Nelson in the Mediterranean

HMS Agamemnon (1781)

Mediterranean Service

In May 1793, Nelson sailed as part of a division under the command of Vice Admiral William Hotham, joined later in the month by the rest of Lord Hood's fleet. The force initially sailed to Gibraltar and, with the intention of establishing naval superiority in the Mediterranean, made their way to Toulon, anchoring off the port in July. Toulon was largely under the control of moderate republicans and royalists, but was threatened by the forces of the National Convention, which were marching on the city. Short of supplies and doubting their ability to defend themselves, the city authorities requested that Hood take it under his protection. Hood readily acquiesced and sent Nelson to carry dispatches to Sardinia and Naples requesting reinforcements. After delivering the dispatches to Sardinia, Agamemnon arrived at Naples in early September. There Nelson met Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, followed by the British ambassador to the kingdom, William Hamilton. At some point during the negotiations for reinforcements, Nelson was introduced to Hamilton's new wife, Emma Hamilton, the former mistress of Hamilton's nephew Charles Greville. The negotiations were successful and 2,000 men and several ships were mustered by mid-September. Nelson put to sea in pursuit of a French frigate, but on failing to catch her, sailed for Leghorn, and then to Corsica. He arrived at Toulon on 5 October, where he found that a large French army had occupied the hills surrounding the city and was bombarding it. Hood still hoped the city could be held if more reinforcements arrived, and sent Nelson to join a squadron operating off Cagliari.

Early on the morning of 22 October 1793, Agamemnon sighted five sails. Nelson closed with them, and discovered they were a French squadron. He promptly gave chase, firing on the 40-gun Melpomene. During the Action of 22 October 1793 he inflicted considerable damage but the remaining French ships turned to join the battle and, realizing he was outnumbered, Nelson withdrew and continued to Cagliari, arriving on 24 October. After making repairs, Nelson and Agamemnon sailed again on 26 October, bound for Tunis with a squadron under Commodore Robert Linzee. On his arrival, Nelson was given command of a small squadron consisting of Agamemnon, three frigates and a sloop, and ordered to blockade the French garrison on Corsica. The fall of Toulon at the end of December 1793 severely damaged British fortunes in the Mediterranean. Hood had failed to make adequate provision for a withdrawal and 18 French ships-of-the-line fell into republican hands. Nelson's mission to Corsica took on added significance, as it could provide the British a naval base close to the French coast. Hood therefore reinforced Nelson with extra ships during January 1794.

Read more about the Siege of Calvi 

Genoa and the Fight of the Ça Ira

After the occupation of Corsica, Hood ordered Nelson to open diplomatic relations with the city-state of Genoa, a strategically important potential ally. Soon afterwards, Hood returned to England and was succeeded by Admiral William Hotham as commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. Nelson put into Leghorn, and while Agamemnon underwent repairs, met with other naval officers at the port and entertained a brief affair with a local woman, Adelaide Correglia. Hotham arrived with the rest of the fleet in December; Nelson and Agamemnon sailed on a number of cruises with them in late 1794 and early 1795.

On 8 March, news reached Hotham that the French fleet was at sea and heading for Corsica. He immediately set out to intercept them, and Nelson eagerly anticipated his first fleet action. The French were reluctant to engage and the two fleets shadowed each other throughout 12 March. The following day two of the French ships collided, allowing Nelson to engage the much larger 84-gun Ça Ira for two and a half hours until the arrival of two French ships forced Nelson to veer away, having inflicted heavy casualties and considerable damage. The fleets continued to shadow each other before making contact again, on 14 March, in the Battle of Genoa. Nelson joined the other British ships in attacking the battered Ça Ira, now under tow from Censeur. Heavily damaged, the two French ships were forced to surrender and Nelson took possession of Censeur. Defeated at sea, the French abandoned their plan to invade Corsica and returned to port.

Skirmishes and the Retreat from Italy

Nelson and the fleet remained in the Mediterranean throughout the summer of 1795. On 4 July Agamemnon sailed from St Fiorenzo with a small force of frigates and sloops, bound for Genoa. On 6 July Nelson ran into the French fleet and found himself pursued by several much larger ships-of-the-line. He retreated to St Fiorenzo, arriving just ahead of the pursuing French, who broke off as Nelson's signal guns alerted the British fleet in the harbour. Hotham pursued the French to the Hyères Islands, but failed to bring them to a decisive action. A number of small engagements were fought but to Nelson's dismay, he saw little action.

Nelson returned to operate out of Genoa, intercepting and inspecting merchantmen and cutting-out suspicious vessels in both enemy and neutral harbours. Nelson formulated ambitious plans for amphibious landings and naval assaults to frustrate the progress of the French Army of Italy that was now advancing on Genoa, but could excite little interest in Hotham. In November Hotham was replaced by Sir Hyde Parker but the situation in Italy was rapidly deteriorating: the French were raiding around Genoa and strong Jacobin sentiment was rife within the city itself. A large French assault at the end of November broke the allied lines, forcing a general retreat towards Genoa. Nelson's forces were able to cover the withdrawing army and prevent them from being surrounded, but he had too few ships and men to materially alter the strategic situation, and the British were forced to withdraw from the Italian ports. Nelson returned to Corsica on 30 November, angry and depressed at the British failure and questioning his future in the navy.

 

Jervis and the Evacuation of the Mediterranean

In January 1796 the position of commander-in-chief of the fleet in the Mediterranean passed to Sir John Jervis, who appointed Nelson to exercise independent command over the ships blockading the French coast as a commodore. Nelson spent the first half of the year conducting operations to frustrate French advances and bolster Britain's Italian allies. Despite some minor successes in intercepting small French warships (e.g., in the action of 31 May 1796, when Nelson's squadron captured a convoy of seven small vessels), Nelson began to feel the British presence on the Italian peninsula was rapidly becoming useless. In June the Agamemnon was sent back to Britain for repairs, and Nelson was appointed to the 74-gun HMS Captain. In the same month, the French thrust towards Leghorn and were certain to capture the city. Nelson hurried there to oversee the evacuation of British nationals and transported them to Corsica, after which Jervis ordered him to blockade the newly captured French port. In July he oversaw the occupation of Elba, but by September the Genoese had broken their neutrality to declare in favour of the French. By October, the Genoese position and the continued French advances led the British to decide that the Mediterranean fleet could no longer be supplied; they ordered it to be evacuated to Gibraltar. Nelson helped oversee the withdrawal from Corsica, and by December 1796 was aboard the frigate HMS Minerve, covering the evacuation of the garrison at Elba. He then sailed for Gibraltar.

During the passage, Nelson captured the Spanish frigate Santa Sabina and placed Lieutenants Jonathan Culverhouse and Thomas Hardy in charge of the captured vessel, taking the Spanish captain on board Minerve. Santa Sabina was part of a larger Spanish force, and the following morning two Spanish ships-of-the-line and a frigate were sighted closing fast. Unable to outrun them, Nelson initially determined to fight but Culverhouse and Hardy raised the British colours and sailed northeast, drawing the Spanish ships after them until being captured, giving Nelson the opportunity to escape. Nelson went on to rendezvous with the British fleet at Elba, where he spent Christmas. He sailed for Gibraltar in late January, and after learning that the Spanish fleet had sailed from Cartagena, stopped just long enough to collect Hardy, Culverhouse, and the rest of the prize crew captured with Santa Sabina, before pressing on through the straits to join Sir John Jervis off Cadiz.