When Pitt resigned his first ministry (February 3, 1801) he readily supported the appointment of his friend Henry Addington as his successor. Addington shared Pitt’s dislike of the war. He noted its unpopularity with the country, especially with exporters; he saw how readily Austria had dissolved the Second Coalition after her defeat at Marengo; he saw no sense in wasting subsidies on such weak-kneed allies; he resolved to end the war as soon as face-saving would permit. On March 27, 1802, his agents signed with Napoleon the Peace of Amiens. For fourteen months the guns were silent; but Napoleon’s expansion of his power in Italy and Switzerland, and England’s refusal to leave Malta, ended this lucid interval, and hostilities were resumed on May 20, 1803. Addington commissioned Nelson to command and prepare a fleet whose mission was simple: to locate the main French armada and destroy it to its last ship. Meanwhile Napoleon was filling with men and matériel vast camps, harbors, and arsenals at Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, and Ostend, and was building hundreds of vessels designed to ferry his legions across the Channel for the conquest of England. Addington struggled to meet this challenge, but he vacillated rather than commanded, while the organization of home defense stumbled into chaos. When his party supporters fell from 270 to 107 he signified his willingness to resign; and on May 10, 1804, Pitt began his second ministry.
He set himself at once to form a Third Coalition (1805), with Russia, Austria, and Sweden, and gave them subsidies raised in part by an increase of twenty-five percent in taxes. Napoleon responded by ordering his Channel army to march across France and give Austria another lesson; and to his vice-admiral, Pierre de Villeneuve, he sent instructions to prepare the best ships of the French Navy to meet Nelson in a fight to end British control of the seas.
Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, had 703 men, averaging twenty-two years old; some were twelve or thirteen, a few were ten. About half of them had been captured by press gangs; many were convicts condemned to naval service as a penalty for crime. Their pay was minimal, but they shared, according to their station and behavior, in the cash realized from captured vessels or stores. Shore leave was rare, through fear of desertions; to meet the needs of the men, cargoes of prostitutes were brought on board; at Brest, one morning 309 women were afloat, with 307 men.15 The conscripts soon learned, through hard discipline, to adjust themselves to their condition, and usually to take pride in their work and their courage. Nelson, we are told, was popular with his men because he never punished except through obvious necessity and with visible regret; because he knew a seaman’s business, and seldom erred in tactics or command; because he himself faced the guns of the enemy; and because he made his men believe that they would never fail him or England, and would never be defeated. This was the “Nelson touch” that made these condemned men love him.16
On July 8, 1803, he joined his eleven ships in the Mediterranean off Toulon, in whose spacious harbor Villeneuve and his fleet were finding protection by the guns of the forts. The French admiral had lately received new orders from Napoleon: to escape from Toulon, force a passage by Gibraltar, sail to the West Indies, join another French squadron there and attack British forces wherever encountered. While Nelson’s ships were taking on water at a Sardinian port, Villeneuve escaped from Toulon (March 30, 1805), and made full sail for America. Nelson belatedly pursued him, and reached Barbados on June 4. Hearing of this, Villeneuve headed back across the Atlantic, and effected union, at Corunna, with a Spanish squadron of fourteen vessels under Admiral Federico de Gravina.
Revised orders from Napoleon bade him sail north, join another French force at Brest, and attempt to wrest control of the Channel before Nelson could come up from the West Indies. But Villeneuve’s ships, after their Caribbean cruise, were in no condition to face battle. On August 13 he led his enlarged fleet in a dash south to the well-equipped and well-fortified harbor of Cádiz, and began there the reconditioning of his ships and men. Late in August a British squadron under Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood took up the task of keeping watch on Villeneuve. Nelson, after completing his comedy of crossings, thought that he too, and his men, needed repairs and rest, and he was allowed some weeks with his mistress at Merton. On September 28 he and his ships joined Collingwood off Cádiz, and waited impatiently for the French to come out and fight.
