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St. Valentine's Day, 1797
Eight leagues southwest of Cape St. Vincent, Portugal
"The f-flagship's signaling again, sir. 'engage the enemy,' I think it says." The adolescent midshipman stood in an oversized jacket and flapping trousers at the top of the forward ladderway, squinting into the distance along the line of British warships, each laboring more or less one cable's length behind the other, pointed toward a gap between two large Spanish squadrons. He fairly danced with excitement.
"Thank you, Mr. Bowles. You may come down now," said Charles Edgemont, the second lieutenant aboard His Britannic Majesty's sixty-four-gun ship of the line Argonaut. At twenty-five, Edgemont's career in the navy had already spanned thirteen years, seven as a midshipman himself and six as a commission officer. His responsibility with the ship at quarters was the upper gundeck and its twenty-eight brightly painted black twelve-pounder cannon, neatly aligned on their carriages, fourteen to a side. The smallish and outdated Argonaut, captained by Sir Edward Wood, had taken her position as the last in the nearly mile-long fifteen-ship English line. Charles had watched as the fleet arranged itself into formation earlier in the morning and knew the order of battle. Leading the van was Culloden, seventy-four guns, under Captain Thomas Troubridge, and then the Blenheim and the Prince George, both grand ninety-eights. The flagship, Victory, with its hundred guns and Admiral Sir John Jervis, took station seventh in the line, near the center. The fleet sailed on an easy gray sea, through intermittent gray mist, under gray skies with a chill wind blowing steadily if moderately from the west. The Argonaut's crew had long since been ordered to quarters, the sails shortened, the topgallant masts struck down, and the courses brailed up in preparation for battle. Sand had been scattered on the wetted decks to improve footing and reduce the chance of fire. The guns were charged, double-shotted, primed, and run out, each of their six-man crews standing anxiously beside them.
"My G-God, there's a lot of 'em," Bowles reported, his voice breaking. "There must be near a score in the group awindward. T'other bunch alee ain't but about half that large." Billy Bowles was fourteen, a pimply youth with sallow skin and unruly hair, assigned to the gundeck. Charles had taken a liking to the boy but thought him too tender for a life in the navy. He was easily bullied by his messmates in the gun room and Charles had come across him bruised and reduced to tears more than once. "The Culloden's almost up to them," the boy bubbled on. "Can't be more than a mile and a half afar."
"Come down from that ladder and take your station," Charles said. "We'll be up to them soon enough."
"I see a four-decker, sir, and a bunch of three-deckers! Oh, my God."
Exasperated, Charles jumped to the ladderway and grabbed the apparently deaf midshipman by the back of his coat. "Look, the flagship's signaling again," the boy squealed. Charles looked down the line of ships until he saw the signal flags on Victory's halyards, repeated by the frigate Niger standing to windward: "Admiral intends to pass through enemy line." At the same moment he saw clouds of smoke erupt from the sides of the nearest Spanish warships, answered immediately by a broadside from Culloden. A moment later, the sounds of the great guns rumbled like distant thunder. "Get to your station," he said to the boy, pulling him down the ladderway. "You can watch through a gunport."
The roll of cannon fire slowly grew louder and more intense as the British line engaged the Spanish fleet in sequence and larger numbers from both sides became involved. It had been cold and foggy earlier in the morning and Charles had pulled on a woolen sweater under his uniform coat. Now he felt beads of clammy sweat under his arms. He began nervously drumming his fingers against his trouser leg. It came to him that, despite the span of time he had spent in the navy, he had never seen one of the great guns fired in anger. Through years of training and practice he knew well the mechanics of their operation, the bellowing roar so loud it could make the crew's ears bleed, and the recoil as the brutes leapt inward on screaming trucks with ample force to crush anyone in their way until jerked to an abrupt halt against their breechings. He had been told by others who had survived major fleet actions off Toulon or the Saints or on the Glorious First of June of the giddy jubilation that went with delivering a deafening broadside into an opponent and the horror of receiving the full weight of a well-delivered salvo. But by accident or fate or design, the Argonaut had not been present at those battles and Charles had not experienced it.
