Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Collingwood, Cuthbert
COLLINGWOOD, CUTHBERT, Lord Collingwood (1750–1810), vice-admiral, of an old Northumberland family which had fallen into reduced circumstances during the civil war of the 17th century and the rebellion of 1715, was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne on 26 Sept. 1750. He received his early education in the grammar school of that town; but at the age of eleven was entered as a volunteer on board the Shannon frigate, commanded by his maternal cousin, Captain Braithwaite; and for the next eleven years be continued with Braithwaite in the Shannon, and afterwards in the Gibraltar and Liverpool, always on the home station, though occasionally stretching as far as Gibraltar or Newfoundland in charge of convoy. In March 1772 he was appointed to the Lennox, guardship at Portsmouth, with Captain Roddam, and in February 1774 was moved into the Preston, going out to North America with the flag of Vice-admiral Samuel Graves. In the following year he was landed with the party of seamen attached to the army at the battle of Bunker's Hill, a service which won for him his promotion to the rank of lieutenant, 17 June 1775. In the following March he was appointed to the Hornet sloop, with Captain Haswell, and went in her to the West Indies, where, at Port Royal, on 30 Sept. 1777, he was tried by court-martial on a number of charges amounting to disobedience of the captain's orders and neglect of duty. On each and all of these charges he was fully acquitted; but in pronouncing his acquittal the court remarked on the apparent want of 'cheerfulness on the part of Lieutenant Collingwood in carrying on the duty of the sloop,' and 'therefore recommended it to him to conduct himself for the future with that alacrity which is so essentially necessary for carrying on his majesty's service.' The admonition did him no harm, and in the course of a few months he was moved by the admiral, Sir Peter Parker, into the Lowestoft as first lieutenant, on the appointment to the flagship of Horatio Nelson, with whose career his own becomes curiously and closely connected. In June 1779 he was made commander into the Badger, vacant by the promotion of Nelson to post rank ; and on 22 March 1780 was posted into the Hinchingbrook frigate, from which Nelson was removed to the Janus. The Hinchingbrook was at the time employed on an expedition against San Juan, an expedition which was defeated by the pestilential climate. Nelson himself was for many months most dangerously ill, and of the original complement of 200, 180 were buried in the short space of four months. Collingwood was one of the few who escaped, and in the following December was appointed to command the Pelican of 24 guns, which was wrecked on the Morant Keys in August 1781, in a violent hurricane. The loss of life was fortunately small, and after ten days of extreme priva- tion on the barren Keys the men were rescued by a frigate sent from Jamaica. Shortly after his return to England, Collingwood was appointed to the Sampson of 64 guns, which was paid off at the peace, and her captain appointed to the Mediator frigate for service in the West Indies. It was during this time that his friendship with Nelson became most intimate, partly perhaps from the peculiar circumstances of their commission, which threw Nelson, then the senior captain on the station, into a most remarkable opposition to the commander-in-chief in reference to the strict carrying out of the navigation laws, which the admiral was disposed to relax [see Nelson, Horatio, Viscount]. Collingwood entirely agreed with Nelson in his line of conduct, and strictly followed the course which he prescribed ; but as a junior officer his name did not come into any prominence in connection with the dispute. Towards the end of 1786 the Mediator returned to England and was paid off. The next three years Collingwood passed in Northumberland, 'making,' as he said, 'acquaintance with his own family, to whom he had hitherto been, as it were, a stranger.' During the Spanish armament of 1790 he was appointed to the Mermaid, in which he afterwards went to the West Indies ; but returning, and being paid off the following year, he went back to Northumberland, and married Miss Sarah Blackett, apparently the grand-daughter of Admiral Roddam, his old captain in the Lennox.
