Admiral Hotham’s Action 12-14 March 1795

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Admiral Hothams Action 12 14 March 1795

In March 1795, Admiral Hotham was in temporary command of
the Mediterranean Fleet. On 8 March Hotham heard that the French Admiral Pierre
Martin had sailed with fifteen ships-of-the-line from Toulon to protect a troop
convoy intended for the invasion of Corsica. Hotham led his fourteen
battleships in pursuit. Nelson himself described:

12 March. At daylight our fleet much scattered. At 6 A. M.
Princess Royal made the signal for the enemy’s fleet, south. We endeavoured to
join the Princess Royal, which we accomplished at 9. Light airs, southerly: the
enemy’s fleet nearing us very fast, our fleet nearly becalmed. At 9.15, Admiral
Goodall (in Princess Royal) made the signal for the ships near to form ahead
and astern of him, as most convenient: Admiral Hotham (in Britannia) made the
same signal. Our ships endeavouring to form a junction; the enemy pointing to
separate us, but under a very easy sail.

They did not appear to me to act like officers who knew
anything of their profession. At noon, they began to form a line on the
larboard tack, which they never accomplished. At 2 P. M. they bore down in a
line ahead, nearly before the wind, but not more than nine sail formed. They
then hauled the wind on the larboard tack; about three miles from us, the wind
southerly, Genoa lighthouse NNE about five leagues; saw the town very plain. At
3. 1 5 P. M. joined Admiral Hotham; who made the signal to prepare for battle;
the body of the enemy’s fleet about three or four miles distant. At 4.6, signal
to form the order of battle on the larboard tack: 4.30, signal for each ship to
carry a light during the night. At 5.16, signal for each ship to take suitable
stations for their mutual support, and to engage the enemy as they came up. Our
fleet at this time was tolerably well formed, and with a fine breeze, easterly;
which, had it lasted half an hour, would certainly have led us through the
enemy’s fleet, about four ships from the van ship, which was separated from the
centre about one mile. At 5.45, the fleet hoisted their colours. At dark, the
wind came fresh from the westward. At 6.55, the signal to wear together. A
fresh breeze all night: stood to the southward all night, as did the enemy.

13 March. At daylight, the enemy’s fleet in the SW, about
three or four leagues with fresh breezes. Signal for a general chase. At 8 A.
M. a French ship of the line carried away her main and fore topmasts. At 9.15,
the Inconstant frigate fired at the disabled ship, but receiving many shot, was
obliged to leave her. At 10 A. M. tacked and stood towards the disabled ship,
and two other ships of the line. The disabled ship proved to be the Ca Ira of
84 guns, 1,300 men; (the others were the) Sans Culotte, 1 20 guns; and the Jean
Bart 74 guns. We could have fetched the Sans Culotte, by passing the Ca Ira to
windward, but on looking round I saw no ship of the line within several miles
to support me; the Captain was the nearest on our lee quarter. I then
determined to direct my attention to the Ca Ira, who, at 10.15, was taken in
tow by a frigate; the Sans Culotte and Jean Bart keeping about gunshot distance
on her weather bow. At 10.20 the Ca Ira began firing her stern chasers. At
10.30 the Inconstant passed us to leeward, standing for the fleet. As we drew
up with the enemy, so true did she fire her stern-guns that not a shot missed
some part of the ship, and latterly the masts were struck every shot, which
obliged me to open our fire a few minutes sooner than I intended, for it was my
intention to have touched his stern before a shot was fired. But seeing plainly
from the situation of the two fleets, the impossibility of being supported, and
in case any accident happened to our masts, the certainty of being severely cut
up, I resolved to fire so soon as I thought we had a certainty of hitting. At
11.15 A. M., being within one hundred yards of the Ca Ira’s stern, I ordered
the helm to be put a-starboard, and the driver and after-sails to be braced up
and shivered, and as the ship fell off; gave her our whole broadside, each gun
double-shotted. Scarcely a shot appeared to miss. The instant all were fired,
braced up our after-yards, put the helm a-port, and stood after her again. This
manoeuvre we practised till 1 P. M., never allowing the Ca Ira to get a single
gun from either side to fire on us. They attempted some of their after-guns,
but all went far ahead of us. At this time the Ca Ira was a perfect wreck, her
sails hanging in tatters, mizen top-mast, mizen topsail, and cross jack yards
shot away. At 1 P. M. the frigate hove in stays, and got the Ca Ira round.

I observed the guns of the Ca Ira to be much elevated,
doubtless laid for our rigging and distant shots, and when she opened her fire
in passing, the elevation not being altered, almost every shot passed over us,
very few striking our hull. The captain of the Ca Ira told Admiral Goodall and
myself that we had killed and, wounded one hundred and ten men, and so cut his
rigging to pieces that it was impossible for him to get up other topmasts.

