“ THESE were honourable among the thirty,” says the ancient Hebrew chronicler, “yet they attained not unto the first three.” Since that far-away day, when the three mighty men broke through the host of the Philistines that they might bring their chieftain water from the well of Bethlehem, to how many fighters, land and sea, have these words been applicable ! — men valiant in deed, wise in council, patient in endurance, yet lacking that divine somewhat, which, for want of a better name, we call genius. Of such an one now, and hereafter, perhaps, of certain of his peers, we propose to give an account; one of those ocean warriors, whose pennant flew through many of the wild scenes where England’s flag was called to brave the battle and the breeze,
And the star of peace return.”
James Saumarez was born on the 11th of March, 1757, in Guernsey, one of the Channel group of islands that still remain attached to the English crown, —the sole remaining fragment of that Norman duchy to which the kingdom itself was for a while but an appendage. In Saumarez’s childhood, French was still so generally spoken there that, despite the very early age at which he went to sea, he always retained a perfect mastery of that language; and it is recorded that one of his uncles, being intended for the sea service, was sent to school in England when ten years old, in order to acquire the use of English. From such a stock, whose lineage among the gentry of the island can be traced to the fourteenth century, sprang three distinguished officers of this name, destined to illustrate the British flag by their deeds in several wars, in which their chief opponent was the French navy. Among these, the subject of this article attained the most brilliant renown. Eighteen months older than Nelson, not even Nelson saw more or harder fighting than did James Saumarez, nor bore himself more nobly throughout their day and generation.
Having early shown a taste for the navy, his father, who had six sons and a restricted income, obtained of a naval captain to have his name borne on the books of a ship of war at the early age of ten ; a curious custom of that day allowing such constructive service to be counted in the time prescribed for attaining a lieutenant’s commission. The boy did not actually go afloat until 1770, when a little over thirteen. This first employment kept him from home continuously for five years, a period spent wholly in the Mediterranean, and for the most part in the Levant; the active naval war then existing between Turkey and Russia, in the waters of Asia Minor, necessitating a special protection to British interests. It is a singular circumstance that this sea, esteemed so important to Great Britain, was never again visited by him, with the exception of the few brief months from May to October, 1798, when, as second in command, he followed Nelson’s flag during that pursuit of Bonaparte’s fleet which ended in its destruction at the battle of the Nile.
Returning to England in 1775, his actual and constructive service permitted Saumarez to appear for examination for a lieutenancy. This he passed, but was not at once promoted. The troubles with the American colonies had now become open hostilities, and he was appointed, as master’s mate or passed midshipman, to the Bristol of fifty guns, selected as flagship for the expedition against Charleston. This duty, which, by bringing him immediately under the eyes of the naval commander in chief, placed him also on the highway to advancement, he owed to Admiral Keppel, then one of the leading flag officers of the British navy. His uncle, Philip Saumarez, and Keppel had shared the perils and sufferings of Anson’s well-known expedition to the South Seas in 1740. Together they had buffeted the wild weather off Cape Horn, with ships’ companies more than decimated by scurvy ; together they had spread terror among the Spanish colonies of the Pacific; together they had captured the great galleon off Manila; and Keppel still retained an affectionate interest in the kinsman of his old shipmate, who had long since fallen gloriously on the deck of his ship, in close action with a French vessel of far superior force.
The squadron, which was commanded by Commodore Sir Peter Parker, assembled at Cork, whence it sailed in January, 1776. Embarked on board the Bristol was Lord Cornwallis, afterwards so closely, and for himself disastrously, associated with the course of the American Revolution. Struck by Saumarez’s activity and efficiency, he offered him a commission in his own regiment, with the position of aide-de-camp to himself; and the young seaman, swayed probably by the prospect of a powerful patron, in the days when patronage had so much to do with men’s careers, was on the point of accepting ; but his messmates chaffed him so mercilessly, upon adopting a profession which habitually supplied them with derisive illustrations and comparisons, that he finally declined. Many years later, when Saumarez was among the senior captains of the navy, the two gentlemen met as guests at the table of the head of the Admiralty, who, upon hearing the incident from Cornwallis, remarked that he would have deprived the navy of one of its best officers.
Owing partly to delays inseparable from sailing vessels, and partly to the dilatoriness with which war was most often waged before the days of the French Revolution, the British expedition did not appear off Charleston until the beginning of June, 1776. To Americans who know their own history, the stirring-story of Fort Moultrie and its repulse of the British fleet has been familiar from childhood. Few are the American boys to whom the names of Jasper, of Marion, and of their brave commander, Moultrie himself, are unknown. But while all honor is due to the band of raw provincials who at this critical moment — one week before the Declaration of Independence was signed — withstood the enemy, and for the moment saved the province, the steady, obstinate valor shown by the seamen of kindred race, who contended with them, was no less brilliant, and was even more severely tested. The loss of the fort was thirtyseven killed and wounded; that of the Bristol alone was one hundred and eleven out of a crew of three hundred and fifty ; and during much of the action, which lasted thirteen hours, she was, through the severing, by shot, of the ropes that kept her broadside in position, powerless to return the raking fire of the enemy. Saumarez was here for the first time engaged, and had two narrow escapes. Once, when pointing a gun, a shot, entering the port, swept away seven of the eight men who served the piece ; and somewhat later, another shot struck off the head of a messmate by whom he was standing, covering him with blood.
