Page images
PDF
EPUB

circumstances, first acquired such confidence in its practicability, as to be willing, without farther consideration, to venture on its execution. Our theory of the matter, in short, is shortly this: Both those brave and skilful officers had learned this manœuvre from Mr Clerk-bad probably studied the reasons and calculations upon the strength of which he had recommended itand were generally impressed with a favourable notion of its value and importance. But still it was a new, and therefore necessarily a hazardous experiment. Its soundness and safety bad been questioned by many practical men of great judgment and courage. Even after fully studying the complete work, we know that Lord Howe said, it was very ingenious, but, for his part, . when he met the enemy, he was resolved still to fight them in 'the old way.' Sir Charles Douglas himself, according to Mr Clerk's report, had been sceptical as to one part at least of the system; and though Rodney had, from the first, a more sanguine and favourable view of it, still it was not only natural but unavoidable that a prudent commander should hesitate about carrying it into execution, under any new or apparently unfavourable circumstances.

Now what were the circumstances, both as to their precise knowledge of the manæuvre itself, and as to their position in relation to the enemy, on the morning of the 12th April, 1782 ? The first part only of Mr Clerk's book had been published before their sailing; and if they had any copy of it to study, it could only be of that part. But this treated only of the mode of attack from the windward ; and although the principles on which the policy of breaking the line depended, applied equally to a position to leeward, still it is obvious that such a position presented difficulties which did not occur in the other, and for obviating which, at all events, the plans and demonstrations in the book afforded no specific directions. It is also very material to bear in mind, that, according to Mr Clerk's own statement, it was chiefly on account of those very difficulties that Sir Charles Douglas had entertained doubts of the practicability of the system, when first explained to him; and it must be conceded, that its adoption in a fleet to leeward must have been peculiarly startling and suspicious to persons accustomed to the old plan of manæuvring. 'Mr Playfair has distinctly stated, that the 'matter which Sir Charles Douglas seemed most unwilling to admit, was the advantage of the attack from the leeward ; and it was indeed the thing most inconsistent with the instructions ‘given to all admirals.'

Now the French fleet, when first descried in the morning of the 12th April, was to the windward. How near the wind they

were sailing, when approached by the English, does not appear from any documents now before us; but it is plain that they might be so placed or trimmed with regard to it, as to make the operation of bearing up from the leeward, so as to cut or cross their line, not only very difficult, but absolutely impracticable-more especially if they were so close to each other as to enable them to bring several ships to bear against the assault, if conducted with the slowness and awkwardness unavoidable in such a position. If the enemy's line, being to the windward, was also close hauled to the wind, it seems obvious that a fleet to leeward must entirely lose way in attempting to pass through them, or could only gain such way by a complex manquvre. That some such difficulties did occur in the earlier part of the encounter is not only probable in itself, but seems to be proved, by the very witnesses adduced by Sir Howard Douglas to prove the details of the operation as ultimately accomplished; for the result of that testimony is, that Sir Charles Douglas, observing at one and the same moment, first a little shift of the wind, which enabled his ship to bear up considerably better than before; and, second, a considerably larger interval left between the two ships of the enemy then nearly on his bow, was instantly struck with the possibility of now executing, without any very great difficulty or bazard, that manauvre, for which we take leave to suppose that both he and his admiral were, under more favourable circumstances, sufficiently prepared ; and, with the zeal and enterprise for which he was so honourably distinguished, lost not an instant in urging the suggestion on his commander, and intreating that the golden opportunity which had presented itself should not be lost. That the admiral should not be instantly converted by this sudden appeal of his brave and energetic captain, is no more an impeachment of his spirit or genius, than it is a ground for surmising that he had never before heard of the project of cutting the enemy's or was not aware of any of its advantages. If that had truly been the case,-if, up to that moment, he had never contemplated the possibility of such a manœuvre, we do not hesitate to say, that he would have acted with a most blameable and criminal rashness, if, without leisure for thought or explanation of any kind, he had yielded at all to the impetuous and most questionable suggestion of any inferior officer, and departed, at a moment so critical, from all that the learning and experience of his life, and the general sense of the profession, told him ought to be inflexibly adhered to. Instead of the momentary hesitation, the dialogue of two minutes, that is recorded, it is impossible to doubt that a final and peremptory rejection would

1

instantly have been given to a proposal,—which, indeed, under such circumstances, no sane man can be conceived to bave made; and that if the idea of breaking the line had not been already familiar to both parties, the one would never have ventured to suggest, nor the other to adopt it.

