Nelson’s Letters Leading up to Trafalgar

Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, KB by Sir William Beechey

The following dispatches and diary entries are taken from a book of Nelson’s letters. They give us deep insight into the working of that great man’s mind as well as all the preparations and maneuvering in the days leading up to the Battle of Trafalgar. The very last diary entry, especially, shows us precisely why Nelson is Jack Aubrey’s hero.

Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson
October 15th through 21st, 1805

|Oct. 15th| |Oct. 16th| |Oct. 17th| |Oct. 18th| |Oct. 19th| |Oct. 20th| |Oct. 21th|


Victory, Oct. 15th, 1805.


You will, with the Agamemnon, take a station West from Cadiz from seven to ten leagues, by which means, if the Enemy should move, I hope to have instant information, as two or three Ships will be kept, as at present, between the Fleet and your two Ships; and it seems thought by Captain Blackwood that a Ship or two may attempt to drive the Frigates off, and if that should be the case you will be at hand to assist.

I am, Sir, with great respect, &c., NELSON AND BRONTE.


Victory, October 15th, 1805.

My dear Ball,

I send you our last newspapers. The combined Fleets are all at the Harbour’s Mouth, and must either move up again, or move off, before the winter sets in. I trust we shall be able to get hold of them. I want to send ten Sail of the Line, two Frigates, and two Sloops, off Toulon, Genoa, and that Coast, to cover our Army and to prevent any stores, provisions, &c., from moving along shore, and to save Sardinia; but as yet I have not the means; but when the Ships are released from the Expedition, and the Frigates carrying the money return, I shall have a very respectable Squadron in that part of the Mediterranean—probably under our friend Keats, if he will accept it, and give up the certainty of fighting with the Fleet, as my second [1]. Ever, my dear Ball, yours most faithfully,



Victory, off Cadiz, 15th October, 1805.

Captain Lechemere of His Majesty’s Ship Thunderer, having on the 25th September represented to me that Mr. Richard Keefe, Boatswain of that Ship, had left his duty, and not having returned previous to her sailing from Cawsand Bay, was ‘Run’ upon the Ship’s Books on the 17th of that month, at the same time requested that I would appoint another Boatswain in his room, which was complied with, by the nomination of Mr. James Sympson, Boatswain of the Euryalus; and it having been yesterday represented to me by Lieutenant Stockham, in the absence of Captain Lechemere, that the said Mr. Richard Keefe returned to the Thunderer by the Agamemnon; and as it is possible Mr. Keefe did not leave his duty with an intention to desert, although his conduct is very reprehensible, and rather wears the appearance of embezzlement of His Majesty’s stores, You are therefore hereby required and directed to repair immediately on board His Majesty’s Ship Thunderer, and in the first instance you will call for and most strictly examine the actual charge of stores he had by his Indents from Plymouth Dockyard, together with every article which the said Boatswain may have received from any other quarter, and actually remained on board on the 17th September, the day on which the said Boatswain appears to have been ‘ Run.’ You will then examine the Expense and Supply Books from that day until the 25th September, when Mr. Sympson took charge of the Thunderer, and when the stores that may have been expended or supplied to any Ship are added to the quantity remaining on the 25th September, it will then appear, by comparing this last account with the actual remains on the 17th September, whether any embezzlement or deficiency of stores have taken place in Mr. Keefe’s time.

As this is a service of very great importance, I must desire that you will strictly examine into every particular before mentioned, and that you do actually see every article of stores at present on board the Thunderer, and likewise compare the Expense Book during the short time Mr. Sympson has been Boatswain, which stores you will deliver from his charge into the charge and custody of Mr. Richard Keefe, the former Boatswain. And the more effectually to carry this order into execution, it is my directions that the Master and Captain’s Clerk of the Thunderer attend most strictly to this service, and that they not only see every article of stores in company with the Surveying Officers, but also render them every assistance and facility in their power, and put their names as witnesses to the said Survey, reporting to me from under your hands a most clear and distinct account of your proceedings herein, stating particularly the deficiency of stores (if any), by mentioning on a separate list the quality and quantity which may appear so deficient, and by what means it happened.


N.B. The Boatswains are to remain on board the Thunderer till the Survey is over.



Victory, October 15th, 1805.


Not having a copy of your orders, only hearing that the Lively is attached to Sir James Craig’s expedition, I find it impossible to give you any precise directions. I suppose you are to see them safe landed in Italy, and the Transports returned to Malta, or such part of them left with the Army as they may require. The Seahorse I have ordered to join me, which I desire may be complied with as expeditiously as possible, if she is not already sent; and if more Ships are wanted, you have my leave to take the Aurora in her place. When the General has no further occasion for your services, or for those of the Ambuscade and Aurora, I beg that you will join me, in order that I may place a strong Squadron off Toulon and Genoa, in order to prevent the Enemy from moving their stores and provisions coastways. This letter you will be so good as to communicate to Sir James Craig. And be assured I am, with the greatest esteem, &c.,



Victory, October 15th, 1805.