In this, his maiden action, Saumarez gave full proof of the steady courage which ever distinguished him ; and it is worthy of passing remark that, in the doggedness of the fighting and the severity of the slaughter, the battle was typical of a great part of his after experience. Several death vacancies resulting among the officers, he was promoted to be lieutenant a fortnight later; and when the Bristol went north was again actively engaged in the operations on Long Island, and along the East and Hudson rivers, up to the evacuation of New York by the Americans. His conspicuous activity at length obtained for him the command of a galley, with which he was sent, in February, 1778, to Rhode Island. The judgment of the illustrious Rodney, as well as the repeated efforts of the Americans to regain control of Narragansett Bay, may be cited against the opinion expressed by Bancroft, that the seizure of this important naval centre by the British was a mistake. The tenure of the island, however, depended upon the control of the surrounding waters, and upon the active destruction of the American means of transport. Saumarez’s galley was one of the force stationed in the eastern, or Seakonnet passage ; and in the five months thus employed it is recorded that he was forty-seven times under fire.
Sullivan was at this time preparing for his attack upon the British lines, expecting coöperation by the French fleet. This arrived on the 29th of July, and six days later Seakonnet Channel was entered by a detachment superior in force to the British there. The latter burned their ships and retreated to Rhode Island. There the officers and seamen, Saumarez among them, continued actively engaged in the defense of the works. Meanwhile, the main French fleet, under the Count d’Estaing, had run the batteries of the principal channel, and anchored off the north end of the island, seriously increasing the perils of the defenders ; but the appearance of Lord Howe with an inferior squadron lured the French admiral out of the bay ; his vessels were crippled by a storm, and he abandoned the coast. Sullivan, deprived of an essential factor in his scheme, had then to fall back ; and the British captains, with their crews, being no longer needed, returned to England to seek other ships.
Both by fortune and by choice, Saumarez’s lot throughout life was thrown with the line-of-battle force of the navy, that body of heavy fighting ships which constitute the true backbone of a sea service, because their essential function is to fight, not singly, but in masses, coöperating with others like themselves. In that respect they correspond to the solid masses of infantry, which, however disposed tactically, form the strength of armies. The aptitudes of brilliant officers differ. Some are born frigate captains, partisan warriors, ever actively on the wing, and rejoicing in the comparative freedom and independence of their movements, like the cavalry raider and outpost officer. But, while occasionally so occupied, and always with great credit, Saumarez’s heart was with the ship of the line, whose high organization, steady discipline, and decisive influence upon the issues of war appealed to a temperament naturally calm, methodical, and enduring. Accordingly, he is found, whether by his own asking or not, serving the remaining three years of his lieutenant’s time upon vessels of that class; and in one of them he passed through his next general action, a scene of carnage little inferior to the Charleston fight, illustrated by the most dogged courage on the part of the combatants, but also, it must be said, unrelieved by any display of that skill which distinguishes scientific warfare from aimless butchery. This, however, was not Saumarez’s fault.
Towards the end of 1780, Great Britain, having already France, Spain, and America upon her hands, found herself also confronted by a league between the Baltic states to enforce by arms certain neutral claims which she contested. To this league, called the Armed Neutrality, Holland acceded, whereupon England at once declared war. Both nations had extensive commercial interests in the Baltic, and it was in protecting vessels engaged in this trade, by a large body of ships of war, that the only general action between the two navies occurred, on the 5th of August, 1781, in the North Sea, off the Dogger-Bank, from which it has taken its name.
At the time of meeting, the British, numbering six ships of the line, were returning from the Baltic ; the Dutch, with seven ships, were bound thither. Despite the numerical difference, no great error is made in saying that the two squadrons were substantially of equal force. Each at once ordered the merchant vessels under its protection to make the best of their way toward port, while the ships of war on either side began to form in order of battle between the enemy and their own convoy. The lists being thus cleared and the lines ranged, the British vessels, which were to windward, stood down together, after what was then the time-honored and stupid practice of their service, each to attack one of the Dutch, disdaining to attempt doubling upon any part of the hostile line. Their ideal appears to have been that of the tournament, where every advantage of numbers and combination was rejected in order to insure that the test should be that of individual courage and skill. So strong was this tradition in the British navy that its ablest contemporary chronicler, James, has sought to explain away, half apologetically, the advantage gained by Nelson in doubling on the French van at the Nile.
The Dutch, equally quixotic, refrained from taking advantage of the enemy’s inability to use his broadsides while thus approaching nearly head on. Arrayed in a close column, the ships about six hundred feet apart, the crews at the guns, and the marines drawn up on the poops, they waited in silence until the English, at eight A. M., were in position at half musket shot. Then a red flag was hoisted by each admiral, and all opened together, the conflict raging with fury for nearly four hours. It was the first time since the days of the great De Ruyter, more than a century before, that these kindred people had thus met in fair fight upon the sea. Equal in courage and in seamanship, and each neglecting to seek a tactical advantage, the usual result followed. Many men were killed and wounded, no ship was taken, and the combatants separated after a drawn battle ; but as one Dutch ship sank the next day, and their convoy could not proceed, the British claimed a victory. Their own merchant vessels, being on the return voyage, were able to complete it.
