Royal Naval Biography/Cathcart, Robert
ROBERT CATHCART, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1808.]
A son of the late James Cathcart, of Carbiston, in Ayrshire, and Pitcairly, near Auchtermuchty, Fifeshire, Esq.
This officer was born about 1774, and he commenced his naval career under the patronage of the late Hon. John Maitland, Captain, R.N., in 1785; from which period we find him serving as a midshipman on board the Queen 98, Assistance 50, Southampton frigate, and Goliath, Alcide, and Vanguard, third rates, until promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, Nov. 21, 1790.
At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, Mr. Cathcart was appointed to the Raisonable 64, commanded by the late Lord Cranstoun, at whose particular request he was afterwards allowed to join the Bellerophon 74, a Lieutenant of that ship being removed by the Admiralty in order to make a vacancy for him.
The Bellerophon formed part of the squadron under Vice-Admiral Cornwallis, when he effected his masterly retreat from the republican fleet, in June 1795, on which occasion that gallant veteran informed the Board of Admiralty that he “considered her a treasure in store,” having heard of her former achievements, and observing the spirit manifested by all on board, when she passed him to take her station a-head of the Royal Sovereign.
Lieutenant Cathcart was first brought into public notice at the ever-memorable battle of the Nile, on which occasion the command of the Bellerophon devolved on him, in consequence of the second Lieutenant being killed by the fall of the mainmast, during her sanguinary conflict with l’Orient of 120 guns, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Brueys, whose fate has been recorded at p. 184 of our first volume. Observing that immense ship in flames, Lieutenant Cathcart very prudently gave orders to cut the Bellerophon’s cable, and after drifting some miles from the scene of action, he had the good fortune to bring her up with the kedge, her only remaining anchor. So great were the subsequent exertions of himself and the surviving officers and men, that the ship, although totally dismasted, was again ready for service, and at anchor near Nelson, on the third day after she had withdrawn from the line of battle.
The gallantry, good judgment, and zeal displayed by Lieutenant Cathcart, being reported to Earl St. Vincent at a time when he was about to address the Admiralty on another subject connected with Nelson’s victory, his lordship was pleased to recommend him to the Board for promotion, in the following terms:
“Permit me to name Mr. Robert Cathcart of the royal navy, senior Lieutenant of the Bellerophon, as an officer highly deserving the reward which would have been the lot of Mr. Daniel, had he survived the action. The wording of the Secretary’s letter upon these occasions, confines the commander-in-chief to give the commissions to those only who were first Lieutenants at the commencement of the action; but it appears to me that they are the fair inheritance of the surviving senior Lieutenants.”
The Earl’s despatch was dated Nov. 25, 1798, at which period the Bellerophon was refitting in the mole of Gibraltar, where Lieutenant Cathcart continued until the arrival of his commission as a Commander, it having been signed and sent out immediately after the receipt of his lordship’s recommendation;
From this period we lose sight of Captain Cathcart until his appointment to the Seagull brig, of 16 guns, in which vessel he made a most gallant defence against a Danish 20-gun brig and six heavy gunboats, continuing the fight, under every disadvantage, until she was actually sinking. The following are copies of the official letters concerning this truly noble action:
“Namur, at the Nore, Sept. 17, 1808.
“Sir,– The enclosed letter from Captain Cathcart, commander of his Majesty’s late sloop Seagull, came to my hand by post this day. It is possible my Lords Commissioners may already have received an account of his very gallant defence by some other channel; but as I think the action, though unfortunate, does honor both to the naval service and the country, I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of making the communication, lest by any accident such gallantry should not be made public. I have the honor to be, &c.
(Signed)“Thomas Wells, Vice-Admiral.”
“To the Hon. W. W. Pole.”
“Christlansand, Norway, June 20, 1808.
“Sir,– I beg leave to acquaint you, that in his Majesty’s sloop Seagull, under my command, yesterday at 2 P.M., the Naze of Norway bearing W.N.W., distant seven or eight leagues, I discovered a brig in-shore, running to the eastward, and immediately made all sail in chace of her. At half past four, came within gun-shot and hoisted our colours, which she answered by displaying Danish colours, and opening her fire on the starboard side. At this time, from a fresh breeze at W.S.W,, it became nearly calm, and we were obliged to use our sweeps, in order to get between her and the shore. At five, arrived within musket-shot of the enemy, and commenced action; most of our sweeps, at this time, shot away, and great part of the rigging. We now discovered several gun-boats coming towards us, which had been previously concealed behind the rocks; and it being a perfect calm, their commanders had every advantage they could wish in placing them. They took their position on each quarter, every shot raking us, whilst the brig had the same advantage on the larboard bow At 6-30, five of our carronades were dismounted on the larboard side, and several of the officers and crew killed and wounded. Every effort was used to get the Seagull round, so as to bring the starboard guns to bear, but without effect; our sweeps being all shot away, the gun-boats hulling us every time they fired, having five feet water in the hold, and all our sails and rigging cut to pieces. At 7-30, from the sinking state of the vessel, the great slaughter made by the gun-boats, and not having the least prospect of escape, I considered it an indispensable duty, for the preservation of the surviving officers and men, to order the colours to be hauled down. I have the satisfaction to acquaint you, that there was scarcely sufficient time to remove the wounded out of the Seagull, before she sunk. The force opposed to her was the Danish brig of war Lougen, mounting 20 guns (18 long 18-pounders and 2 long sixes); six gun-boats, most of them carrying 2 long 24-pounders, and having from 50 to 70 men each. The action was fought close to the mouth of Christiansand harbour.
