Saturday Snippet: Nelson evacuates Corsica in the face of revolutionaries


Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson is perhaps the most famous of Britain’s “seadog Admirals”, earning a brilliant military reputation at battles such as Cape St. Vincent, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the Nile and Copenhagen, before his final victory – and death – at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

One of his accomplishments was as a Captain in the Mediterranean in 1794, when as commanding officer of the 64-gun ship of the line HMS Agamemnon, he led the invasion of Corsica to take it from its French Revolutionary garrison.  A few years later, as French forces slowly conquered what is today Italy, it was decided that Corsica had to be evacuated.  Many refugees from Revolutionary forces in Italy had fled there, and they had to be taken to safety.  The operation was threatened by the presence of many pro-French partisan bands on the island, but by a combination of diplomacy and naked threats of violence, Nelson succeeded in getting everyone who wanted to leave Corsica off the island.

One of the ship’s company of HMS Agamemnon, who signed himself simply by the initials M.C., described the evacuation of Corsica in 1796.  His account was recently republished in a volume of naval memoir excerpts titled “Every Man Will Do His Duty: An Anthology of Firsthand Accounts from the Age of Nelson 1793–1815“.

The book is a fascinating compendium of accounts from those who experienced them.  Some deal with major historical events such as Trafalgar and the death of Nelson.  Others describe less well-known events, but which were nevertheless important in the context of the naval wars of the time.  I’ve selected the chapter covering the evacuation of Corsica for its amusement value as much as its historical nature.  (Look for the use of a wooden leg as a weapon of close combat!)

IN THE YEAR 1796 [actually, 1795] Captain Nelson had charge of a small squadron, under Admiral [of the Blue William] Hotham, which was sent to co-operate with the Austrian general, in order to drive the French from the Riviera de Genoa. It was during the night that the admiral got under weigh, but did not get sight of the enemy for several days, when a partial action took place [on July 13,1795]. L’Alcide (74) struck, but the rest of the fleet got a wind, which blowing right on the land, enabled them to get close in shore, while the English fleet, at seven miles distance, were completely becalmed. About half an hour after L’Alcide struck, a box of combustibles, which were stowed in her foretop, accidentally caught fire, and, despite of all exertions to extinguish it, the flames spread so quickly that the ship was soon an entire mass of flame. The crew were seen running to and fro in a state of distraction. Our fleet lost no time in manning their boats, and we succeeded in rescuing upwards of 200 of the crew. Our boats were the last that left the vessel, and had not got a mile from her ere she blew up, with a tremendous explosion, scattering in the air those of her unfortunate crew that remained on board, and who could not have been less than 300 souls. Our ship, the Agamemnon, had none killed, and not more than one or two wounded. But we got a number of shots under water, and we had sharp work at the pumps to keep her dry. We anchored only a few hours at St. Fiorenzo, and then Captain Nelson was again despatched in the Agamemnon.

Nelson at this time was made colonel of Marines, which he had long wished for, but little expected. It was pretty well known that great changes were about to take place in the fleet, and Nelson expressed an ardent hope that he should be commissioned for some ship. His health, however, had been much impaired, and until this promotion occurred he had harboured a wish to return to England, and rest awhile; but the events that intervened effectually prevented it. Admiral Jervis was appointed to the command of the Mediterranean fleet early in November [1795] and his penetration soon discovered that Nelson possessed a combination of resources and abilities rarely to be met with, and he determined to give him immediate opportunities of signalizing himself.

The Agamemnon, having been severely cut to pieces by shot in the late engagement, had been brought into Leghorn to refit, and it was expected she would be sent home; and Captain Nelson intended to return in her to England. But Admiral Jervis did not feel inclined to part with him; he therefore offered him the St. George, 90 guns, or the Zealous, 74, which he, however, declined, but at the same time expressed a great wish to serve under the admiral, should the war continue.

The candid manner in which Nelson expressed himself made a most favourable impression on Admiral Jervis, and they soon became mutually attached. Jervis quickly fathomed the disposition of Nelson; he saw that his great aim was command, and that he yearned to try his fortune as a Commander. He, therefore, convinced Nelson that it would be folly to think of going to England at a moment when every chance of rapid promotion offered itself; and finding that Nelson’s resolution wavered, he at once promoted him to the rank of temporary commodore. The lure was too tempting to be evaded, and Nelson at once resolving to forego his intended trip to England, hoisted his pendant on board his old ship, the Agamemnon. There was little or nothing to be done; Buonaparte was then the great meteor of France, and affairs were undergoing a rapid change. Nelson was now established in permanent rank, and appointed to the Captain, 74; having a Captain appointed to command under him.

