John Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion. Henry Holt: New York, 2013.1

Who was Horatio Nelson? Why does his likeness stand above Trafalgar Square in London? Was he a singularly great warrior? Was he just a product of the British navy? Why is he revered in Britain?

“He was, after all, a married man returning with his adulterous love, threatened with being unmasked by the secret child growing inside her, and her cuckolded husband.” (355)

In the second volume of a two-part biography of Nelson, Sugden narrates the twists and turns of the last seven years of Nelson’s life. He begins the story in September 1797 when Nelson was recovering from the amputation of his arm and follows the admiral through the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In between, he recounts Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay, and his northern campaign, as well as Nelson’s troubled family life and extended affair with Emma Hamilton.

In his introduction, Sugden says that the naval aspects of Nelson’s career have been well documented, so this biography serves to illuminate Nelson as an individual. For this reason, he provides exhaustive details about Nelson’s life, a product of extensive knowledge of Nelson’s personal correspondences, ship’s logs, and the records of other contemporaries who talked about Nelson. He does narrate the military exploits that made the admiral famous. But, while the the discussion of the battles and campaigns are usually adequate, they are not the strength of this book. The strength is the weight of correspondences that Sugden brings to bear. These documents reveal that Nelson was not a singularly gifted warrior or sailor, but a man who oscillated between supreme confidence in the abilities of his fleet with an insatiable hunger for public accolades and suffering from bouts of illness and depression. The letters reveal, in particular, that Nelson was petulant about perceived mistreatment by the board of the admiralty and bitter that, repeatedly, other admirals were appointed to command fleets at his expense. Sugden also uses these letters to examine in some depth Nelson’s relationship with Emma Hamilton that caused Nelson to become estranged from his wife, Fanny. While Nelson’s affair with Lady Hamilton is the most lurid relationship presented, Sugden locates Nelson within a web of personal relationships that promoted, sustained, and impeded him by turns, as was the norm for upwardly mobile young men in the Royal Navy.2

Sugden’s biography of Nelson is what it purports to be: a blow by blow account of the last seven years of the admiral’s life enriched by an extensive documentary evidence. In the sense that, in the author’s mind, there is no extant biography of Nelson that sufficiently reveals the man, Sugden’s work is a valuable read. Sugden also tries to posit some long term effects of Nelson’s naval victories such as the revolutions in Central and South America, growth of the United States, and the nineteenth century Pax Britannia. But in the context the inclusion of such sweeping statements serve more to justify the biographical subject than to actually discuss historical causation.

Hence a larger critique. For all the revealing detail Sugden includes about Nelson’s personality and family, one is left to wonder: so what? To be sure, Nelson was a man whose military achievements elevated him from a middle of the road non-noble family to the peerage with estates in two kingdoms. Moreover, despite Nelson’s exceptionalism he is one of the most enthralling examples of an officer in the British Navy and well worth study on both counts. But both of those could be examined without the same sprawling narrative. The extensive quotation from letters and logs is informative, but it is often possible to disagree with his interpretation (see below) and many of those sources are unavailable to readers. What remains is Nelson, a hero, as the subject of fascination still today.

The result is that the second volume of the biography is a form of the dreaded great man history.3 Throughout this volume Nelson is an admiral in the British navy, he courts the favor of royalty, and he trades his devoted middle-class wife for the wife of the British ambassador to Naples.4 Sugden also includes a large number of names–of ships, of captains and other officers, of people close to Nelson and his family–but the gaze is focused on the extended family (so to speak) of the officer- and future officer corps of the British Navy. Absent are the sailors from the British navy, the French, Spanish, Danish, Neapolitan, and Portuguese sailors and many of the officers, and, often, even the names of the ships in the other fleets. The inconsistent detail, like Sugden’s affectation of the phrasing found in the letters, perhaps sets the audience alongside Nelson himself, but the result is that there is a relatively shallow narrative of the events and Nelson set as the apex of the enterprise. With minimal exceptions, the events narrated, complete with suffering and heroism, actually take place in a shadow world only glimpsed through the incomplete fictions of ships logs documenting food intake, diseases, and casualty statistics that Sugden occasionally mentions.5

As one might expect in writing a biography that makes such extensive use of letters, Sugden tends to read into the psyche of his subjects. But it is likely that Sugden also reads too much into these letters. For instance, he is overly credulous when it comes to epistolic conventions and gendered assumptions–particularly between men. To wit, two examples both dealing with Nelson’s relationship with Thomas Troubridge, one of the captains at Aboukir Bay:

