Ship’s surgeon Dr William Beatty gives a first-hand account of the death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Britain’s naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, won his greatest victory over the French and Spanish at the moment of his death. On the morning of 21 October 1805, in a daring manoeuvre, he had sent his fleet sailing straight at the enemy lines, cutting them into three parts and allowing his own ships to destroy them.
At about 1.15pm that day, however, he was struck by a musket ball fired from high up in the French ship Redoubtable. It struck him on the left shoulder, passed through his lung and severed his spine. He died at 4.30pm knowing that he had won a great victory.
The following account was given by Dr William Beatty (1773-1842), the ship’s surgeon.
The death of Lord Nelson, 21 October 1805
It was from this Ship (the Redoutable) that Lord Nelson received his mortal wound. About fifteen minutes past one o’clock, which was in the heat of the engagement, he was walking the middle of the quarterdeck with Captain Hardy, and in the act of turning near the hatchway with his face towards the stern of the Victory, when the fatal ball was fired from the Enemy’s mizen-top; which, from the situation of the two ships (lying on board of each other), was brought just abaft, and rather below, the Victory’s main-yard, and of course not more than fifteen yards distant from that pan of the deck where his Lordship stood. The ball struck the epaulette on his left shoulder, and penetrated his chest. He fell with his face on the deck. Captain Hardy, who was on his right (the side furthest from the Enemy) and advanced some steps before his Lordship, on turning round, saw the Sergeant-Major (Secker) of Marines with two Seamen raising him from the deck; where he had fallen on the same spot on which, a little before, his Secretary had breathed his last, with whose blood his Lordship’s clothes were much soiled. Captain Hardy expressed a hope that he was not severely wounded; which the gallant Chief replied: “They have done for me at last,Hardy.” “I hope not,” answered Captain Hardy. “Yes,” replied his Lordship, “my backbone is shot through.”
Captain Hardy ordered the Seamen to carry the Admiral to the cockpit; and now two incidents occurred strikingly characteristic of this great man, and strongly mark ing that energy and reflection which in his heroic mind rose superior even to the immediate consideration of his present awful condition. While the men were carrying him down the ladder from the middle deck, his Lordship observed that the tiller ropes were not yet replaced; and desired one of the Midshipmen stationed there to go upon the quarterdeck and remind Captain Hardy of that circumstance, and request that new Ones should be immediately rove. Having delivered this order, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and covered his face with it, that he might be conveyed to the cockpit at this crisis unnoticed by the crew. . .
The Victory ‘s crew cheered whenever they observed an Enemy’s Ship surrender. On one of these occasions, Lord Nelson anxiously inquired what was the cause of it; when Lieutenant Pasco, who lay wounded at some distance from his Lordship, raised himself up, and told him that another Ship had struck: which appeared to give him much satisfaction. He now felt an ardent thirst; and frequently called for drink, and to be fanned with paper, making use of these words: “Fan, fan,” and “Drink, drink.” This he continued to repeat, when he wished for drink or the refreshment of cool air, till a very few minutes before he expired . . .
