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Napoleonic Wars: Admiral of the Fleet John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent

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Napoleonic Wars: Admiral of the Fleet John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent

Admiral of the Fleet John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent

Photograph Source: Public Domain

John Jervis - Early Life:

The son of Swynfen and Elizabeth Jervis, John Jervis was born January 9, 1735 at Meaford, Staffordshire. A lawyer by trade, Swynfen intended for his son to join him in the bar and sent him to grammar school in nearby Burton upon Trent. This was followed by time at Reverend Swinden's Academy in London. Despite his father's desire that he have a career in law, the younger Jervis wished to go to sea and attempted to join the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. This proved abortive and Jervis was returned home much to his parents' displeasure. Persisting, Jervis was soon able to enlist the aid of Lady Jane Hamilton and Lady Burlington in convincing his parents. These efforts were successful and on January 4, 1749, he joined Admiral George Townshend aboard HMS Gloucester (50 guns).

John Jervis - Early Career:

The next five years saw Jervis serve aboard several vessels operating in the Caribbean. Rated as a midshipman, he worked to learn his chosen trade under the guidance of Townshend and Admiral Thomas Cotes. Returning to Britain in November 1754, Jervis received an assignment to HM Yacht William and Mary early the following year. While aboard, he served under navigation expert Captain John Campbell. This period also saw him pass his lieutenant's exam on January 2, 1755. Ordered to HMS Nottingham (60), Jervis joined Vice Admiral Edward Boscawen's fleet on the North American Station. While aboard, Nottingham took part in Boscawen's attempts to block the reinforcement of New France during the early part of the French & Indian War. After a brief stint aboard HMS Devonshire (74), Jervis received orders to join Captain Charles Saunders' HMS Prince (90) in the Mediterranean.

John Jervis - French & Indian War:

Following Saunders to HMS Culloden (74) in November 1756, Jervis was given temporary command of HMS Experiment (24) the following year. During this time, he fought an indecisive action against a French privateer off Cape Gata. The next several months saw Jervis rejoin Saunders as well as command the newly captured Foudroyant (80) on a voyage back to Britain. Serving as first lieutenant of Prince, he took part in Saunders and Major General James Wolfe's expedition against Quebec in 1759. Crossing the Atlantic, Jervis was given temporary command of HMS Porcupine (16) on May 15. In this role, he distinguished himself by assisting in moving troops upriver past the city prior to the Battle of Quebec on September 13. In recognition of his efforts, he was promoted to commander and given HMS Scorpion (14).

After a brief period commanding HMS Albany (14) both in North America and in the Channel Squadron, Jervis was promoted to captain in October 1760. Given the frigate HMS Gosport (44), he commanded the ship until the end of the war in 1763. With the peace, Jervis found himself on half-pay without a ship until 1769 when he assumed command of HMS Alarm (32). Operating largely in the Mediterranean, Alarm hosted the Duke of Gloucester during the winter of 1771/2. After Alarm was paid off in May 1772, Jervis and his friend Captain Samuel Barrington traveled widely across Europe. Visiting Russia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and France, the two made extensive notes regarding each region's harbors as well as created their own highly detailed charts of the their coasts.

John Jervis - American Revolution:

With the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, Jervis was ordered to HMS Kent (74). Finding that the ship was not seaworthy, he was soon given command of Foudroyant instead. With the French entry into the conflict following the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, the war widened to European waters. Sailing as part of Admiral Augustus Keppel's Channel Fleet, Jervis took part in the inconclusive First Battle of Ushant on July 27. Continuing to serve in the fleet, Jervis took part relieving Gibraltar in 1780 and 1781. The next year saw him capture Pégase (74) off Brest on April 19. Wounded in the battle, Jervis was knighted for his efforts. Later that year, he participated in Admiral Richard Howe's third relief of Gibraltar as well as the Battle of Cape Spartel. In December, Jervis was made a commodore and directed to take a squadron to the West Indies. These orders were revoked before he sailed due to ongoing peace talks.

John Jervis - Peacetime:

With the end of the war, Jervis married his cousin, Martha Parker. He also embarked on a political career which saw him elected to Parliament from Launceston in 1783. Initially a supporter of William Pitt the Younger, his voting record proved largely independent. Elevated to rear admiral on September 24, 1787, he hoisted his flag aboard HMS Carnatic (74). This assignment proved brief, though after a short time ashore he returned to active duty three years later aboard HMS Prince (98). Though Jervis remained in Parliament, he increasingly limited his comments to naval matters. In 1793, with the British entrance in the Wars of the French Revolution, Jervis was promoted to vice admiral and dispatched to the Caribbean with orders to attack French colonies.