Napoleon again changed his instructions: Villeneuve was to leave Cádiz, try to elude the British fleet, and go to cooperate with Joseph Bonaparte in the French control of Naples. On October 19 and 20 the reluctant admiral led his thirty-three ships out of Cádiz and headed for Gibraltar. On the 20th Nelson sighted them, and at once ordered his twenty-seven vessels to clear their decks for battle. That night he began, and the next morning finished, a letter to Lady Hamilton:
My Dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom the signal has been made that the Enemy’s combined fleet are coming out of port. We have very little wind so that I have no hopes of seeing them before tomorrow. May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success at all events I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia both of whom I love as much as my own life…. May God Almighty give us success over these fellows and enable us to get peace.17
And in his diary, on the day of battle, he wrote:
… May the Great God… grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory, and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself,… I commit my life to Him who made me; and may his blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To him I assign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.18
The rival armadas met on October 21, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, on the coast of Spain shortly south of Cádiz. Villeneuve, from his flagship Bucentaure, signaled to his ships to form in a single line from north to south, their port sides to the oncoming enemy; the vessels, imperfectly handled, had barely completed this maneuver when they found themselves the target of the British forces advancing northeastward in a double line. At 11:35 A.M. Nelson, from his flagship Victory, sent flashing throughout his fleet the famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty.” At 11:50 Admiral Collingwood, commanding fifteen ships, led the attack by ordering his flagship, the Royal Sovereign, to sail directly through the gap between the first and second of Admiral Gravina’s men-of-war, the Santa Ana and the Fougueux. By this move his men were in a position to fire broadsides against both the Spanish vessels, which could not return the fire—battleships were then designed with few or no guns fore or aft. The British gunners had an additional advantage: they could ignite their cannon with flintlocks (pistol locks having a flint in the cock to strike a spark); this method was twice as quick as the French way of igniting cannon by slow-acting matches; and the firing could be better synchronized with the roll of the ship.19 The remainder of Collingwood’s squadron followed his example by piercing the enemy’s line, then veering, and concentrating their attack upon Gravina’s ships, where morale was low. At the northern end of the battle line the French met bravely the fury of Nelson’s attack; some of them cried, “Vive l’Empereur!” as they died; nevertheless, as at Abukir, the superior training and skill of the British crews, in seamanship and gunnery, carried the day.
But the issue was decided when a sniper in the topmast of the Redoutable directed a fatal shot at Nelson. The admiral had not only exposed himself as usual; he had doubled his peril by refusing to remove from his chest the distinguishing badges of honor that England had conferred upon him. The ball went through his breast and shattered his spine. His devoted aide, Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, carried him down into the hold, where Dr. Beatty confirmed Nelson’s conviction that he had only a few hours of life left to him. He remained conscious another four hours, long enough to learn that his fleet had won a complete victory, that nineteen of the enemy’s ships had surrendered, not one of the British. Almost his last words were, “Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy; take care of poor Lady Hamilton.” Then, “Kiss me, Hardy. Now I am satisfied. Thank God, I have done my duty.”20
All of Nelson’s ships, anchored by Nelson’s deathbed command, survived the gale that he had foreseen, and reached England in time to let their crews share in the national celebration of their victory. The hero’s corpse, immersed in brandy to delay decomposition, was carried upright in a cask to England, where it received the most splendid funeral in living memory. Captain Hardy delivered to Lady Hamilton her dead lover’s farewell letter. She treasured it as her only consolation. At the end of it she wrote:
Oh miserable wretched Emma,
Oh glorious and happy Nelson.
His will left all his property and governmental rewards to his wife except for the house at Merton, which Emma Hamilton retained. Worried lest this —and her annuity from her husband—should not keep her in comfort, he wrote a codicil to his will on the day of battle: “I leave Emma Lady Hamilton as a legacy to my King and Country, that they will give her an ample provision to maintain her rank in life”; and in his dying hours, as reported by Dr. Scott, he asked that his country should take care also of “my daughter Horatia.”21 King and country ignored these requests. Emma was arrested for debt in 1813, and soon released, and fled to France to escape her creditors. She died in poverty at Calais, January 20, 1815.
Admiral Gravina, after an honorable resistance, escaped with his flagship to Spain, but so severely wounded that he died a few months later. Villeneuve had not led wisely but had fought bravely, exposing himself as recklessly as Nelson; he surrendered his ship only after nearly all his men were dead. He was taken to England, was released, and left for France. Unwilling to face Napoleon, he killed himself in a hotel at Rennes, April 22, 1806. His final letter apologized to his wife for deserting her, and thanked the fates that he was leaving no child “to be burdened with my name.”22
Trafalgar was one of the “decisive battles” of history. It decided for a century Britain’s mastery of the seas. It ended Napoleon’s chance to free France from the cordon that the British fleet had drawn along her shores. It forced him to give up all thought of invading England. It meant that he must fight land battles ever more costly, and ever leading to more. He thought to cancel Trafalgar by his massive victory at Austerlitz (December 2, 1805); but this led to Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo. Sea power would win.
Even so, Pitt, who had lived through a hundred crises to rejoice over Trafalgar, agreed with Napoleon in thinking that Austerlitz had matched and canceled Nelson’s victory. Worn out by a succession of crises in domestic as well as foreign affairs, he withdrew from London for a rest in Bath. There he received the news that Austria, the pivot of his coalitions, had again collapsed. The shock gave the finishing touch to physical ailments deadened and doubled by brandy. On January 9, 1806, he was taken to his home in Putney. In that house, on January 23, 1806, he died, aged forty-seven, after having been prime minister of Great Britain through nearly all his adult life. In those nineteen years he had helped to guide his country to industrial, commercial, and maritime supremacy, and had reformed its financial system masterfully; but he had failed either to chasten and confine the French Revolution or to check the dangerous expansion of Napoleon’s authority in Europe. The Continental balance of power, so precious to England, was disappearing, and hard-won domestic liberties of speech, assemblage, and press had been lost for the duration of a war that had now gone on for twelve years, and gave no sign of an end.