We gained intelligence that six vessels, laden with ordnance and ammunition, had sailed from Toulon, for the siege of Mantua. Nelson, having the aid of Captain Cockburn, in the Meleager, went in pursuit, and drove them under a battery, which kept up a sharp cannonade; but we soon silenced it, and, pursuing the flying enemy, succeeded in capturing the whole of them. In addition to the ordnance and warlike stores on board, we found military books, plans and maps of Italy, and many very useful papers, intended for Buonaparte’s use. The consequence of this victory was disastrous to the French, who, being deprived of their expected supply of ammunition, were obliged to raise the siege of Mantua, and if the Allied Powers had taken more active measures on land, they would doubtless have improved this success, and prevented Buonaparte from taking possession of Leghorn [Livorno],which he did soon after; but Nelson was on the alert, and closely blockaded him in Leghorn, while, at the same time, he landed a British force on the island of Elba.

In consequence of the war with Spain, orders were received that Corsica was immediately to be given up, and the fleet were to quit the Mediterranean. Nelson was paralyzed. This intelligence was so contrary to the orders he had received from Admiral Jervis that he knew not how to act. He immediately sent a despatch to the admiral, and loudly lamented the present orders, which he openly characterized as disgraceful to the honour of England. His chagrin was too great to be concealed from his officers or crew, and in the bitterness of his disappointment he remarked, “The Ministers at home do not seem to know the capabilities of our fleet. I frankly declare I never beheld one in point of officers and men equal to that under Sir John Jervis, who is a commander-in-chief fully capable of increasing the glory of England.”

Sir John Jervis was as much chagrined as Nelson, and although the bluff sailor concealed his feelings from those around him, yet the whole fleet were well aware that he was prepared to act very differently. However, much as we all regretted it, there was no help. The orders had arrived, and must be obeyed.

On the 13th of October, Captain Nelson was close in with Bastia by daylight, in the Diadem, Captain Towry; and, before it came to anchor, Nelson, accompanied by his boat’s crew, went on shore to visit the viceroy, who was rejoiced to see him, and requested that his valuable papers might immediately be sent on board by our boat, for it was impossible to foresee how long they might be safe on shore at Bastia.

We went to the viceroy’s house, and got all the valuables safe into the boat, which we took on board ship, and then returned with a further supply of boats and men. It now appeared that the Corsicans had taken up arms, and that a committee of thirty had seized and detained all the property of the English, and that a plan had been laid to seize the person of the viceroy. General de Burgh also reported to Captain Nelson, that, from the number of armed Corsicans, there was little or no prospect of saving either stores, cannon, or provisions. But Nelson, whose decision was promptitude itself, ordered the citadel gate to be shut, in order to prevent any more armed Corsicans from entering, and gave immediate orders to moor his ships opposite the town. The merchants and owners likewise informed him that even their trunks of clothes were refused them, and that they would be complete beggars unless he could help them. A privateer had been moored across the mole-head by the Corsicans, which would not even allow a transport boat to pass. Nelson requested them to remain easy, and assured them that he would soon find means to relieve them.

At this time, while our boat’s crew were waiting on shore, we observed several armed Corsicans making towards the citadel, who seemed struck with surprise when they found the gate closed upon them. We could not refrain from laughing at their disappointment; which provoked them to such a degree, that one fellow had the temerity to present his piece at us, exclaiming, “Brigands Anglais!” (rascally Englishmen!) intending to fire amongst us: but, unfortunately for him, Archibald Menzies, our stroke-oar (whom we nicknamed “Scotch Hercules” on account of his immense strength), who was taking his cutty, or short pipe, comfortably near the gate, caught sight of this maneuver, and, rushing up to the dastard Corsican, gave him such a severe blow under the ear with his iron fist that he fell and completely rolled over in the dust with the force of the blow. His companions paused for a moment in surprise, as they eyed the tall gaunt figure of Archibald, but suddenly rushed in a body upon him; but Archibald, having torn up a wooden rail that ran along the road-side, laid about him with such fury that the cowardly Corsicans threw down their arms and ran for their lives; and before we could reach the spot, although we ran as quickly as we could, to assist our messmate, Archibald was master of the field, his assailants having all decamped except two unfortunate fellows whom he held fast in his iron gripe.