Saumarez had shown his usual gallantry, and was again promoted. On the 23d of August, eighteen days after the action, he was made commander, and given the Tisiphone, a small but fast cruiser, technically called a fireship, and attached to the Channel fleet. In December, the British government learned that a large number of transports and supply ships were about to sail from Brest for the West Indies. These were to carry troops and stores to the fleet of Count de Grasse, who, after the surrender at Yorktown, had returned to Martinique, and was now about to undertake the conquest of Jamaica. It was imperative to intercept an expedition so essential to the success of the French plan, and Admiral Kempenfelt — the same who afterwards, in the Royal George, “ went down with twice four hundred men ” —was sent in pursuit with twelve ships of the line. The Tisiphone accompanied them as lookout vessel, and on the 12th of December, 1781, being then well ahead of the fleet, she was able to signal the admiral that the enemy was in sight to leeward with seventeen of the line ; but that the latter, instead of being between the British and the transports, were on the far side. Kempenfelt, an able tactician as well as seaman, seized his advantage, pushed between the menof-war and the convoy, and captured from this some twenty sail, carrying several thousand troops. More could not be done without risking a battle with a much superior force. It was essential, therefore, to apprise the British commander in the West Indies of the approach of the French reinforcements as well as of Kempenfelt’s successes, and the Tisiphone was the same day dispatched on this errand.
Saumarez, though he knew it not, was now being borne by the tide which leads on to fortune. The next step in promotion then fixed, and still fixes, the seniority of a British officer, and the Tisiphone’s mission led him straight to it. Easily outsailing the unwieldy mass of enemies, he reached Barbadoes, and there learned that the British fleet, under Sir Samuel Hood, was anchored off the island of St. Christopher, then invaded by the French army supported by De Grasse’s fleet. The tenure of the island depended upon a fort on Brimstone Hill, still held by the British; and Hood, though much inferior in force, had, by a brilliant tactical move, succeeded in dislodging De Grasse from his anchorage ground, taking it himself, and establishing there his fleet in such order that its position remained impregnable. The French, however, cruising to the southward, off the adjoining island of Nevis, interposed between Hood and Saumarez, and the latter could reach his commander only by threading the reefs lining the passage between the two islands, — a feat considered hazardous, if not impracticable. Nevertheless, by diligent care and seamanship, the Tisiphone effected it and joined the fleet.
Saumarez was now in the midst of the most active operations, at the opening of a campaign which promised to be of singular and critical importance. But, while rejoicing at the good fortune which had transferred him from the comparative inactivity of the Channel fleet, a momentary reverse befell. Called by signal on board the flagship, he received a bag of dispatches, with orders to sail that night for England. As he went dejectedly down the ship’s side to his boat and was shoving off, the gig of a post-captain pulled alongside. “ Hallo, Saumarez,” said its occupant, “ where are you going?” “To England, I grieve to say.” “ Grieve! ” rejoined the other. “ I wish I were in your place. I have been wanting this long time to go home for my health. Hold on a moment; perhaps it can be arranged.” The newcomer, named Stanhope, went at once to the admiral, who, a few minutes later, sent for Saumarez. Hood had learned to value the active young officer who had taken a forward part in the guerrilla enterprises of the fleet. “ Captain Saumarez,” he said, “you know not how much I wish to serve you. Captain Stanhope shall go home, as he desires, and you shall have command of the Russell.” The same night the Tisiphone sailed, Saumarez remaining as an acting post-captain, with a ship of seventy-four guns under him.
Thus it happened that, two months later, at the age of twenty-five, Saumarez commanded a ship of the line in Rodney’s renowned battle of the 12th of April, with one exception the most brilliant and decisive action fought by the British navy in a century. This circumstance alone would have insured the confirmation of his rank by the Admiralty, even had he not also eminently distinguished himself; but it was for him one of those periods when inconstant fortune seems bent upon lavishing her favors. Saumarez was near the head of the British column, as the hostile fleets passed in opposite directions, exchanging broadsides. As his ship cleared the French rear, a neighboring British vessel, commanded by one of the senior captains, turned to pursue the enemy. Saumarez gladly imitated him ; but when the other resumed his former course, because the admiral of the van, his immediate superior, had not turned, the Russell kept on after the French. At this moment, Rodney in the centre, and Hood in the rear, favored by a change of wind, were breaking through the French line. The Russell’s course carried her toward them, and consequently, in the mêlée which followed, she had the distinguished honor of engaging De Grasse’s flagship, and of being in action with her when she surrendered. Saumarez, indeed, though he refrained, with characteristic modesty, from pressing his claim, always, when questioned on the subject, maintained that, although the enemy’s vessel struck to Hood’s flagship, she did so immediately upon the latter joining the Russell.
However regarded, this was a most brilliant achievement for so young a captain, less than a twelvemonth having elapsed since Saumarez was but a lieutenant. Rodney, who had meanwhile signaled his van to go about, was somewhat perplexed at finding a single ship in the direction whence the Russell appeared ; and, upon being informed that she belonged to the van squadron, declared that her commander had distinguished himself above all others in the fleet. This was Saumarez’s third general action, at a time when Nelson, although three years a post-captain, had commanded only frigates, and had never seen a battle between fleets. But, if Saumarez used well the opportunities with which fortune favored him, it was characteristic of Nelson that his value transpired through the simplest intercourse and amid the most commonplace incidents of service. Men felt, rather than realized, that under the slight, quaint, boyish exterior there lay the elements of a great man, who would one day fulfill his own boast of climbing to the top of the tree ; and he had been made a full captain in 1779, when not quite twenty-one. According to the rule of the British service, already mentioned, this assured for life his precedence over Saumarez, promoted in 1782.
