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John Jervis Earl of St. Vincent

John Jervis, Admiral Lord St. Vincent, was born January 9, 1735, in Staffordshire, England. He was intended for his father's profession, the law; but, by his own account, a disinclination which was probably natural became invincible through the advice of the family coachman. " Don't be a lawyer, Master Jacky," said the old man; "all lawyers are rogues." Some time later, his father receiving the appointment of auditor to Greenwich Hospital, the family removed to the neighborhood of London; and there young Jervis, being thrown in contact with ships and seamen, and particularly with a midshipman of his own age, became confirmed in his wish to go to sea. Failing to get his parents' consent, he ran away towards the close of the year 1747. From this escapade he was brought back; but his father, seeing the uselessness of forcing the lad's inclinations, finally Acquiesced, though it seems likely, from his after conduct, that it was long before he became thoroughly reconciled to the disappointment.

In 1748 he entered naval service as an able seaman. When his uncle got him placed, through the admiralty, on a guardship at the age of 13 years, he concluded that he should be going on some expedition of importance and volunteered for regular service. When he drew on his father for 20 and the draft came back protested, he says: "I immediately changed my mode of living, quitted my mess, lived alone, and took up the ship's allowance, washed and mended my own clothes, made a pair of trousers out of the ticking of my own bed." The latent force of his character was at once aroused. To discharge the debt, he disposed of his pay tickets at a heavy discount ; sold his bed, and for three years slept on the deck ; left the mess to which he belonged, living forward on the allowance of a seaman, and making, mending, and washing his own clothes, to save expense. The incident was singularly adapted to develop and exaggerate his natural characteristics, self-reliance, self- control, stern determination, and, it must be added, the exacting harshness which demanded of others all that he had himself accepted. His experience of suffering and deprivation served, not to enlarge his sympathies, but to intensify his severity.

Jervis was promoted to Lieutenant in 1755 on completion of his six years service, and participated in the conquest of Quebec in 1759, being made commander the same year. During the next twelve or fifteen years he traveled somewhat widely through Europe, making professional notes. During the American Revolution he commanded in the English Channel, participated at Gibraltar, and was for years in Parliament.

During the ten years of peace following 1783, Sir John Jervis did not serve afloat, although, from his high repute, he was one of those summoned upon each of the alarms of war that from time to time arose. Throughout this period he sat in Parliament, voting steadily with his party, the Whigs, and supporting Fox in his opposition to measures which seemed to tend towards hostilities with France. When war came, however, he left his seat, ready to aid his country with his sword in the quarrel from which he had sought to keep her.

By September 1787 he had been promoted to Rear Admiral, and he became full Admiral in July 1795. From 1793 to 1795, as vice admiral, he cooperated with the army in the conquest of the French islands in the West Indies. As Admiral, in 1795, he took command of the Mediterranean fleet, facing the allied fleets of France and Spain.

In 1797, off Cape St. Vincent, he defeated the allies against heavy odds (in which affair Nelson won great honors), and was made Earl St. Vincent. The grand fleet of Spain, under the command of Admiral Don Josef de Cordova, in the gigantic four-decker, of 130 guns, the Santissima Trinidad, had sailed from Carthagena on the 1st of February, 1797. This fleet was composed, besides the admiral's four-decker, of six three-deckers of 112 guns each, two 8o-gun ships, eighteen 74-gun ships, and at least twelve 34-gun frigates. The object, it was rumoured, was to advance from Cadiz to Brest, where it was to join the French, and probably also the Dutch, fleets. With this assembled force the invasion of England was to be attempted. To watch the Spanish fleet, and, if possible, to prevent its reaching Cadiz, much less Brest, an English squadron, under Admiral Sir John Jervis, in his flag-ship the Victory, was cruising off the southern coast of Spain.

On the 6th of February, when near his chief station, off Cape St. Vincent, the admiral had under his command the Victory and Britannia, of 100 guns, three 98's, the Barfleur, Blenheim, and Prince George, eight 74's, one 64, and six frigates and sloops. Altogether the odds against the British fleet may be reckoned nearly two to one.

The practised eye of a seaman like Sir John Jervis saw the loose and disorderly position of the Spanish fleet, and instantly, without hesitation, formed the resolution to profit by it. On the principle that "fortune favors the brave," he went in and won. The very daring of the venture increased the confusion, and weakened the power of the enemy, who were unable to put themselves into favorable position for meeting the attack.

When the name of Nelson is mentioned, the thoughts naturally turn to the great victories gained by him when in command of British fleets, the battle of the Nile and the still more glorious Trafalgar. But it was in another and earlier sea fight that we find the most wonderful of those displays of dash and of gallantry which made the name of Nelson renowned as one of the greatest heroes in the annals of war. In the action off Cape St. Vincent, in February, 1797, when Admiral Sir John Jervis attacked and defeated the Spanish fleet, Commodore Horatio Nelson commanded the Captain (seventy-four), and it is his daring capture of two of the Spanish men-of-war, the San Josef, a three-decker of 112 guns, and the San Nicolas, of eighty guns, that forms the most brilliant event in that famous sea fight.

Following a defeat of the Spanish fleet in early 1797, Jervis was appointed as Earl of St. Vincent. His health having broken down, he resigned his command in 1799. St. Vincent later took command of the Channel fleet and subsequently in 1801 accepted the position of First Lord of the Admirality which he occupied until 1806 when he returned briefly to sea duty before retiring in 1807 [other accounts report he retired in 1810]. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1821. Jervis was awarded the K.B. in 1782 and in 1783 entered Parliament as member for Launceston. St. Vincent died March 14, 1823. He had married his cousin, Martha Parker, who died childless, 1816.

Jervis was extremely industrious and a great organizer and disciplinarian. He studied hard, and had surprising aptitude and a fine memory for all branches of professional and general knowledge. He understood human nature and ruled his men " by a wise combination of prompt severity tempered by judicious clemency." To his discipline and his organization of his squadron the success of the battles of St. Vincent and, to a certain extent, Nelson's squadron at the Nile, were due. "The instant repair of any damages to the ships, whether caused by storm or battle, was almost a mania with him." In the admiralty he reformed notorious corruptions in the dockyards.

He was always energetic. When on half pay he went to France and nearly ruined his health in study to make up early deficiencies in his education. Again, in time of peace, he entered Parliament. At 71 years of age he took up with alacrity the command of the Channel fleet and carried out a naval campaign. It is said that he was extremely punctual in all his concerns, even the most trifling, and "answered every letter the moment he received it." His father also was a good administrator and lawyer, was counsel to the admiralty, and auditor of Greenwich Hospital.

Unable to pursue pleasure ashore, he stuck to sea-going ships; and the energies of a singularly resolute mind were devoted to mastering all the details of his profession. When he had leave on half pay he traveled over Europe to get a first-hand view of conditions.

At sea he used his unlimited power, and would quell mutiny by hanging or flogging those of his men who offended him. His opinions of his officers were formed with great independence and held tenaciously. In action he showed resource in a moment of danger. As for himself he despised cant, prized independence, and was fearless in decision. As head of the admiralty he was a vigorous and thoroughgoing reformer and applied the same autocratic methods there that he had employed on shipboard.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:37 ZULU