Horatio Nelson was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine Suckling Nelson. His mother died when Nelson was nine, and by the time he was twelve, he had enrolled in the Royal Navy. His naval career began on January 1, 1771, when as a midshipman he reported to the warship Raissonable, commanded by his maternal uncle. In 1777 he was a lieutenant, assigned to the West Indies, during which time he saw action on the British side of the American Revolution. By the time he was 20, in June 1779, he made captain; the frigate Hitchenbroke was his first command.
In 1781 he was involved in an action against the Spanish fortress of San Juan in Nicaragua. A success, the efforts involved still damaged Nelson's health to the extent that he returned to England for more than a year. He eventually returned to active duty and was assigned to the Albemarle, in which he continued his efforts against the American rebels until the de facto end of the war in 1783.
In 1784, Nelson was given command of the 28-gun Boreas, and assigned to enforce the Navigation Act in the vicinity of Antigua. This was during the denouement of the American Revolution, and enforcement of the act was problematic -- now-foreign American vessels were no longer allowed to trade with British colonies in the Caribbean Sea, an unpopular rule with both the colonies and the Americans. After seizing four American vessels off Nevis, Nelson was sued by the captains of the ships for illegal seizure. As they were supported by the merchants of Nevis, Nelson was in peril of imprisonment and had to remain sequestered on Boreas for eight months. It took that long for the courts to deny the captains their pound of flesh, but in the interim Nelson met Fanny Nesbit, a widow native to Nevis, whom he would marry on March 11, 1787 at the end of his tour of duty in the Caribbean.
Nelson lacked a commission starting in 1789, and lived on half pay for several years. But as the French Revolution began to export itself outside of France's borders, he was recalled to service. Given the 64-gun Agamemnon in 1793, he soon started a long series of battles and engagements that would seal his place in history.
He was first assigned to the Mediterranean, based out of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1794 he was shot in the face during a joint operation at Calvi, Corsica, which cost him the sight in his right eye -- his left eye suffered from the additional burden, and Nelson was slowly going blind up until his death; he would often wear a patch over his good eye to protect it.
1797 was a full year for Nelson. On February 14, he was largely responsible for the British victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. In the aftermath, Nelson was knighted. In April of the same year he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue, the sixth highest rank in the Royal Navy. Later in the year, during an unsuccessful expedition to capture a treasure ship at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, he was shot in the right elbow with a musketball. He lost the lower half of his arm, and was unfit for duty until mid-December.
The next year, Nelson was once again responsible for a great victory over the French. The Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay) took place on August 1, 1798, and as a result, Napoleon's ambition to take the war to the British in India came to an end. The forces Napoleon had brought to Egypt were stranded, and Napoleon himself had to be smuggled back to France. For his efforts, Nelson was granted the title of Baron. Not content to rest on his laurels, he then rescued the Neapolitan royal family from a French invasion in December. During this time, he fell in love with Lady Hamilton -- the young wife of the elderly British ambassador to Naples. She became his mistress, and eventually they had a daughter, Horatia. Some have suggested that a head wound he received at Aboukir Bay was partially responsible for that conduct, and for the somewhat desultory way in which he conducted the Neopolitan campaign.
In 1799 he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red, the fifth highest rank in the Royal Navy. He was then assigned to the Foudroyant. In July, he aided with the reconquest of Naples, and was made Duke of Bronte by the Neapolitan king. His personal problems, and upper-level disappointment at his professional conduct caused him to be rotated back to England, but public knowledge of his affection for Lady Hamilton eventually induced the Admiralty to send him back to sea if only to get him away from her.
On January 1, 1801, he was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue (the fourth highest rank). Within a few months he was involved in the Battle of Copenhagen (April 2, 1801), which nullified the fleet of the Danes, in order to break up the armed neutrality of Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The action was considered somewhat underhanded by some, and in fact Nelson had been ordered to cease the battle by his commander Sir Hyde Parker. In a famous incident, however, he claimed he could not see the signal flags conveying the order, pointedly raising his telescope to his blind eye. His action was approved in restrospect, and in May he became commander-in-chief in the Baltic Sea, and was awarded the title of Viscount by the British crown.
Napoleon was massing forces to invade England, however, and Nelson was soon placed in charge of defending the English Channel to prevent this. However, on October 22 an armistice was signed between the British and the French, and Nelson -- in poor health again -- retired to England where he stayed with his friends the Lord and Lady Hamilton.
The Peace of Amiens was not to last long though, and Nelson soon returned to duty. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, and assigned to the HMS Victory. He joined the blockade of Toulon, France, and would not again set foot on dry land for more than two years. After the French fleet slipped out of Toulon and headed for the West Indies, a stern chase failed to turn them up and Nelson's health forced him to retire to Merton in England.
On October 21, 1805, Nelson engaged in his final battle, the Battle of Trafalgar. Napoleon Bonaparte had been massing forces once again for the invasion of the British Isles. On the 19th, the French and Spanish fleet left Cadiz, intent on clearing the Channel for this purpose. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, engaged the thirty-three opposing ships.
His last dispatch, written on the 21st, read:
- At daylight saw the Enemy's Combined Fleet from East to E.S.E.; bore away; made the signal for Order of Sailing, and to Prepare for Battle; the Enemy with their heads to the Southward: at seven the Enemy wearing in succession. May the Great God, whom I worship, 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, individually, 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 resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.
As the two fleets moved towards engagement, he then ran up a thirty-one flag signal to the rest of the fleet which spelled out the famous phrase "England expects that every man will do his duty".
After crippling the French flagship Beaucentaure, the Victory moved on to the Redoutable. The two ships entangled each other, at which point snipers in the rigging of the Redoutable were able to pour fire down onto the deck of the Victory. Nelson was one of those hit: a bullet entered his shoulder, pierced his lung, and came to rest at the base of his spine. Nelson retained consciousness for some time, but died soon after the battle was concluded with a British victory. The Victory was then towed to Gibraltar, with Nelson's body on board preserved in a barrel of brandy; after Nelson's death, the rum ration given to naval men came to be known as "Nelson's Blood", a possibly deliberate echo of the Communion ritual.
Nelson was noted for his considerable ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men, to the point that it gained a name: "The Nelson Touch". Famous even while alive, after his death he was lionized like almost no other military figure in British history (his only peers are the Duke of Marlborough and Nelson's contemporary, the Duke of Wellington). The monumental Nelson's Column and the surrounding Trafalgar Square are notable locations in London to this day, and Nelson was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Victory is in existence, and is in fact still kept on active commission in honour of Nelson -- it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord; she can be found in Number 2 Dry Dock of the Portsmouth Naval Base, in Portsmouth, England.