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Like the English tongue itself, the names of British seamen show the composite origin of their nation. As the Danes after the day of Copenhagen, to them both glorious and disastrous, claimed that in Nelson they had been vanquished by a man of their own blood, descended from their Viking forefathers; as Collingwood and Troubridge indicate the English descent of the two closest associates of the victor of Trafalgar; so Saumarez and the hero of this sketch, whose family name was Pellew, represent that conquering Norman race which from the shores of the Northern ocean carried terror along the coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean, and as far inland as their light keels could enter.

After the great wars of the French Revolution and the Battle of Algiers, when Lord Exmouth had won his renown and his position had been attained, kinship with him was claimed by a family still residing in Normandy, where the name was spelled "Pelleu." Proof of common origin was offered, not only in the name, but also in the coat of arms. In England, the Pellew family was settled in the extreme southwest, in Cornwall and Devonshire, counties whose nearness to the great Atlantic made them the source of so much of the maritime enterprise that marked the reign of Elizabeth. Lord Exmouth's grandfather was a man of wealth; but, as he left many children, the juniors had to shift for themselves, and the youngest son, Samuel Pellew, the father of the admiral, at the time of the latter's birth commanded a post-office packet on the Dover station. He accordingly made the town of that name the home of his wife and children; and there Edward, the second of his four sons, was born, April 19, 1757. Their mother was the daughter of a Jacobite gentleman, who had been out for the Pretender in 1715,--a fact which probably emphasized the strong Hanoverian sympathies of Samuel Pellew, whose habit was to make his children, every Sunday, drink King George's health upon their knees.

In 1765, when the future admiral was only eight years old, his father died, and the mother making an imprudent marriage three years later, the children were thrown upon the world with small provision and scanty care. The resolute, active, and courageous character of the lads, however, brought them well forward among their equals in age. At school Edward was especially distinguished for fearlessness. Of this he gave a marked instance, when not yet twelve, by entering a burning house where gunpowder was stored, which no other of the bystanders would approach. Alone and with his own hands the lad brought out the powder. A less commendable but very natural result of the same energetic spirit was shown in the numerous fighting matches in which he was engaged. Being threatened with a flogging for one of these, the circumstance became the immediate occasion of his going to sea. If flogged, he declared, he would run away; and as a decided taste for seafaring life had already manifested itself, his guardian thought better to embrace at once the more favorable alternative and enter him regularly in the navy. He thus went afloat towards the end of 1770, the date at which Nelson, also, though one year younger, began his career.

His first cruise was in the Mediterranean. It came to a premature end through a quarrel between the commander of the ship and one of the midshipmen. In this the captain was clearly and grossly in the wrong; yet nevertheless carried his resentment, and the power of oppression in his hands, then little restrained by law, so far as to expel the youngster from the ship and set him on shore in Marseilles. Pellew insisted upon accompanying his messmate, and the two lads of fourteen, aided by some of the lieutenants, secured a passage home. It shows a pleasing trait in our hero's character that, some years afterwards, he advanced materially the professional fortunes of the son of the officer who had thus abused his authority.

He next passed under the command of a Captain Pownoll, between whom and himself were established such warm relations, of affectionate interest on the one side and reverential regard on the other, that Pownoll became a family name among the descendants of the admiral. He himself gave it to his first-born, and it still appears in the present generation. Under him, also, Pellew was brought into direct contact with the American Revolution; for on board the frigate _Blonde_, Pownoll's ship, General Burgoyne embarked in 1775 for Canada, there beginning the undertaking which ended so disastrously for him. It is told that when the distinguished passenger came on board, the yards being manned to receive him with the honors due to his rank, he was startled to see on one yardarm a midshipman standing on his head. Upon expressing alarm, he was laughingly reassured by the captain, who said that Pellew--for he it was who put this extra touch upon the general's reception--was quite capable of dropping from the yard, passing under the ship's bottom, and coming up on the other side. A few days later the young officer actually did leap from the yardarm, the ship going fast through the water--not, however, as bravado, but to aid a seaman who had fallen overboard, and whom he succeeded in saving.