His Lordship now requested the Surgeon, who had been previously absent a short time attending Mr Rivers to return to the wounded, and give his assistance to such of them as he could be useful to; “for,” said he, “you can do nothing for me.” The Surgeon assured him that the Assistant Surgeons were doing everything that could be effected for those unfortunate men; but on his Lordship’s several times repeating his injunctions to that purpose, he left him, surrounded by Doctor Scott, Mr Burke, and two of his Lordship’s domestics. After the Surgeon had been absent a few minutes attending Lieutenants Peake and Reeves of the Marines, who were wounded, he was called by Doctor Scott to his Lordship, who said: “Ah, Mr Beatty! I have sent for you to say, what I forgot to tell you before, that all power of motion and feeling below my breast are gone; and you ”, continued he, “very well know I can live but a short time.” The emphatic manner in which he pronounced these last words left no doubt in the Surgeon’s mind, that he adverted to the case of a man who had some months before received a mortal injury of the spine on board the Victory , and had laboured under similar privations of sense and. muscular motion. The case had made a great impression on Lord Nelson: he was anxious to know the cause of such symptoms, which was accordingly explained to him; and he now appeared to apply the situation and fate of this man to himself. The Surgeon answered, “My Lord, you told me so before”: but he now examined the extremities, to ascertain the fact; when his Lordship said, “Ah, Beatty! I am too certain of it: Scott and Burke have tried it already. You know I am gone.” The Surgeon replied: “My Lord, unhappily for our Country, nothing can be done for you”, and having made this declaration he was so much affected, that he turned round and withdrew a few steps to conceal his emotions. His Lordship said: “I know it. I feel something rising in my breast,” putting his hand on his left side, “which tells me I am gone.” Drink was recommended liberally, and Doctor Scott and Mr Burke fanned him with paper. He often exclaimed, “God be praised, I have done my duty”; and upon the Surgeon’s inquiring whether his pain was still very great, he declared it continued so very severe, that he wished he was dead. “Yet,” said he in a lower voice, “one would like to live a little longer, too”: and after a pause of a few minutes, he added in the same tone, “What would become of poor Lady Hamilton if she knew my situation!”…
Captain Hardy now came to the cockput to see his Lordship a second time, which was after an interval of about fifty minutes from the conclusio of his first visit. Before he quitted the deck, he sent Lieutenant Hills to acquaint Admiral Collingwood with the lamentable circumstance of Lord Nelson’s being wounded. Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy shook hands again: and while the Captain reained his Lordship’s hand, he congratulated him, even in the arms of death, on his brilliant victory; “which”, he said, “was completge”; though he did not know how many of the Enemy were captured, as it was impossible to perceive every Ship distinctly. He was certain however of fourteen or fifteen having surrendered. His Lordship answered, “That is well, but I bargained for twenty”, and then emphatically exclaimed, “ Anchor , Hardy, anchor !” To this the Captain replied: “I suppose, my Lord, Admiral Collingwood will now take upon himself the direction of affairs.” “Not while I live, I hope, Hardy!” cried the dying Chief; and at that moment endeavoured ineffectually to raise himself from the bed. “No,” added he; “do you anchor, Hardy.” Captain Hardy then said: “Shall we make the signal, Sir?” “Yes,” answered his Lordship, “for if I live, I’ll anchor.” The energetic manner in which he uttered these his last orders to Captain Hardy, accompanied with his efforts to raise himself, evinced his determination never to resign the Command while he retained the exercise of his transcendent faculties, and that he expected Captain Hardy still to carry into effect the suggestions of his exalted mind; a sense of his duty overcoming the pains of death. He then told Captain Hardy, he felt that in a few minutes he should be no more; adding in a low tone, “Don’t throw me overboard, Hardy.” The Captain answered: “Oh! No, certainly not.” “Then,” replied his Lordship, “you know what to do: and”, continued he, “take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy: take care of poor Lady Hamilton. Kiss me, Hardy.” The Captain now knelt down, and kissed his cheek; when his Lordship said, “Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty.” Captain Hardy stood for a minute or two in silent contemplation: he knelt down again, and kissed his Lordship’s forehead. His Lordship said: “Who is that?” The Captain answered: “It is Hardy”; to which his Lordship replied, “God bless you, Hardy!” … His thirst now increased; and he called for “drink, drink,” “fan, fan,” and “rub, rub,” addressing himself in the last case to Doctor Scott, who had been rubbing his Lordship’s breast with his hand, from which he found some relief. These words he spoke in a very rapid manner, which rendered his articulation difficult; but he every now and then, with evident increase of pain, made a greater effort with his vocal powers, and pronounced distinctly these last words: “Thank God, I have done my duty”; and this great sentiment he continued to repeat as long as he was able to give it utterance.
Source: Despatches and Letters of Nelson, 1845