“Troubridge was a fine sea officer, amazingly energetic and tigerish in disposition, but he was too quick-tempered, artless and emotionally unstable to command a complicated theatre. Yet the two men worked well in tandem–almost too well. Their friendship had attained a rare intensity, not so surprising in Nelson, whose feminine sensitivity fuelled deep attachments and innumerable kindnesses, but more remarkable in a figure as masculine, bluff and brutally blunt and down-to-earth as Troubridge. Any stresses that beset their friendship frequently reduced both men to tears.” (60)

And when describing how Troubridge tried to pry Nelson away from Emma Hamilton:

“Of the brothers none loved Nelson more than Thomas Troubridge, once the admiral’s soulmate… They had dreamed dreams together. But now it was increasingly the Hamiltons who provided Nelson with that close, confidential and emotional support, and Troubridge’s increasing bellicosity may have had its roots in jealousy.” (293)

Sugden may be appraising these situations correctly, but it seems more likely that these descriptions are caricatures that a simplistic reading of these letters would lead to. Too, some of these statements are without hint of source material, suggesting that they are inferences that Sugden makes based on his interpretation of other letters.

In sum, Sugden reveals a portrait of Nelson the man that is frequently engaging. In full disclosure, this author has had a fascination and some measure of resonance with Nelson for about a decade and immensely enjoyed the first volume of Sugden’s biography of Nelson. But whether it is discontent with the biography genre6 or more (noticeable) instances where Sugden fell victim to sweeping generalizations and shallow caricatures, Nelson: The Sword of Albion just seemed superficial.

1I received this book as a free review copy and it does not include the plates that will be in the edition that goes on sale this month. There are also endnotes indicated in the text, but they are not included in this early print. Included is a glossary, bibliography, and a note on the sources.
2 The promotion aspect of this web was more evident in Sugden’s first volume that tracked Nelson’s early career. While his relationships did earn him promotions later, Sugden describes Nelson as a man whose impetuous and sometimes sullen nature caused him to be disliked by an increasing number of senior officers as his career wore on. At the same time, he describes Nelson as becoming increasingly sensitive to the criticisms of those same officers.
3Volume one did not suffer to the same extent because while you knew that Nelson was destined for greatness (as it were), he was not yet a great man hobnobbing with the elite and it was therefore easier to examine the stages in the career of a young officer in the British navy.
4Sugden provides a cursory account of Emma’s life. As an upwardly mobile nobody who charmed her way into some of the upper ranks of society, Emma would perhaps provide a more telling biography about that aspect of society than Nelson does.
5 Much better in this regard is N.A.M. Rodger’s The Command of the Ocean, which includes chapters dedicated to the social history of the British Navy (recruitment, procurement, training, health, etc).
6As a budding historian, this is an ongoing concern.


Perhaps the most notable naval battle in history is that of Trafalgar, where the most famous naval officer, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, reaffirmed the British predominance on the high seas. The queen of the oceans would hold this position for another two hundred years.

Surprising as it may seem, both Copenhagen and Aboukir were more revolutionary in tactics than Trafalgar, but Trafalgar was the nail that sealed the coffin. At Aboukir and Copenhagen Nelson pioneered a maneuver where he sailed between the land and the enemy fleet while it lay at anchor, demolishing their line of battle without much opposition (at Copenhagen he did it despite the shore fortifications protecting the enemy fleet), but at Trafalgar, the French and Spanish were ready for the tactic, they had better ships and a larger fleet, yet Nelson’s superior training, sailing and gunnery won the day.

In part it was the mystique of the British navy and that few of the French captains were comfortable facing Nelson. Another aspect to the victory was that, unlike Napoleon’s admirals, Nelson simply set his course and doggedly pursued it. The short form of the battle is that Nelson approached the Combined Fleet in two columns, which he planned to intersect at two points, sail behind and smash the way he had at Aboukir. This was expected by his opponents, but he sailed up to and through the line without firing while the Combined Fleet wasted its shot. The first broadside tore apart the Combined Fleet and then the battle devolved into close range gunnery duels which favored the British.

Likewise, it is probably a good thing for the British that Trafalgar was so decisive, since Nelson died in it and while there were other capable officers in the fleet, there was not necessarily another Nelson.

One of the recurring themes in the history of warfare is that sometimes simply acting–setting a course and sticking to it–is what is best. Of course prudence requires you to know when to cut your losses.

