The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
That path was marked, along with many lesser naval actions, by four major sea battles: St. Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar. His successive performances in each would win Nelson the respect of his fellow officers and superiors, the love of his subordinates, the envy of his foes (Napoleon kept a bust of Nelson in his study), and the growing adulation of his fellow citizens. Even before his death, that adulation translated into a booming commercial cult, with medals, books, and assorted memorabilia.
Tarnishing his fame--or possibly adding to it in the eyes of some--Nelson began an affair in 1799 with the wife of Lord Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples, that soon became the buzz of Europe. Nelson, it must be said, made some of his worst decisions under the influence of Emma Hamilton, not least those associated with his inept meddling in Italian politics. After Lord Hamilton's death, Nelson abandoned his wife and moved in with Emma, causing many in the Admiralty to wish that he were not such an indispensable leader. The love between the two outsize figures was as dramatically attention grabbing as it was ardent, befitting a completely fearless naval hero and a beautiful woman who liked to perform "Attitudes" (staged moments from myth or literature) at parties. Both were targets of scandal sheets and the subject of ribald cartoons, and Hamilton would become the obvious model of major characters in the novels of Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.
It was, of course, Nelson's unmatched prowess at sea that kept the two lovers from being destroyed by the scandal. Though Nelson was not the fleet commander at the 1797 Battle of St. Vincent, also off the Spanish coast, the commander, Adm. John Jervis, would have found his ships in a bad fix against his Spanish foes had Nelson not seized the initiative, broken out of line, and launched a flanking attack against the Spanish fleet that eventually decided the battle. Nelson's ship, the Captain, was badly damaged, but he still managed to ram it into one of two entangled Spanish ships, personally led a charge onto the first and forced it to surrender, and then, using that ship as his "bridge," compelled the captain of the second to surrender. It was a brilliant and brave series of actions, as Jervis's report to the Admiralty acknowledged. Insufficiently, thought Nelson, who made sure that a more ample account found its way back to England.
In full command at the Battle of the Nile, in 1798, Nelson, who had only the year before lost his right arm in a raid in the Canary Islands, tactically overwhelmed the French fleet that had anchored in Egypt's Aboukir Bay. The British fleet managed to capture or destroy all but four of the 17 French ships of the line and frigates. The only rub: If Nelson had caught up with the French fleet earlier, he might have taken it when Napoleon and his Army were still aboard, thus sparing all of Europe the Napoleonic Wars, which would be launched five years later, in 1803, by France's self-proclaimed emperor.