It’s not often that celebrated national heroes are treated unceremoniously after they’ve shaken off their mortal coil. It’s rarer still that such treatment might befall someone so beloved that they had a 50-meter tall column named after them, atop which stands their statue, situated in the middle of London’s Trafalgar Square. Yet this is precisely what happened in the case of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson: not because of any animosity towards his mind, but because sometimes—especially in times of war—needs simply must.
Despite his modest birth, Horatio Nelson enjoyed a phenomenally successful military career, one that came through personal merit rather than privileged entitlement. First taking to the seas in the early 1770s, aged just 12, he served in the merchant navy, took part in a failed scientific expedition to the Arctic, and campaigned against the Americans during the War of Independence, traveling as far afield as the Falklands.
By the age of 20, he was in command of his own ship, the HMS Albermarle, which he used to great effect, taking several Spanish and French ships as prizes in the West Indies. By the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 and the Siege of Toulon in 1793 (military engagement in which a young Napoleon Bonaparte was also involved) Nelson was really starting to show his remarkable commanding genius. His first real crowning moment, however, was to come at the Battle of St. Vincent (February 14, 1797).
During the battle, Nelson decided to break line with the commander of the British fleet, Admiral Sir John Jervis. Had this lost the battle, this would have earned him a court-martial for disobeying orders. As it happened, however, Nelson’s quick thinking saved the British from certain defeat at the hands of the numerically superior Spanish. Nelson won a knighthood for his actions. And he would go on to build on his success the next year in the warm seas of the Mediterranean, though not before suffering some setbacks.
Nelson was badly wounded in July 1797 while assaulting the Spanish port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife. A whiff of grapeshot shredded his right arm, and most of what was left of it had to be amputated to prevent infection from spreading. Yet he didn’t let this deter him: from his surgery bed he continued to issue commands, and would later joke about the matter, referring to what was left of his amputated arm as his “fin”.
Now holding the rank of rear admiral, Nelson won a heroic victory at the Battle of the Nile (1798). Nelson’s fleet scuppered Napoleon’s navy under the command of François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers, stranding the French army in Egypt. The crushing victory against the French marked the first step in establishing British dominance of the seas. It also made Nelson an undisputed hero, the darling of Britain, and the man who was to be entrusted the command of British forces in the Mediterranean. As fate would have it, this would also make him the man to face off against the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805.