If a captain is incapacitated or killed…

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 If a captain is incapacitated or killed…

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  • #19173
    Ide Crawford
    Participant

    What is standard procedure during the Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars if a captain is incapacitated or killed while his ship is at sea? Presumably the first lieutenant would take charge, with the powers of a commander…but would he complete the ongoing mission, or urgently head to the nearest base…or to the commander in chief of the station?

    #19180
    Frank Scott
    Participant

    The mission comes first.

    On Cook’s third voyage neither HMS Resolution nor HMS Discovery completed the voyage with their original captains. Cook was killed and Clerke died. John Gore (originally 1stLt of Discovery) assumed command of the whole expedition, and it was about a year before the ships returned to UK.

    Possibly most extreme example of chain of command was in USS Chesapeake, where William Cox, acting 3rd Lt and senior uninjured officer (though probably unaware of this), effectively became the Captain during the famous battle with HMS Shannon. On return to USA in 1814 he was court-martialled for dereliction of duty and dismissed the service. His descendants fought long to restore his honour, and had the verdict overturned by President Harry Truman 1952

    #19181
    S. Ragnall
    Participant

    Depended on whether the ship was attached to a squadron or on detached duties. Frank is absolutely right about Cook’s 3rd voyage – Gore brought Resolution back as acting captain whilst Lt.James King came back to England as acting captain of Discovery. After Cook’s death the mission wasn’t aborted but carried on. By the time of Clerke’s death (in the Arctic, near Kamchatka, from consumption) two attempts to find a Pacific entrance to the NW Passage had been made (and failed) but until then there was never any question of returning home.

    #19189
    Sara Cutler
    Participant

    A famous example of devolving command in the Royal Navy during this period, occured during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Whilst His Majesty’s Ship Bellerophone was engaged with the French L’Aigle, her captain, Captn. John Cooke, whilst in the act of reloading his pistols, was shot twice in the chest by Musket shot and mortally wounded. As soon as he was out of action the command of the ship instantly passed to her First lieutenant William Cumby, who would fight the rest of the battle, ensure his command survived the storm that followed straight after and then nurse her round to Gibraltar where she would arrive on the 28th of October 1805, all in the capacity of Acting Captain. When Captain Edward Rotheram, who had fought the Battle in the capacity of Flag Captain to Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in the Royal Sovereign, took command of the Bellerophone, prior to her return to Portsmouth, this Acting Captainwould return to being a lieutenant once again. He would have to wait until 1806 to become an actual Captain in his own right.

    #19232
    Ide Crawford
    Participant

    Thanks so much everyone – these are such helpful answers!

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