Royal Naval Biography/Spencer, Robert Cavendish

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Knight Commander of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, and a Groom of the Bedchamber to H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence.
[Post-Captain of 1814.]

This officer is the second surviving son of Earl Spencer, K.G. formerly First Lord of the Admiralty, by Lady Lavinia Bingham, eldest daughter of Charles, first Earl of Lucan. It may be truly said, that under the direction of his father, the British navy was raised to an eminence which it had never before attained. It was during the noble Earl’s administration, that the victories off Cape St. Vincent, Camperdown, and the Nile, were achieved by Jervis, Duncan, and Nelson; – these battles we consider to be unparalleled, in point of consequence and glory, by any equal number that have ever been fought at sea.

It would be a tedious, and indeed superfluous task, to enumerate the many high encomiums that were lavished on Earl Spencer, by all parties, whilst his lordship presided with so much honor, skill, and advantage, at the helm of our maritime affairs; but the animated tribute paid to his professional abilities and judicious disposition of Britain’s “natural bulwark,” by a political opponent, is worthy of particular notice.

“No one,” said the Earl of Darnley, in his speech on the state of the nation, “has a higher opinion than I have of the noble lord over against me: his character is deservedly high. Under his auspices, we have triumphed in every part of the world, and the British flag has been carried to a pitch of unexampled glory!”

To show the high opinion entertained by Nelson of Earl Spencer, we shall here transcribe a letter written to his lordship by that transcendent hero, Oct. 10, 1804;–

“I do assure you, my dear Lord, that not one of all your naval friends, and you ought to have many, loves, honors, and respects you more than myself, or is more grateful for all your kindness. Circumstances may have separated us; but my sincere respect and attachment can never be shaken, by either political or other considerations; and it will always give me pleasure in shewing my regard for the Father by attentions to the Son.”

The son alluded to by Nelson is the subject of the following sketch.

The Hon. Robert Cavendish Spencer was born Oct. 24, 1791; and he appears to have commenced his naval career in Aug. 1804, at which period we find him embarking as midshipman on board the Tigre 80, Captain Benjamin Hallowell, under whom he continued to serve, in that ship and the Malta 84, until he received an order to take charge of the Pelorus brig, in Oct. 1812.

The manner in which the Tigre and Malta were employed will be seen by reference to pp. 482, 483, and 811 of our first volume; but it is necessary to state, that Mr. Spencer was employed in all the boat services which took place during the period of the second expedition to Egypt, and at both the unsuccessful attacks of Rosetta, under the immediate orders of Captain (now Rear-Admiral) Fellowes, who commanded the gun-boats on the Nile, acting in co-operation with the army against fort St. Julian.

Mr. Spencer also assisted at the capture and destruction of the French convoy in the bay of Rosas, Nov. 1, 1809[1]. On that occasion he was employed in the Tigre’s launch, under Lieutenant Edward Boxer, the senior officer, and leader of the starboard line of boats.

The launch’s officers and crew were amongst the first, who, hauling up on the inshore side of la Lamproie[2], penetrated under the boarding nettings, which the French on that side had neglected to lace down, trusting no doubt to the tremendous fire of musketry, &c[3]. from the beach, which was expected to render any attempt to board from that side impossible.

Mr. Spencer’s commission as lieutenant bears date Dec. 13 1810; his promotion to the rank of commander took place Jan. 22, 1813. On the latter occasion he was appointed to the Kite brig, of 16 guns; and soon after to the Espoir 18, which sloop joining Sir Edward Pellew’s fleet, was selected by that officer to form a part of Captain Ussher’s squadron employed off the French coast, in the neighbourhood of Marseilles. It is needless to say, that, so commanded, the little squadron was in a state of unceasing activity, few days passing in which it was not engaged with the enemy. Captain Spencer’s gallant and judicious conduct at the attack of Cassis, near Toulon, Aug. 18, 1813, has been described at pp. 353-355 of Supp. Part I.

On the 19th Jan. 1814, Captain Spencer was appointed to the Carron of 20 guns, which ship he continued to command after his advancement to post rank, June 4, 1814.

The Carron was one of the small squadron under Captain the Hon. William Henry Percy, at the attack of Fort Bowyer, near Mobile, in West Florida, Sept. 15, 1814. It will be seen by the official account of that gallant but unsuccessful enterprise (inserted at p. 66 et seq.), that after the senior officer anchored, the wind died away, and a strong ebb tide prevented Captain Spencer from getting his ship into the position wished for. He therefore left her distantly engaged, hastened to the assistance of his gallant friend, and remained with him on board the Hermes, until the boats of the squadron came alongside to take out her surviving officers and crew, the greater part of whom, including many of the wounded, were received on board the Carron.