“I cannot speak in terms adequate to the deserts of every officer and man under my command on this trying occasion. I received that support from Mr. Hatton, the first Lieutenant, I had every reason to expect from his general good conduct; and the other officers and crew have my warmest thanks for their cool and steady behaviour: I consider it a duty I owe to them to add, that British valour was never displayed in a more striking manner than on this occasion, opposed as they were to so very superior a force.
“The enemy must have suffered very considerably, but I have not been able to ascertain to what extent. Several of the Danes, including the carpenter of the Lougen, perished on board the Seagull, so precipitately did she go down. I herewith send you a list of our killed and wounded.
“To Vice-Admiral Wells, &c. &c.”
Captain Cathcart was detained as a prisoner in Norway until Oct. 1808, and tried by a court-martial for the loss of his sloop, Nov. 21, in the same year, on which occasion he delivered the following address in behalf of his officers and crew.
“Mr. President, and Gentlemen of the Court.– It was the greatest pleasure of my life having had the honor to command so brave and determined a set of officers and men, by whose very great zeal and intrepidity I was enabled to defend H.M. brig so long against so very superior a force. I feel it to be my duty, and in doing so the greatest gratification, to say, that to the able and gallant support of the first Lieutenant, Mr. Hatton, I am particularly indebted; and I do trust that he will be duly rewarded for his meritorious conduct and very severe sufferings, for which I recommend him in the strongest manner possible.
“I also feel the greatest satisfaction in bearing testimony to the cool and determined good conduct of the other officers during so severe an action, wherein one-third of the ship’s company were killed and wounded; and I therefore beg leave to recommend them in very high terms for that promotion their services merit.
“For the crew I can only say, that a braver and more determined set of men never met; and I feel much pleasure in certifying before this honorable court, their cool, steady, and uniform good conduct; those who have suffered from their wounds I recommend most strongly to the protection of their country.”
Superfluous as it may appear to repeat the decision of the honorable tribunal to whom this address was delivered, we cannot refrain from inserting a copy of the sentence:
“The Court, pursuant to an order from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated Nov. 10, 1808, proceeded to inquire into the conduct of Robert Cathcart, Esq. commander of his Majesty’s late sloop Seagull, and such of the officers and company of the said sloop as were on board her at the time she was captured by a Danish brig of war, and a detachment of gun-boats, off the harbour of Christiansand. The Court, after having duly weighed and considered all the circumstances attending the capture of the said sloop, are of opinion that Captain Robert Cathcart, throughout the action, behaved with the most cool and able judgment; and, by not leaving the deck until twice severely wounded, with the most determined resolution and courage; and that he did not strike the Seagull’s colours until she was totally unable to make the smallest further defence. The Court doth therefore adjudge Captain Robert Cathcart to be moat honorably acquitted, and he is most honorably acquitted accordingly.
“The Court cannot but express the highest approbation of the conduct of Lieutenant Villiers Francis Hatton, who, although most dangerously wounded, continued to give his support and encouragement to the last; as well as of the noble and steady behavior of the other officers, and the crew of the Seagull, during so sanguinary and unequal a conflict – a circumstance which, while it reflects the highest honor on them, does no less credit to the discipline of the King’s sloop; and the Court doth therefore most honorably acquit Lieutenant Hatton, the officers, and crew; and they are most honorably acquitted accordingly.”
Sir Joseph S. Yorke, president, on returning Captain Cathcart his sword, congratulated him on the decision of the court, which, he said, had “placed on record as gallant a defence of a British vessel as the numerous pages of our naval history afford. I feel flattered,” added that honorable and worthy officer, “in being the organ of the court, which unanimously returns you a sword that has been so honorably worn and used.”
Immediately after his acquittal, Captain Cathcart had the further gratification of receiving a post commission, dated back to the day of his gallant action; and as an additional mark of their lordships’ high approbation of his gallant conduct, the survivors of the Seagull’s crew were subsequently sent to join the Ganymede, a 26-gun ship, of which he obtained the command about Sept. 1809.
Towards the close of 1810, Captain Cathcart was appointed to the Alexandria frigate, mounting 26 long twelves, 10 twenty-four-pounder carronades, and 2 long sixes, with a complement of 212 officers, men and boys. His last exploit was that of driving the U.S. ship President, commanded by Commodore Rodgers, from her cruising ground, thereby preserving a valuable fleet of British merchantmen from being captured, and adding greatly to his professional reputation.
