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Sir Sidney's first entrance into the Navy-Some reflections on the early appointments of that period-His various juvenile services until he was made Post Captain.
We have now to introduce our young subject upon that arena that was afterwards to prove the scene of exploits that elevated the already-exalted naval fame of his country to a still loftier glory, and where he entwined the military with the naval laurel in the triumphal crown that he threw at the feet of England's Genius of Victory.
Long before his little feet had mimicked the officer-stride on the deck of a man-of-war, he had, in his infant imagination, commanded, fought, and conquered. His thoughts, his dreams, his short moments of seriousness, and his long hours of playfulness, were all devoted to fighting the French. He seemed to have been born with, and nurtured in, an antipathy to that nation,
with which fate had ordained that he should pass the greatest portion of his life, either as their battling enemy, their impatient prisoner, or their welcome guest. He appears, in his earliest youth, to have been a merry and graceful parody of one of the young Hannibals. The Frenchthe French-he would annihilate them! His puerile antipathies ripened into a very disastrous though gallant and no longer prejudiced opposition to that nation, which he commenced by hating, and finished by beating and respecting.
His father being gentleman usher to Queen Charlotte, and enjoying much of her personal favour, the reader must not be surprised, considering how naval matters were managed at that period, to learn that little Smith strutted a midshipman on board of the Sandwich, under Lord Rodney, before he was twelve years of age.
It would be a difficult matter successfully to defend appointments of this description by argument-or rather, that which we might produce as arguments, would no longer be considered as such in these march-of-mind-boasted days. All that we can do, is to imitate that shrewd person, who, when a very learned philosopher was strenuously arguing that there could not, by possibility, be any such thing as motion, merely got up and walked across the room. To those who con
demn these boyish appointments as contrary to justice and subversive of the service, we shall perhaps admit their reasonings to be unanswerable without being in the least convincing, and content ourselves with mentioning the glory of, in this respect, the unreformed navy, and pointing to such names as those of Duncan, Jervis, Nelson, and, last though not least among them, Sir Sidney Smith, who all entered the service about the same age.
Improper, perhaps, as at heart we acknowledge these appointments to be, we must now introduce him, stiff in his uniforms, with his shrill treble pipe imitating the hoarse tones of command, and shaking off the schoolboy a little before he could gracefully creep into the seemliness and importance of the officer and the man. However, he showed an astonishing precocity in his metamorphosis; and, long before other lads had divested themselves of the fear and the tyranny of the ferula and the rod, he had already become respectable as a friend, and something to be dreaded as an enemy among men.
From reports to which we can safely give credit, we find that he was universally beloved on board the Sandwich, and almost immediately drew upon himself the favourable notice of his superior officers.
In the very subordinate capacity of a midshipman-and he was a very young midshipman in his first ship-it cannot be expected that he could perform any feat worthy of record. In this situation he had to learn the first and the most distasteful duty-to obey. Comparatively speaking, his post was a private, and certainly an obscure one, and hardly any naval combination of circumstances, however stirring they might have been, could then have put him prominently forward.
From the Sandwich he passed into the Greyhound in the same rank, gaining thus experience in two very different classes of vessels. During the period of his service in this latter ship, nothing occurred to him that demands a place in this biography.
Immediately that he had served the time allotted by the rules of the navy, he obtained his commission as lieutenant on the 22nd of May, 1781, and was, what is technically called, “made” into the Alcide 74, at that time commanded by Captain C. Thompson.
In this last-mentioned line-of-battle ship he shared in the action of Admiral Graves off the Chesapeake; and though no opportunity was offered to him in that affair eminently to distinguish himself in the limited sphere in which he
was compelled to act, he did that which English seamen have ever done-his duty.
Those conversant with the naval history of the country, must well remember the many indecisive skirmishes that took place between Lord Howe and the Count de Grasse, in the seas near the island of St. Christopher's, in the West Indies. At this period, the weather-gage was considered almost as a gage of victory, and hostile fleets would consume days in endeavouring to gain it. The French count took advantage of this prejudice; and when the English admiral bore down upon the French fleet, the line of the latter would discharge its raking broadside, bear up, and run to leeward, and again forming the line, have recourse to the same tactics. By means of this slippery manœuvre, this particular action consisted of nothing but numerous and indecisive skirmishes. It gave Sir Sidney a lesson that he remembered in his after life, and it was one by which English commanders profited in succeeding
It does not fall within the scope of our undertaking to record the victories of the naval chiefs under whom our officer had the good fortune to act in a subordinate capacity. We have merely to mention them to show that the extent of his services justified his very rapid promotion, notwithstanding his very early youth.