Early in 1793 he was appointed to command the Prince, carrying the flag of Rear-admiral Bowyer [see Bowyer, Sir George, (1740 ?-1800)], with whom he afterwards, moved into the Barfleur, and had an important share in the battle of 1 June 1794 ; but though Bowyer's services on this occasion were acknowledged by a baronetcy, Collingwood's name was not mentioned by Lord Howe, and the gold medal was therefore not awarded to him. When Admiral Bowyer left the Barfleur, Collingwood was transferred to the Hector, and in the following year to the Excellent, in which he was sent to the Mediterranean, August 1795. It was really his first entry into that sea, though by some misapprehension Nelson wrote on his arrival, ' You are so old a Mediterranean man that I can tell you nothing new about the country.' During the rest of 1795 and the whole of 1796 the Excellent was one of the fleet guarding Corsica and keeping up a close blockade on Toulon, and which, being withdrawn from the Mediterranean when Italy was overrun by the French, and Spain had declared war, fought the action off Cape St. Vincent on 14 Feb. 1797. In this battle the Excellent, under Collingwood, had a very distinguished share, two Spanish ships, one of them a 1st rate, striking their flags to her ; after which, passing on to the relief of the Captain, she silenced the fire of the San Nicolas, which the Captain boarded and took possession of, and then engaged the great Spanish four-decker, the Santisima Trinidad. This huge ship had been already very roughly handled by the Captain and Culloden, and might, it was thought, have been compelled to strike to the Excellent, but, being to windward at the time, succeeded in effecting her escape. The assistance rendered to the Captain was most timely, and on the following day Nelson wrote : ' " A friend in need is a friend indeed " was never more truly verified than by your most noble and gallant conduct yesterday in sparing the Captain from further loss ; and I beg, both as a public officer and a friend, you will accept my most sincere thanks.' Collingwood, in replying, said : 'It added very much to the satisfaction which I felt in thumping the Spaniards, that I released you a little.' In a letter to his father-in-law three months later he said, in reference to the four-decker : 'I am sorry to see in the newspapers some reflections on Captain Berkeley of the Emerald (see James, Naval Hist. 1860, ii. 56). I do not believe the Trinidad was ever in so bad a condition as to submit to frigates, though she might have been taken by a line-of-battle ship. His losing sight of her was the consequence of bad weather, and I think he is very unfairly censured.' Of Collingwood's own conduct in the battle there was but one opinion, which was warmly expressed at the time by Vice-admiral Waldegrave, and by Dacres, Waldegrave's flag-captain.
Gold medals were awarded to all the captains of the ships of the line. When Collingwood was informed of this by the admiral, he replied that he could not receive such a medal while that for 1 June was withheld from him. ' I feel,' he said, ' that I was then improperly passed over, and to receive such a distinction now would be to acknowledge the propriety of that injustice.' Both medals were afterwards, and, as Collingwood believed, by desire of the king, sent to him by Lord Spencer, the first lord of the admiralty, who wrote : 'The former medal would have been transmitted to you some months ago if a proper conveyance had been found for it.'
For the next two years, till the very end of 1798, Collingwood, in the Excellent, continued attached to the fleet before Cadiz. The service, though of the highest importance, was extremely irksome. It is impossible to read the published correspondence of Collingwood at this time without seeing how much it had preyed on his temper, leading him to expressions which, if made public, would have been in the highest degree reprehensible and even mutinous. Indeed, in one of his letters (22 July 1798), after saying that all the captains 'complain that they are appointed to many unworthy services,' he adds : 'I do them with all the exactness in my power, as if they were things of the utmost importance, though I do not conceal what I think of them.' If this is to be understood literally, there can be no doubt whatever that Collingwood was guilty of a very grave breach of discipline ; and that had Lord St. Vincent known of it, he would have sent him home by the first ship, if indeed he did not try him by court-martial. Other incidents related by his biographer cannot be accepted as facts without corroborative evidence. One of these is the often-quoted story of Collingwood's gross incivility to his commander-in-chief, and his violation of service etiquette on the occasion of the Excellent being ordered to close the flagship to receive two bags of onions. The details of the story are manifestly inaccurate, and quite unworthy of belief : Lord St. Vincent s character has been strangely misrepresented if he would have tolerated for one moment conduct such as that imputed to Collingwood. Another of the absurdities which have passed muster as history is the story of Collingwood's having seriously explained to a man of bad character his intention to head him up in a cask and heave him overboard. Collingwood had a distinct reputation for keeping his ship's company in first-rate order, with a minimum of corporal punishment ; but the statement that he indulged in unmeaning threats is contradicted by the results which he is known to have obtained.
