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Friday, October 21, 2016

NAVAL HISTORY | Oct. 21–Nelson Defeats Napoleon's Navy

The Death of Admiral Lord Nelson, 1805
This day in 1805 – 211 years ago – In one of the most decisive naval battles in history, the British fleet under 1st Viscount Horatio  Nelson defeats a combined French-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain.

But Admiral Lord Nelson is killed by the bullet of an unknown French sniper.

Nelson consistently out-maneuvered Napoleon Bonaparte's navy on the water. A French friend told me that one reason for Napoleon's difficulties with his navy was that the pre-Revolutionary French navy required all officers to be quatre quarts noblesse – nobility among all four grandparents. When the Revolution killed or scared off the aristocrats, the French Navy lost its officers.

Nelson’s last and greatest victory against the French was this Battle of Trafalgar. It began after Nelson caught sight of a Franco-Spanish force of 33 ships. Nelson divided his smaller fleet of 27 ships into two lines. Nelson signaled the attack with a famous message from the flagship HMS Victory: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Deviating from established practice, in which ships pass in front of one another in two rows, shooting away as in a jousting match, Nelson attacked the French-Spanish line broadside, picking off the front ships one by one in a manner reminiscent of Thermopylae (when a small force of Spartans held off for a long time a hugeinvading Persian army by bottling them up a narrow pass).

In five hours of fighting, the British devastated the enemy fleet, destroying 19 enemy ships. No British ships were lost, but 1,500 British seamen were killed or wounded in the heavy fighting. The battle raged at its fiercest around the Victory, and a French sniper shot Nelson in the shoulder and chest. The admiral was taken below and died about 30 minutes before the end of the battle.

Nelson’s last words, after being informed that victory was imminent, were: “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.”

Victory at Trafalgar meant that Napoleon never invaded Britain. Nelson was hailed as a savior and was given a magnificent funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. A column was erected to his memory in the newly named Trafalgar Square. I have visited the HMS Victory, which is open to the public in the port of Portsmouth, opposite the Isle of Wight.

HMS Pickle.
A dinner is held every November in New York City to celebrate the victory at Trafalgar. It is called the "Pickle" dinner, after the HMS Pickle, which brought the news of Nelson's victory (and death) to England. The Pickle was smaller and faster than most of the other battleships. It was of U.S. origin and I am told was fast in part because it reduced dependence on square rigging and used more triangular sails. That meant it could sail more directly into the wind and could tack more efficiently.

HMS Pickle was a topsail schooner of the Royal Navy built in 1799 in Bermuda, originally a civilian vessel that Vice Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour purchased – exceeding his authority – to use on the Jamaica station, of a type that would be properly called a Bermuda Sloop, except that a sloop strictly speaking has only one mast and HMS Pickle had two. A schooner (from the Dutch Schooner) is a type of sailing vessel with fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts, the foremast being shorter than the main. Originally gaff-rigged, modern schooners typically carry a Bermuda rig. Such vessels were first used by the Dutch in the 16th or 17th century and were developed in North America, especially in New England, from the early 18th century. Pickle was at the Battle of Trafalgar, but was too small to take part in the fighting, Pickle was the first ship to bring the news of Nelson's victory to Great Britain.  Lord Seymour, the commander on the Jamaica Station, formally purchased the ship in December 1800 for £2,500, after having leased her for some time at £10 per day.