John Jervis - At War:

Cooperating with ground forces led by Major General Sir Charles Grey, Jervis' fleet succeeded in restoring royalist rule to Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Lucia. Though Guadeloupe was later lost to French counterattacks, the expedition was largely judged to be a success. Returning to Britain, some of the campaign's luster was lost due to arguments over prize money. On June 1, 1795, Jervis received command of the Mediterranean Fleet and travelled to Gibraltar to hoist his flag in HMS Victory (104). Establishing a close blockade of Toulon, Jervis also directed part of his force to aid Austrian troops in Italy. With the land campaign going poorly, he was forced to withdraw from the Mediterranean in late 1796 and base the fleet in the Tagus River.

John Jervis - Battle of Cape St. Vincent:

In wake of the British withdrawal, Admiral Don José de Córdoba elected to move his fleet of 27 ships of the line from Cartagena through the Straits of Gibraltar to Cadiz in preparation for joining with the French at Brest. This movement coincided with Jervis putting to sea with 10 ships of the line. While at sea, he was reinforced by Rear Admiral William Parker who brought five ships of the line from the Channel Fleet. On February 14, 1797, Jervis sighted the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent. Despite being outnumbered, he elected to strike at the enemy. In the resulting Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Jervis won a clear victory and captured four Spanish ships of the line. The battle was highlighted by Commodore Horatio Nelson violating orders and wearing ship to engage the Spanish vanguard. This action directly led to the capture of two enemy vessels.

John Jervis - Mediterranean Fleet:

A morale-boosting victory, both Jervis and Nelson were hailed as heroes with the former being elevated to Baron Jervis of Meaford and Earl St. Vincent. In addition, he received the thanks of Parliament and was given a gold medal by the King George III. Having defeated the Spanish, Jervis began a blockade of Cadiz. Over the next two years, he maintained the blockade while also directing operations in the Mediterranean and working to improve the Royal Navy's facilities at Gibraltar. In 1798, St. Vincent dispatched Nelson with 15 ships of the line to intercept French forces bound for Egypt. Locating the enemy fleet at Aboukir Bay, Nelson soundly defeated it at the Battle of the Nile on August 1/2. Promoted to admiral on February 14, 1799, St. Vincent resigned his post due to ill health and returned to Britain that June.

John Jervis - Channel Fleet & First Lord of the Admiralty:

Recovering his health, St. Vincent took command of the Channel Fleet on April 26, 1800. Flying his flag from HMS Namur (90), and later HMS Ville de Paris (110), he began a close blockade of Brest. Using the charts he created during his travels with Barrington, St. Vincent implored his commanders to be aggressive in maintaining a tight blockade. A strict disciplinarian, he forbade the fleet's officers from sleeping ashore or its ships putting into Spithead without written orders. Despite this rigidity, St. Vincent took great care in regard to living conditions for his sailors. Dramatically improving the fleet's diet and hygiene, he was able to greatly reduce disease in the Channel Fleet.

In 1801, new Prime Minister Henry Addington selected St. Vincent to serve as First Lord of the Admiralty. Leaving the Channel Fleet, he took office and began a campaign to eliminate corruption from the Royal Navy and its dockyards. Conducting a sweeping investigation, St. Vincent's Commission of Inquiry ultimately produced twelve reports outlining corruption in various parts of the service. An avid reformer, St. Vincent worked to improve port facilities, naval hospitals, and invested in new technology such as Marc Isambard Brunel and Samuel Bentham's machinery for making blocks. A believer in promotion by merit, he also sought to prevent the advancement of officers through the use of influence and social class. Having made numerous enemies, including Pitt, due to his efforts, St. Vincent left office in May 1804 after Addington's government fell.

John Jervis - Return to Sea & Final Years

On November 9, 1805, St. Vincent resumed command of the Channel Fleet. Though flying his flag from HMS Hibernia (110), the aging admiral was forced to spend much of his time living ashore at Rame. During this time, St. Vincent continued to argue for reform of the promotion system and stated that non-flag officers should be barred from sitting in Parliament. Retiring in 1807, he became known as a philanthropist and donated money to numerous causes. Though entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, St. Vincent seldom appeared and often limited his comments to military matters. Made acting Admiral of the Fleet in May 1814, he was confirmed in the post by King George IV in January 1820. St. Vincent died on March 13, 1823 and was buried in his family mausoleum in Staffordshire. A monument in his honor was later erected at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Selected Sources

  • St. Vincent: Admiral Sir John Jervis
  • BBC: Admiral John Jervis
  • Age of Sail: John Jervis

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