The latter, however, if outstripped by a younger competitor, who was to become the greatest of British admirals, had secured a position of vantage for that great war which then lay in the womb of the future. Returning to England in 1782, he passed in retirement the ten years that preceded the outbreak of hostilities with the French republic. In 1788 he married; a step that did not, in his case, entail the professional deterioration with which the cynical criticisms of St. Vincent reproached it. During this period, also, he made a trip to France, upon the occasion of sinking the first cone of the great Cherbourg breakwater, intended to give France a first-class naval port upon the Channel, — a purpose which it now fulfills. Louis XVI. was present at this ceremony, and treated Saumarez with much attention. This was the only time that the latter ever set foot upon French soil, although he lived in sight of the coast and spoke the language fluently.
When war with France began, in 1793, Saumarez was given a frigate, with which he served actively in the Channel, near his home. Here he captured a French vessel of equal force, in fair fight, but with a disparity of loss which proved the discipline of his ship and his own consummate seamanship. For this exploit he was knighted. Faithful to his constant preference, he as soon as possible exchanged into a ship of the line, the Orion, of seventy-four guns. In her he again bore a foremost part, in 1795, in a fleet-battle off the Biscay coast of France, where three enemy’s ships were taken ; and two years later he was in the action with the Spaniards off Cape St. Vincent, of which an account has been given in a preceding number.1 After this engagement Saumarez remained on the same station, blockading Cadiz.
In the following year, 1798, it became necessary to send into the Mediterranean, and off the chief arsenal of the enemy, Toulon, a small detachment, to ascertain the facts concerning a great armament, since known as Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition, which rumor said was there in preparation. The hazardous nature of the duty, which advanced three ships of medium size, unsupported, in the very teeth of over a dozen enemies, many of superior strength, demanded the utmost efficiency in each member of the small body so exposed ; a consideration which doubtless led Lord St. Vincent to choose Saumarez, though one of the senior captains, for this service, of which Nelson, the junior flag officer of the fleet, was given charge.
It seems scarcely credible that, when it was afterwards decided to raise this detachment to fourteen ships of the line, sufficient to cope with the enemy, both St. Vincent and Nelson wished to remove Saumarez, with his antecedents of brilliant service, so as to allow Troubridge, his junior, to be second in command. The fact, however, is certain. Nelson had orders which would have allowed him to send the Orion back, when thus proceeding on a service pregnant with danger and distinction, to the immeasurable humiliation of her brave commander. After making every deduction for the known partiality for Troubridge of both St. Vincent and Nelson, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Saumarez, with all his undoubted merit, did not, in their eyes, possess the qualities adequate to succeed to chief command, at a juncture which called for the highest abilities of a general officer. The moment was too critical to permit mere favoritism to sway two such men against their judgment. As it was, however, Nelson felt he could not part with so efficient a ship ; and he therefore contented himself with giving Troubridge and Saumarez each a subdivision of four vessels, keeping six under his own immediate direction.
As all know, the French, when found, were at anchor. Thus surprised, the British fleet was hurled at them in a single mass ; nor was there any subordinate command exercised, by Saumarez or any other, except that of each captain over his particular ship. Nelson’s first expectation was to overtake the unwieldy numbers of the enemy, amounting to over four hundred sail, at sea, and there to destroy both convoy and escort. In such an encounter, there would be inestimable tactical advantage in those compact subdivisions which could be thrown as units, under a single head, in a required direction.
The warm family affection that was among the many winning traits of Saumarez’s symmetrical and attractive character impelled him to copious letterwriting. Hence we have a record of this pursuit of the French fleet, with almost daily entries; an inside picture, reflecting the hopes, fears, and perplexities of the squadron. Bonaparte’s enterprise has been freely condemned in later days as chimerical; but it did not so appear at the time to the gallant seamen who frustrated it. The preparations had been so shrouded in mystery that neither Nelson nor his government had any certainty as to its destination, — an ignorance shared by most of the prominent French officials. When, after many surmises, the truth gradually transpired, the British officers realized that much time must yet elapse before the English ministry could know it. Two months, for instance, passed before news of the battle of the Nile reached London. Then, if India were the ultimate object, to which Egypt, was but the stepping-stone, four months more, at least, would be needed to get a naval reinforcement to the threatened point. What if, meanwhile, the ally of France in the peninsula, Tippoo Saib, had been assembling transports with the secrecy observed at Toulon and the other ports whence the divisions had sailed? “ I dined with Sir Horatio to-day,” writes Saumarez on June 15, nearly four weeks after Bonaparte’s starting, “ and find that his intelligence extends only to the enemy’s fleet having been seen off Sicily ; but we have reason to suppose them gone for Alexandria, the distance from which to the Red Sea is only three days’ journey. They may soon be transported thence by water to the East Indies, with the assistance of Tippoo Saib; and with their numerous army they expect to drive us out of our possessions in India. This profound scheme, which is thought verg feasible, we hope to frustrate by coming up with them before they reach the place of their destination.” A week later, Nelson received news of the surrender of Malta to the French. “ We are now crowding sail for Alexandria ; but it is very doubtful if we fall in with them at all, as we are proceeding on the merest conjecture, and not on any positive information. If, at the end of our journey, we find we are upon the wrong scent, our embarrassment will be great indeed. Fortunately, I only act here en second ; but did the chief responsibility rest with me, I fear it would be more than my too irritable nerves would bear.” Nelson, in truth, was passing these hours in a fever of anxiety, scarce able to eat or drink. Yet at that very moment the British were crossing the enemy’s wake, unseeing and unseen, and barely fifty miles separated the two fleets.
