Royal Naval Biography/Montagu, George


Admiral of the Red; and a Knight Grand Cross of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath.

This officer, descended from Drago de Montacute, who came over to England with William the Conqueror, in 1066, and was the common ancestor of the Dukes of Montagu and Manchester, and the Earls of Sandwich and Halifax[1], is the second son of the late Admiral John Montagu, who served his country with zeal and fidelity for 63 years; commanded the squadron employed on the coast of North America previous to the colonial war; was afterwards appointed Governor of Newfoundland; and held the chief command at Portsmouth subsequent to the peace of 1783; by Charlotte, daughter and co-heir of George Wroughton, of Wilcot, co. Wilts, Esq.

Mr. George Montagu was born Dec. 12, 1750; went to the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth, in 1763; and from thence was discharged into the Preston, of 50 guns, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral William Parry, and commanded by Captain (afterwards Lord) Gardner; in which ship he proceeded to the Jamaica station, where he continued upwards of three years; and returned from thence to England with the latter officer in the Levant frigate, in 1770.

Soon after his arrival, Mr. Montagu was made a Lieutenant, and appointed to the Marlborough, of 74 guns, from which ship he removed into the Captain, another third-rate, bearing the flag of his father, then a Rear-Admiral, with whom he went to America, where he obtained the rank of Commander in the Kingfisher sloop of war; and from that vessel was promoted to the command of the Fowey, of 20 guns. His post commission bears date April 15, 1773.

At the commencement of the contest with our trans-atlantic colonies, we find Captain Montagu employed in the arduous service of blockading the ports of Marblehead and Salem, on which station he continued during a whole winter, and had the good fortune to capture the Washington, a brig of 16 guns, the first vessel of war sent to sea by the American States. Her crew, 70 in number, were sent to England as rebels; but instead of being hanged, as they deserved, and no doubt expected, they were there well clothed, and set at liberty.

Captain Montagu was subsequently entrusted, by Vice-Admiral Shuldham, with the difficult and important duty of covering the retreat and embarkation of the army under Sir William Howe, at the evacuation of Boston. The enemy having thrown up strong works, commanding the town and harbour, the Vice-Admiral dropped down to Nantasket Road with the line-of-battle ships, leaving the whole arrangement and execution of this service to Captain Montagu, who received the thanks of the General in a very flattering manner, through his brother, Lord Howe, when he assumed the chief command on the coast of America.

We next find our officer serving in the river Chesapeake, where he rescued Lord Dunmore and family, and also prevented Governor Eden of Maryland, from falling into the hands of the enemy. The Fowey was subsequently stationed by Lord Howe as the advanced ship at the siege of New York; soon after the reduction of which place, Captain Montagu returned to England in a very ill state of health.

In 1779, the Romney, of 50 guns, which ship, bearing his father’s flag at Newfoundland, he had commanded for a period of two years, being ordered to receive the broad pendant of Commodore Johnstone, Captain Montagu was appointed to the Pearl frigate, and hurried to sea, on a pressing and important service, before his crew could be either watched or quartered, with only 10 men who had ever been in a ship of war before. On the 14th Sept., about four weeks after his departure from port, he fell in with, and after a gallant action of two hours, which “stamped his name with a eulogy far beyond any thing that even a partial pen could say,” captured the Santa Monica, a Spanish frigate of 32 guns, 900 tons, and 280 men, 38 of whom were slain, and 45 wounded. The Pearl mounted the same number of guns as her opponent, but was only 700 tons burthen, and had a very small proportion of seamen among her crew, which consisted of 220 officers, men, and boys. Her loss on this occasion was 12 killed and 19 wounded.