The Excellent was paid off at Portsmouth early in January 1799. Within a few weeks (14 Feb.) Collingwood was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral, and was almost immediately appointed to a command in the Channel fleet, with his flag in the Triumph. From off Brest, he was detached in May, under Sir Charles Cotton [q. v.], with a squadron of twelve ships to reinforce Lord Keith in the Mediterranean, and accompanied him back off Brest, when the French fleet had returned after an uneventful cruise. In the beginning of 1800 he shifted his flag into the Barfleur. and continued in her, attached to the Channel fleet and employed for the most part in the blockade of Brest, till released by the peace of Amiens. After a short year at home, he was again appointed to a command in the fleet off Brest under Admiral Cornwallis. On 23 April 1804 he was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral, but continued as before, with Cornwallis, till May 1805, when he was detached in command of a squadron to reinforce Nelson, then in pursuit of the French fleet, or to act as circumstances required. In accordance with this discretionary power, he took up his station off Cadiz, where, on 18 July, he was joined by Nelson on his return from the West Indies, and where he still remained when Nelson, having intelligence that the combined fleet had been seen to the northward, sailed (25 July) to reinforce Cornwallis off Brest. He was still off Cadiz, keeping watch on the combined fleet which had put into that port, when he was again joined by Nelson on 28 Sept. ; and commanding in the second post, he led the lee line in the memorable battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805. By Nelson's death in the hour of victory, Collingwood succeeded to the chief command, and thus, in popular estimation, reaped a certain portion of the glory which, had Nelson lived, would have fallen to him alone. That Collingwood ably carried out the plan of the battle, so far as the duty was entrusted to him, is beyond dispute ; but the popular idea, which seems to regard him as holding the command jointly with Nelson, is absolutely without foundation. Perhaps, too, a common misunderstanding of Nelson's orders has given Collingwood's share in the action an appearance of initiative which it very certainly had not. The Royal Sovereign, which carried (Joiimgwood's flag, led through the allied fleet some few minutes before the Victory at the head of the weather line, a circumstance very generally spoken of as if due to some better management, good fortune, or exuberant courage on the part of Collingwood. It was, to the minutest detail, pre-arranged by Nelson that it was to be so, he reserving for himself the possibly more difficult task of holding the enemy's van in check, and of taking care 'that the movements of the second in command are as little interrupted as possible.' What Collingwood did under Nelson's directions he did gallantly and splendidly ; what he did after Nelson's death left him commander-in-chief has been considered more doubtful. The last order which Nelson gave to the fleet not, as has been said, from the depths of the cockpit, but from the quarterdeck of the Victory a few minutes before she opened fire (Nelson Despatches, vii. 146) was to prepare to anchor immediately after the battle. When the order was given, Nelson knew perfectly well that the ships must be in a shattered condition, and that foul weather was fast coming on. Later on, and after Nelson's death, Collingwood's judgment of the situation was different, and the fleet did not anchor. In the gale which followed, many of the prizes foundered, and others made their escape into Cadiz ; the loss, it was said, was due to Collingwood's mistaken judgment, and the question has been often discussed with much warmth. In reality, it does not now admit of solution ; for though we know that the prizes were lost, we do not know that they would not have been equally lost if the alternative course had been followed.
Collingwood's brilliant service was at once acknowledged by his being raised to the peerage as Baron Collingwood of Caldburne and Hethpoole in Northumberland ; by a pension of 2,000l. a year for life, with, after his death, 1,000l. a year to his widow, and 5001. to each of his daughters ; by the thanks of parliament, and by a sword from the Duke of Clarence. Not having a son, Collingwood was anxious that the title should descend through his daughters, but the request was not complied with. The rank brought him other anxieties, for he was a poor man, 'and how we are to make it out' he wrote to his wife 'I know not, with high rank and no fortune. It is true I have the chief command ; but there are neither French nor Spaniards on the sea, and our cruisers find nothing but neutrals, who carry on all the trade of the enemy.'
Collingwood was continued in the command which had fallen to him by the death of Nelson, but the work had been done too thoroughly to leave him much opportunity of distinction. For the next eighteen months, with his flag in the Ocean, he remained on the coast of Spain, for the most part before Cadiz ; but in June 1807, owing to the very unsatisfactory state of our relations with Turkey, and the failure of the expedition under Sir John Duckworth, he was ordered to take the fleet to the Dardanelles, ' not so much ' he wrote 24 Oct. ' to carry on an active war against the Turks, as to conciliate them and give the ambassadors of Russia and England an opportunity of making a peace which ought never to have been broken. . . . To the Russians they would have little to say, as they always bear them a most inveterate hatred. To us it was the very reverse ; all their correspondence bore the marks of kindness ; but we had unadvisedly thrown them into the hands of France, and it was not possible to extricate them. They do not hesitate to say now that the fear of France alone prevents them making peace with us ; and when or how that fear is to cease, I do not know.' The threatening relations between England and Russia abruptly broke up this ill-judged attack on Turkey, and the Russian fleet left the Mediterranean for the Baltic, only to be driven into the Tagus, where it eventually surrendered, on capitulation, to Sir Charles Cotton.
