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Royal Naval Biography/Milne, David


SIR DAVID MILNE,

Rear-Admiral of the Red; Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; of the Order of Wilhelm of the Netherlands; and of the Neapolitan Order of St. Januarius.

This officer, we have reason to believe, is descended from an ancient family of the same name, who, throughout several reigns, held the office of King’s Master Mason in Scotland. His father was a merchant of Edinburgh, and his mother a daughter of Mr. Vernor, of Musselburgh, near that city, where he himself was born in the month of May, 1763.

Mr. Milne entered the naval service at a very early age, and served during the latter part of the American war, as a Midshipman in the Canada, of 74 guns, commanded by the late Hon. Sir William Cornwallis, one of the best seamen and most determined officers in the British navy.

The Canada formed part of the fleet under Sir Samuel Hood, when attacked at St. Kitts, by the Count de Grasse, on the 25th Jan. 1782, and two following days[1]; and on the glorious 12th April, 1782[2], she behaved in such a manner as to attract particular notice. Her loss on this memorable occasion amounted to 12 men killed and 23 wounded. After the battle Mr. Milne was made Master’s Mate.

About the end of July in the same year, the Canada sailed from Jamaica in company with the Ramillies and Centaur, ships of the line, Pallas frigate, and the French prizes Ville de Paris, Glorieux, Hector, Ardent, Caton, and Jason, the whole under the orders of Rear-Admiral Graves. Of all these ships, only the Canada and Jason reached England. In consequence of a dreadful hurricane which occurred on the 17th Sept., the Ardent was compelled to put back; the Caton bore away for Halifax; the Ville de Paris, Ramillies, Centaur[1], Glorieux, and Hector, foundered; and the Pallas was run ashore at Fayal.

Peace soon after taking place, Mr. Milne was cast adrift, unprovided for; he therefore entered into the employment of the East India Company, in which he continued for some time; but on the breaking out of the French revolutionary war in 1793, he re-entered the royal navy, and proceeded to the West Indies in the Boyne, of 98 guns, bearing the flag of Sir John Jervis (now Earl St. Vincent), to whose favourable notice he soon recommended himself, in his course of service against the French islands, and was promoted by him to a Lieutenancy; in which rank he served on board the Blanche, when Captain Faulkner brought the French frigate la Pique to action off Guadaloupe, Jan. 5, 1795. In this hard fought battle, the heroic Faulkner was shot through the heart just after he had lashed the enemy’s bowsprit to the capstern with his own hands; and as the boats of both ships were either completely destroyed, or unfit to swim, Mr. Milne, then second Lieutenant, swam to la Pique, after her surrender, with 10 men, and took possession; the present Rear-Admiral Watkins was first Lieutenant; and so highly was the conduct of both appreciated, that they were immediately advanced to the rank of Commander[3].

As he was employed in a part of the world where much active service was still going on, Captain Milne soon after had the good fortune to obtain the command of the Alarm frigate, in which he destroyed the French corvette Liberte, of 20 guns, off Porto Rico, May 30, 1795. His post commission bears date Oct. 2d, in the same year.

Our officer’s next appointment was to la Pique; and in the spring of 1796, we find him assisting at the reduction of Demerara, Issiquibo, and Berbice, by the forces under the orders of Commodore Parr and Major-General White. About the same period he captured the Lacedemonian French brig, of 16 guns.

On the 29th June, 1798, Captain Milne being on a cruize off the coast of France, in company with the Jason and Mermaid, gave chace to a French frigate, which, after a running fight of about five hours was captured, and proved to be la Seine, of 42 guns and 610 men (including soldiers), 170 of whom were killed, and 100 wounded. The brunt of the action was borne by la Pique; the Mermaid could not get up in time to share in the contest. The loss sustained by the former and the Jason, amounted to 8 men killed, and 18, including Captain Stirling of the latter ship, wounded[4]. Previous to the surrender of la Seine, the whole of the combatants took the ground near Pointe de la Trenche, and la Pique unfortunately bilged, so that it became necessary to destroy her. Captain Milne therefore removed with his officers and crew into the prize, to the command of which he was afterwards appointed by the Admiralty[5].

We next find him convoying the outward bound trade to Africa and the West Indies. On the 20th Aug., 1800, being on a cruize off St. Domingo, he discovered a ship of war standing through the Mona passage, and immediately went in pursuit. At sun-set he had arrived so near as to perceive she was a large French frigate; but it was almost midnight before he could bring her to action, and then not so close as he wished, the enemy constantly bearing up and keeping him at long shot, whereby la Seine was much cut up in her rigging, sails, &c. The ships now separated for some time, which gave Captain Milne an opportunity to repair the damage he had sustained; this being completed, on the morning of the 21st he was able to bring the enemy to close action; and after about an hour and a half hard fighting, she surrendered. The prize proved to be the Vengeance, of 52 guns, exclusive of a number of brass swivels on her gunwale, and 326 men, many of whom were killed and wounded; but her exact loss has never been ascertained. The casualties on board la Seine were Lieutenant George Milne and 12 men slain; Lieutenant Archibald Macdonald, of the marines; Mr. Andrew Barclay, Master; Mr. Home, Captain’s Clerk; and 26 wounded.