My dear Hamond,

I am very sorry to hear such a very indifferent account of your health. As soon as you have done with the Expedition, you had better make haste to us, and you will get well. I had the pleasure of seeing your good father several times for the few days I was in England. I think he was very well, considering how his mind has been tormented by the Earl and his crew 3, but I am confident he will stand the trial with honour. Sir Robert Calder has just left us to stand his trial, which I think of a very serious nature. God send him a good deliverance. Your father wished you home in your Ship, something about a Law-suit with Captain Lawford: in that, as in everything else in which I can with propriety meet your wishes, you may always rely upon the attention of, my dear Hamond, your very sincere friend,



Wednesday, 16th October.

Moderate breezes, Westerly. All the forenoon employed in forming the Fleet into the Order of Sailing. At Noon fresh breezes W.S.W. and squally; in the evening fresh gales. Enemy as before, by signal from Weazel.

October 17th.

Moderate breezes, North Westerly. Sent the Donegal to Gibraltar to get a ground-tier of casks. Received accounts by the Diligent Store-ship, that Sir Richard Strachan was supposed in sight of the French Rochefort Squadron, which I hope is true. At midnight the wind came to the Eastward.

October 18th.

Fine weather, wind Easterly; the Combined Fleets cannot have finer weather to put to sea.


Victory, October 18th, 1805.

My dear Coll.,

I send you Blackwood’s letter, and the very interesting intelligence from Lieutenant Lloyd of the Diligent Store-ship. The Eurydice did not speak her, as Sir William Bolton reports to me that he chased off a Guernsey Privateer Schooner, who had with her a Re-capture, one of the Lisbon Fleet, loaded with cloths, and the Frenchmen in her. His Excellency Governor Thigh, family, and all the good folks for New South Wales, have been taken in the Calcutta; but I think Sir Richard Strachan will either spoil their cruize or lock them up in Vigo. I wish he had a good Three-decker with him. Donegal being obliged to go into the Mole for two days, I have advanced her. I hope the Westerly wind has carried the Convoy above Carthagena, and that it will bring Admiral Louis out of the Mediterranean: at all events the Niger and water. Ever, my dear Coll., yours faithfully,



Victory, off Cadiz, 18th October, 1805.


Captain Lechmere of the Thunderer having acquainted me on the 25th September last, that Mr. Richard Keefe, Boatswain of that Ship, had left her previous to her sailing from Plymouth, and was ‘Run’ upon the Books on the 17th of that month, and at the same time requesting that I would appoint a Boatswain in his room; you will be pleased to acquaint the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that in consequence of the above circumstances I appointed Mr. James Sympson, Boatswain of the Euryalus, to the Thunderer. But on the Agamemnon’s arrival, I received a letter from the Commanding Officer of the Thunderer, acquainting me that the said Mr. Keefe had joined; and conceiving that his having absented from that Ship was not with a view to desert, although it left on my mind some suspicion of embezzlement of stores, I judged it proper that the most strict investigation of every circumstance should take place, previous to his taking charge of the Thunderer as Boatswain, and therefore, gave an order for that purpose, a copy of which, together with the Report of Survey, and an account of the surplus and deficient stores accompany this, which you will be pleased to lay before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for their information; and at the same time acquaint their Lordships, that although there appears some deficiencies on the said list, yet it is well known to the Sea Lords that many stores are used in fitting out a Ship which (from the various duties carrying on, and the Boatswain being frequently absent on service) are omitted to be duly expended. It also appears that there are some surplus stores, which perhaps may be accounted for in the same way.

I am, Sir, &c., NELSON AND BRONTE.


Victory, October 19th, 1805.

My dear Coll.,

For 16th read 10th in Mr. Lloyd’s letter. We have letters from the Cæsar. It was the Rochefort Squadron that took the Calcutta. She was homeward-bound: so Governor Bligh has escaped, and all the damsels, which were to go out in her, from being ravished by the French. Yesterday, by the Guernsey man, we had the French Officer on board. He belonged to the Magnanime. He says they should have taken the Agamemnon in the night, but they fancied the Oporto and Lisbon Convoy were Ships of War. Four West Indiamen, some Whalers, and the Calcutta, with very few of the Lisbon Convoy, is the fruit of their cruize. The Firstrate sails faster than any of them: five Sail of the Line, three Frigates, and two Brigs. Sir Richard has five Sail; but I think he will have enough upon his hands, and from my soul I wish him well over it.

I am a little afraid that [Rear-Admiral] Louis had got a certain distance with the Malta Convoy, but not far enough to secure them from the gentlemen at Carthagena; but I desired him to consider that other Ships wanted water, and that an Easterly wind must not be lost. I therefore hope, if that is the case, he will bring them back to the Rock, and the Earl [of Northesk] must see them safe when his water is completed.