The perplexity foreshadowed by Saumarez actually fell upon the English admiral, through his reaching Alexandria three days before the French. Harassed out of his better judgment, he hurried back to the westward, touched at Sicily, and thence once more to Egypt. Meantime, the French had landed successfully. On the 1st of August the British fleet again sighted Alexandria ; saw the French flag on the walls, but no ships of war. “ When the reconnoitring squadron made the signal that the enemy was not there,” wrote Saumarez, “ despondency nearly took possession of my mind, and I do not remember ever to have felt so utterly hopeless or out of spirits as when we sat down to dinner. Judge, then, what a change took place when, as the cloth was being removed, the officer of the watch hastily came in, saying, ‘ Sir, a signal is just now made that the enemy is in Aboukir Bay, and moored in a line of battle.’ All sprang from their seats, and, only staying to drink a bumper to our success, we were in a moment on deck.” As the captain appeared, the crew hailed him with three hearty cheers, a significant token of the gloom which had wrapped the entire squadron through the recent ordeal of suspense and disappointment.
It is only with Saumarez’s share in this renowned battle that we are here concerned. As is generally known, Nelson’s tactics consisted in doubling upon the van and centre of the enemy, who lay at anchor in a column head to wind, or nearly so. The rear French ships, being to leeward, were thus thrown out of action. The French had thirteen ships of the line, of which one was of one hundred and twenty guns, and two eighties. The British also had thirteen, all seventy-fours, and one of fifty guns ; but one of the former going aground left them equal in numbers and inferior in force. There were two successive acts in the drama. In the first, ten British ships engaged the eight leading French ; in the second, the fifty and two of the seventy-fours, which had been belated, came upon the field and strengthened the attack upon the enemy’s centre. The Orion, being third in the order, was one of the five vessels which passed within the French, and fought on that side. In so doing, she described a wide sweep around her two predecessors. While thus standing down to her station, an enemy’s frigate, the Sérieuse, opened fire upon her, wounding two men. It was then part of the chivalrous comity of fleet-actions that frigates should not be molested by the ships of the line, so long as they minded their own business, — an immunity which of course ceased if they became aggressive. Saumarez was urged to return her fire. “ No,” he replied, “ let her alone ; she will get bolder and come nearer. Shorten sail.” She did draw nearer, and then the Orion, swinging sharply towards her, let drive her broadside of double-shotted guns. All the masts of the unlucky frigate went overboard, and she shortly sank, nothing but her poop being visible the next day. The helm of the British vessel was then shifted, but so much ground had been lost that she could anchor only abreast the fifth French ship; the interval left being filled by those who followed. In this position the Orion silenced her immediate opponent, the Peuple Souverain, which, being in an hour and a half totally dismasted, cut her cables and dropped out of the line ; the contest being then continued with the sixth in the French order, the Franklin, next ahead of the flagship Orient. The Orion was thus near by the latter when she blew up, but the few burning fragments which fell on board were quickly extinguished.
In this engagement Saumarez received the only wound that ever fell to him throughout his numerous meetings with the enemy, being struck on the thigh and side by a heavy splinter, which had killed two officers before reaching him. The total loss of his ship was fortytwo killed and wounded, out of a crew of six hundred. Ten days after the battle he was ordered to take charge of six of the prizes, which had been partly repaired, and with seven of the fleet to convoy them to Gibraltar. At the same time he was notified that the Orion was to go home as soon as this duty was performed. A more charming prospect can scarcely be imagined than this returning to his family after a long absence, fresh, from the completest achievement ever wrought by the British navy; but even his tranquil temper, whose expressions never lapse into the complaints of Nelson or the querulousness of Collingwood, was tried by the slow progress of his battered and crippled squadron. “ The prizes get on very slowly,” he writes ; “ but I am endowed with unparalleled patience, having scarcely uttered a murmur at their tardiness, so perfectly satisfied am I with the prospect before me.” Some time later he notes: “We have been three weeks effecting what might be accomplished in two days. This extraordinary delay makes me more fractious than can be imagined, and I begin to lose the character for patience which I had given myself, by so tiresome a situation.” It was still the season of westerly winds, and the voyage from Alexandria to Gibraltar occupied sixty-nine days.
The Orion was now completely worn out, having been continuously in commission since the war began in 1793. Besides the three general actions in which Saumarez commanded her, she had borne a valiant part in Howe’s great battle of the 1st of June. “ This last business has so shattered the poor Orion,” wrote Saumarez, “ that she will not, without considerable repairs, be in a state for more service.” On reaching England she was paid off ; and in February, 1799, Saumarez was appointed to the Cæsar, of eighty-four guns, one of the finest ships in the navy, which was to bear his flag in the last and most brilliant episode of his hard-fighting career.
A year later, Lord St. Vincent, having returned from the Mediterranean, took command of the Channel fleet, and at once instituted in its methods, and particularly in the blockade of Brest, changes which gradually revolutionized the character of the general naval war ; baffling beyond any other single cause the aims of Napoleon, and insuring the fall of his empire. One of the new requirements was the maintenance of a powerful advanced squadron, of six or eight ships of the line, within ten miles of the harbor’s mouth. It was a service singularly arduous, demanding neither dash nor genius, but calmness, steadiness, method, and seamanship of a high order, for all which Saumarez was conspicuous. From either side of the Bay of Brest a long line of reefs projects for fifteen miles to the westward. Far inside their outer limits, and therefore embayed by the westerly winds which blow at times with hurricane violence, was the station of the advanced squadron, off some wellmarked rocks known as the Black Rocks. On this spot, called Siberia by the seamen, during fifteen weeks, from August to December, Sir James Saumarez kept so close a watch that not a vessel of any force entered or left Brest. “ With you there,” wrote Earl St. Vincent, “ I sleep as sound as if I had the key of Brest in my pocket.” No service ever done by him was more meritorious or more useful. He there demonstrated that what had before been thought impossible could be done, though involving a degree of anxiety and peril far exceeding that of battle, while accompanied by none of the distinction, nor even recognition, which battle bestows. “ None but professional men who have been on that service,” says his biographer with simple truth, “ can have any idea of its difficulties, — surrounded by dangers of every kind, exposed to the violence of storms, sailing amidst a multitude of rocks and variable currents in the longest and darkest nights, and often on a lee shore on the enemy’s coast, while the whole of their fleet is near, ready to take advantage of any disaster.”
There was one man, however, who could and did recognize to the full the quality of the work done by Saumarez, and its value to those sagacious plans which he himself had framed, and which in the future were to sap the foundations of the French power. That man was St. Vincent. “ The merit of Sir James Saumarez,” he said, “cannot be surpassed ; " and again, to Saumarez himself, “ The manner in which you have conducted the advanced squadron calls upon me to repeat my admiration of it.” Succeeding soon after to the post of First Lord of the Admiralty, he gave him an opportunity for distinction, which resulted in an action of singular lustre and striking success.
Bonaparte, long before returned from Egypt, and now, as First Consul, practically the absolute ruler of France, had overthrown all enemies on the Continent. Peace with Austria, after her disasters of Marengo and Hohenlinden, had been signed in February, 1801. The great objects of the French ruler now were to compass a maritime peace and to retain Egypt, a conquest in which his reputation was peculiarly interested. To compel Great Britain to peace, he sought, by diplomacy or force, to exclude her commerce from the Continent, as well as to raise up maritime enemies against her. Thus he had fostered, if not actuallyengendered, the Baltic league of 1801, shattered by Nelson at Copenhagen ; and for this purpose he intended to occupy both Portugal and the kingdom of Naples. A powerful British expedition against Egypt had entered the Mediterranean. It was essential either to attack this directly, or to cripple its communications. Unable to do the former, and persistently thwarted, in his attempts to reinforce his own troops in that distant dependency, by the close watch of the British navy, of which Saumarez gave so conspicuous an illustration before Brest, Napoleon resorted to the common and sound military expedient of collecting a threatening force upon the flank of his enemy’s line of communications. He directed a concentration of the Spanish and French navies at Cadiz, which, by its nearness to the straits, met the desired requirement. Among others, three French ships were ordered thither from Toulon.
The British ministry was informed that at Cadiz were collecting Spanish vessels, said by report to be intended against Portugal. This is unlikely, as Bonaparte could have subdued that country from the land side by the assistance of Spain ; moreover, the object of the concentration is stated in his letters. A squadron of five ships of the line was accordingly formed, and placed under the command of Saumarez, who, on the 1st of January, 1801, had been made a rear admiral. His orders were to go off Cadiz, where he would find two more vessels, and to prevent the enemies within the port from sailing, or from being joined by any from outside. Whatever Bonaparte’s object, it would be thwarted by a force thus interposed, in a position to meet either one or the other of the converging detachments before they could unite.
Saumarez sailed on his mission June 16, 1801, and on the 28th arrived off Cadiz. On the 5th of July he was informed that three French ships had anchored off Algeciras, the Spanish port on the west side of Gibraltar Bay, confronting the British fortress on the east side. This was the division from Toulon, which, upon reaching the straits, first learned of the British squadron that effectually prevented its entrance to Cadiz.
Saumarez at once started for Algeciras with six of his ships of the line, the seventh being out of recall to the northward. The following day, July 6, he entered the bay, and found the French moored in a strong position, under cover of Spanish land batteries, and supported by a number of gunboats. Still, though difficult and doubtful, the enterprise was not hopeless; and, as the breeze allowed his vessels to head for the enemy, he steered to engage at once. Unfortunately, the wind fell as the squadron drew nigh, and only four ships were able to take their intended places; the other two had to anchor outside their consorts, and fire as they could through the intervals. This mishap lessened by one third the fighting power of the British, and, coupled with the acknowledged superiority of guns on a fixed platform over those afloat, reduced them to inferiority. Their disadvantage was increased by the arrangements of the French admiral, carefully elaborated during the two preceding days. Had the preparations of Brueys at the Nile equaled those of Linois at Algeciras, Nelson’s task must have been harder and his victory less complete. Nevertheless, after an engagement of an hour and a half, the British fire so far prevailed that the enemy resorted to a measure for which precautions had been taken beforehand. Lines had been run from each French ship to the shoal water lying close inside them ; and by means of these they were warped away from their opponents until they took the ground. This increase of distance was in every way a gain to the party standing on the defensive, and a corresponding loss to the assailants. Saumarez ordered the cables cut and sail made to close once more ; but the light and fickle airs both baffled this effort and further embarrassed the British, through the difficulty of keeping their broadsides in position. Here happened the great disaster of the day. One of the outer ships, the Hannibal, tried to pass inside the headmost of the French, not realizing that the latter had moved. In so doing she ran aground close under a battery, to whose fire she could make no reply. After a brave and prolonged resistance, in which she lost seventy-five killed and seventy wounded out of a crew of six hundred, and had many of her guns dismounted, she hauled down her flag. By this time another ship, the Pompée, was dismasted, and success was plainly hopeless. The British admiral, therefore, ordered the action discontinued, and withdrew to the Gibraltar side ; the Pompée having to be towed away by the boats of the squadron.
