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The love affair that developed between Nelson and Emma Hamilton came
at a time of crisis. With Nelson's encouragement, King Ferdinand had
indulged his own fantasies of glory and, openly joining the alliance of
Great Britain, Russia and Austria against the French, led his own insignificant army to recapture Rome. Not only was this a disastrous failure but the French counteroffensive drove him back to Naples, which itself then fell. Nelson had to evacuate the Neapolitan royal family to
Sicily, and at Palermo it became obvious to all that his infatuation with
Emma Hamilton was complete. She had proved herself indispensable company to him.
Blockade of Naples and battle of Copenhagen.
In the summer of 1799, Nelson's squadron supported Ferdinand's
successful attempt to recapture Naples, but word of his dalliance with Emma
had reached the Admiralty, and his superiors began to lose patience.
Bonaparte had escaped from Egypt to France, and the French still held Malta when Lord Keith, who had replaced ST. Vincent as commander in chief, decided that the enemy's next objective would be Minorca. Nelson was ordered to that island with all available ships but refused on the grounds that he expected the threat to be toward Naples. Events justified him, but to disobey orders so blatantly was unforgivable. The Admiralty, also angered by his acceptance of the dukedom of Bronte in Sicily from King
Ferdinand, sent him an icy return home.
In 1800 he returned, but across the continent in company with the
Hamilton. When the curious little party in England, it was at once clear that he was the nation's hero, and his progress to London was triumphal.
Emma was pregnant by Nelson when he was appointed second in commanded to the elderly admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who was to command an expedition to the Baltic, Shortly before sailing, Nelson heard that Emma had borne him a daughter named Horatia.
Parker's fleet sailed the first objective, Copenhagen, early in 1801.
At first Nelson's advice was not sought; then, as Danish resistance became increasingly likely, he could record, "Now we are sure of Fighting, I am sent for." By the stratagem of talking the fleet's ships of shallower draught through a difficult channel, Nelson bypassed the shore batteries covering the city's northern approaches. The next morning, April 2, he led his squadron into action. There was to be no room for tactical brilliance; only superior gunnery would tell. The Danes resisted bravely, and Parker, fearing that Nelson was suffering unacceptable losses, hoisted the signal to disengage. Nelson disregarded it, and, an hour later, victory was his; the Danish ships lay shattered and silent, their losses amounting to some
6,000 dead and wounded, six times than those of the British.
Before this success could be followed by similar attacks on the other
potential enemies, Tsar Paul of Russia died and the threat faded. Parker
was succeeded by Nelson, who at last became a commander in chief. The
Admiralty, well aware of his popular appeal now made maximum use of it by giving him a home command. At once he planned an ambitious attack on the naval base of Boulogne in order to foil a possible French invasion. He did not take part himself, and the operation was a glory failure. A second attempt was abandoned because of peace negotiations with France, and in
March 1802 the Treaty of Amiens was signed.
At last there was time to enjoy the fruits of his victories. Emma had
, on Nelson's instructions, bought an elegant country house, Merton Place, near London, and transformed it into an expensive mirror for their vanities. At last her husband rebelled, but it was too late for change, and he appeared reconciled to his lot when, early in 1803, he died with his wife and her lover at his side.
Victory at Trafalgar.
Bonoparte was known to be preparing for renewed war, and, two days
before it broke out, Nelson, in May 1803, was given command in the
Mediterranean, hoisting his flag in the Victory. Once again he was to blockade Toulon, now with the object of preventing a rendezvous between the
French ships there with those at Brest in the Atlantic and, after Spain declared war on Britain, with Spanish ships from Cartagena and Cadiz. A combined force of that size could well enable Bonaparte to invade England; and early 1805, Napoleon, who the previous year had crowned himself emperor, ordered the fleets to converge for this purpose. In March, Admiral
Pierre Villeneuve, who was to be in overall command, broke out of Toulon under cover of bad weather and disappeared. Nelson set off in pursuit.
Villeneuve cut short his marauding, but his fleet was intercepted and damaged by a British squadron, Failing to win control of the English
Channel, he ran south to Cadiz.
Nelson put into Gibraltar, made dispositions for the blockade of
Cadiz, and returned to England. During his 25 days at home, he planned the strategy for the confrontation with the Franco-Spanish fleets that seemed inevitable; 34 enemy ships were blockaded in Cadiz by smaller numbers under
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. Although Napoleon, abandoning the plan of a cross-Channel invasion, began to redeploy the Grand Army, in Britain the danger of invasion seemed as pressing as ever, and Nelson appeared the country's hope.
When his orders came, Nelson on September 15 sailed in the Victory. He was now at the height of his professional powers. Worshiped by his officers and sailors alike, he was confident that his captains understood his tactical thinking so well that the minimum of consultation would be required. On his 47th birthday he dined 15 captains in his flagship and outlined his plans to bring on a "pell-mell battle" in which British gunnery and offensive spirit would be decisive. He planned to advance on the Franco-Spanish fleets in two divisions to break their line and destroy them piecemeal. This was the final abandonment of the traditionally rigid tactics of fighting in line of battle.
After receiving Napoleon's orders that he must break the blockade,
Villeneuve, on October 20, sailed out of Cadiz. At dawn next day, the
Franco-Spanish fleets were silhouetted against the sunrise off cape
Trafalgar, and the British began to form the two divisions in which they were to fight, one by Nelson, the other by Collingwood. As the opposing fleets closed, Nelson made signal. "England expects that every will man do his duty". The Battle of Trafalgar raged at its fiercest around the victory. A French sniper from the mast of the Redoutable, shot Nelson through the shoulder and chest. He was carried below to the surgeon, and it was soon clear that he was dying. When told that 15 enemy ships had been taken, he replied, "That is well, but I had bargained for 20". Thomas
Hardy, his flag captain, kissed his forehead in farewell and Nelson spoke his last words, "Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty".
Although the victory of Trafalgar finally made Britain safe from
invasion, it was, at the time, overshadowed by the news of Nelson's death.
A country racked with grief gave him a majestic funeral in St. Paul's
Cathedral, and his popularity in countless monuments, streets, and inns named after him and, eventually, in the preservation at Portsmouth of the
Victory. Emma Hamilton and his daughter, however, were ignored. Emma died, almost destitute, in Calais nine years later. Horatia, showing her father's resilience, married a clergyman in Norfolk and became the mother of large and sturdy family.
Nelson had finally broken the unimaginative strategical and tactical
doctrines of the previous century and taught individual officers to think
for themselves. His flair and forcefulness as a commander in battle were
decisive factors in his two major victories- the battles of the Nile and
Trafalgar. In the former, he had destroyed the French fleet upon which
Napoleon Bonaparte had based his hopes of Eastern conquest, and in the latter he had destroyed the combined French and Spanish fleets, thus ensuring the safety of the British Isles from invasion and the supremacy of
British sea power for more than a century. Spectacular success in battle, combined with his humanity as a commander and his scandalous private life, raised Nelson to godlike status in his lifetime, and after his death at
Trafalgar in 1805, he was enshrined in popular myth and iconography. He is still generally accepted as the most appealing of Britain’s national heroes.
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