On October 21, 1805, a British fleet commanded by the illustrious Admiral Horatio Nelson engaged a larger French and Spanish force off the Spanish coast near Cape Trafalgar. Nelson’s unconventional tactics helped the Royal Navy win the day—and control of the sea-lanes for years to come—but the victory was tarnished by his death at the hands of an enemy musketeer. More than two centuries later, learn the story behind one of the most legendary battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

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Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. (Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Shortly before noon on October 21, 1805, a fleet of 27 Royal Navy warships sliced through the seas near the southern coast of Spain. Onboard the flagship HMS Victory, Lord Horatio Nelson paced the main deck, his gazed fixed on the 33 French and Spanish ships floating on the horizon. Like Britain, the 47-year-old admiral had spent most of the previous 12 years warring with France and its allies—and he had the scars to prove it. He’d been blinded in one eye during a siege on the island of Corsica in 1794, and later lost his right arm to a musket wound sustained in a raid on Tenerife. But despite being worn down by his years at sea, Nelson remained Britain’s most trusted and beloved naval commander. His mere presence was credited with inspiring his men to great acts of courage. As he closed in on the enemy flotilla, he prepared his fleet for battle by having his flagman send a now-famous message: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

The Battle of Trafalgar was the culmination of a seven-month campaign. Having allied with Spain the previous year, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had hatched a plan to invade mainland Britain by sending an amphibious force across the English Channel. In March 1805, he ordered a combined Franco-Spanish fleet led by Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve to race to the Caribbean and lure the Royal Navy away from England. The plan initially worked, but upon returning to the European coast, Villeneuve was outmaneuvered and boxed in by the British at the Spanish port of Cadiz. Unable to marshal his forces, Napoleon reluctantly shelved his invasion plans. Villeneuve’s armada still remained a threat, however, and after taking control of the British blockading fleet in late-September, Nelson began plotting its destruction. “It is annihilation that the country wants,” he told his commanders, “not merely a splendid victory.”

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A plan of the Order of Battle for the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With this in mind, the Admiral concocted a gutsy battle strategy known as “The Nelson Touch.” Rather than facing the French and Spanish ships in a parallel line and fighting a broadside cannon duel, as was common practice at the time, he planned to sail toward the Combined Fleet in two long columns and plow straight through its formation, effectively cutting it into thirds. If executed properly, the maneuver would temporarily take Villeneuve’s vanguard out of the battle and allow Nelson to overwhelm the rear and middle portions in a “pell-mell” attack. There was only one major drawback: during their cruise toward the Franco-Spanish fleet, the Royal Navy ships would be subject to several minutes of bombardment with no ability to return fire.

It was a risk Nelson was willing to take. When Villeneuve raised anchor and left Cadiz on October 19, the British commander took off in hot pursuit, finally catching sight of his enemy two days later off the coast of Cape Trafalgar. Knowing that his chance for a pitched battle had arrived, Nelson formed his 27 ships into two prongs of attack—one led by the 100-gun Victory and the other by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s HMS Royal Sovereign.

As their twin columns inched toward the Combined Fleet, Nelson’s 18,000 sailors readied themselves for a fight. They ate a hearty breakfast, stowed wooden objects that might splinter during battle, and stuffed bandages and handkerchiefs into their ears to dull the roar of cannon fire. Similar scenes had already unfolded on the decks of the 33 Franco-Spanish vessels, which had formed a traditional battle line that stretched several miles. On the French flagship Bucentaure, Admiral Villeneuve displayed a bronze Imperial Eagle to his crewmen, who responded with patriotic cries of “Long live the Emperor!”

Battle of trafalgarThe battle commenced around noon. While Collingwood’s force split the trailing section of the Combined Fleet’s line, the column led by Nelson’s Victory ran a gauntlet of cannon fire and pushed toward the enemy center. Unable to return fire during their approach, Victory’s 820 crewmen could only grit their teeth and take cover as iron shot ripped through their decks and rigging. One blast hewed Nelson’s personal secretary clean in half. Another tore through a group of marines, killing eight men and mauling several more. Seemingly ignoring the mayhem, Nelson continued to stroll the deck alongside Victory’s captain, Thomas Hardy. “This is too warm work to last long,” he mused.

At half past noon, Victory finally advanced within firing range of the Combined Fleet. The British vessel immediately steered toward the stern of Villeneuve’s Bucentaure and unleashed a blast from a carronade, a 68-pound gun packed with both a single cannonball and a hive of 500 musket rounds. They followed it with a withering broadside from their 50 portside guns, which shattered Bucentaure’s unprotected rear and sent metal and wood splinters careering through its decks. After only a few minutes, 20 of Villeneuve’s cannons were disabled and some 200 French crewmen lay dead.

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J.M.W. Turner painting of the Battle of Trafalgar. (Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Having struck a ferocious blow against the enemy flagship, the badly damaged Victory continued its rampage by confronting the 74-gun French vessel Redoubtable. The two vessels soon rammed into one another and became entangled. As the ships shuddered from broadsides fired at point blank range, French marines tried to clear the British decks with musket fire and hand grenades. Around 1:15 p.m., a sniper on Redoubtable’s mizzen top took aim at Nelson and shot him in the shoulder. The musket ball passed through the Admiral’s back, severing an artery and smashing part of his spine. “They have done for me at last, Hardy,” Nelson cried as he collapsed in agony. Captain Hardy rushed his commander below deck and handed him off to the ship’s surgeon. It was soon determined that the wound was mortal.

While Nelson clung to life in the belly of his flagship, his tactical gamble started paying off. By slicing through the Franco-Spanish formation, he and Collingwood had cut off the lead ships of Villeneuve’s line and prevented them from joining the fray. The remaining two thirds of the Combined Fleet now found themselves overwhelmed by the British gunners’ superior marksmanship. As more Royal Navy ships arrived in the melee, the two fleets devolved into a confused mass of flashing cannons and blinding plumes of smoke. “There no longer existed any line on either side,” a French lieutenant later recalled. “We could see nothing more than groups of vessels in the most dreadful state.”

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The death of Admiral Lord Nelson. (Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Around 1:45 p.m., Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure became the first French vessel to strike its colors in surrender. Redoubtable followed suit a few minutes later, having been pummeled into submission by repeated broadsides from both Victory and the British HMS Temeraire. More French and Spanish ships gave up over the next few hours, and following an abortive assault by their long overdue vanguard, the remaining vessels of the Combined Fleet hoisted their sails and took flight. By then, 19 French and Spanish ships had been captured or destroyed and some 6,000 of their sailors were dead or wounded. Despite suffering some 1,700 casualties of their own, the British hadn’t lost a single ship. Nelson was informed of the result only minutes before he succumbed to his wounds in Victory’s lower decks. “Now I am satisfied,” he said. “Thank God I have done my duty.”

The British victory at Trafalgar was one of the last great battles waged by wooden sailing ships. Napoleon wouldn’t be fully defeated until 1815’s land encounter at Waterloo, but the Royal Navy’s triumph at sea torpedoed his hopes of ever invading England. It also helped establish Britain as the undisputed master of the oceans. With its rivals’ navies crippled by Trafalgar, the tiny island nation would spend the next several decades using sea power to build an empire that stretched to the far corners of the globe. For the British, the battle’s only drawback was the loss of Horatio Nelson, who was later given a hero’s funeral at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. “The country has gained the most splendid and decisive victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England,” wrote the newspaper The Times, “but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant Nelson is no more.”