NELSON, Horatio, Viscount, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts

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Nelson defeated by the French.

NELSON, Horatio, Viscount (1758-1805). Vice-admiral.
Autograph Letter Signed ('Nelson & Bronte') to Captain Somerville, 1 page 4to (slightly stained, professionally restored), Medusa [Downs], 18 August 1801. Written only three days after Nelson had suffered his only defeat at the hands of the French in the disastrous attack on the fleet defending Boulogne.

'25 Sail got from Dunkirk to Calais this morning / do not let them pass to Bologne [sic], can Calais be Bombarded with a fair prospect of destroying these Vessels I have sent to Cat. Ferrier / I trust they will attempt it this night.'

In the summer of 1801 Britain had become embroiled in an invasion scare and had in rather a panic assembled a force under Nelson's command, the largest fleet that he had ever commanded. The idea was to prevent the forces believed to be massing in Boulogne from crossing the channel. The British fleet comprised many small and fast-moving vessels. Although by 15 August Nelson had become aware that the invasion would not come from Boulogne he nevertheless attacked the line of French ships defending the port with four divisions of his own, a fifth division being instructed to provide covering fire. In the event the French were well prepared and counter-attacked with heavy fire and the British ships became separated in the dark and by the strong tide. Their losses were heavy: 45 dead and 128 wounded.

The present letter shows Nelson mopping up after the disaster. He wants to ensure that the 25 French ships which had gone from Dunkirk to Calais would not continue to Boulogne, preferably by being destroyed where they were moored. The present letter is unpublished, but there is a letter dated 14 August (the day before the defeat) to Captain [John] Ferrier ordering him to take on board howitzers and supplies for bombardment ('Hecla, Sulphur and Explosion Bombs'), which suggests that these had not been used up on the night of the 15th.

Contemporary endorsement: '18th . Augst . 1801 / Medusa. Letter from Lord Nelson, boats having Escaped from Dunkirk to Calais'.
[No: 25942]

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