Happy Christmas, Caitlin, and to everyone else too. Sorry to be such a pedant, but how do we know Nelson’s character unless we distinguish fact from fiction? I don’t want to base my understanding on the exaggerations and embellishments of others. I think too, it is worth remembering that until recently, the Nelson legend had the tragic effect of relegating so many others to obscurity. And perhaps we can still enjoy the Nelson legend while understanding it for what it is?
In this case, we cannot damage the legend any further. That has already been done. Even Roger Knight, in ‘The Pursuit of Victory’, dismisses the telescope and ‘I really do not see the signal’ episode as a myth.
But I don't think that all of it can be dismissed so lightly.
Brian, to answer your third point first, immediately after the battle there was of course much gossip in the fleet about Nelson’s disobedience of Parker’s order. Colonel Stewart, writing immediately after the battle, said it was ‘a source of much conversation in our fleet now’. There was also discussion of whether Nelson’s offer of the truce to the Danes was a dishonourable ruse de guerre, so there was plenty to go at without having to include the precise details of the words Nelson may have used about his CiC’s order.
As to why no one else on the quarterdeck reported the incident, the answer is first that some of it certainly was witnessed and reported, and second that not all the incident would have been heard by others in the din of battle. In Colonel Stewart’s very first letter written shortly after the battle, he wrote that Nelson “expressed his astonishment” at the signal “in a most animated manner”, and Colin White also identified an account by signal midshipman John Findlayson which confirms Nelson’s incredulous reaction to the news of the signal.
But I am sure you are right to suppose the incident is likely to have been exaggerated or embellished.
The final version of the anecdote divides into various stages which would have been visible or audible to different people. First there is Nelson’s astonishment at Parker’s signal and the instruction to keep the signal for close action flying. That much would have been visible and audible to the signal lieutenant and others, and indeed seems to be beyond dispute. Next, after he paced the deck for a while considering things, there are Nelson’s comments to Stewart and/or Ferguson, which would probably have been heard only by them. Finally, there is Nelson’s aside to Foley, ‘I really do not see the signal’, probably audible to only Foley, Stewart and Ferguson, but if accompanied by the pantomime with the telescope, visible to others.
Coleman dismissed Stewart’s final account because it had added detail missing from his first account. He asserted that Stewart could not have resisted including the full story, but he entirely missed the point that Stewart had very good reason indeed to omit detail from his first account. Nelson’s reputation had been damaged by his disobedience to Keith’s orders in the Mediterranean, and he had now again disobeyed his commander in chief. According to Roger Knight, immediately after the battle the reaction in the fleet was not to celebrate a great victory and that there were some in the fleet that considered it had been won at too great a cost. Nelson needed all the allies he could get, and Stewart was one of them. Stewart wrote to his friend Sir William Clinton, aide-de-camp to the Duke of York, and this letter was therefore a ‘public’ letter, designed to be read in high places, and to bolster Nelson’s reputation. The letter was designed to prompt scorn for Hyde Parker’s order of recall, and to portray Nelson as salvaging honour from the impossible situation that it created for him. It would have been utter madness to have included details of Nelson’s expletives against his commander in chief's signal, or indeed anything that could be construed as a petulant and insubordinate outburst. The reader was therefore left to draw his own conclusions on the likely form of Nelson’s animated (and clearly justified) expression of astonishment at the signal.
Stewart and Ferguson left the ship the day after the battle, perhaps without divulging what they had heard, and Foley is unlikely to have felt it appropriate to tell his junior officers exactly what Nelson had said. As far as I know, although Foley lived until 1833, there is no known record of him ever confirming or denying the story. Or does anyone know any different?
By the time Harrison published in 1806, there was of course no need for restraint, and it is his version that I think perhaps rings the most true. But in his version, Nelson merely points towards Parker’s signal, and there are no theatricals with the telescope. Those appeared only in Stewart’s final polished up account in Clarke & M’Arthur, and perhaps this is where the story has been embellished. And, as Brian pointed out, it is difficult to suppose that others would not have witnessed and understood this part of the incident. And if we are to doubt this part of Stewart’s account, we must also doubt his version of Nelson’s words: ‘I really do not see the signal’ (where clearly expletives have been deleted!). Personally, I feel more comfortable with Harrison’s version from Ferguson: ‘‘Foley, you know I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind when I like; and, damn me, if I’ll see that signal!’"
Interestingly, Stewart’s account contained another reference by Nelson to his blind eye. This occurred on shore several days later during ongoing negotiations with the Danes, when the possibility of renewing hostilities was mentioned: “His Lordship then proceeded to a grand dinner up stairs, the Prince leading the way. Lord Nelson, leaning on the arm of a friend, whispered, 'Though I have only one eye, I see all this will burn very well :' he was even then thinking more about the bombardment than about the dinner.” Is this a further fiction by Stewart or does it indicate that Nelson was at that time in the habit of referring to his blind eye? Perhaps it is relevant that only two months previously, Nelson was having such problems with his good eye that he had consulted a fleet physician.
Sorry for such a long post – I seem to have got a bit carried away with this!
But I do think Coleman's analysis may be seriously flawed on two counts.