Saumarez had failed, and failure, however explained, can scarcely be carried to a man’s credit; but his after course, by wresting success out of seemingly irretrievable disaster, has merited the highest eulogium. Maintaining both courage and energy unimpaired, every effort was instantly made to get the ships once more into fighting condition, that the attack might be renewed. “ Tell the Admiralty,” said he to the bearer of his dispatches, “ that I feel confident I shall soon have an opportunity of attacking the enemy again, and that they may depend upon my availing myself of it.”
The opportunity did come. On the morning of July 9, the Superb, the seventh ship, which had not been in the action, was seen rounding the west point of the bay under all sail, with a signal flying that the enemy was in pursuit. A few moments later appeared five Spanish vessels, two of which, the Real Carlos and the Hermenegildo, carrying each one hundred and twelve guns, were among the largest then afloat. On board them had embarked a number of the jeunesse dorée of Cadiz, eager to join the triumphal procession which it was thought would soon enter the port, flushed with a victory considered by them to be rather Spanish than French, and escorting the rare trophy of a British ship of the line that had struck to Spanish batteries. Besides the two giants, there were a ninety-gun ship and two seventy-fours ; and the next day a French vessel of the latter class joined, making a total reinforcement of six heavy ships.
To these Saumarez could oppose but five. The Hannibal he had lost. The Pompée could not be repaired in time; her people were therefore distributed among the other vessels of the squadron. Even his own flagship, the Cæsar, was so injured that he thought it impossible to refit her; but when her crew heard his decision, one cry arose, — to work all day and night till she was ready for battle. This was zeal not according to knowledge ; but, upon the pleading of her captain in their name, it was agreed that they should work all day, and by watches at night. So it happened, by systematic distribution of effort and enthusiastic labor, that the Cæsar, whose mainmast on the 9th was out and her rigging cut to pieces, was on the 12th able to sail in pursuit of the foe.
During the forenoon of the latter day the combined squadron was seen getting under way. The wind, being easterly, was fair for the British, and, besides, compelled the enemy to make some tacks to clear the land. This delay was invaluable to Saumarez, whose preparations, rapid as they had been, were still far from complete. Not till one in the afternoon did the headmost Spaniards reach the straits, and there they had to await their companions. The Hannibal was unable to join them, and reanchored at Algeciras. At half past two the Cæsar hauled out from Gibraltar mole, her band playing, “Cheer up, my lads, ’t is to glory we steer ! ” which was answered from the mole-head with " Britons, strike home ! ” At the same moment, Saumarez’s flag, provisionally shifted to another vessel, was rehoisted at her masthead. The rugged flanks of the rock and the shores of Algeciras were crowded with eager and cheering sight - seers, whose shouts echoed back the hurrahs of the seamen. Rarely, indeed, is so much of the pride and circumstance, if not of the pomp, of war rehearsed before an audience which, breathless with expectation, has in it no part save to admire and applaud.
Off Europa Point, on the Gibraltar side, there clustered round the Cæsar her four consorts, all but one bearing, like herself, the still fresh wounds of the recent conflict. Four miles away, off Cabrita Point, assembled the three French of Linois’s division, having like honorable marks, together with the six new unscarred arrivals. At eight P. M. of the summer evening the allies kept away for Cadiz ; Linois’s division leading, the other six interposing between them and the five ships of Saumarez, which followed at once. It was a singular sight, this pursuit of nine ships by five, suggestive of much of the fatal difference, in ideals and efficiency, between the navies concerned. Towards nine o’clock Saumarez ordered the Superb, whose condition alone was unimpaired by battle, to press ahead and bring the rear of the enemy to action. The wind was blowing strong from the east, with a heavy sea. At half past eleven the Superb overtook the Real Carlos, and opened fire. Abreast the Spanish vessel, on her other side, was the Hermenegildo. The latter, probably through receiving some of the Superb’s shot, fancied the ship nearest her to be an enemy, and replied. In the confusion, one of them caught fire, the other ran on board her, and in a few moments there was presented to the oncoming British the tremendous sight of these two huge ships, with their twenty hundred men, locked in a fast embrace and blazing together. At half past two in the morning, having by that time drifted apart, they blew up in quick succession.
Leaving them to their fate, the hostile squadron passed on. The Superb next encountered the St. Antoine, and forced her to strike. Soon afterwards the wind died away, and both fleets were much scattered. A British ship brought to action one of the French ships which had been in the first battle ; indeed, the French accounts say that the latter had fought three enemies. However that may be, she was again severely mauled ; but the English ship opposed to her ran on a shoal and lost all her masts. With this episode ended the events of that awful night.