Towards the latter end of the same year, Captain Montagu sailed with Sir George B. Rodney to the relief of Gibraltar, and was consequently present at the capture of the Caracca convoy, with which he returned to England, in company with the Africa, 64[2]. Some time after this event, he was ordered to America, with intelligence of a French squadron, with troops on board, being about to sail from France, for the purpose of making an attack upon New York. The fleet on that station, under Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, having proceeded with Sir Henry Clinton’s army to besiege Charlestown, in South Carolina, Captain Montagu on his arrival found himself senior officer at New York, and the security of that place necessarily dependent on his exertions. From thence he went on a cruise off Bermuda; and, on the 30th Sept., captured l’Esperance, a French frigate of the same tonnage as his former prize, with a valuable cargo, from St. Domingo bound to Bourdeaux, mounting 32 guns, and having on board near 200 men, including about 15 or 20 officers of the army, and privates, passengers. This ship appears to have made a most obstinate defence, maintaining a close action of two hours, in which, and in a running fight of equal duration, she had 20 of her crew killed, and 24 wounded. The Pearl’s loss was only 6 slain and 10 wounded.

On the 16th March, 1781, Captain Montagu was in company with the squadron under Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, when that officer encountered M. de Ternay, then on his way to co-operate with a detachment of the American army in an attack upon Brigadier-General Arnold, whose corps had nearly over-run the whole province of Virginia. Unfortunately, a thick haze, together with the disabled condition of the three ships on which the brunt of the engagement chiefly fell, rendered it impossible for the British squadron to pursue the advantage it had gained, and the contest was consequently indecisive.

Captain Montagu’s abilities and zeal were by this time so highly and generally appreciated, that when, in October following, Rear-Admiral Graves, who had succeeded to the chief command of the naval force employed on the American station, meditated an attack upon the French armament under Count de Grasse, then lying at the entrance of the York river, between the sands called the Horse Shoe and the York Spit, he appointed the Pearl to lead his fleet; unfortunately, however, Earl Cornwallis, to whose rescue he had come from New York, (accompanied by the army under Sir Henry Clinton,) had been obliged to capitulate before his arrival, and the enterprise was consequently abandoned[3].

During the Spanish armament, in 1790[4], Captain Montagu obtained the command of the Hector, 74; and at the commencement of the war with France, in 1793, he accompanied Rear-Admiral Gardner to Barbadoes, where he arrived on the 27th April.

In the ensuing summer, the Rear-Admiral, in conjunction with Major-General Bruce, being encouraged by the disputes which existed between the royalists and republicans at Martinique, and invited by the former to make a descent on that island, proceeded thither, and landed a body of 3000 British troops, under cover of the ships of war.

On the 15th June, the Hector and Monarch[errata 1] were ordered to cannonade a fort on Mount Cerbette, which they began to do about 11 A.M., and continued firing till half-past three in the afternoon.

The following day, Captain Montagu was sent to co-operate in an attack upon the batteries to the N.E. of St. Pierre, as a diversion in favour of the troops. The Duke, of 98 guns, leading, followed by the Hector, began to engage Forts Bime and la Preche, which were totally silenced. A violent thunder-storm coming on, the Duke’s main-mast was shivered by lightning; next morning, Captain Montagu landed a party, who spiked the guns of the forts, and destroyed their carriages. The expedition, however, having failed of effect, in consequence of the republican party proving much stronger than was represented, the troops were re-embarked, together with as many of the royalists as could be taken on board the ships; the remainder were unavoidably left to perish by the hands of their implacable enemy. The rage and unrelenting fury of civil war were now clearly perceived by the flames that covered the island night and day.

The Ferme, a French ship of 74 guns, and the Calypso frigate, put themselves under the orders of the British commander, and saved a number of their unfortunate countrymen from destruction.

The enemy having several ships of war at St Domingo, Rear-Admiral Gardner despatched the Hector, in company with the Hannibal, of 74 guns, to reinforce the squadron on the Jamaica station, and returned to England with the remainder of his ships.

