attend such distinguished services.

"The Admiral," I observed, "of course will be made a peer, and his seconds in command noticed accordingly.  As for you, Commodore," I continued, "they will make you a baronet."

The word was scarcely uttered, when placing his hand on my arm, and looking at me most expressively in the face, he said,

"No, no: if they want to mark my services, it must not be in that manner."

"Oh!" said I, interrupting him, "you wish to be made a Knight of the Bath," for I could not imagine that his ambition, at that time, led him to expect a peerage.  My supposition proved to be correct, for he instantly answered me,

"Yes; if my services have been of any value, let them be noticed in a way that the public may know me - or them."  I cannot distinctly remember which of these terms was used, but, from his manner, I could have no doubt of his meaning, that he wished to bear about his person some honorary distinction, to attract the public eye and mark his professional services. 

This casual discovery of Nelson's peculiar feelings on this subject was not forgotten, or without consequences.  As was expected, his Majesty, in reward for Nelson's distinguished conduct, had intended to create him a baronet.  Sir Gilbert Elliot, who took a warm interest in Nelson's welfare, called on me in London to impart this news; when I made known to him the purport of my conversation on board the Lively, and suggested that it was advisable to make this circumstance known to the government.  Sir Gilbert saw the matter in the same light.  He lost no time in communicating what had passed on this subject to some member of the cabinet, Lord Spencer, I believe, who was then at the head of the Admiralty Board, and his Lordship took steps to meet Nelson's wishes, in the manner most likely to gratify his feelings, by obtaining for him, instead of a baronetcy, the Order of the Bath, although, for that purpose, it was necessary to make him an extra knight.

What I had noticed in the above interview with Nelson, agreed perfectly with the opinion I formed from all I observed during our subsequent acquaintance.  The attainment of public honours, and an ambition to be distinguished above his fellows, were his master passions.  His conduct was constantly actuated by these predominant feelings.  It will account for the personal gratification he invariably evinced at receiving the many decorative honours presented to him by almost every power in Europe in amity with Great Britain; but, in reference to such distinctions, it may be observed that if such pre-eminent talents as those of this most extraordinary man could be so cheaply purchased, the English nation, and indeed Europe, situated as she then was, had only to approve and applaud his moderation.

When Nelson quitted the Lively, he went on board the Victory to receive from his gallant Chief, Sir John Jervis, and from his friend, Sir Gilbert Elliot, those congratulations and commendations which he so highly merited.


Next: Admiral Jervis' Dispatches


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