Sir Alexander Cochrane’s despatches to the Admiralty, dated Jan. 18, 1815, acquaint us that Captain Spencer was very usefully employed in the expedition against New Orleans, of which we have spoken at pp. 637-639 of Vol. I. Part II.

Captain Spencer, from his knowledge of the French and Spanish languages, was selected by Sir Alexander Cochrane to obtain information respecting the state of Louisiana; in the course of which service, and in procuring guides, pilots, &c. for the approaching expedition, he gained the marked approbation of his chief. He narrowly escaped being taken prisoner by General Jackson’s cavalry, while in company with an officer of the Quarter-Master-General’s department, looking into the fort of Pensacola, into which place the enemy’s cavalry entered at the moment these officers pushed off from the mole head.

Although the junior captain present. Captain Spencer was selected to reconnoitre, in company with Major Peddie, Lac Borgne, for the purpose of discovering where a landing could be best effected. Owing to the influence which he had obtained over the emigrated Spaniards and Frenchmen settled as fishermen, &c. he prevailed on one of them to take Major Peddie, himself, and his coxswain, in a canoe up the creek, and this party actually penetrated to the suburbs of New Orleans. The object for which they proceeded thither was fully effected, these officers having landed and walked across to the Mississippi river, over the very ground afterwards taken up as the position for his formidable line of defence by General Jackson. In consequence of the report made by Captain Spencer of the practicability of landing up the Bayou Catalan, the army embarked and arrived at its mouth; when, from information obtained by him, it was ascertained that the enemy had occupied some houses at the entrance of the creek with a strong piquet, which Captain Spencer immediately volunteered, with the assistance of some troops, to surprise. Colonel Thornton and about 30 of the 85th and 95th regiments were accordingly despatched in two barges, directed by Captain Spencer, and the service was effected most efficiently, without a shot being fired or an alarm given; had it been otherwise, the army would have experienced considerable difficulty, and probably sustained a heavy loss in landing.

From this time to the disastrous 8th of January, when the army failed in its last attack on the American lines, Captain Spencer was engaged in all the arduous duties which fell to the lot of the officers who remained on shore. The services of all thus employed were so various and so constant that the limits of this work do not allow of our entering into particulars, although it may truly be said that it was from bad fortune, and no want of exertion on the part of the navy, that the expedition proved abortive. Soon after the evacuation of Louisiana, a division of the army was disembarked on the neck of land behind Fort Bowyer, when Captain Spencer was attached to the party of seamen landed, and held the situation of second in command under Captain Ricketts, of the Vengeur, until the enemy surrendered. Captain Frederick Langford, of the Cydnus, dying about this time, at Jamaica, Sir Alexander Cochrane wrote a letter to Captain Spencer, marking his sense of that officer’s exertions and conduct, during the whole of the operations connected with the coasts of Louisiana and Florida, and appointed him to the command of the Cydnus, a fine 38-gun frigate.

Peace was soon after concluded with the United States, and it being desirable to keep our Indian allies from further hostilities. Captain Spencer was selected by Sir Pulteney Malcolm for the delicate service of settling all their claims, and dismissing them from our service. This was completely arranged to the entire satisfaction of his Majesty’s government, notwithstanding the prejudices and wild habits of the Indians, amongst whom Captain Spencer lived encamped at Prospect Bluff, far up the Apalachicola river, for upwards of a month.

Captain Spencer’s next appointment was May 20, 1817, to the Ganymede 26. Whilst commanding that ship in the Mediterranean, he was sent by Sir Charles V. Penrose to remonstrate with the Bashaw of Tunis on the behaviour of his cruisers. This mission was not only successful, but the Bashaw was induced to sign an additional article to the existing treaty, binding himself to certain points deemed of importance by the British government.

In 1819, an expedition being intended by Spain for the recovery of her ultramarine colonies, and it being supposed that our extensive and valuable commercial interests might suffer between the contending parties. Sir Thomas M. Hardy was nominated to the chief command on the coasts of South America, and Captain Spencer was selected by the First Lord of the Admiralty to command a frigate under his orders; he was accordingly appointed to the Owen Glendower, of 42 guns. That ship was paid off, at Chatham, Sept. 17, 1822; having previously visited Copenhagen, to which place Captain Spencer was accompanied by his noble father.