“Deil tak you!” exclaimed Archy,—“d’ye ken me? Never show your ugly walnut-coloured faces to a Briton again, unless you can behave like cannie men, or, by Saint Andrew! I’ll batter your faces against each ither till ye shallna ken whether you be yourselves or no. Get awa wi’ ye, ye cursed black-nebs! I dinna like to swear, but I’ll be d—d if I don’t mak haggis-meat o’ ye, if I catch you here again.”

Having let them loose, which he did with a kick behind, the fellows made swift work of it, and were soon out of sight. We collected the arms they had left, and stowed them safely in the boat.

Nelson having returned from the citadel, we quickly got on board in order to commence operations. The Egmont, Captain [John] Sutton, had now arrived, and was ordered to moor the same as the Diadem. At noon, Captain Nelson made the signal for the boats manned and armed, and Captain [George Henry] Towry [of HMS Diadem] proceeded into the mole with them, in order to open the passage for all vessels which might choose to come out. Captain Towry had also received instructions from Nelson to take the first English vessel in tow which he met with; and, if the slightest molestation was offered, he was to send to the municipality in his (Nelson’s) name, to tell them that if any obstruction was thrown in the way of getting any vessel out of the mole, or removing any of the property belonging to the English, he would instantly batter the town about their ears.

Now it has always been said, that the great John Duke of Marlborough created such terror and dismay among the enemies of England, by his rapid and surprising succession of victories, that he was in France held up as a bugbear; and nurses were accustomed to frighten refractory children into submission by telling them Malbrouk would come and take them away. The name of Nelson was not without its terrors among the Corsicans, and they never heard it without a feeling of fear; and I believe they would as soon have faced the devil himself as Nelson, as the sequel will show.

Captain Towry proceeded to the mole, when the privateer, which was moored across it, immediately pointed her guns at him, and at least an hundred guns were levelled from the mole-head. On observing this, Capt. Sutton immediately sent Nelson’s message on shore, which threatened to batter down the town if a single shot was fired, and, taking out his watch, said he would give them a quarter-of-an-hour for a reply, which if not fully satisfactory the ships would instantly open their fire.

Nelson’s name was enough, and more so when the Corsicans found that Towry and Sutton were not to be trifled with. The message acted like magic, for in a few minutes the people quitted the privateer; and those at the mole-head, even to the Corsican sentries, quitted the spot with the utmost precipitation, leaving the vessels to come out of the mole entirely unmolested.

We were now occasionally on shore as well as on board, according to circumstances; for it appeared the municipality were still bent on committing depredations whenever they could do so with impunity. Captain Nelson, therefore, made it his custom to remain where he could be easiest of access, in order that all persons who had complaints to make might do so with facility.

In the course of the day, the owner of a privateer came to complain that he had forty hogsheads of tobacco and other goods in the custom-house, which the municipality refused to deliver to him; whereupon Captain Nelson told him to go to the Committee of Thirty, and say that he (Nelson) had sent for the goods, which, if not instantly delivered, he would fire upon the town. The owner not liking to go alone, Nelson sent a midshipman, with half-a-dozen men as a kind of convoy, among whom was Archibald Menzies. The owner delivered the message, and the Committee seemed to hint at requiring time to consider; but the midshipman said he could brook no delay; whereupon Archibald, who could contain himself no longer, burst out with, “Hoot awa’ wi’ ye, and your dally dirty ways; ye ken this gentleman is our officer, and we canna stand here waiting for your decision. Ye ken, if ye dinna give up the goods this instant, our Captain will give your dirty town such a belabouring, that he’ll nae leave one stane upon the t’other. So come awa’ wi’ ye, mister merchant.” Archy’s speech decided the controversy; the Corsicans did not like the threats of Captain Nelson, nor did they like the looks of the man that uttered them. They all turned as pale as death; and, without uttering a single word, delivered up the keys to the merchant, who returned with the boat’s crew to Nelson, and acquainted him with the result of his errand; who took immediate means to put the owner in possession of his property.

