Napoleonic Wars: Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane

Lord Thomas Cochrane
Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald. Public Domain

Thomas Cochrane - Early Life:

Thomas Cochrane was born December 14, 1775, at Annsfield, Scotland. The son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald and Anna Gilchrist, he spent the majority of his early years at the family's estate in Culross. Under the practice of the day his uncle, Alexander Cochrane, an officer in the Royal Navy, had his name entered on the books of naval vessels at age five.

Though technically illegal, this practice reduced the amount of time Cochrane would need to serve before becoming an officer if he elected to pursue a naval career. As another option, his father also secured him a commission in the British Army.

Going to Sea:

In 1793, with the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, Cochrane joined the Royal Navy. Initially assigned to his uncle's ship HMS Hind (28 guns), he soon following the elder Cochrane to HMS Thetis (38). Learning his trade on the North American station, he was appointed an acting lieutenant in 1795, before passing his lieutenant's exams the following year. Following several assignments in America, he was made eighth lieutenant on Lord Keith's flagship HMS Barfleur (90) in 1798. Serving in the Mediterranean, he clashed with the ship's first lieutenant, Philip Beaver.

HMS Speedy:

Angered by the young officer, Beaver ordered him court-martialed for disrespect.

Though found innocent, Cochrane was reprimanded for flippancy. The incident with Beaver marked the first of several problems with superiors and peers that marred Cochrane's career. Promoted to commander, Cochrane was given command of the brig HMS Speedy (14) on March 28, 1800. Putting to sea, Cochrane was tasked with preying upon French and Spanish shipping.

Ruthlessly effective, he captured prize after prize and proved a brazen and daring commander.

Also an innovator, he once eluded a pursuing enemy frigate by building a raft mounted with a lantern. Ordering Speedy blacked out that night, he set the raft adrift and watched as the frigate chased the lantern through the darkness while Speedy escaped. The high point of his command of Speedy came on May 6, 1801, when he captured the Spanish xebec frigate El Gamo (32). Closing under the guise of the American flag, he maneuvered at close range pummeling the Spanish ship. Unable to depress their guns low enough to strike Speedy, the Spanish were forced to board.

In the resulting action, Cochrane's outnumbered crew was able to carry the enemy ship. Cochrane's run came to an end two months later when Speedy was captured by three French ships of the line led by Admiral Charles-Alexandre Linois on July 3. During his command of Speedy, Cochrane captured or destroyed 53 enemy vessels and frequently raided the coast. Exchanged a short time later, Cochrane was promoted to post-captain in August. With the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Cochrane briefly attended the University of Edinburgh. With the resumption of hostilities in 1803, he was given command of HMS Arab (22).

The Sea Wolf:

A ship with poor handling, Arab afforded Cochrane few opportunities and his assignment to the vessel and subsequent posting to the Orkney Islands were effectively punishment for crossing the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl St. Vincent. In 1804, St. Vincent was replaced by Viscount Melville and Cochrane's fortunes improved. Given command of the new frigate HMS Pallas (32) in 1804, he cruised the Azores and French coast capturing and destroying several Spanish and French vessels. Transferred to HMS Imperieuse (38) in August 1806, he returned to the Mediterranean.

Terrorizing the French coast, he earned the nickname "Sea Wolf" from the enemy. Becoming a master of coastal warfare, Cochrane frequently led cutting out missions to seize enemy ships and captured French coastal installations.

In 1808, his men occupied the fortress of Mongat in Spain which delayed the advance of General Guillaume Duhesme's army for a month. In April 1809, Cochrane was tasked with leading a fire ship attack as part of the Battle of the Basque Roads. While his initial attack greatly disrupted the French fleet, his commander, Lord Gambier, failed to effectively follow up to completely destroy the enemy.

Cochrane's Fall:

Elected to Parliament from Honiton in 1806, Cochrane sided with the Radicals and frequently criticized the prosecution of the war and campaigned against corruption in the Royal Navy. These efforts further lengthened his list of enemies. Publically criticizing Gambier in the wake of Basque Roads, he alienated many senior members of the Admiralty and did not receive another command. Though loved by the public, he became isolated in Parliament as he angered his peers with his outspoken views. Marrying Katherine Barnes in 1812, Cochrane's downfall came two years later during Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814.

In early 1814, Cochrane was accused and convicted of being a conspirator in defrauding the Stock Exchange. Though subsequent examinations of the records show he should have been found innocent, he was expelled from Parliament and the Royal Navy, as well as was stripped of his knighthood. Promptly re-elected to Parliament that July, Cochrane relentlessly campaigned that he was innocent and that his conviction was the work of his political enemies. In 1817, Cochrane accepted an invitation from Chilean leader Bernardo O'Higgins to take command of the Chilean Navy in its war of independence from Spain.

Commanding Around the World:

Named vice admiral and commander in chief, Cochrane arrived in South America in November 1818. Immediately restructuring the fleet along British lines, Cochrane commanded from the frigate O'Higgins (44). Quickly showing the daring that had made him famous in Europe, Cochrane raided the coast of Peru and captured the town of Valdivia in February 1820. After conveying General Jose de San Martin's army to Peru, Cochrane blockaded the coast and later cut out the Spanish frigate Esmeralda. With Peruvian independence secured, Cochrane soon fell out with his superiors over monetary compensation and claims that he was treated with contempt.

Departing Chile, he was given command of the Brazilian Navy in 1823. Conducting a successful campaign against the Portuguese, he was made Marquis of Maranhão by Emperor Pedro I. After putting down a rebellion the following year, he made claims that a large amount of prize money was owed to him and the fleet. When this was not forthcoming, he and his men seized the public funds in São Luís do Maranhão and looted the ships in the harbor before leaving for Britain. Reaching Europe, he briefly led Greek naval forces in 1827-1828 during their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Later Life:

Returning to Britain, Cochrane was finally pardoned in May 1832 at a meeting of the Privy Council. Though restored to the Navy List with a promotion to rear admiral, he refused to accept a command until his knighthood was returned.

This did not occur until Queen Victoria reinstated him as a knight in the Order of Bath in 1847. Now a vice admiral, Cochrane served as commander in chief of the North American and West Indies station from 1848-1851. Promoted to admiral in 1851, he was given the honorary title of Rear Admiral of the United Kingdom three years later. Troubled by kidney stones, he died during an operation on October 31, 1860. One of the most daring commanders of the Napoleonic Wars, Cochrane inspired such notable fictional characters as C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey.

Selected Sources