The net results of this stirring week completely relieved the fears of the British ministers. Whatever the objects of the concentration at Cadiz, they were necessarily frustrated. Though the first attack was repulsed, the three French ships had been very roughly handled; and, of the relieving force, three out of six were now lost to the enemy. “ Sir James Saumarez’s action has put us upon velvet,” wrote St. Vincent, then head of the Admiralty ; and in the House of Peers he highly eulogized the admiral’s conduct, as also did Nelson. The former declared that “ this gallant achievement surpassed everything he had ever met with in his reading or service,” a statement sufficiently sweeping ; while the praise of the hero of the Nile was the more to be prized because there never was cordial sympathy between him and Saumarez. Closely as they had been associated, Nelson’s letters to his brother officer began always, “ My dear Sir James,” not “ My dear Saumarez.”
In this blaze of triumph the story of Saumarez fitly terminates. He was never again engaged in serious encounter with the enemy. The first war with the French republic ended three months after the battle of Algeciras. After the second began, in 1803, he was, until 1807, commander in chief at the Channel Islands, watching the preparations for the invasion of England, and counteracting the efforts of cruisers against British commerce. In 1808, in consequence of the agreements of Tilsit between the Czar and Napoleon, affairs in the Baltic became such as to demand the presence of a large British fleet, —first to support Sweden, then at war with Russia, and later to protect the immense British trade, which, under neutral flags and by contraband methods, maintained by way of the northern sea the intercourse of Great Britain with the Continent. Of this trade Sweden was an important intermediary, and her practical neutrality was essential to its continuance. This was insured by the firm yet moderate attitude of Sir James Saumarez, even when she had been forced by France to declare war against England.
In the course of the conflict between Russia and Sweden, however, an occasion arose which seems to show how far Saumarez fell short of that inspiration which distinguishes great captains from accomplished and gallant generals. The Russian fleet, after an engagement with the Swedes, had been forced into a harbor in the Gulf of Finland. Soon afterwards, on the 30th of August, 1808, Saumarez arrived with part of his fleet. He had six ships of the line, and the Swedes ten, the Russians having but eight. The remainder of the 30th and all the 31st were spent in consultation. On the 1st of September, the admiral reconnoitred the enemy, satisfied himself that the attack was feasible, and issued orders for it to be made the next morning. That night, the wind, till then favorable, shifted, and for eight days blew a gale. When this ended, the Russians had so strengthened their position as to be impregnable.
It is very probable that to this disappointment of public expectation, which had in England been vividly aroused, is to be attributed the withholding of a peerage, eagerly desired by Saumarez in his latter days, — not for itself merely, but as a recognition which he not unnaturally thought earned by his long and distinguished services. Yet when we compare his deliberate consultations with Nelson’s eagle swoop at the Nile, under like difficulties, or with the great admiral’s avowed purpose of attacking the Russian fleet, in 1801, at Revel, in the Baltic,— a purpose which would assuredly have received fulfillment, — it is impossible not to suspect in Saumarez the want of that indefinable, incommunicable something we call genius, which, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth: we hear the sounds, we see the signs, but we cannot tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth.
“ True,” said Nelson, speaking of Revel, “ there are said to be some guns on shore ; but it is to be supposed that the man who undertakes that service will not mind guns.” Nelson himself was not more indifferent, personally, to guns than was Sir James Saumarez ; yet what a contrast in the conduct of the two, when face to face with the great opportunity ! For cool, steady courage, for high professional skill, for patient sustained endurance, Saumarez was unsurpassed ; nor is there on record in the annals of the British navy a more dazzling instance of unflinching resolve than was shown by him at and after Algeciras, when a double portion of the master’s spirit for the moment fell upon him.
Seeing these things, one is tempted to say that the power of genius consists in that profound intuitive conviction which lifts a man to the plane of action by the sheer force of believing — nay, of knowing — that the thing to others impossible can and will be done. “ If we succeed,” cried Nelson’s flag captain, as night approached amid the unknown waters of Aboukir Bay, “ what will the world say ! ” " There is no if about it,” replied the hero; “ we shall certainly succeed. Who will live to tell the story is another question.” To such inspiration, when it comes, nothing is impossible ; for the correspondence between the facts and the intuition, however established, carries within itself the promise of fulfillment. Here, perhaps, we touch the borders of the supernatural.
Saumarez held the Baltic command through five eventful years, — from 1808 to 1812. After Napoleon’s disastrous Russian expedition, affairs in that sea no longer required a force adequate to his rank, and he then finally retired from service afloat, still in the full maturity of a healthy prime, at the age of fiftyfive. The remainder of his life, with brief exception, was passed in his native island of Guernsey, amid those charms of family affection and general esteem which he had deserved by his fidelity to all the duties of the man and the citizen. Though so far removed from the active centres of life, he kept touch with it by the variety of his interests in all useful and benevolent undertakings, to which an ample fortune allowed him freely to contribute. “ The hopes entertained of his assistance and sympathy,” observes his biographer, “ were never disappointed.” Among naval biographies, there is none that presents a more pleasing picture of genial and dignified enjoyment of well-earned repose. In 1831, upon the accession of William IV., the long-coveted peerage was at last bestowed. Lord de Saumarez died on the 9th of October, 1836, in his eightieth year.
A. T. Mahan.
- See The Atlantic for March, 1893.↩