After a short interval Captain Montagu was directed to convoy home a large fleet of West Indiamen; and on his arrival at Spithead, was placed under the orders of Commodore Pasley, with whom, and Rear-Admiral M‘Bride, he cruised in the channel till his promotion to a flag, which took place April 12, 1794; when he joined the grand fleet, at that period commanded by Earl Howe. Early in the following month he was detached with a squadron to escort the outward bound East India fleet, and other convoys, amounting in the whole to about four hundred sail, as far to the southward as Cape Finisterre. After the performance of this important service, he cruised for some days to the northward of Cape Ortegal and previous to his return to port; captured a French corvette of 22 guns and 140 men, and re-took several British and Dutch merchantmen.

Early in June, he was again ordered to sea, for the purpose of reinforcing Lord Howe, as well as to look out for a valuable convoy coming from America, and bound to the western coast of France, the capture or destruction of which, at that critical period, was deemed an object of the utmost importance. On the 8th of the same month, being off Ushant with eight 74-gun ships, one 64, and several frigates, he discovered a French squadron consisting of one 3-decker, seven 74’s, and one other two-decked ship, which he pursued until they got close under the land, and some of them into Brest Water, where two other ships, supposed to be of the line, were then at anchor. At seven A.M. on the following day, the fleet under M. Villaret Joyeuse appeared in sight to the westward, standing in for the land, with the wind about north. Rear-Admiral Montagu, perceiving that the enemy had fourteen effective line-of-battle ships (one of which was a first rate) independent of five others which had been disabled in the recent battle with Lord Howe, besides frigates, &c.; aware of the ease with which those he had chased on the preceding evening might have formed a junction with this superior force, and fearing that his sternmost ships would not be able to weather the French line, tacked to the eastward in order of battle, and then gradually edged away to the southward, with the view of drawing M. Joyeuse off the land, and getting his own squadron in as eligible a situation as possible to act against the enemy, if an opportunity should offer itself; but his adversary kept his ships so closely connected, and guarded with so much care those which were disabled, that the Rear-Admiral had it not in his power to take any step that was in the least degree likely to contribute to the public service. The French commander stood after the British for about five hours, and then hauled to the wind on the larboard tack, whilst Rear-Admiral Montagu stood to the N.W. in the hopes of meeting Earl Howe. His Lordship, however, was then on his way to Spithead, with the prizes taken on the 1st of that month; and our officer understanding that it was his wish that the fleet should assemble at Plymouth, anchored with his division in Cawsand Bay on the 12th.

Having informed the Admiralty of his arrival, and requested permission to come on shore for the recovery of his health, which was considerably affected by the tidings of the death of his brother, Captain James Montagu, who had fallen in the late battle, he received the following letters from the Secretary of that Board, the Earl of Chatham, and the veteran nobleman under whose orders he was then serving:

Admiralty Office, June, 14, 1794.

“Sir.– Having communicated to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letters of the 8th and 12th inst. (with the enclosures), informing them of your arrival in Cawsand Bay, with the squadron under your command, and of your proceedings during your last cruise, I am commanded by their Lordships to acquaint you, that they approve thereof.

(Signed) " Phil. Stephens."

Rear-Admiral Montagu, Plymouth.

Admiralty, June 15, 1794.

“Sir.– I received your letter this morning, and learnt, with great regret, that your state of health was such as to make it necessary, for a short time, to come on shore. I wish much it had been possible for the Hector to have brought you to Spithead; but as the squadron must proceed again immediately to sea, and in as much force as possible, it will not be at present practicable; but probably a little time hence it may be so arranged, that the Hector may come up to Spithead. The London is not yet commissioned; and I should be glad to know if there is any particular person you would wish to fit her out in the first instance[5]. I cannot conclude without condoling with you, which I do very truly, at the shock you must have suffered in the loss of your brother, who fell so nobly in the cause of his country.

“I am, Sir,
“Your most faithful humble Servant,
(Signed) “Chatham.

“Rear-Admiral Cornwallis is directed to proceed to Plymouth, to take upon him the command of the squadron.”
Rear-Admiral G. Montagu"

The Charlotte, at Spithead, June 16th, 1794.

