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Book Review: The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson (edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas ) : MH

8/12/2001 • Military History Book Reviews, Reviews

The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Chatham Publishing, London, 1997-98, available in the United States from Barnes & Noble in September, $129.98 for all seven volumes.

The republishing of The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson is a major event for those interested in Britian’s most acclaimed naval commander. The work, edited by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas and first published between 1844 and 1846, has arguably been the primary literary source for those interested in Viscount Lord Horatio Nelson and his impact on the Napoleonic Wars.

Until now, the work has only been available to those who own a first edition set or who have access to a library that has it. Now Chatham Publishing is producing The Dispatches and Letters in a paperbound version that will be available at a reasonable cost. The seven volumes cover the years from 1777, when Nelson was a 19-year-old Royal Navy lieutenant, to October 21, 1805, when as a vice admiral and commander of the British fleet he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson’s writings not only chronicle his noteworthy career but also are a fascinating near-autobiography and reveal the thinking and feeling behind the events. In Vol-ume I, for example, Nelson’s personal and official letters as a young captain describe his difficulties in enforcing Britain’s Navigation Acts in the West Indies. It was during that tour that Nelson met and married Frances Nisbet. In light of his later, notorious affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, lines written to Fanny like, “These I trust will ever be my sentiments; if they are not, I do verily believe it will be my folly that occasions it,” are unusually poignant.

The Dispatches and Letters also provides flashes of dry humor. At one point, Nelson wrote to a fellow captain, “I would have every man believe, I shall only take my chance of being shot by the Enemy, but if I do not take that chance, I am certain of being shot by my friends.”

Volume VII provides the other “bookend” on Nelson’s life, right up to the point when the French and Spanish fleets were sighted off Trafalgar. Nelson’s last prayer, written on the day of the battle and memorialized on his St. Paul’s tomb, includes such famous passages as: “…may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet,” and, “I commit my life to Him who made me….To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend.”

In his foreword, Michael Nash, a noted British expert on Nelson books, remarks: “The ‘Nicolas,’ as it is generally known, has never been superseded. It is truly amazing that until now no attempt has been made to produce a new edition.” Now that the new edition of The Dispatches and Letters finally has appeared, at the start of Britain’s bicentennial “Nelson Decade,” historians of the Napoleonic era can take a fresh look at the man who altered the course of history from the deck of a ship.

Joseph F. Callo

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