In the circumstances in which they were actually placed, however, and even supposing Rodney to have been previously the most favourable of the two to the experiment, that hesitation, it seems to us, can be easily and naturally accounted for. His position to the leeward, the closeness of the enemy's order, and the narrowness and scantiness of the wind, had, upon our supposition, compelled him to relinquish the idea of carrying his manæuvre into effect on this occasion; and to make up his mind to bring the enemy to action on the old system, by running up along their line, and doing all the mischief he could as he advanced on it. In this course he had proceeded, too, for a considerable space. The engagement had been going on for several hours-his van had already reached far on the hostile line-the signal for each ship engaging an adversary had been flying, and his officers gallantly acting up to it. When, in this situation, his captain suddenly pointed out to him the shift in the wind, and the opening in the opposite line, which it enabled him to enter, it was a necessary duty for him to consider at least for an instant; and it required no little resolution, in addition to his previous conviction of the adrantages of the mancurre, generally, to determine him, so soon as he was determi. ned, to venture on its instant execution. Not only was he still to leeward, and consequently exposed to unavoidable impediments in the operation, but his van was already far a-head of his own ship-no signals had been flying to intimate any such probable change of purpose—and, in fact, no design had been formed, nor any concert established, for following up the hazardous maneuvre to which he was thus suddenly invited. There was no time to consider whether the point at which he was about to break the line of the enemy was a favourable one for this purpose, or what was the trim and condition of the ships by which he could still be followed in the attempt. That he hesitated for an instant before adopting the bold and prompt suggestion of his captain, is as creditable, therefore, to his prudence and judgment, as his then giving way to it is to his gallantry and contidence in his followers. However long and firmly he had been persuaded of the value of the proposed maneuvre, he would have been unworthy of the place he held if he had not so hesitated. But if he had never heard of such a manæuvre before, he would have been far more unworthy of that place, if he had not hesitated a great deal longer—if he had not peremptorily rejected it with disdain. That he did hesitate, was owing to the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed—that he so soon got over that hesitation, can only be explained by the supposition, that he was already convinced of the advantages of the maneuvre, and anxious to carry it into effect whenever it was at all feasible.

That this was truly the state of bis information and intentions, is established not only by all the evidence to which we have already referred, and which admits of no other explanation, but by a very important statement made by one of the witnesses on whom Sir Howard Douglas mainly relies. We refer to Sir Gilbert Blane, who, in his Select Medical Dissertations, (p. 75,) bas stated, that, on that eventful morning, while at breakfast in the admiral's cabin, Lord Cranstoun, a volunteer captain in the • ship, remarked, that if our fleet should maintain its present • relative position, steering the same course, close hauled on the • opposite tack to the enemy, we must necessarily pass through « their line, in running along and closing with it in action. The admiral visibly caught the idea, and, no doubt, decided in his

own mind, at that moment, to attempt a manœuvre hitherto “unpractised in naval tactics. This alone would be conclusive against the idea, that no one had ever contemplated such an operation, till its instant execution was urged on the admiral by Sir Charles Douglas, or that his hesitation and temporary reluctance was owing to the entire novelty of such a suggestion. But when the fact is taken into view, along with the said Lord Cranstoun's distinct testimony, not only that Mr Clerk had been always acknowledged as the instructor both of Sir Charles and of the admiral upon the subject, but that his manœuvre had been a frequent subject of discussion at his table in the earlier part of the voyage, the utter absurdity of such a notion becomes manifest ; as well as that the subsequent altercation between the captain and his chief was not about the safety or practicability of the manœuvre generally, but only as to its safety or fitness at the moment, and in the circumstances in which it was then proposed to perform it. There is no other supposition, we humbly submit, that is reconcilable either with the whole body of the evidence, or with probability and common sense. Sir Charles Douglas is entitled, we have no doubt, to the merit, and it is probably a great merit, of having so rapidly seized the moment when this great maneuvre first became practicable, and so boldly pressed it on his commander, and overcome by his persevering, but not undutiful, urgency, the reluctance with which the proposal was at first received : And the admiral is entitled, on the other hand, to the praise of promptly adopting this bold sugges

answer.

tion, and carrying it, at all hazards, into brave effect-magnanimously regardless, not only of the responsibility he was thus incurring, but of the little mortification of not being the first to propose that, for which, he must have known, he was alone to

But to infer, from these great and undeniable merits, that one or other of these gallant officers must therefore have been the original inventor of what they thus concurred to execute, or that there is any thing in the history of their heroic altercation, which goes in the least to discredit the irrefragable evidence by which that honour has been settled on another, does appear to us to be one of the strangest and most unaccountable perversions of a very plain story, with which it has ever been our fortune to meet.

This disposes, we think, of all the evidence brought forward by Sir Howard Douglas, in so far as relates to the matters of fact established by that evidence. We perfectly believe all the wite nesses he has produced, and have no doubt of the facts being as they represent them. But we must also be permitted to believe Lord Cranstoun, Lord Melville, General Ross, and the other witnesses, whose testimony is totally irreconcilable with the inference which Sir Howard would draw from the facts so established. We reject that inference, therefore, while we admit the facts; and we conceive, that, so far from doing any violence to probability in so doing, this is the only conclusion wbich any impartial person would draw from the statement, even if it were not necessary to avoid the most glaring, and otherwise unaccountable contradictions. The facts are, that Sir Charles Douglas suddenly urged his commander to change his order of battle, and take the opportunity afforded by the wind, and the opening in the enemy's line, tocharge through it; and that after some hesitation, the admiral complied. The inference is, that up to that instant, neither captain nor admiral bad ever contemplated the maneuvre of so charging through the line, and especially had never heard of such a manœuvre from or through Mr Clerk. If there had been no evidence to the contrary, we say that the facts would not warrant such an inference, but the reverse; since on any othersupposition, both officers would have been chargeable with the most blameable presumption and rashness—but that it is nothing less than absurd to contend for such an inference from these facts, when there is redundant and overwhelming evidence that they had both known the manœuvre months, if not years, before; and had, in fact, been talking of it that very morning. The altercation was about its feasibility at that particular moment; and neither was, nor could be, about any thing else.

As to that part of the evidence which relates to the opinion or

« PreviousContinue »