On the 12th April, 1823, Captain Spencer was appointed to the Naiad 46, in which frigate, after a cruise in the Channel, he sailed from Spithead, with sealed orders, in Sept. following. After remaining at Lisbon until the early part of 1824, we find him proceeding to Algiers, with the Camelion brig, of 10 guns, under his orders, for the purpose of making a remonstrance against the outrageous proceedings of the Dey, who had broken open the house of the British Consul, and taken away two of his servants, under the pretence that they belonged to a tribe called Cabbais, natives of the interior, against whom the Regency had commenced a war of extermination and plunder. On his arrival at Algiers, Captain Spencer found two Spanish vessels in the mole, which had just been captured, and their crews destined to slavery. With the most praiseworthy feeling, he made the release of these poor captives a part of his demands, agreeably to the Exmouth treaty, which renounced the right of the Dey to enslave Christian subjects.

After waiting four days, and finding the Dey still obstinate in refusing his just claims. Captain Spencer embarked the Consul General and family on board the Naiad, and on the 31st Jan. 1824, got under weigh with his guests, and worked out of the bay with the Camelion in company. Whilst the Naiad and her consort were beating out, the corvette which had captured the Spanish vessels was seen running for the mole; and chase being given and several shot fired across her bows to bring her to, which were disregarded, she was reduced to a wreck by the Naiad’s fire, and subsequently laid on board very gallantly by the Camelion. In a few minutes she was in possession of the brig’s crew, and proved to be the Tripoli, of 18 guns and 100 men, of whom 7 were killed and 12 wounded; the British sustained no loss. Finding that this vessel was in a leaky state, and so much disabled by the fire she had sustained as to make her quite unseaworthy. Captain Spencer abandoned her, after taking out the Algerine commander and 17 Spaniards, the latter of whom were thus happily rescued from slavery.

Captain Spencer then proceeded to Malta, for the purpose of communicating his proceedings to Sir Harry Neale, then commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, with whom he returned two days afterwards to Algiers. The Dey still continued obstinate in his refusal, and a blockade was established, during the whole period of which the Naiad was employed on that coast.

A very gallant exploit, subsequently performed by the boats of the Naiad, is thus described by Captain Spencer in an official letter to the commander-in-chief, dated May 24, 1824:–

“Sir,– I have much satisfaction in acquainting you with the complete destruction of the Algerine brig of war, lately reported to you, moored alongside the walls of the fortress of Bona, by the boats of the Naiad, under the command of Lieut. Quin, first of this ship.

“If, in detailing this affair, I should trespass somewhat at length on your time, I trust. Sir, you will attribute it solely to my anxious desire that the conspicuous merit of the officers and men in the boats, and their gallant leader, should have due credit, the whole plan of the operations having been formed, and all the details arranged, entirely by Lieut. Quin himself; excepting that I objected to his proposal of bringing the brig out, knowing her situation to be such as would risk very many lives in the attempt.

“The boats left the Naiad at half-past eleven last night, and being guided in their approach by the lights and fires in the different batteries, pulled for what proved to be a sixteen-gun brig of the largest class, whose position was of extraordinary strength, and far beyond what I had even imagined possible. – She was moored head and stern, in addition to a chain cable fast on shore, in a bight within about eighty feet of the walls of the fortress, upon which I counted at least forty pieces of cannon, some flanking her on either side, none further off than short cannister range, and several within her own length, amongst which latter were the sixteen guns belonging to the brig herself, the enemy not unreasonably conceiving that, by placing them there, in preference to keeping them in her, all attempts at boarding must be rendered ineffectual by their fire. I have reason to believe, the greater part of her crew were landed to work them, the whole of the Turkish garrison, of about four hundred soldiers, having sufficient employment in managing the other guns, and keeping up a heavy fire of musketry from the embrasures and wall, almost overhanging her deck. A few sailors, left as look-outs, escaped to the shore, leaving the brig so lightened as to cause the greatest difficulty in ascending her sides. All these obstacles, and the tremendous fire of cannon and small arms, kept up during the whole time the boats were in sight, which, from the illumination caused by the burning vessel, was lengthened, served only as a means of shewing how vain all resistance is, when British seamen and marines are led by their officers in the way they were upon this occasion. Lieutenant Quin did not leave the brig until she was in a complete blaze in all parts, which ended in her partially blowing up, burning to the water’s edge, and at last sinking in such a depth, that not a particle of her is to be seen, her masts having fallen in the flames.