Throughout his youth the exuberant vitality of the man delighted in these feats of wanton power. To overturn a boat by press of canvas, as a frolic, is not unexampled among lads of daring; but it is at least unusual, when a hat goes overboard, to follow it into the water, if alone in a boat under sail. This Pellew did, on one occasion, when he was old enough to know better; being at the moment in the open Channel, in a small punt, going from Falmouth to Plymouth. The freak nearly cost him his life; for, though he had lashed the helm down and hove-to the boat, she fell off and gathered way whenever he approached. When at last he laid hold of her rail, after an hour of this fooling, barely strength remained to drag himself on board, where he fell helpless, and waited long before his powers were restored. It is trite to note in such exhibitions of recklessness many of the qualities of the ideal seaman, though not so certainly those of the foreordained commander-in-chief. Pellew was a born frigate captain.

At the end of 1775 the Americans were still engaged in the enterprise against Quebec, the disastrous termination of which is familiarly known. After the fall of General Montgomery in the unsuccessful night assault of December 31, 1775, the American operations were reduced to a land blockade of the town, which was cut off from the sea by ice in the river. A close investment was thus maintained for five months, until the early part of May, 1776, when the place was relieved by the arrival of a small naval force, commanded by Captain Charles Douglas. Immediately upon its appearance the commanding British general Carleton, attacked the besiegers, who, already prostrated by disease and privation, abandoned their positions and fell back upon Sorel, at the mouth of the river Richelieu, the outlet from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence. Here they remained until June, when the enemy, who had received heavy reinforcements, advanced in overpowering numbers. The Americans again retired above the rapids of the Richelieu to St. Johns. Thence there is a clear channel southward; and embarking there, the retreating force without further molestation reached Crown Point, a fortified post a hundred miles distant, at the head of the lake, commanding the narrow stream to which it is reduced in its upper part. Twelve miles above Crown Point is Ticonderoga, the well-known border fortress of the Colonial and Revolutionary wars; and for fifteen or twenty miles farther the stream is navigable for boats of some size, thus affording an easy means of communication in those early days of impassable forests and scanty transport.

Though greatly superior on land, the British had now for a time to stay their pursuit; for the water highway essential to its continuance was controlled by the flotilla under the command of Benedict Arnold, forbidding further advance until it was subdued. The presence of these vessels, which, though few, were as yet unopposed, gained for the Americans, in this hour of extremity, the important respite from June to October, 1776; and then the lateness of the season compelled the postponement of the invasion to the following year. The toil with which this little force had been created, a few months before, was thus amply justified; for delay is ever to the advantage of the defence. In this case it also gave time for a change of commanders on the part of the enemy, from Carleton to Burgoyne, which not improbably had a decisive effect upon the fortunes of the next campaign.

As soon as established at St. Johns, the British took steps to place a naval force upon the lake, an undertaking involving trouble and delay, notwithstanding their greatly superior resources in men and material. Some thirty fighting vessels, suitable to the waters upon which they were to act, were required, and also four hundred bateaux for the transport of the troops. These had either to be built upon the spot, despite the lack of all dockyard facilities, or else to be brought bodily from the St. Lawrence, by road, or through the rapids of the Richelieu, until the deep water at St. Johns was reached. In this hardy, strenuous work, Pellew naturally was conspicuously active; and in its course he gained a particular professional accomplishment which afterwards stood him in good stead. Several vessels were built upon the shores of the stream; among others, one of one hundred and eighty tons, the _Inflexible_, whose heavier timbers were brought overland to St. Johns. The construction of these craft was superintended by a lieutenant--afterwards Admiral Schank--of scientific knowledge as a ship architect; and through close association with him Pellew's instinctive appreciation of all things nautical received an intelligent guidance, which gave him a quick insight into the probable behavior of a ship from an examination of her build, and enabled him often to suggest a suitable remedy for dangerous faults. During this period of equipment occurred a characteristic incident which has only recently become public through a descendant.[15] "On the day the _Inflexible_ was launched, Pellew on the top of the sheers was trying to get in the mainmast. The machinery not being of the best gave way, and down came mainmast, Pellew, and all, into the lake. 'Poor Pellew,' exclaimed Schank, 'he is gone at last!' However, he speedily emerged and was the first man to mount the sheers again. 'Sir,' Admiral Schank used to conclude, 'he was like a squirrel.'"