Collingwood meantime had his anxieties directed to Sicily, on the coast of which island he continued for many months, stretching occasionally as far as Toulon, but returning to his station, generally at Syracuse. He was still there in the following year (1808) when Vice-admiral Ganteaume, who commanded at Toulon, having been joined by the squadron from Rochefort, put to sea (10 Feb.) with a squadron of ten sail of the line, with the object, as afterwards appeared, of relieving Corfu, then closely blockaded by a small squadron of frigates and the Standard of 64 guns. On 22 Feb. Ganteaume anchored at Corfu, while the Standard made the best of her way to join the admiral, who was then lying at Syracuse with five ships of the line, Vice-admiral Thornbrough with five more being at Palermo. On the afternoon of 24 Feb. Collingwood put to sea to join Thornbrough, and unfortunately an hour or two before the Standard made the port. The squadron, being under the land, was not seen by the Standard, and by some unexplained neglect she, though seen by the squadron, was not signalled to join. Collingwood thus remained in perfect ignorance of the French fleet being at sea, and went, under easy sail, towards Palermo. On the way he was joined near Maritime by the squadrons under Thornbrough and Sir Richard Strachan, raising his force to fifteen sail of the line ; but it was not till 6 March, when off Cape St. Vito, that he heard of the French having left Toulon. He then stood across to Naples, where, some days later, he received the news which he ought to have received from the Standard on 24 Feb. Even then he did not seem to understand the necessity for prompt action. He returned to Syracuse, not through the Straits, but round the west end of Sicily, and did not 'arrive till 21 March. On the 22nd he sailed with the fleet for the Adriatic ; but on the 28th, off Cape Rizzuto, he learned that Ganteaume, after cruising between Sicily and the Morea for nearly three weeks, and visiting several of the islands, had finally left Corfu on or about 16 March. He turned westward to look for his enemy ; but, impressed with the idea that Sicily was the object of the French, continued to guard that island too carefully ; while Ganteaume, having hugged the African shore as far west as Cape Bon, passed to the north without hindrance, and anchored safely at Toulon on 10 April (James, Nav. Hist. (1860), iv. 291 ; Brun, Guerres Maritimes de la France, ii. 483).
Collingwood was much mortified at having missed the French fleet, and writing to Lord Radstock on 18 June said : 'My heart was bent on the destruction of that fleet, but I never got intelligence where they really were until they were out of reach. . . . Their escape was by chance ; for at one time we were very near them without knowing it.' When, however, we reflect on Collingwood's extraordinary neglect, on 24 Feb., to communicate with the Standard, which had left her station, presumably for some urgent cause ; when we remember also that the motions of the French fleet were watched by English frigates almost all the time it was in the Adriatic, and that it was followed along the coast of Africa by the Spartan, and yet that none of these frigates brought satisfactory intelligence to the commander-in-chief, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its escape was due to other causes than mere chance. The fact indeed seems to be that Collingwood's idea of the duties of a commander-in-chief was limited, almost entirely, to office work. To this he devoted himself with an all-absorbing zeal, spending the whole day at his desk, to the ruin of his health and to the necessary neglect of other more important duties. Thus he wrote on 14 June 1807 : 'I hardly ever see the face of an officer, except when they dine with me, and am seldom on deck above an hour in the day, when I go in the twilight to breathe the fresh air.' The conduct of a fleet consisting of thirty sail of the line and upwards of fifty smaller vessels involved a great deal of clerical work, exclusive of much official correspondence ; but a commander-in-chief who seldom moves from his desk can scarcely be absolved of neglecting other most necessary parts of his duty. It is to this, in a measure, that the uneventful nature of Collingwood's command must be ascribed.
