Nelson, Horatio

Nelson, Horatio
   A British admiral victorious in the greatest naval actions of the Napoleonic Wars and among the most celebrated military leaders of the period. Small in stature and less than physically robust as a boy, Nelson was nonetheless from an early age selfconfident to the point of conceit. He demonstrated a recurrent capacity to make and take chances. At the age of 12, he asked to be taken to sea by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, on a Royal Naval expedition to the Falkland Islands during a crisis with Spain. In 1777, Nelson was commissioned a lieutenant and two years later promoted to captain. He served in the American Revolution, but after 1787 had no command until 1793, when Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. Under the command and tutelage of Admiral John Jervis, commander of the Royal Navy Mediterranean fleet, Nelson established a reputation for exceptional daring and imaginative tactics. These won him a promotion to rear admiral and a knighthood after his performance in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797. By that year he had also lost an eye and an arm in action. The next year Nelson was ordered to blockade the French fleet in the Mediterranean but failed to interdict the crossing of Napoleon Bonaparte ’s army to Egypt. This he quickly redeemed by pouncing on the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay at the mouth of the Nile River, sinking or capturing 11 battleships and two frigates and stranding Napoleon’s army in Egypt. Nelson’s spectacular victory heartened potential British allies on the continent and was a factor in the formation of the Second Coalition against France. Nelson’s warrior renown back in England now shielded his professional and personal life against charges of insubordination in action and ruinous scandal for his affair with Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British ambassador in Naples.
   In 1800, Nelson was transferred to the Baltic and placed under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. In the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson pressed the attack against the Danish fleet in direct violation of Parker’s orders to disengage in the thick of the action. Emerging again with a lopsided victory, for his dashing disobedience he was made a viscount and commander of the Baltic fleet. After the brief peace of the Treaty of Amiens, Nelson was recalled to the Mediterranean and ordered to prevent the combined French and Spanish fleets from escorting an invasion force against England. In the effort he shadowed the French fleet under Admiral Pierre Villeneuve across the Atlantic to the West Indies and back before it was finally able to rendezvous with the Spanish fleet at Cadiz. Under pressure from Napoleon the combined fleets finally sailed and were brought to battle by Nelson off Cape Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. In all, 17 French and Spanish ships were sunk or captured, and the threat of a French invasion of England lifted. Trafalgar thus had strategic consequences for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, as a secure England could now support and subsidize allies on the continent. The cost of the triumph, however, was the death of Nelson himself. Felled by a sniper, he did not live to see the end of the battle. His body was returned to London in a brandy cask and interred at St. Paul’s cathedral. Beyond his enormous contribution to Britain’s struggle against Napoleon, Nelson’s tactical brilliance and will-to-combat set a standard for generations of Royal Navy captains and bequeathed a mythic status both to that navy and the British Empire for almost a century.
   See also <>.
    Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004;
    Southey, Robert. Life of Nelson. London: HarperCollins, 2004;
    Sugden, John. Nelson, A Dream of Glory. London: Pimlico, 2005;
    Vincent, Edgar. Nelson: Love and Fame. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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