And now he would. He wondered how he would react. Some men, he had heard, rose in stature and determination as the world exploded around them in the din of battle. Others became paralyzed, unable to function, their only thought to protect themselves. The former were heroes, the latter cowards. It was as simple as that; everyone said so. He rememberedit had been hammered into him repeatedly at every level of his naval careerthat, as an officer and a gentleman, it was his responsibility to set an example of coolness and courage before the men he commanded. He forced himself to stop rapping his fingers against his leg, deliberately rested one hand on his sword hilt, placed the other behind his back, and stood as apparently relaxed and indifferent to the approaching battle as he was able to manage.
"Silence, there," he snapped at a gun crew, some of whose members were clustered around a port, staring at the Spanish fleet and talking excitedly among themselves. "All of you, stand by your guns." Charles didn't really see anything wrong with the men looking through the gunports and discussing the oncoming battle, but Captain Wood would reprimand him sharply if he noticed any lack of discipline among the men under his charge. Charles had been reprimanded for apparent lack of smartness among his men before.
The devil of it was that he couldn't see what was happening. He caught occasional glimpses of Spanish warships through the forward gunports, including what he thought was the gigantic flagship, Santissima Trinidad, with 130 guns on four decks, the largest ship in the world. The now almost incessant cannon fire had grown decidedly louder, more immediately threatening, and a hint of spent gunpowder tainted the air. It was maddening not to be able to see anything of the progress of the battle, the positions of the fleets, or what damage had been done. He didn't want to climb the ladder to the upper deck; that would invite a rebuke from the captain for displaying undue curiosity and leaving his post. He also didn't want to gawk through a porthole like a common landsman.
"Mr. Bowles," he shouted.
"A-aye aye, sir," came a voice from close behind him.
"Mr. Bowles, get back up the forward ladderway and tell me what you see."
"Aye aye," the boy answered and cheerfully scurried away. After a moment he called down, "The Culloden's almost through their line, sir. The Victory and the Egmont are just coming into range. There's still a ways afore us."
"Do you see any damage?"
Bowles paused before answering. "Hard to say, sir. There's s-so much s-s-smoke. Seems most everybody's masts are still standing, though."
"What are the Spaniards doing?"
"The bigger group, the one to windward, is sort of sliding to the north like. If they can, I think they'll run with the wind back to Spain. Can't tell what t'other bunch are doing. Kind of circling about, tacking like."
"Thank you, Mr. Bowles. Let me know if anything important happens." Of their own accord, Charles's fingers resumed their nervous tamping against his thigh.
A cheer broke out on the upper deck and was quickly shouted down by cries of "Silence, there," from one officer or another.
"A dago's lost a mast, I think," came Bowles's voice. "Culloden has hoisted a signal . . . 'Acknowledge,' I think."
"Acknowledge what?" Charles asked.
"Oh, I see," Bowles said after a pause. "The admiral telegraphed for Culloden to tack and come back at the Spanish. Only Culloden acknowledged and came about afore the flagship signaled. We're all supposed to tack in s-s-succession when we get through the Spanish line, it says."
Charles longed to climb the ladder and see with his own eyes, but he contented himself with asking, "How long till we're in range?"
"Culloden's around, and Blenheim and Prince George. There goes Orion. About two more ships and we'll be up to the first. Right after Captain and Excellent. Wait!" Bowles squealed with excitement. "The Spaniards, the smaller group what was milling about, they've all come up to where our boys were turning. They've shot some yards off Colossus's foremast! Her head won't swing. Orion's backed and covering her. Oh, my God! Here comes Victory. Oh, such a broadside she just gave. . . . "
"Lieutenant Edgemont!" the first lieutenant's voice boomed down from the quarterdeck. "A Spanish warship's approaching to starboard. You may fire as your guns bear."
