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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Cape St. Vincent

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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Cape St. Vincent

The Battle of Cape Saint Vincent, Richard Brydges Beechey, 1881

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Cape St. Vincent was fought during the Wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802). Jervis won his victory on February 14, 1797.

Battle of Cape St. Vincent - Fleets & Admirals:

British

Spanish

  • Don José de Cordóba
  • 27 ships of the line

Battle of Cape St. Vincent Overview:

In late 1796, the military situation ashore in Italy led to the Royal Navy being compelled to abandon the Mediterranean. Shifting his principal base to the Tagus River, the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir John Jervis instructed Commodore Horatio Nelson to oversee the final aspects of the evacuation. With the British withdrawing, 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.

As Córdoba's ships got underway, Jervis was departing the Tagus with 10 ships of the line to take up a position off Cape St. Vincent. Having left Cartagena on February 1, 1797, Córdoba encountered a strong easterly wind, known as a Levanter, as his ships cleared the straits. As a result, his fleet was blown out into the Atlantic and forced to work their way back towards Cadiz. Six days later, Jervis was reinforced by Rear Admiral William Parker who brought five ships of the line from the Channel Fleet. His work in the Mediterranean completed, Nelson sailed aboard the frigate HMS Minerve to rejoin Jervis.

On the night of February 11, Minerve encountered the Spanish fleet and successfully passed through it without being detected. Reaching Jervis, Nelson came aboard the flagship, HMS Victory (102 guns) and reported Córdoba's position. While Nelson returned to HMS Captain (74), Jervis made preparations to intercept the Spanish. Through the fog on the night of February 13/14, the British began to hear the signal guns of the Spanish ships. Turning towards the noise, Jervis ordered his ships to prepare for action around dawn and stated, "A victory to England is very essential at this moment."

As the fog began to lift, it became clear that the British were outnumbered nearly two-to-one. Unfazed by the odds, Jervis instructed his fleet to form a line of battle. As the British approached, the Spanish fleet was divided into two groups. The larger, consisting of 18 ships of the line, was to the west, while the smaller, made up of 9 ships of the line stood to the east. Seeking to maximize the firepower of his ships, Jervis intended to pass between the two Spanish formations. Led by Captain Thomas Troubridge's HMS Culloden (74) Jervis' line began to pass the western Spanish group.

Though he had numbers, Córdoba directed his fleet to turn north to pass alongside the British and escape towards Cadiz. Seeing this, Jervis ordered Troubridge to tack to the north to pursue the larger body of Spanish ships. As the British fleet began to turn, several of its ships engaged the smaller Spanish squadron to the east. Turning to the north, the Jervis' line soon formed a "U" as it changed course. Third from the end of the line, Nelson realized that the present situation would not produce the decisive battle that Jervis wanted as the British would be forced to chase the Spanish.

Liberally interpreting Jervis' earlier order of "Take suitable stations for mutual support and engage the enemy as coming up in succession," Nelson told Captain Ralph Miller to pull Captain out of line and wear ship. Passing through HMS Diadem (64) and Excellent (74), Captain charged into the Spanish vanguard and engaged Santísima Trinidad (130). Though severely out-gunned, Captain battled six Spanish ships, including three that mounted over 100 guns. This bold move slowed the Spanish formation and allowed Culloden and subsequent British ships to catch up and join the fray.

Charging forward, Culloden entered the fight around 1:30 PM, while Captain Cuthbert Collingwood led Excellent into the battle. The arrival of additional British ships prevented the Spanish from banding together and drew fire away from Captain. Pushing forward, Collingwood pummeled Salvator del Mundo (112) before compelling San Ysidro (74) to surrender. Aided by Diadem and Victory, Excellent returned to Salvator del Mundo and forced that ship to strike its colors. Around 3:00, Excellent opened fire on San Nicolás (84) causing the Spanish ship to collide with San José (112).

Nearly out of control, the badly damaged Captain opened fire on the two fouled Spanish vessels before hooking onto San Nicolás. Leading his men forward, Nelson boarded San Nicolás and captured the vessel. While accepting its surrender, his men were fired upon by San José. Rallying his forces, Nelson surged aboard San José and compelled its crew to surrender. While Nelson was accomplishing this amazing feat, Santísima Trinidad had been forced to strike by the other British ships.

At this point, Pelayo (74) and San Pablo (74) came to the flagship's assistance. Bearing down on Diadem and Excellent, Captain Cayetano Valdés of Pelayo ordered Santísima Trinidad to re-hoist its colors or be treated as an enemy vessel. Doing so, Santísima Trinidad limped away as the two Spanish ships provided cover. By 4:00, the fighting effectively ended as the Spanish retreated east while Jervis ordered his ships to cover the prizes

Battle of Cape St. Vincent - Aftermath

The Battle of Cape St. Vincent resulted in the British capture of four Spanish ships of the line (San Nicolás, San José, San Ysidro, and Salvator del Mundo) including two first-rates. In the fighting, Spanish losses numbered around 250 killed and 550 wounded, while Jervis' fleet suffered 73 killed and 327 wounded. In reward for this stunning victory, Jervis was elevated to the peerage as Earl St. Vincent, while Nelson was promoted to rear admiral and made a knight in the Order of Bath. His tactic of boarding one Spanish ship to attack another was widely admired and for several years was known as "Nelson's patent bridge for boarding enemy vessels."

The victory at Cape St. Vincent led to a containment of the Spanish fleet and ultimately allowed Jervis to send a squadron back to the Mediterranean the following year. Led by Nelson, this fleet achieved a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1800s
  6. Napoleonic Wars - Naval Battles
  7. Battle of Cape St. Vincent - Horatio Nelson Battle of Cape St. Vincent

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