The Case of the Fearless Mariner With a Mortal Chest Wound

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD; William A. Liston MD; David Burris, MD


November 21, 2008

Brief Biography

Horatio Nelson was born on September 29, 1758, in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. The sickly son of a clergyman, Nelson was an unlikely person to become Britain's most famous maritime hero. He had an early love of the sea, signing on as a naval apprentice when only 12 years old. He then gained experience over many years on long voyages to India and the Caribbean. Before the battle of Trafalgar, where he was killed, he fought in other major military encounters, including the battle of the Nile against the French and the battle of Copenhagen against Scandinavian forces.

Nelson's leadership ability and his superb understanding of naval tactics assured his rapid rise: he became a captain at age 21 and a rear-admiral at the age of 39. Because of his bravery, energy, boldness, and his leadership ability, Nelson was admired and respected by his subordinates and fellow officers.

During Nelson's naval career, France, under Napoleon's leadership, was ascendant throughout mainland Europe. The English Navy's vital role was to protect the country against the threat from a powerful enemy located across the channel. Despite the loss of an arm and an eye, the British admiralty believed Nelson was the most qualified officer to lead the British fleet against the French.

Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar, which occurred on October 21, 1805, brought 27 British ships under Admiral Nelson to face 33 French and Spanish vessels off of the coast of Spain. Nelson's bold plan for this famous battle was as follows: He arranged his fleet in 2 separate lines and then sailed perpendicularly into the line of enemy ships (Figure 2). The idea was that each British ship would fire their canons broadside at close range directly into the enemy ships. This maneuver not only would inflict massive damage, but would also expose the British ships to a withering frontal attack as the 2 fleets approached each other. Nelson's strategy was successful at winning the battle, but at the cost of his life.

Figure 2.

Location of Battle of Trafalgar. Insert displays position of ships with arrow pointing to Nelson's flagship. (From Bartholomew JGLLD. A Literary & Historical Atlas of Europe. London: JM Dent & Sons, and New York: EP Dutton; 1910.)

The admiral in command of the French fleet was Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve who had previously encountered Nelson at the battle of the Nile. Napoleon had little confidence in Villeneuve and had already ordered his replacement. It is widely believed that Villeneuve knew about Napoleon's order and sailed from his secure Spanish harbor to avoid being replaced. Villeneuve had a premonition that he would be defeated because his sailors lacked the discipline and the experience of the Brits. He died at the age of 43, probably by committing suicide, about a year after the battle of Trafalgar.

Lady Hamilton

Any discussion of Nelson must include mention of Emma Hamilton, whom the 35-year-old Nelson met in Naples when she was 32 years old. At that time Nelson was married but had been away from his wife for several years. Hamilton was the attractive wife of the much older Sir William Hamilton, English ambassador to Naples. Through her close contact with the Queen of Naples, Hamilton helped Nelson secure much needed supplies and troops. They became fast friends and eventually lovers. Emma Hamilton claimed that Nelson was the father of her daughter, Horatia. Before his death, Nelson expressed great concern about Hamilton's fate; she eventually died under greatly reduced circumstances in France.


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