Application of Force in the Age of Sail

I am not sure what book I read it in, but it may have been The Price of Admiralty where the strategies of Wellington and Nelson were compared. Nelson preferred the attack, deciding the flow of battle to an extent and using their superior sailing to place the inferior British ships in advantageous positions, be it between ships or on the shoreward side; Wellington was a defender, preferring to create hard points a la La Haye Sainte, and bringing up troops to support the larger battle line. At first glance these two plans could be no more different. In fact, Napoleon could be considered the Nelson of the land, with a preference for sharp application of force in a column, breaking through the opposing line; other Field Marshals, such as Davout often adopted the semi-static defense when pressed. In fact each military commander was taking advantage of their own forces and doing exactly the same thing: maximizing their potential force.

Nelson is the clearest example of this because he was not fighting on terrain. The seas provided their own challenge, but they were flat. No hills, no rivers. While his ships were smaller and of lower quality than their opponents, the British were better gunners and better sailors, which allowed them to place their ships in the most advantageous position and limit the ability of the French to fight back. The captains also knew what they were about, willing to take chances and assured of victory. This last was felt in the French navy. The French were afraid of Nelson, even while out gunning and out manning him. Nelson commanded the British equivalent of the Imperial guard and when he sailed towards the French, he did so in full view; everyone knew the greatest admiral alive and his elite fleet were bearing down on them. Not very reassuring.

Up until Waterloo Napoleon had the same advantage of fear. The Imperial Guard was loyal, strong, well trained and boasted never having fled. Further, they, as with the rest of the French army, attacked in columns, narrow, but deep, so that they could break through and then exploit this gap. This was even their intent when Napoleon sent forward the Imperial Guard at Waterloo.

Wellington proved himself a master of what I termed above “semi-static defense.” What I mean is that he chose a defensive position that covered some expanse of ground, relying on ridges, hills, farms, and whatever other landscape options were available to shelter his forces. He could then bolster his forces at the point of attack, with mobile reserves and pulling from unassailed portions of the line that his opponent couldn’t see. This was by far the most economical use of force, and would remain so through the American Civil War and was in some ways the precursor of trench warfare. It was also difficult to win a decisive victory with this stratagem as the attacker could simply withdraw. This would have been the case at Waterloo had the Prussian Army not attacked Napoleon’s flank. Strategic marches and defenses could win a campaign, but individual battles would more aptly be characterized as stalemates.

Wellington used this to keep his forces together and intact, something even more pressing for him because his troops largely did not have the elan of the French. They were not professionals, and their arrival did not inspire fear the way the Imperial Guard did. Wellington also knew that the French would attack. If he could hold, bolstering his line at the point of attack, using the farm houses, artillery, and even a surprise volley from the Foot Guards to maximize his own force, the way that Nelson crossed the French navy at Trafalgar, Aboukir and the Danes at Copenhagen, and the way that the French army attacked in columns and supported by massive artillery barrages. The key difference between the sea and the land is that while both offense and defense could concentrate force at the point of attack on land, this was much more difficult to do at sea; Nelson found that only in attack could force be concentrated.

It should also be noted that while the above is a quick overview of the strategy during this period and a few specifics, the concept is pretty much the same throughout history in that the first basic principle is to maximize your force and concentrate the attack. The real difference is whether that happens in the form of Nelson crossing between the French ships, Napoleon’s columns, Epaminondas’ oblique-heavy left, the Greek bottlenecks at Salamis, Artemesium and Thermopylae, Subodei’s diffusion and swarms of arrows in feigned retreats or swift moving tank columns of Rommel and Sherman.

Episodes: Trafalgar and L’Aigle

Certain moments where, depending on which side you support, either the heroism or depravity of human tenacity shines through.

One such moment was during the Battle of Trafalgar. One of the largest clashes of sailing ships ever, anyone who knows anything of that era knows that Trafalgar was a resounding victory for Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. His orders were simple: sail closer and engage, with special reliance placed on superior seamanship and gunnery. Clearly it worked. Of 33 Spanish and French ships that Nelson engaged (while outnumbered by a significant margin), 19 were either sunk or captured.

Each captain mostly fought on his own as Nelson was a firm believer in his men, and rightly thought that a well trained and experienced set of captains working within a larger scheme could better judge and evaluate each situation. The captain of the HMS Defiance believed that the French Ship-of-the-Line L’Aigle had surrendered; he was wrong.

With all small boats on board disabled and believing that all they had to do was occupy the large French vessel, the boarding party swam the intervening distance and boarded. When they realized their mistake it was too late to turn back, so this small crew took on the larger ship while the gunners continued to pound the Aigle until it truly did surrender.

Now this would not be exceptional in that the distance was not far and these men could literally spend months or even years shipboard, but they did so in the midst of a huge battle, one in which massive firing platforms with hundreds of times the artillery of any army of the day were pounding away at each other. And the target had them outnumbered.