One would have supposed that the Corsicans had received sufficient proofs that the English would not be trifled with; but they still obstinately clung to their desire to annoy the British merchants, for, in the evening, they made an attempt to get duty paid for some wine which was about to be embarked by a British merchant. However, Captain Nelson sent a message to them, declaring, that if any more complaints were made to him, however slight their nature, he should, without any further notice, pay them such a visit as they would have cause to repent. This was conclusive; the Committee saw that further attempts at opposition would be likely to draw down destruction on them, and they therefore gave up their system of annoyance; and from that moment not an armed man was to be seen in the streets of Bastia.

The viceroy was taken on board our ship that night, and was consequently placed out of danger. Nelson landed his troops on the 15th, early in the morning; who took post at the viceroy’s house, which covered the spot where the embarkation took place. General de Burgh also furnished another hundred men for the same purpose, part of which kept post in the citadel. One hundred seamen were also sent on shore to complete the embarkation. One of our men met with a strange adventure. John Thompson, while ashore, heard the wailings of a female, and other persons’ voices speaking peremptorily. Jack, conceiving he had a right to interfere if anything was going wrong, listened awhile, and soon found that his assistance would be required. The door opened, and four rough-looking fellows pulled a couple of chests into the street.

“Avast! you saffron-faced swabs,” cried Jack, as he placed himself in front of them; “What are you going to be after with the lady’s cargo, eh?”

“Contrabande! contrabande! choses prohibées!” exclaimed the Corsicans.

“Chose be d—d,” cried Jack; “none of your nonsense with me. Let the lady have her goods, or by the honour of my Commander, I’ll spoil your daylights!”

“Non intendo, non intendo!” exclaimed the Corsicans, (meaning, we don’t understand you.)

But Jack mistook the meaning of the word, and exclaimed, “Not intend it! Yes, but you did intend it, you lying swab, and you would have DONE it too, if I had not been here to prevent you.”

The Corsicans paused a little; but seeing that Thompson was quite alone, and they were four in number, they determined on attacking and overpowering him; consequently two of them advanced, but Jack Thompson knocked them down with his fists; the others then advanced, but at this moment an unexpected reinforcement arrived; for the hostess observing the unequal attack of the cowardly Corsicans, rushed to the spot, followed by her stable-boy, and seizing a broomstick, while the stable-boy presented a pitchfork, they laid about them with such spirit that they proved a powerful reinforcement to Jack Thompson.

Others of the Corsican breed joined their rascally companions, and Jack Thompson and his two auxiliaries would doubtless have been defeated; but the timely arrival of half-a-dozen of our crew struck the Corsicans with such terror that they made a precipitate retreat, and left Jack Thompson and his confederates in possession of the prize.

The husband of the hostess wore a wooden leg, and therefore could not join in the active part of the fray; he, however, proved of signal service, and acted occasionally as a flanking battery; for, having seated himself on one of the tubs, he pulled off his wooden leg, and every Corsican who happened to come within his reach during the scuffle, received a hearty thump with it from the old gentleman, who, at every blow, roared out, “Viva Inglesi—Bono Inglesi!”

The hostess and her caro marito (as she termed her husband) insisted on our partaking of some refreshment; and so pleased were they with our presence, that I believe, if we could have emptied one of their brandy casks, we should have been welcome. Having regaled ourselves, we assisted them to remove their property to a place of safety.

We now went heartily to work in removing provisions, cannon, gunpowder, and various stores, besides a vast quantity of baggage and household articles; for the poor emigrants could not afford to leave any things behind them. There were many novel scenes exhibited in Bastia at this time. Whole families might be seen moving along with their little stock of goods under the protection of British sailors or soldiers, while their enemies could do no more than look on with envy and vexation, and see themselves deprived of their intended plunder.

Our sailors had plenty of opportunities of displaying their gallantry; for it was nothing uncommon to see two or three of our ship’s crew marching along with a female under each arm, convoying them safely to the place of embarkation. Here you might see a group of men conveying a lot of furniture, while the family were carrying the lighter articles, such as bandboxes, bundles, and such-like gear. Our carpenter’s second mate was an Irishman, and a merry fellow he was; but he was rather ill-favoured in his appearance. He had somewhat of a squint about his eyes, rather a flat nose, and a wide mouth, and he passed by the cognomen of the “Munster Beauty.” Poor Pat Macguire! he was as able a seaman as ever sailed in the fleet; and whenever he committed a blunder it was on the right side: he lived long enough to see much service, for I think it was in the battle of Trafalgar that a grape-shot signed his death-warrant.