“Sir.– I have received your letter of the 12th inst., by which I am informed of your late proceeding with, and arrival of the squadron under your command, that morning, in Plymouth Sound. And I am to signify, in consequence of your application to the same effect, that you are at liberty to strike your flag, and go on shore for the re-establishment of your health, which I sincerely hope you will be able thereby speedily and permanently to obtain. Having the honor to be, &c. &c.,

(Signed) “HOWE.”

Rear-admiral Montagu.


The Charlotte, Spithead, 16th June, 1794.

“Sir. I condole with you most sincerely, on the great loss you and your family have sustained in consequence of the late action. Your respectable brother was stationed too far distant from me, for my being enabled to give the personal testimony you do me the honor to be anxious for obtaining of me; and which is totally unnecessary for confirming the respect you will naturally retain of him[6]. “The permission for striking your flag for the reasons you have communicated to the Admiralty, is signified in my official letter the earlier, as I received authority to that effect from the Board yesterday; and so much time was saved of course, as would otherwise have been necessary for obtaining such approbation of your request. And I earnestly hope, for public as well as personal considerations, that the suspension from your professional avocations, will speedily contribute to the re-establishment of your health. Having the honor to be, Sir,

“Your most obedient humble servant,
(Signed) “Howe.”

“Rear-Admiral Montagu.”

From this period, with the exception of his being promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral, on the 1st June, 1795; we find no farther mention of our officer till the month of March, 1799, when Lord Spencer, then at the head of naval affairs, offered him the command at the Nore, which he declined, thinking it beneath his rank. In the following year, the Earl of St. Vincent applied for him to be attached to the Channel fleet; but, unfortunately, before his application reached the Admiralty, the appointment was given to another officer; and although the gallant Nelson, with whom he was not then personally acquainted, proposed him as his successor in the Baltic[7], his flag was not again hoisted till the summer of 1803. During the ensuing five years and a half, a period of active war, he held the chief command at Portsmouth, and executed the arduous duties of his office to the full and entire satisfaction of six different Boards of Admiralty. Whilst there, his present Majesty (then Prince of Wales) honored that town, a second time, with his presence. Previous to the departure of this illustrious visitor, he dined with the Admiral, who afterwards received the following highly flattering letter;

Portsmouth, Sept. 14, 1803.

“Sir. I am commanded by the Prince of Wales, to express the high satisfaction H. R. H. experienced in his visit to the fleet yesterday. The great skill and undaunted courage which has been so brilliantly displayed by the officers and men in all quarters of the world, render any remark from H.R.H. superfluous, but which alone has been produced by the state of discipline and subordination so justly the admiration of all Europe. The Prince of Wales further commands me to say how sensible H.R.H. is of your and Admiral Holloway’s attention, as well as the Captains of the fleet.

“I have the honor to be, Sir,
“Your most faithful and obedient Servant,
(Signed) “B. Bloomfield.

Admiral Montagu,
&c. &c. &c.

In Aug. 1810, a large body of Captains, who had fitted out at that port, whilst he commanded there, presented Admiral Montagu with a superb piece of plate, as “A Tribute of their Respect and Esteem!”

Our officer was advanced to the rank of full Admiral, Jan. 1, 1801; and nominated a G.C.B. as a testimony of the Prince Regent’s approbation of his services, Jan. 2, 1815. He has recently published a pamphlet, dedicated to his Majesty, and entitled, “A Refutation of the incorrect statements and unjust insinuations contained in Captain Brenton’s Naval History of Great Britain, as far as the same refers to the conduct of Admiral Sir George Montagu; in a letter addressed to the author.

A perusal of the foregoing Memoir, which is confined to a plain statement of well-authenticated facts, will, we trust, prove to the world, that no demerit, much less disgrace, is to be attached to his professional character. To use the words of a former biographer, “it has ever been free from stain: and his actions, like himself, ever generous, brave, and praiseworthy.”