This is but one moment amidst one of the greatest naval battles in history, and entirely separate from another moment where arguably the greatest admiral ever to sail died, yet it shows something about people. Imagine for a moment that you are one of the British sailors. At first you approach the French and Spanish fleet perpendicularly and they begin firing before you are able to respond; the roar of cannon and splashes from the cannon balls hitting the water is nerve-wracking, but does not actually deal much damage. As you approach the line, the entire ship rocks as you launch broadside after broadside into the enemy with devastating effect. At this point they are able to respond and deal some damage, but most is done on the first broadside, theirs long expired and yours just sent into their ships. It turns into a slogging match and suddenly your captain chooses sailors to swim over to the enemy, large with boarding hooks, daggers, and swords, since while swimming it will be impossible to keep powder dry.

You hit the water and there is a comparative still after the constant motion on the deck of the ship. Knowing your target, you start swimming and then climb up the side of the ship. It is then that you discover that the enemy did not surrender, but in fact you are fighting tooth and nail, while your comrades still on your ship launch more cannon shot into it. Imagine the relief you feel when the enemy does actually surrender.

Then take a step back and imagine the absurdity yet basic pragmatism of this situation. Surrender was not an option, especially since they were winning the battle and the French probably would have just killed them; leaping back into the water would have been cowardice and they still could have drowned or been crushed by one of the massive boats. No, their options boiled down to kill or be killed and so this small crew, from the outnumbered fleet, on the enemy vessel their own was still pummeling fought.

Gunboat Diplomacy

Gunboat diplomacy is rarely the answer, even to piracy. I am not so naive as to say that asking the pirates nicely to stop would be sufficient, nor do I believe that piracy in the immediate generation is a problem that has peaceful solutions; the ultimate solution is peaceful, the final solution is to raise the economic and social conditions within the countries where piracy is common to sufficient levels wherein piracy is a dangerous and less-than-profitable alternative.

The threat of force is necessary to instill that there is a lethal drawback to piracy, however if conditions in regions of the world that foster piracy and religious fanaticism are not altered, force will be be insufficient. Force in the past was only effective wherein there was an organized aspect to the piracy which stood to suffer significant losses if the threat of force was ignored.

Stephen Decatur Jr
was one of the grand heroes of early American naval history, and rightly so. He was a leading figure in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War, but is best known for the First Barbary War, in which he was comparatively low rank. Most notable amongst his exploits, Decatur captained the USS Intrepid into the harbor of Tripoli, seized control of the USS Philadelphia, which had previously run aground, captured and subsequently re-floated by the Tripolitans. For fear of a US frigate in the hands of the enemy, Decatur volunteered to fire it, and successfully did so. Admiral Nelson lauded this act as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Less well known, but Decatur also led American crews on Neapolitan gunboats into the harbor of Tripoli, while the USS Constitution and other large ships slowly worked their way into the harbor to bombard the citadel. Decatur captured two gunboats and led both out of the harbor during this action, the second with a reduced crew after finding out that a gunboat had pretended to surrender and subsequently killed the captain–Decatur’s brother.

During the Second Barbary War, Decatur simply sailed to the Mediterranean with a powerful squadron to enforce upon the Barbary Powers that the United States would not pay any tribute. William Bainbridge followed up with visits from his own squadron. These visits were not negotiation; Decatur and Bainbridge arrived with overwhelming force and gave the choice between ending piracy and utter destruction. European powers later followed up with their own actions and the grip of North African, State-sponsored piracy largely came to a halt. The reason this worked was two-fold.

First, there was an organized, stationary head to the operation who was the political leader for the region. This provided a target without whom the piracy would collapse into individual operations which would be less deadly, but tougher to root out. Second, with these men who wanted nothing more than to stay in power, fleets capable of destroying them utterly arrived and gave them the choice of death or peace. Self-preservationist as most leaders tend to be, each Barbary power chose peace and piracy ended.

In certain situations Gunboat diplomacy works. Rooting out individual pirate groups is not one of these situations; what is considered here is not diplomacy. The nearest comparison is that this is a police action, whereas diplomacy is between states. Further, any unilateral action taken by the United States or another Western power to smother the piracy would be declared an intrusion into middle east affairs, especially in Yemen and Somalia. In short, the countries that wittingly or unwittingly harbor pirates must be convinced, trained and supported in destroying piracy, especially in situations where it is another facet of organized crime. This is both economic and military, and where asked for military aid, it should be provided, but not before. The common denominator is that military power and threat to livelihood is necessary to end piracy, but without fundamental changes to head off the supply of rank-and-file pirates, nothing will change. There needs to be suitable alternative and suitable disincentive if the problem is to be addressed.