SIR EDWARD PELLEW, later Lord Exmouth, is among that host of historical figures who once stood at the pinnacle of fame but are now largely forgotten. In the introduction to The Commander, a new biography of Pellew that is as welcome as it is overdue, Stephen Taylor notes that Pellew, who mentored many successful naval officers, is perhaps best known today as the mentor of Horatio Hornblower, the protagonist of C. S. Forester’s mid-20th-century series of novels (later dramatized for television) about British officers at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, other than fans of Hornblower, few today probably recognize his name.
Happily, with Taylor’s work, the world now has a means to know the real Pellew. The Commander is constructed from a rich trove of primary sources, including, incredibly, metal trunks of Pellew’s personal papers that the author found under a tarp on a farm in Exeter.
The Commander is the third biography of Pellew. The first was a hagiographic work commissioned by the admiral’s older brother; the second, published in 1934, was the debut book by British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, then only 23 and decades away from his famous Parkinson’s Law. It is time, certainly, for an updated biography, and Taylor’s work is nearly everything one might want, chronicling Pellew’s rise from a brawling, poorly educated purser’s servant to a peerage and flag rank.
Pellew came into the service in 1770, with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars looming. For more than half of the 60 or so years that Pellew served, Britain was at war, which meant there was considerable opportunity for glory and promotion.
Pellew took full advantage, right from the start. In 1776, when all the senior officers were wounded aboard the schooner Carleton on Lake Champlain, the young midshipman took command and steered the vessel to safety. By 1778, he was promoted to lieutenant, then shortly after earned his own command. In 1793, as captain of the frigate Nymphe, he won the first naval victory in the war with France, capturing the Cléopâtre in the English Channel.
Taylor is not afraid to quote heavily from his primary sources, allowing the historical actors to tell the story and giving depth and authenticity to the work. Pellew is revealed as a hero, but a flawed one, a difficult subordinate, often blinded by his loyalties to friends and family. It is little wonder that he excelled in his early career as a frigate captain, operating with a great degree of independence and scoring impressive victories in ship-to-ship actions. But as commander of a ship of the line, forced to operate as part of a fleet, Pellew chafed and ran afoul of his superiors, most notably the irascible Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent, tainting his earlier fame.
The book, likewise, is not without its flaws, though they are small. Covering a long life and career in 300-odd pages, the author necessarily sacrifices depth at times. Taylor might have done more to set the context of Pellew’s actions. We are treated to wonderful detail of the young frigate captain on the Indefatigable (aboard which the fictional Hornblower serves as a midshipman) in the Channel during the early years of the French Revolution, and his 1799 blockade of the French fleet in Brest with the Impétueux. But we learn little of how Pellew’s battles fit into the greater picture.
Minor complaints. The Commodore is an excellent biography, one that presents a true portrait of a complex man.
James L. Nelson is the author of With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Beginning of the American Revolution.