Sir George Montagu has three sons, who have devoted themselves to the service of their country, in which the blood of his family has been profusely spilt[8]; viz, George Wroughton Montagu, a Major in the 56th regiment; John William Montagu, a Post-Captain; and James Montagu, a Commander, in the Royal Navy. His eldest daughter is the lady of Rear-Admiral Sir John Gore, K.C.B., of whom a Memoir appears at p. 609 et seq., to which considerable additions will be made in the Supplement to the Addenda. Note.– See N.B. at p. 883.

Residence.– Stowell Lodge, Pewsey, Wilts.

    three-decker and her second a-head, which was the fifth ship from the enemy’s rear. The following is a copy of the remarks made by his first Lieutenant, the present Rear-Admiral Donnelly, at the end of the minutes of the battle, taken on board the Montagu, and transmitted by that excellent officer to Earl Howe;

    “We suffered early an irreparable loss by the death of Captain Montagu, whose coolness and determined bravery while in action, did honor to his King, country, and friends; and while I deplore his sad, though honorable fall, I cannot sufficiently testify the gratitude I feel for the support given me during the action, and in our preparation afterwards to renew it, by each officer respectively, and the crew of the ship which I had the honor to command, whose promptitude to do their duty left me no room to doubt of the glorious victory which followed, by the judicious manner in which the fleet was conducted, together with the gallantry of its officers and men.

    (Signed) “Ross DONNELLY,
    “First Lieutenant.”

  1. Edward Montagu, the first Earl of Sandwich, and a K.G., held the chief command of the English navy, and had the address as well as the honor, of bringing the whole fleet to submit to King Charles II., who, in consideration of that important service, was pleased to create him Baron Montagu, Viscount Hinchinbrooke, and Earl of Sandwich; he was Lord High Admiral of England, and was killed in the great battle with the Dutch fleet off Southwold Bay, May 28, 1672. Sir George Montagu’s immediate ancestor was the Hon. James Montagu, of Lackam, in Wiltshire, third son of Henry, first Earl of Manchester.
  2. See note [2], at p. 3, et seq.
  3. Captain Montagu returned to England in a shattered state of health, and paid off the Pearl, which ship brought Sir Henry Clinton and General Kinphaussen from America, in 1782.
  4. See p. 59.
  5. The Rear-Admiral, on his return from escorting the convoys to the southward, had expressed a wish to exchange, at a convenient opportunity, the Hector for the London; and Lord Chatham had promised to direct her to be commissioned for him.
  6. Captain James Montagu commanded the Montagu, of 74 guns, and was the only officer of his rank who fell on the glorious 1st June, 1794. At the moment when slain, 9h 45’ A.M. he was closely engaged with a
  7. See Clarke and M‘Arthur’s Life of Lord Nelson, 4to. edit. vol. 2, p. 286.
  8. Sir George Montagu’s brother, Edward, Colonel of the corps of Artillery on the Bengal Establishment, an officer of acknowledged merit, was mortally wounded under the walls of Seringapatam, in 1799. The following outline of his services will no doubt be acceptable to the friends of his family:– Very shortly after his admission into the Artillery, he was appointed to the field, in the command of the detachment of that corps employed in the reduction of the forts in the Dooaub, in 1774–5, and subsequently in Rohilkund; and was severely wounded on two different occasions, once by the bursting of a shell, and again in the storming of fort Seekraunee, by an arrow, in the left eye. Although the nature of this wound was such as to render it advisable for him to proceed to Europe for his recovery, yet his zeal for the service induced him to solicit permission to accompany the Bengal artillery, to serve in the reduction of Pondicherry, in 1778. He subsequently served at the conquest of Cuddalore, and was present in the different battles between the British troops and Hyder Ally; and his conduct was honored with the approbation of his General. The encomiums passed upon him by Lord Cornwallis, in the course of the war with Tippoo Sultaun, were not less honorable than frequent. His last campaign was in 1798–9, under Major-General Harris; and at the period of his death, he had the immediate command of the batteries erected before Seringapatam. The share to be attributed to him in the reduction of that place, it would be presumptuous in us to state; – the general and united voice of the army proclaimed it.

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