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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

1 but the Culloden and other van ships soon came up


Battle of Cape St. Vincent_

The Spanish fleet, now 27, was at this time returning to Cadiz, as a first step toward a grand naval concentration in the north. A stiff Levanter having thrown the Spanish far beyond their destination, they were returning eastward when on February 14, 1797, the two fleets came in contact within sight of Cape St. Vincent. In view of the existing political situation, and the known inefficiency of the Spanish in sea fighting, Jervis decided to attack. "A victory," he is said to have remarked, "is very essential to England at this hour."

As a fresh westerly wind blew away the morning fog, the Spanish were fully revealed to southward, running before the wind, badly scattered, with 7 ships far in advance and thus to leeward of the rest. After some preliminary pursuit, the British formed in a single column (Troubridge in the _Culloden_ first, the flagship _Victory_ seventh, and Nelson in the _Captain_ third from the rear), and took a southerly course which would carry them between the two enemy groups. As soon as they found themselves thus separated, the Spanish weather division hauled their wind, opened fire, and ran to northward along the weather side of the British line; while the lee division at first also turned northward and made some effort to unite with the rest of their company by breaking through the enemy formation, but were thrown back by a heavy broadside from the _Victory_.

Having accomplished his first purpose, Jervis had already, at about noon, hoisted the signal to "tack in succession," which meant that each ship should continue her course to the point where the _Culloden_ came about and then follow her in pursuit of the enemy weather division. This critical and much discussed maneuver appears entirely justified. The British by tacking in succession kept their column still between the parts of the enemy, its rear covering the enemy lee division, and the whole formation still in perfect order and control, as it would not have been had the ships tacked simultaneously. Again, if the attack had been made on the small group to leeward, the Spanish weather division could easily have run down into the action and thus brought their full strength to bear.

[Illustration: BATTLE OF CAPE ST. VINCENT, FEBRUARY 14, 1797

BRITISH: 15 ships, 1232 guns. SPANISH: 27 ships, 2286 guns.]

But against an enemy so superior in numbers more was needed to keep the situation in hand. Shortly before one o'clock, when several British vessels had already filled away on the new course, Nelson from his position well back in the column saw that the leading ships of the main enemy division were swinging off to eastward as if to escape around the British rear. Eager to get into the fighting, of which his present course gave little promise, and without waiting for orders, he wore out of the column, passed between the two ships next astern, and threw himself directly upon the three big three-deckers, including the flagship _Santisima Trindad_ (130 guns), which headed the enemy line. Before the fighting was over, his ship was badly battered, "her foretopmast and wheel shot away, and not a sail, shroud or rope left";[1] but the _Culloden_ and other van ships soon came up, and also Collingwood in the _Excellent_ from the rear, after orders from Jervis for which Nelson had not waited. Out of the melee the British emerged with four prizes, Nelson himself having boarded the _San Nicolas_ (80), cleared her decks, and with reenforcements from his own ship passed across her to receive the surrender of the _San Josef_ (112). The swords of the vanquished Spanish, Nelson says, "I gave to William Fearney, one of my bargemen, who placed them with the greatest _sangfroid_ under his arm."

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