Mitchell, Cornelius (DNB00)

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MITCHELL, CORNELIUS (d. 1749?), captain in the navy, entered the navy in 1709 on board the Ranelagh, then carrying the flag of Sir John Norris in the Channel. On 22 Dec. 1720 he was promoted by Commodore Charles Stewart, in the Mediterranean, to be lieutenant of the Dover. In 1726 he was a lieutenant of the Weymouth, and in June 1729 he was appointed to the Lion going out to the West Indies with the flag of his old patron Stewart, at this time a rear-admiral. By Stewart he was promoted, on 14 June 1731, to be captain of the Lark, which he took to England and paid off in the following February. From that time he had no service till August 1739, when he was appointed to the Rochester. In the following year he was moved into the Torbay, and afterwards into the Buckingham, in which he sailed for the West Indies in the fleet under Sir Chaloner Ogle (d. 1751) [q. v.] On the way out, however, the Buckingham was disabled in a storm and was sent home (Beatson, iii. 27), and Mitchell, appointed to the Kent, went out later. In December 1743 he was moved by Ogle into the Adventure; and again by Davers in July 1745 into the Strafford. In the following December, with the Plymouth and Lyme frigate in company, he was convoying a fleet of merchant ships through the Windward Passage, when on the 15th he fell in with three French ships of war off Cape Nicolas. A slight engagement ensued, and, content with having beaten off the enemy, Mitchell pursued his voyage. A court-martial afterwards decided that he was justified in so doing, as the French force was superior, and the safety of the convoy was the first consideration.

In August 1746 Mitchell was again in command of a squadron, and again met a French squadron off Cape Nicolas, but the circumstances were reversed. The French had the convoy; Mitchell had the superior force. He had four ships of the line, one of 44 guns, and a small frigate, against three ships of the line, and one of 44 guns (ib. iii. 65-6). Mitchell, although his duty to attack was plain, hesitated; and when the French, encouraged by his apparent timidity, chased, he fled under a press of sail. At night he gave orders to show no lights; but he did not part company with the enemy, and day after day the experience was repeated. Once only did the squadrons engage, and after a few broadsides Mitchell drew off. On the tenth day, 13 Aug., the French entered the harbour of Cape François, where ‘they fired guns very merrily, and in the dusk of the evening had great illuminations in the town.’

Mitchell's conduct was severely commented on; but the admiral was sick and incapable. Mitchell, next to him, was the senior officer on the station; and it was only when the affair was reported to the admiralty that special orders were sent out to try him by court-martial. Even then there was some difficulty about forming a court, and it was thus 27 Oct. 1747 before he was put on his trial. The evidence against him was very positive; the hearing lasted nearly three months; the minutes of it fill about a thousand closely written foolscap pages; and on 28 Jan. 1747-8 the court determined that Mitchell ‘fell under part of the 12th and 14th articles of war,’ and sentenced him ‘to be cashiered and rendered incapable of ever being employed in his Majesty's service’ (cf. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, p. 267 n.) There was a strong feeling that the punishment was inadequate; so that when in 1749 parliament undertook to revise the code of naval discipline the discretionary power of courts-martial in cases such as Mitchell's was abolished, and under the altered regulations Admiral Byng suffered death in 1757.

Charnock incorrectly says that Mitchell was even restored to his half-pay of ten shillings a day. His name does not appear on the half-pay lists; and though it is possible that an equivalent pension was given him in some irregular manner, no minutes of such can be found. There is no official record of his death, which is said to have taken place in 1749.

[Charnock's Biog. Nav. iv. 230; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Mem. i. 320; Campbell's Lives of the Admirals, iv. 62; minutes of the courts-martial, commission and warrant books, and halfpay lists in Public Record Office.]

J. K. L.