As the frigate first, and then the Ca Ira, got their guns to
bear, each opened her fire, and we passed within half pistol shot. As soon as
our after-guns ceased to bear, the ship was hove in stays, keeping, as she came
round, a constant fire, and the ship was worked with as much exactness as if
she had been turning into Spithead. On getting round, I saw the Sans Culotte,
who had before wore with many of the enemy’s ships, under our lee bow, and
standing to pass to leeward of us, under top-gallant sails. At 1.30 P. M. the
admiral made the signal for the van-ships to join him. I instantly bore away,
and prepared to set all our sails, but the enemy having saved their ship,
hauled close to the wind, and opened their fire, but so distant as to do us no
harm; not a shot, I believe, hitting. Our sails and rigging were very much cut,
and many shot in our hull and between wind and water, but, wonderful, only
seven men were wounded. The enemy as they passed our nearest ships opened their
fire, but not a shot, that I saw, reached any ship except the Captain, who had
a few passed through her sails. Till evening, employed shifting our topsails
and splicing our rigging. At dark, in our station: signal for each ship to
carry a light. Little wind: south-westerly all night: stood to the westward, as
did the enemy.

14 March. At daylight, taken aback with a fine breeze at NW,
which gave us the weather-gage, whilst the enemy’s fleet kept the southerly
gage. Saw the Ca Ira, and a line-of-battle ship, who had her in tow about three
and a half miles from us, the body of the enemy’s fleet about five miles. 6.15
A. M., signal for the line of batde, SE and NW; 6.40, for the Captain and
Bedford to attack the enemy. At 7 A. M., signal for the Bedford to engage
close; Bedford’s signal repeated for close action. 7.5, for the Captain to
engage close. Captain’s and Bedford’s signals repeated; at this time, the shot
from the enemy reached us, but at a great distance. 7.15, signal for the fleet
to come to the wind on the larboard tack. This signal threw us and the Princess
Royal to the leeward of the Illustrious, Courageux, and Britannia. 7.20, the
Britannia hailed, and ordered me to go to the assistance of the Captain and
Bedford. Made all sail: Captain lying like a log on the water, all her sails
and rigging shot away: Bedford on a wind on the larboard tack. 7.15, signal to
annul coming to the wind on the larboard tack. 7.35, signal for the Illustrious
and Courageux to make more sail. 7.42, Bedford to wear, Courageux to get in her
station. At this time, passed the Captain; hailed Admiral Goodall, and told him
Admiral Hotham’s orders, and desired to know if I should go ahead of him.
Admiral Goodall desired me to keep close to his stern. The Illustrious and
Courageux took their stations ahead of the Princess Royal, the Britannia placed
herself astern of me, and Tancredi lay on the Britannia’s lee quarter. At 8 A.
M. the enemy’s fleet began to pass our line to windward, and the Ca Ira and Le
Censeur were on our lee side; therefore the Illustrious, Courageux, Princess
Royal, and Agamemnon were obliged to fight on both sides of the ship. The enemy’s
fleet kept the southerly wind, which enabled them to keep their distance, which
was very great. From 8 to 10, engaging on both sides. About 8.45, the
Illustrious lost her main and mizen masts. 9.15, the Courageux lost her main
and mizen masts. At 9.25, the Ca Ira lost all her masts, and fired very little.
At 10 Le Censeur lost her mainmast. 10.5, they both struck. Sent Lieutenant
George Andrews to board them. By computation the Ca Ira is supposed to have
about 350 killed and wounded on both days, and Le Censeur about 250 killed and
wounded. From the lightness of the air of wind, the enemy’s fleet and our fleet
were a very long time in passing, and it was past 1 P. M. before all firing
ceased, at which time the enemy crowded all Possible sail to the westward, our
fleet laying with their heads to South-east and east.

Hotham had captured two of the 15 enemy ships and thwarted
the French attempt on Corsica. He told Captain Nelson:

We must be contented. We have done very well.

Nelson was angry and disappointed that they had not captured
more of the French ships. Writing to his brother William, he said of the

Had our good Admiral have followed the blow, we should
probably have done more.

To his wife, Frances, he wrote:

I wish to be an Admiral and in command of the English Fleet;
I should very soon either do much, or be ruined. My disposition cannot bear
tame and slow measures. Sure I am, had I commanded our Fleet on the 14th, that
either the whole French Fleet would have graced my triumph, or I should have
been in a confounded scrape . . . Now, had we taken ten sail and allowed the
eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I could never
have called it well done.

By May 1795, Lord Hood had become ill and was allowed to go
home on sick leave. At home, he complained about the weakness of the
Mediterranean Fleet in such strong terms that he was dismissed from the command
of the Mediterranean Fleet and ordered to strike his flag.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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