Pat Macguire had charge of the removal of the domestic part of the goods, and proud enough he was of the berth, and well pleased into the bargain; for Pat was always fond of being in ladies’ company, and here he was surrounded by all ranks. Old and young, rich and poor—all came to consult Pat as to the manner in which they were to proceed.

Some of our strongest men, who were employed in removing the cannon and other cumbersome materials, took good care to jeer Pat Macguire in his enviable employment. One would say, “There’s Mister Macguire, the lady’s man—pretty, delicate creature—he’s obliged to be stationed here to look after the gowns and petticoats, because our work is too hard for him.”

Old Jack Townsend (the grumbler) would say, “What can you expect of an Irishman?—They never were able seamen; they’re of no use on board, unless it be to act as washerwomen.”

“A bull—a bull!” cried Pat Macguire; “who ever heard of a man-washerwoman? Now, look you, Master Townsend, it’s no use your jibing and jeering after that fashion, because ye see the Captain has picked me out for this especial service, because I was one of the most polite and best-behaved of the crew. And let me tell you that there’s neither man, woman, nor child, that sails on the salt sea, that knows how to accommodate the ladies better, or half so well, as an Irishman. So, roll that up as a quid and chew it, Master Townsend, if you plase.”

“Ugh!” said old Townsend, “that’s all you’re good for. I dare say the Captain will give you a new berth aboard—he’ll make you head nurse to the women.”

“Och, good luck to him!” cried Pat; “I wish he may. Hurrah, old Jack! Pat Macguire’s just the boy for a nursery-maid.”

Had our time not been too much occupied, we should have derived much amusement by setting old Townsend and Pat Macguire on the high ropes, but our duty was rather hard, and time was running short, and, therefore, there was no other jeering except a little occasional shy fighting between these two, whose opinions differed as widely as the east and west winds.

Pat Macguire was also a bit of a politician and occasionally made some very shrewd remarks. When the despatch arrived which ordered us to evacuate Corsica, it caused much murmuring in the fleet, particularly among those who had seen good service under Sir John Jervis; and this gave Pat Macguire an opportunity of giving his opinion on the state of parties. One of the sailors having asked who it was that caused such orders to be given, Pat replied, “Sure, it was the Parliament.”

“Then,” said one of the topmen, “the Parliament never sailed under Admiral Jervis, nor fought as we have done.”

Whereupon Pat Macguire, with a look of the most signal contempt, exclaimed— “’Sblood, man, d’ye take the Parliament for a man or a woman? The Parliament, I’d have you to know, is a great many people mustered together, and they settle the affairs of the nation by talking to each other.”

“Talking to each other!” echoed the topman.

“Yes,” continued Pat; “they talk till they talk the breath out of each other, and then it’s put to the vote as to who spoke the longest and loudest, and that’s the one as gains the day.”

“And is that all they do?” inquired the topman.

“Yes, honey,” replied Pat; “they talk and we execute.”

Pat’s logic was too learned to allow the topman to argue any further; and the Boatswain having piped to quarters put an end to the debate.

We had now worked without intermission till sunset on the 19th, and must have saved about two hundred thousand pounds’ worth of stores, and other effects belonging to the emigrants.

The French had landed their troops at Cape Corse on the 18th, and on the following day they sent to the municipality to know if they intended to receive them as friends, because, if so, they required that the English should be prevented from embarking. Time would not allow us to save anything more, and, therefore, after having spiked all the guns, we quitted the citadel at midnight; but, from the wind blowing a gale, it was dawn of day before we all got on board. All the time these transactions were going on, we were observed by a mob of Corsicans, who lined the shore, and who had the mortification to witness every soul embark who chose to leave the island, without their daring to offer the least molestation.

Captain Nelson and General de Burgh were the last who left the spot; and as Nelson stepped into the boat, he coolly turned to the mob and said, “Now, John Corse, follow the natural bent of your detestable character—plunder and revenge!” We were soon on board, and in less than half an hour we showed our sterns to the island of Corsica.

I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall, to watch the old gentleman wielding his wooden leg with such gusto.  Nowadays, of course, it’d probably be against the Geneva Convention or something – but it’s still a great story!


1 comment

  1. That was a very good read!
    Thank you for posting it. And what an extensive piece of research to put that book together.

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