During the remainder of 1808 a watch was kept on the port of Toulon by Vice-admiral Thornbrough, and through 1809 by Collingwood in person, with the bulk of his fleet, which was then, by the great exertions of the French, almost equalled in number by the force under Ganteaume. On one occasion, April and May 1809, a squadron of five sail of the line, under Rear-admiral Baudin, did succeed in convoying a reinforcement of troops and provisions to Barcelona, and in getting back safe to Toulon. A second attempt in October, with three ships of the line, was less fortunate ; they fell in with Collingwood on their way, and were chased and driven on shore by a detached squadron under Rear-admiral Martin. Only one succeeded in getting into Cette ; the other two were burnt and blown up about six miles distant from the harbour, 26 Oct. It was the one incident which enlivened the later years of Collingwood's command. His health had long been failing ; disorders attributable to the confined sedentary life which he forced on himself were aggravated, till they became truly serious. 'Lately,' he wrote on 10 Feb. 1810, 'I have had a very severe complaint in my stomach, which has almost prevented my eating. It is high time I should return to England, and I hope that I shall be allowed to do so before long.' In fact, however, for the last eighteen months he had held the official permission of the admiralty to go to England, and an offer of the command at Plymouth, although accompanied by a hope that his health would permit him to remain in the Mediterranean. It has often been said that he died at his post in obedience to the call of duty. A more correct way of stating the case would be to say that he had not realised the very-serious nature of his illness, and postponed taking advantage of the admiralty permission till it was too late. On 3 March 1810, being then so ill that he was medically ordered to return to England without delay, he resigned the command to Rear-admiral Martin, and on the 6th sailed from Port Mahon in the Ville de Paris. The excitement of being at sea, homeward bound, gave him unwonted strength, and he said, 'Then I may yet live to meet the French once more!' It was but the expiring flicker. He died the following evening, 7 March. The body was brought to England, and, after lying in state in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's by the side of Nelson. The monument to his memory is in the south transept of the cathedral. His portrait, by Howard, is in the Painted Hall, to which it was presented by the family. By his wife, who died 17 Sept. 1819, he had two daughters, Sarah, whose husband, Mr. G. L. Newnham, afterwards took the name of Collingwood, and Mary Patience, who married Mr. Anthony Denny, both of whom bad issue. He had no son, and the title, on his death, became extinct.
From the close connection between the careers of Nelson and Collingwood at different and critical stages, it has become to some extent customary to speak of Collingwood as Nelson's compeer, and as one of the greatest of England's admirals. A critical examination of the story of Collingwood's life shows that there is, in reality, no foundation for any such opinion. As a young officer Collingwood was certainly not distinguished above his fellows for either zeal or ability. He was promoted, mainly by family interest, to be lieutenant at the age of twenty-five; his promotions to be commander and captain came from the private friendship of Sir Peter Parker. As a captain or an admiral, where he had Nelson's example or instruction he did splendidly; where Nelson's influence was wanting, he won no especial distinction; and after Nelson's death, as commander-in-chief, he did, at most, no better than scores of other respectable mediocrities who have held high command. A careful study of the 'general order' which he issued on 23 March 1808, when in daily hopes of meeting the enemy, shows how curiously he had failed to grasp the secret of the tactics which had triumphed at Trafalgar. He seems to have fancied that the magic of 'the Nelson touch' lay, not in the concentration of the attack, but in the formation in two columns; and by dispersing the attack along the whole line, was prepared to repeat so much of the tactical blunders of a past age. To speak of the author of this memorandum, who never commanded in chief before the enemy, as a tactician worthy of being named along with the victor at the Nile, at Copenhagen, and at Trafalgar, is simply a misuse of language. But stress is often laid on the fact that Collingwood's private life was noble and pure. That he was an earnest and pious man, exemplary in his domestic relations, is admitted; but from a strictly professional point of view, Collingwood can only be considered as a brave and capable sailor, a good officer, an admirable second in command, but without the genius, fitting him to rise to the first rank as a commander-in-chief.
[A selection from the public and private correspondence of Vice-acimiral Lord Collingwood, interspersed with memoirs of his life, by G. L. Newnham Collingwood, 8vo, 1828. This, by Collingwood's son-in-law, is the standard biography, and has passed through several editions; all others of later date are mere transcriptions of Mr. Newnham Collingwood's statements and opinions, which, from the writer's natural bias, ought not to be by any means always implicitly accepted. Official letters and other documents in the Public Record Office; Naval Chronicle, xv. 15, and xxiii. 379; Nicolas's Nelson Despatches, passim (see index at end of vol. vii.); Brenton's Life of Lord St. Vincent, vol. i. chap, xvi.; Bourchier's Life of Sir Edward Codrington, i. 47-51.]