“No language that I am master of can convey to you. Sir, an adequate idea of the intrepidity of the attack, which could only be equalled by the cool courage displayed during the time necessary to distribute the fire in all parts of a vessel under such circumstances.

“The officers’ names engaged in this service are subjoined; for as all did their duty so nobly on this occasion, and have on all former ones given me such perfect satisfaction, I cannot in justice particularize. They unite in speaking in the highest terms of the silence and good conduct of the men, who did not allow a whisper to be heard until the enemy’s first round of grape, which they answered with three cheers.

“I have great pleasure in adding, that, notwithstanding so very different a return might have been expected, I have only to report a few men hurt by severe contusions, and none killed, chiefly to be attributed to the masterly manner the business was conducted in; the whole of the credit of which is due to Lieut. Quin, to whom I confided the entire arrangement; and I hope you will honor him with your recommendation.

“I have honor to be, &c.
(Signed)R. C. Spencer, Captain.”

Sir Harry Neale, Bart. G.C.B. Vice Admiral, &c.

List of Officers and Midshipmen employed in the Boats.

“Lieutenants – Michael Quin, Thomas Dilke, and George Evans; Lieut. W. S. Knapman, R.M.; Messrs. Searls Wood Oldham, Thomas Lavington, David Moseberry, John Robb, Charles Edward Schreiber, George Davies, John L. N. Sealy, Charles Hotham, Hon. Frederick William Grey, Charles D. Ryder, and Edmund H. Seppings, midshipmen[4].”

Whilst employed on the Barbary coast, the Naiad captured the Muni, from Leghorn bound to Algiers; and assisted in cutting out a ship laden with grain, from under the forts of Bona.

The bomb-vessels and others of the squadron having assembled in the bay of Algiers, the signal was at length made to take up the positions previously arranged, for the purpose of bombarding the town, which was only prevented from being carried into effect by the Dey communicating to Captain Spencer, who had been sent on shore, his readiness to come to terms. As it appeared likely the negociations and final arrangements would occupy some days, the Commander-in-chief then dispersed his squadron, and left Captain Spencer to conclude the treaty with the Dey, which he performed to the perfect satisfaction of government.

The Naiad was subsequently employed in most of the active duties in the Archipelago, and other parts of the Mediterranean; and Captain Spencer had the charge of many of the negociations which the affairs then going on in Greece, &c. so frequently rendered necessary, and in some important communications with the commander of the Turkish forces in the Morea, and with the Greek chiefs, his exertions were crowned with a very satisfactory result; but, being of a secret nature, wc are unable to give the particulars.

On the Naiad being ordered home, Sir Harry Neale addressed the following letter to Captain Spencer.

Revenge, Malta, 2d Aug. 1826.

“Sir,– In forwarding to you your orders for the Naiad’s immediate return to England, I cannot but accompany them with an expression of regret at the close of your services under my command; for I have been sensible of the zeal and judgment that you have shewn in the performance of the important duties that I have entrusted to your management; and I must add, that I have observed with pleasure, the good discipline of the Naiad (and particularly the attention which you have so successfully devoted to the exercise of the great guns); which, while it has ensured the efficiency of the ship, and done honor to her officers and ship’s company, has, at the same time, afforded a useful example to the sloops which have been from time to time employed under your orders. I am. Sir, &c.

(Signed)H. Neale, Vice-Admiral.”

The Naiad was paid off at Portsmouth, in the autumn of 1826. The high state of perfection to which gunnery was carried, and the admirable system of discipline established on board that frigate during the period of Captain Spencer’s command, is said “never to have been exceeded.[5]

In Aug. 1827, Captain Spencer was appointed Private Secretary to H.R.H. the Lord High Admiral; and he continued to fill that situation until the royal duke’s retirement from office, in Sept. 1828, with what credit to himself, and satisfaction to H.R.H., may be judged of from the circumstance of his being honored by a nomination as Groom of the Bedchamber to H.R.H., and the mark of favor shewn by his Sovereign, who, in October of the same year, conferred upon him the title of Knight Commander of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order. He was knighted at Windsor, on the 24th of the following month.

Sir Robert C. Spencer now commands the Madagascar 46, on the Mediterranean station. He received his appointment to that ship Sept. 26, 1828; and sailed from Portsmouth Jan. 21, 1829. His brother, the Hon. Frederick Spencer, commanded the Talbot 28, at the battle of Navarin[6].