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In compiling and publishing a Naval History of Great Britain, during a period which may justly be termed the present day, many of the principal characters being still in existence, I was fully aware of the difficulties I had to encounter, and that I could not, ^consistently with the truth, relate each event so as to meet the approbation of all concerned; and I declared myself ready to admit that, notwithstanding the great opportunities I had enjoyed for obtaining the most correct information, I was still liable to error.
Since the publication of my first volume, I have learnt, with sincere regret, that, in relating the transactions of 1794, I had wounded the feelings of Admiral Sir George Montagu, an officer for whose character and conduct 1 had, with many of my brother officers, publicly testified my respect, That such injury was unintentional, those to whom I am known will readily believe; and as I am convinced, by the publication of the orders under which he acted, that I have been led into error, I most cheerfully make that reparation which is due to Sir George Montagu, to the public, and to myself.
In the first volume, p. 296, I have stated, that the Rear-admiral returned into port because he came close upon the track of the French fleet; and this I believed, until I was convinced to the contrary by the publication of official documents. Admitting this error, I must also assert, that neither did I at the time of writing this observation mean, nor can it, according to my present construction, imply, any censure on the Rear-admiral, even in the absence of such orders, for seeking a reinforcement when in proximity with a force so much superior, or endeavouring to communicate important intelligence to his Commander-in-chief.
In p. 298, I have said, "that all in the British squadron expected the signal to engage, and that, though the Rear-admiral was not bound, with that disparity of force, to bring on a general action, other officers under similar circumstances might have done so." That the natural ebullition of feeling, so predominant in English seamen when in presence of an enemy, and unrestrained by any weight of responsibility, should have manifested itself on this occasion is not surprising, nor ought the relation of it to have inflicted any pain on the Admiral. Almost every officer has witnessed with delight this display of national feeling; although, as the brave Cornwallis expressed it, prudence would not admit of " letting loose their valour." Such was the impression on my mind in contemplating those by whom I was surrounded, and lam sorry that the mention of the circumstance should have led Sir George Montagu to suppose I meant thereby to impute blame to him; equally do I regret that the Admiral has given a different construction from what I intended to the latter part of that passage.
In relating circumstances and drawing conclusions at a later period, our opinions will necessarily receive a bias by more recent events; and it was the contemplation of that romantic spirit of enterprise, unknown to former days, and so prominently displayed by a Nelson and a Saumarez, which elicited the remark. The remaining part of the same paragraph will prove that I had no intention of reflecting on the Admiral, for I have said, " Had the fleet under Lord Howe been in sight, even at any distance, there can be no doubt of the line of conduct which would have been pursued;" clearly intimating that the attack was only declined from a sense of duty, and that he would not have hesitated in making it, could he thereby have enabled the Commander-in-chief to destroy the fleet of the enemy.
In p. 299, I have said, "that the Rear-admiral quitted his station and returned to Plymouth, and on the day, or nearly about the same time, that he took this unfortunate step, the French squadron, of four sail of the line and one hundred and seventy sail of merchantmen, got safe into the ports of the Republic."
I cannot still term this measure otherwise than unfortunate, politically speaking, as the capture of that convoy would have been a severe blow to the French republic; but as it appears, by the official letter of Mr. Stephens, that the conduct of the Rear-admiral met with the approbation of the lords commissioners of the admiralty, he must be considered as fully absolved from any blame for returning into port. The same letter effectually removes the idea,with which I had been impressed, of "Lord Chatham, and the board of admiralty, having imputed blame to the Rear-admiral, and that he was ordered or permitted to strike his flag." I must at the same time, in making this admission, be allowed to explain how I formed this conclusion.
It is no doubt in the memory of many officers, who served at that period, that considerable discontent was manifested at the safe arrival of Admiral Villaret's fleet, and the American convoy; and as the Rear-admiral at the same time hauled down his flag, the events were associated as cause and effect in the mind of the public. Such I own was my opinion, and as such I deemed it my duty to relate it: but, however I may lament having wounded the feelings of Sir George Montagu by the statement, I have the consolation to think, that a beneficial result has arisen from it, inasmuch as doubt is made to give way to certainty.
The opinion of the Earl of St. Vincent was introduced to shew, that if such was the real cause of Sir George Montagu's being deprived of his command, such censure was considered unmerited by that nobleman, to whom I looked up as high