The action between la Seine and the Vengeance was justly considered by naval men as one of the most brilliant fought during the war between single ships. In the Admiral’s despatches, Captain Milne was most handsomely mentioned, and it was one of the last acts of the lamented Lord Hugh Seymour’s life to write them.

La Seine returned to England, March 12, 1802, and was soon after paid off at Chatham. On the renewal of hostilities against France, in 1803, Captain Milne was re-appointed to her, and had the misfortune to be wrecked on the night of June 23, in the same year, near the Texel, through the ignorance of the pilots. He was afterwards employed as commander of the Frith of Forth district of Sea Fencibles, in which service he continued until the breaking up of that corps in 1811. Being then an old Post-Captain, he applied for a lineof-battle ship, and was appointed successively to the Impetueux, Dublin, Venerable, and Bulwark. In the latter ship he served for some time on the coast of North America, where he captured the Harlequin, a fine schooner privateer, mounting 10 long 12-pounders, with a complement of 115 men. The Bulwark also formed part of the squadron under Rear-Admiral Griffith, (now Colpoys,) in an expedition up the Penobscot; and assisted in taking Castine, and several other places in that river.

At the general promotion, June 4, 1814, Captain Milne was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral. His last appointment was to the command at Halifax; and he was preparing to sail, when Lord Exmouth received orders to fit out a squadron for the attack on Algiers[6]. Ever desirous of active service, our officer immediately solicited leave to join the expedition; and how well he acquitted himself, as second in command, is well known to the world.

Lord Exmouth, whose despatch is a master-piece of the kind, pays him the highest compliments, and laments that he was not sooner known to him. The loss on board his ship, the Impregnable, was greater than any British man-of-war, perhaps, ever before sustained, having 210 men killed and wounded; he himself received a slight wound, but did not report it. For his conduct in that tremendous conflict, he was nominated a K.C.B. Sept. 21, 1816; and subsequently received the royal permission to accept and wear the insignia of the Orders of Wilhelm of the Netherlands, and St. Januarius of Naples, conferred upon him by the sovereigns of those countries. He soon after proceeded to Halifax in the Leander, of 60 guns, and continued on that station during the customary period of three years.

On the 28th April, 1821, being the anniversary of the birthday of the late Viscount Melville, the foundation of a monument to his memory was laid in the centre of St. Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, by Sir David Milne and Rear-Admiral Otway, assisted by other naval officers. An appropriate prayer was offered up on the occasion, by the Very Rev. Principal Baird. The structure is an exact representation of the celebrated column of Trajan, at Rome, and is consequently highly ornamental to the splendid metropolis of Scotland.

The current coins of the realm, an almanack, and several newspapers, were deposited in a crystal bottle, hermetically sealed; as also the following inscription, engraved on a plate of gold; –

“To the memory of that illustrious Statesman,
Henry Dundas, Lord Viscount Melville,

“During the eventful and glorious reign of George III., successively Treasurer of the Navy, one of the Principal Secretaries of State, and First Lord of the Admiralty, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, whose unwearied and successful exertions to promote the interest of the British Navy, have justly entitled him to be ever esteemed The Seaman’s best Friend, this monumental column is erected by the voluntary contributions of the Officers, Petty Officers, Seamen, and Marines, of the Royal Navy of these United Kingdoms, as a testimonal of admiration and gratitude, in the year of our Lord 1821, and in the second year of the reign of his Majesty George IV.”

There was deposited at the same time, and in the same manner, a plate of silver, with the names of the Committee of Management inscribed upon it. After the ceremony, a number of the friends and admirers of the late Viscount dined together at the Waterloo Tavern[7].

Sir David Milne married, first, in 1804, Grace, daughter of Sir Alexander Purves, Baronet. His present lady is a daughter of the late George Stephen, of Grenada, Esq.



  1. 1.0 1.1 See Retired Captain J. N. Inglefield.
  2. See note at p. 35. et seq.
  3. For particulars of the action, see Superannuated Rear-Admiral Frederick Watkins, in our next volume.
  4. See p. 403.
  5. La Seine’s armament was increased to 48 guns, and her complement of men fixed at 281.
  6. See p. 225.
  7. The late Viscount Melville was the projector of the memorable expedition to Egypt. His lordship’s proposal for sending an armament thither, was strongly contested in the Privy Council. Mr. Pitt gave a very reluctant consent; and his late Majesty wrote, on the paper in which he signified his acquiescence, words to the following purport: “I give my consent to this measure with the greatest reluctance, as it tends to expose the flower of my army to perish in a distant, dubious, and perilous expedition.” At a subsequent period, the King breakfasted with his Lordship at Wimbledon; and when about to leave the table, filled a glass of wine, and drank “To the health of the Minister who dared to advise and press the enterprise, which terminated so gloriously, against the opinion of his colleagues, and the express disapprobation of his sovereign.”