Thirty days after the keel of the _Inflexible_ was laid at St. Johns, the vessel herself not only was launched, but had set sail for the southward. She carried eighteen twelve-pounders, nine on a side, and was thus superior in power, not only to any one vessel of the Americans, but to their whole assembled flotilla on Lake Champlain. Except the principal pieces of her hull, the timber of which she was built was hewed in the neighboring forest; and indeed, the whole story of the rapid equipment of this squadron recalls vividly the vigorous preparation of Commander Perry, of the United States navy, in 1813, for his successful attempt to control Lake Erie. The entire British force, land and naval, now moved toward Crown Point. On the 11th of October the American flotilla was discovered, a short distance above Plattsburg and about twenty miles from the foot of the lake, drawn up between Valcour Island and the western shore, which are from one-half to three-fourths of a mile apart. It lay there so snugly that the British, wafted by a northwest wind, had actually passed to the southward without seeing it, and the discovery was purely accidental,--a fact which suggests that Arnold, who must have felt the impossibility of a force so inferior as his own contesting, or even long delaying, the enemy's advance by direct opposition, may have entertained some purpose of operating in their rear, and thus causing a diversion which at this late season might effectually arrest their progress. It is true that such a stroke would frightfully imperil his little squadron; but, in circumstances of absolute inferiority, audacity, usually the best policy in war, offers the only chance of success. Mere retreat, however methodical, must end in final destruction. To act towards St. Johns, trusting to dexterity and to local knowledge of the network of islands at the foot of the lake to escape disaster, or at least to protract the issue, offered the best chance; and that the situation thus accepted would not be hopeless was proved by the subsequent temporary evasion of pursuit by the Americans, even in the open and narrow water of the middle lake.

The British moved to attack as soon as the hostile shipping was discovered. Pellew was second officer of the schooner _Carleton_, of twelve guns, the third vessel of the flotilla in point of force. The wind being contrary, and apparently light, the _Carleton_ alone of the sailing vessels got into action; and although she was supported by a number of rowing gunboats, whose artillery was heavy, the match was unequal. According to Arnold's own account, he had disposed his gunboats and gondolas "on the west side of Valcour Island, as near together as possible, and in such a form that few vessels can attack us at the same time, and those will be exposed to the fire of the whole fleet." To this Captain Douglas, in his report of the occurrences, adds the suggestive particular that the _Carleton_, by a lucky slant of wind, fetched "nearly into the middle of the rebel half-moon, where she anchored with a spring on her cable." The position was one of honorable distinction, but likewise of great exposure. Her first officer lost an arm; her captain, Lieutenant Dacres, was so severely wounded that he was about to be thrown overboard as dead; and Pellew, thus left without a superior, fought the vessel through the engagement. When signal was at last made to withdraw, the _Carleton_ was able to do so only by help of the gunboats, which towed her out of fire. On the other hand, Arnold's flag-ship, the schooner _Royal Savage_, which had fought in advance of her consorts and under canvas, fell to leeward, and came there under the distant fire of the _Inflexible_, by which she was badly crippled. She then was run ashore on the southern point of the island, where she fell momentarily into the hands of the British, who turned her guns on her former friends. Later in the day, it seeming probable that she might be retaken, she was set on fire and burned to the water's edge. Thus abandoned, she sank to the bottom, where her hull rests to this day. During the recent summer of 1901 some gun-carriages have been recovered from her, after lying for a century and a quarter beneath the surface of the lake.