The Battle of Trafalgar and the Naval War College Museum

It is a warm, breezy day in Newport, Rhode Island. You are standing looking out at Narragansett Bay from the steps of Founders Hall, once a poor house, converted in 1884 to the first home of the Naval War College. You turn north and make your way through the two sets of double doors, into what is now home to the Naval War College Museum. Upon entering, the first thing you see is a large (7x7 foot) model of HMS Victory. After admiring its craftsmanship you start to wonder, what does this British ship have to do with the U.S. Navy, and moreover, why is it the first thing one sees when entering a museum dedicated to showcasing the history of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy in the Narragansett Bay?

HMS Victory Model: Model of the HMS Victory from inside the Naval War College Museum. Built by Captain Frederick E. Story and Captain Sumner, the model was presented to the Naval War College in 1953 by Lieutenant Francis L. Higginson, Jr, class of 1944.

The Battle of Trafalgar

HMS Victory earned its fame for its role in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined French and Spanish fleet. After the fourteen-month Peace of Amiens fell apart in the summer of 1803, Britain found itself under threat of invasion from Napoleonic France once again. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was given command of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet on the resumption of war and was charged with containing French naval forces in the Mediterranean (Lambert, 2011). Nelson was on the defensive, waiting for France to attack his fleet in a play to combine the two major French fleets, stationed at Toulon and Brest, and attempt to overpower the British and secure control over the English Channel (“The Battle of Trafalgar 1805”, n.d.). In 1804, Spain entered the war as a French ally, increasing Napoleon’s sea-power (Lambert, 2011), prompting a new campaign with the ultimate goal of a cross-Channel invasion of Britain (“The Battle of Trafalgar 1805,” n.d.). In March of 1805, the French Fleet escaped Nelson’s blockade, combined with Spanish ships at Cadiz, then raced across the Atlantic to the West Indies, before returning to Western Europe in an attempt to deceive the British. Nelson chased the Franco-Spanish fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, across the Atlantic and back, until it found safe-haven in Cadiz. In the meantime, Napoleon’s invasion plans, overly complex and reliant on less-than-aggressive admirals, had fallen apart, and French armies departed Northern France for campaigns in Austria and Italy. However, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet remained in Cadiz and Nelson had been dispatched to blockade the port (Dancy & Wilson, 2020). The presence of Nelson and the British Mediterranean Fleet caused unrest for Villeneuve, who was already receiving pressure from Napoleon to reposition his fleet to support attacks on Naples. Underestimating the power of Nelson’s fleet, Villeneuve put 33 of his ships to sea. While Nelson’s fleet was smaller, made up of only 27 ships, his ability to predict tactical moves enabled him to stay steps ahead of his adversary (Lambert, 2011). Nelson devised a plan to overwhelm the Franco-Spanish fleet by dividing his ships into two columns, cutting the Franco-Spanish line of battle and dividing the enemy fleet. On 21 October 1805, Nelson’s plan was put to action, led on one column by his Flag Ship, HMS Victory, and the on the other by HMS Royal Sovereign. While the battle was bloody, costing nearly 6,000 French-Spanish and 1,700 British lives, the British claimed victory only hours after the battle had begun, just in time for Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson to receive word before succumbing to his battle wounds. The battle, later named Trafalgar, ravaged Napoleon’s fleet and maritime strategy, restricting his ability to grow his empire, arguably laying the course for his downfall (“The Battle of Trafalgar 1805,” n.d.).

Trafalgar Map: This map of the sea off of Cadiz shows the British Fleet positioned to attack the Franco-Spanish Fleet from the middle and rear at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

The Crew

At the time of Trafalgar in October 1805, 821 crew members were serving on HMS Victory, including 23 Americans. At least another 337 American sailors fought in Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet at Trafalgar, including an estimated 20 Rhode Islanders. Among the Rhode Island natives was John Johnson, a 24-year old seaman on board Nelson’s flagship, born in Newport. Another Newport born sailor, George Almy, served as the Ship’s Master on board the HMS Pickle, which brought word of the British victory to London following the battle (Wheeler, 2005). While Naval service was attractive to some, providing regular access to food and a chance to earn prize money for captured vessels, life at sea was dangerous; disease and accidental shipwrecks were credited for 90 percent of British fatalities at sea (“The Crew,” n.d.). Records show 217 men serving on HMS Victory during the battle were pressed into service, and most of the Americans who fought at Trafalgar were listed as joining from other British vessels (Poppyland Publishing, n.d.). Data on the Rhode Islanders who fought at Trafalgar is scarce, with little available details surrounding who these men were and what led them to Cape Trafalgar on that day nearly 215 years ago. While many Americans played a role in Trafalgar, its ties to American seamanship do not stop there.

Trafalgar and the Naval War College

Historic case studies have been a cornerstone to academic learning at the Naval War College since its establishment in 1884. Often cited for its strategic and tactical genius, the Battle of Trafalgar inspired some of the first war games at the college. Wargaming, introduced by William McCarty Little in 1887, enabled students to expound upon tactics of historic battles to improve operational art and planning (Hattendorf, Simpson, & Wadleigh, 1984). In order to accomplish this, McCarty Little used charts and cardboard ship cutouts to reenact battles, such as Trafalgar, in hopes of gaining an objective, first-hand perspective of historic combat and decision-making in order to better prepare for future conflict (Kohnen, Jellicoe, & Sims, 2016). Historic battles like Trafalgar were amongst the most studied at the college, paving the way for the introduction of modern wargaming. Today, the Wargaming Department is well-known and respected at the Naval War College, comprised of over 40 military and civilian faculty members serving on the core team of gaming professionals, hosting approximately 50 games and events each year.

Modern War Game: This photo, courtesy Chief Mass Communication Specialist James Foehl, depicts a modern-day reenactment of the Battle of Jutland, demonstrated by U.S. Naval War College staff.

The Battle of Trafalgar has long-standing ties to Rhode Island seamanship and helped pave the way for historic and modern-day study at the Naval War College. Thus, it seems fitting that the HMS Victory, a well-known symbol of British triumph at the battle, stand tall inside the entry way of the Naval War College Museum, taking visitors on a trip through time and setting the stage to introduce them to early exploration in the Narraganset Bay.

Meghan Brown 
Naval War College Museum
Administrative Officer

Contributions by 
J. Ross Dancy, DPhil (Oxon)
Naval War College
Assistant Professor


Dancy, J., & Wilson, E. (2020). Sir John Orde and the Trafalgar Campaign—A Failure of Information Sharing. Naval War College Review, 73. Retrieved from Hattendorf, J. B., Simpson, B. M., & Wadleigh, J. R. (1984). Sailors and scholars: the centennial history of the U.S. Naval War College. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press. Kohnen, D., Jellicoe, N., & Sims, N. (2016). The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland . Naval War College Review, 69(4). Lambert, A. (2011, February 17). History - British History in depth: The Battle of Trafalgar. Retrieved from Poppyland Publishing. (n.d.). Aspect 2: Trafalgar - The American Crew. Retrieved from The Battle of Trafalgar 1805. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Crew. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wheeler, D. (2005). The Trafalgar dispatch: the meteorological background to the voyage of HMS Pickle. Weather, 60(10), 280–283. doi: 10.1256/wea.112.0


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