On the 19th July, 1813, being off the North Cape, in company with the Spitfire, a ship-sloop rated at 16 guns, Captain Cathcart fell in with Commodore Rodgers, who had proceeded thither for the purpose of intercepting a convoy, which he had been informed would leave Archangel about the middle of that month. The President, when first discovered, was accompanied by the Scourge, a large American schooner privateer, of 10 guns and 120 men. But notwithstanding the enemy’s great superiority. Captain Cathcart immediately gave chase, and used every possible exertion to close with him during a pursuit of more than 91 hours. Commodore Rodgers, however, effected his escape, and afterwards had the effrontery to declare that he had been chased from his station by a line-of-battle ship and a frigate. The following contradictory statement was addressed to the Editor of the “Star,” Dec. 9, 1813:
“Sir,– Having read in the Star of the 16th ultimo, an official letter from that redoubted naval hero (that modern Bobadil) Commodore Rodgers, giving a detail to the Secretary of the navy of the United States of his last cruise, where, amidst other essential services rendered by him to his try, he states “that being off the North Cape on the 19th July, just as he was in momentary expectation of falling in with an English convoy, an enemy’s line-of-battle ship and a frigate made their appearance, and that not being able, owing to the haziness of the weather, to ascertain their character with precision, he stood towards them until he could make out what they were, then hauled his wind, &c.” I beg through the medium of your paper to state a few facts relative to this circumstance, which, if ever they happen to meet the eye of this braggadocio, I hope will teach him a little more modesty in relating, as well as discernment in ascertaining the force of ships he may meet with, before he runs away and presents to the world such a disgraceful narration of absurdity and falsehood as is contained in his letter, at which his own countrymen will blush. On the 19th July, the day stated by Commodore Rodgers, it is very true he fell in with two English men-of-war, – that they chased him 90 hours is also true, and that they were brought quite as near as desirable no one who reads the Commodore’s letter can be inclined to doubt; but here the truth of his story ends: for these ships which the Commodore’s fears had magnified, like Falstaff’s men in buckram suits, into a line-of-battle ship and a frigate, happened to be his Majesty’s ship Alexandria, Captain Cathcart, one of the smallest, and certainly the very worst sailing frigates in the navy, and the Spitfire of 18 guns. Captain Ellis. These two ships chased Mr. Rodgers more than 90 hours; Captain Cathcart cut away his anchors, and did every thing possible to get up with the President, but without success, for the noble Commodore had the heels of him. If this letter had any thing for its object beyond exposing the barefaced and unmanly falsehood thus asserted by Commodore Rodgers, too much could not be said on the spirited and dashing conduct of Captain Cathcart, whose gallant efforts on that occasion rendered a service to the commercial interests of his country that can never be forgotten, or too highly appreciated. Amongst his admirers I have the honor to rank myself, as also amongst his friends; but I write this letter unknown to him: and that Commodore Rodgers may not altogether contemn the humble name of Darby Allen, he may be assured that the writer of this letter is of equal rank to himself, in a much smaller ship than the President, but would be very happy to have an opportunity of making himself known to him. I am, Sir, your most obedient servant,
(Signed)“Darby Allen, R.N.”
The President’s force has been described at p. 315 of this volume. When the immense superiority she possessed is taken into consideration, this will appear one of the most determined efforts to fulfil the duty of a British officer that has ever been recorded.
Captain Cathcart married, in 1814, Catharine, second daughter of Henry Wedderburn, of Wedderburn and Birkhill, N.B. Esq. His eldest brother. Major Cathcart of the 19th dragoons, died in 1810.
Agent.– Joseph Dufaur, Esq.
- Lord Cranstoun resigned the command of the Bellerophon, through ill health, in the summer of 1796, and was succeeded by Captain (afterwards Sir Henry D’Esterre) Darby.
- See Vol. I. note * at p. 354.
- Captain Darby was wounded, and obliged to quit the deck, early in the action; a circumstance which we were not aware of when writing the memoir of his services. The death of the Bellerophon’s first Lieutenant has been noticed at p. 656 of Vol. II. Part II.
- The Bellerophon, being very close to l’Orient, was set on fire in several places, and very great exertions were required to extinguish the flames. In drifting along the rear of the French line, she received a broadside from the Tonnant 80, and a few distant shot from the Heureux 74. Her loss amounted to 49 killed, and 148 wounded. The wreck that floated about Aboukir bay in all directions appears to have been very serviceable to Lieutenant Cathcart: spars, and many articles necessary for the re-equipment of the ship, being picked up and converted into jury-masts, &c. &c.
- The Seagull mounted 14 twenty-four-pounder carronades and 2 long sixes, with a complement of 94 officers, men, and boys – 66 persons less than the Lougen.
- The second Lieutenant (Abraham Harcourt White), the master, and 6 men killed. Captain Cathcart, the first Lieutenant, boatswain, and 17 men (one of whom mortally) wounded. N.B. The Seagull was afterwards weighed by the Danes, and added to their navy.
- Made a Post-Captain in 1812.
- From 2-30 P.M. July 19th until 10 A.M. on the 23d.