"Aye aye, sir," Charles called back. At last he would be tried in battle. "Starboard guns, aim true for the waterline," he yelled to the captains of his gun crews. "Prepare to fire on my command." His spine tingled with anticipation and he felt sweat on his palms.He was about to be in battle, a real battle. At the forewardmost cannon he knelt down and peered along the thick black barrel out the gunport. Almost immediately the Spanish seventy-four, with all sails set and gloriously ornamented with red-and-gold paint, sailed into view on the opposite tack. She had already been considerably knocked about; she had several parted stays, holes in her courses, and her hull was scarred. As soon as he was satisfied that the gun would hit her he jumped back and shouted, "Fire!" a little louder than strictly necessary. The gun captain yanked on his lanyard. Instantly the cannon erupted with a thunderous bang and leapt backward against its restraining tackle. Since they were firing to windward, the smoke billowed back into the gunport, momentarily obscuring any view. Charles knelt by the second gun, stepped back, and again barked, "Fire!" At the same time he heard and felt the larger twenty-four-pounder cannon on the lower gundeck explode in a single broadside, heeling the ship with their recoil. The two ships were passing a good deal faster than he had anticipated, so he yelled, "Fire as you bear!" The remainder of his starboard cannon crashed inward as one, the wind filling the gundeck with the acrid smoke of burnt gunpowder, shrouding everything. As the air cleared, Charles saw that the Spaniard was now well astern and beyond the traverse of his guns. She had suffered little if any additional damage that he could detect. He let out a deep breath and was about to congratulate himself on his coolness under fire when he realized that his target had not discharged a gun in her haste to escape.
"Worm and sponge out," he ordered in an almost disappointed tone. "Load with cartridge. Load with shot and wad your shot." He continued the sequence of cleaning and charging the cannon, mechanically ending with, "Put in tompkins. House your guns. Secure your guns."
Where was the rest of the Spanish fleet? Despite the risk to his dignity, Charles knelt by a starboard gunport and peered out. The larger body to windward sailed briskly northward out of cannon range. A glance to larboard told a similar story. The smaller squadronhe counted eight ships of the linewas tacking across the rear of the British line, where they could rejoin their sister ships. Charles searched in vain to starboard and port for the other British warships. They had to be more or less dead ahead or still in the process of turning. He tried to figure how the fleet, still tacking into the wind in succession, well beyond the rapidly departing Spanish, would be able to reform and engage before the enemy could unite to form a unified line of battle or, more probably, flee safely back to Cadiz.
He had almost decided that the enemy was bound to escape, that Jervis's fleet could not possibly come about in time, when he heard the shouted order "All hands to wear ship" from the quarterdeck and the sounds of pounding feet as sailors rushed to the shrouds and braces. He looked at the young midshipman still standing near the top of the ladderway. "What the hell's going on, Bowles?"
"We've gotten a s-s-s-signal from the flagship," the boy answered shakily, his complexion a deathly white. "Our number. J-just our number. We're to wear and engage the enemy more c-c-closely."
Charles's mouth worked for a moment but no sound came out, certainly not a coherent question he could ask Bowles that would explain what he wanted to know. He bounded for the ladderway to see for himself. It immediately became clear. The main body of the Spanish fleet was already well to the north and clear of the British line. Very soon they would turn to the east, and, with the wind behind them, collect the smaller squadron to make all haste for Spain, escaping virtually intact. The Argonaut had already turned and he saw that she was now on a course to cross just in front of the main body. He looked desperately around for the rest of the British warships. The Culloden, Blenheim, Prince George, and the rest of the British van that had already tacked were adding sail after sail in pursuit of the Spanish rear. Others, which had been toward the rear of the British line, Excellent and Captain among them, had worn after Argonaut in response to a second, general signal from Victory to "Engage the enemy more closely," which still flew. None of them would reach the Argonaut anywhere near in time to support her in what she alone was in position to do: Stop or at least delay a Spanish squadron of perhaps a dozen and a half heavy men of war.
"We're the only ones who can reach 'em, you see, sir," said Bowles's small voice beside him.
"Yes." Charles almost swallowed the word. His eyes grew wide as he studied the onrushing mass of two- and three-decked warships, with the immense Santissima Trinidad somewhere near the center. All of them were larger and more heavily armed than the Argonautmany were much larger and much more heavily armed. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder and felt him shaking. "It will be all right if we just do our jobs," he said gently, well aware that there was no truth in it.