When I get Ships I want to place Ships in the upper part of the Mediterranean; but at present I have them not Leviathan shall relieve Defence; and Colossus we can call in, when we see the Niger. Neptune will make a large hole in one Transport, and Colossus and Defence in the other. What a beautiful day! Will you be tempted out of your Ship ? If you will, hoist the Assent and Victory’s pendants

Ever, my dear Coll., yours most faithfully, NELSON AND BRONTE.

The following letter was found open on Lord Nelson’s desk, and was brought to Lady Hamilton by Captain Hardy.


Victory, October 19th, 1805, Noon, Cadiz, E.S.E., 16 Leagues.

My dearest beloved Emma, the dear friend of my bosom. The signal has been made that the Enemy’s Combined Fleet are coming out of Port. We have very little wind, so that I have no hopes of seeing them before to-morrow. May the God of Battles crown my endeavours with success; at all events, I will take care that my name shall ever be most dear to you and Horatia, both of whom I love as much as my own life. And as my last writing before the Battle will be to you, so I hope in God that I shall live to finish my letter after the Battle. May Heaven bless you prays your


October 20th. In the morning, we were close to the Mouth of the Straits, but the wind had not come far enough to the Westward to allow the Combined Fleets to weather the Shoals off Trafalgar; but they were counted as far as forty Sail of Ships of War, which I suppose to be thirty-four of the Line, and six Frigates. A group of them was seen off the Lighthouse of Cadiz this morning, but it blows so very fresh and thick weather, that I rather believe they will go into the Harbour before night. May God Almighty give us success over these fellows, and enable us to get a Peace.


Victory, October 19th, 1805.

My dearest Angel, I was made happy by the pleasure of receiving your letter of September 19th, and I rejoice to hear that you are so very good a girl, and love my dear Lady Hamilton, who most dearly loves you. Give her a kiss for me. The Combined Fleets of the Enemy are now reported to be coming out of Cadiz; and therefore I answer your letter, my dearest Horatia, to mark to you that you are ever uppermost in my thoughts. I shall be sure of your prayers for my safety, conquest, and speedy return to dear Merton, and our dearest good Lady Hamilton. Be a good girl, mind what Miss Connor says to you. Receive, my dearest Horatia, the affectionate parental blessing of your Father,



October 19th.

Fine weather, wind Easterly. At half-past nine, the Mars, being one of the look-out Ships, repeated the Signal, ‘that the Enemy was coming out of Port,—made the Signal for a ‘General Chase S.E.’ wind at South, Cadiz bearing E.N.E;. by compass, distant sixteen leagues. At three the Colossus, made the Signal, that the Enemy’s Fleet was at sea., In the evening directed the Fleet to observe my motions during the night, and for Britannia, Prince, and Dreadnought, they being heavy sailers, to take their stations as convenient; and for Mars, Orion, Belleisle, Leviathan, Bellerophon, and Polyphemus, to go ahead during the night, and to carry a light, standing for the Straits’ Mouth.


Victory, off Cadiz, 20th October, 1805.

Captain Blackwood to keep with two Frigates in sight of the Enemy in the night. Two other Frigates to be placed between him and the Defence, Captain Hope. Colossus will take her station between Defence and Mars. Mars to communicate with the Victory.


If the Enemy are standing to the Southward, or towards the Straits, burn two blue lights together, every hour, in order to make the greater blaze. If the Enemy are standing to the Westward three guns, quick, every hour.



Sunday, October 20, 1805.

Fresh breezes SSW. and rainy. Communicated with Phoebe, Defence, and Colossus, who saw near forty Sail of Ships of War outside of Cadiz yesterday evening; but the wind being Southerly, they could not get to the Mouth of the Straits. We were between Trafalgar and Cape Spartel. The Frigates made the signal that they saw 9 Sail outside the Harbour; gave the Frigates instructions for their guidance, and placed Defence, Colossus, and Mars, between me and the Frigates. At noon fresh gales and heavy rain, Cadiz N.E. 9 leagues. In the afternoon Captain Blackwood telegraphed that the Enemy seemed determined to go to the Westward; and that they shall not do if in the power of Nelson and Bronte to prevent them. At 5 telegraphed Captain B., that I relied upon his keeping sight of the Enemy. At 6 o’clock Naiad made the signal for 31 Sail of the Enemy N.N.E. The Frigates and look-out Ships kept sight of the Enemy most admirably all night, and told me by signals which tack they were upon. At 8 we wore, and stood to the S.W., and at four A.M. wore, stood to the N.E.


Monday, October 21st, 1805.

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.

Courtesy of The War Times Journal
Image: Horatio Nelson by Sir William Beechey

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply