Ralph Willett Miller

1762-99. He was born in New York on 24 January 1762, the only son of a prominent loyalist who had lost a lot of property in the American Revolution, and who subsequently settled in England. Willett was the maiden name of his mother, Martha Willett.

After an education in England and at the Royal Naval Academy Miller began his career in 1778 aboard the Ardent 64, Captain George Keppel, the flagship of Rear-Admiral James Gambier, who at the time was the commander-in-chief in North America, and he saw much boat action inshore. After moving to the Preston 50, Captain William Hotham, he transferred with that ship to the Leeward Islands in the early winter and was present at the Battle of Grenada on 6 July 1779.

Miller commanded the Captain at the Battle of St. Vincent, but was ordered to remain aboard when Commodore Nelson boarded two Spanish first-rates.

He was promoted lieutenant by Admiral Sir George Rodney on 25 May 1781 and joined the Terrible 74, Captain James Ferguson, which was so badly damaged at the Battle of the Chesapeake on 5 September under the command of Captain Hon. William Clement Finch that she had to be destroyed. He returned with Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s fleet to the Leeward Islands, fighting at the Battles of St. Kitts on 25 / 26 January 1782 and the Saintes on 12 April, before departing for England in the autumn. On 20 December he joined the Fortitude 74, Captain Hon. Peregrine Bertie, which was paid off shortly afterwards at the peace. During his service in the American War of Independence it was reported that Miller had thrice been wounded in action.

In 1793, on the resumption of hostilities with France, Miller joined the Windsor Castle 98, Captain Sir Thomas Byard, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Phillips Cosby in the Mediterranean. He was present at the occupation of Toulon from August, and he assisted the maverick Captain Sir William Sidney Smith when that officer attempted to destroy the French fleet following the decision to evacuate in December, nearly drowning twice in the operation as well as being almost burned to death when he remained on one vessel to ensure that the fire took hold. When the sequestered French vessel Scipion 74 was set alight off Leghorn shortly afterwards his boat picked up one hundred and forty men from the blazing wreck.

After transferring to Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s flagship, the Victory 100, Captain John Knight, Miller was engaged both ashore and in the boats at the reduction of Calvi and Bastia during the Corsican campaign which commenced in February 1794. In July he volunteered to lead a fireship assault on the French fleet in the Golfe Jouan after Hood had been unable to bring it to action on 12 June. For this purpose he was promoted commander and appointed to the fireship Poulette 28 on 1 July, however contrary winds and dead calms prevented the attack on five separate occasions and eventually the plan was aborted. He was still commanding the Poulette a year later when the Mediterranean fleet was led by Vice-Admiral William Hotham, and he witnessed the inconclusive Battle of Genoa on 13-14 March 1795. It appears however that Hotham was not enamoured of his efforts and suppressed any possibility of his promotion.

On 12 January 1796, at the behest of the new commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir John Jervis, he was posted captain to the Mignonne 32, which he had previously recommissioned in November on an acting basis, and shortly afterwards he was sent up the Adriatic in command of the recently captured Unité 26 to support the Austrian army’s campaign.

Returning to the Mediterranean fleet in August 1796, Miller was appointed flag-captain to Commodore Horatio Nelson in the Captain 74, which he commanded brilliantly at the Battle of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797, and where she suffered casualties of twenty-three men killed and fifty-four wounded. When it came to boarding the battered Spanish sail of the line San Josef 112 and San Nicolas 80, Miller was ordered by Nelson against all precedent to remain aboard the Captain whilst the commodore led the boarding parties.

In May 1797 Nelson and Miller removed to the Theseus 74 with the aim of restoring order to the ex-Channel fleet ship which was considered to be on the verge of mutiny. They quickly won the loyalty of the men, so much so that an anonymous note thanking them was left on the quarterdeck, but in battle the hitherto undisciplined crew proved to be less than valorous, as illustrated at the bombardment of Cadiz from 3-10 July when Miller and Nelson suddenly found their boat unsupported and engaged at point-blank range with a Spaniard. During the skirmish that ensued Miller shot the enemy commander. The Theseus was later present at the assault on Santa Cruz, Tenerife, from 21-25 July, where Miller had to return to the squadron after an initial landing near the town had proved unsustainable, and in the company of Captains Thomas Troubridge and Sam Hood he dined with the Spanish governor once the expedition had been aborted.

Whilst Nelson went home to recuperate from the loss of his arm at Tenerife the Theseus returned to the Mediterranean fleet off Cadiz as a private ship before embarking on a cruise and entering Madeira that winter. She subsequently served under Nelson at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798, and was one of those vessels to sail between the French fleet and the shore before later blasting the Timoleon 74 out of the French rear. Her casualties in the battle numbered five men killed and thirty wounded. After conveying the prizes to Gibraltar under the orders of Captain Sir James Saumarez Miller was sent out to the Levant with Captain Sir Thomas Troubridge in December, and once more he found himself under the orders of Commodore Sir William Sidney Smith, being sent to organise the defence of St. Jean d’Acre which commenced on 15 March 1799.

On 14 May 1799 Captain Miller and thirty-nine members of his crew were killed when a stack of shells were ignited aboard the Theseus, it having been his practice to collect the enemy’s unexploded ordnance from the town and stow it aboard before returning it with interest. The ship promptly caught fire and after a series of explosions was destroyed.

He left a widow, Ann ‘Nancy’, the daughter of his ex-Academy master, George Witchell, and two daughters under the age of ten. His wife later remarried, her second husband being Captain Edward Kittoe, and she died at Bath in May 1808. Miller was honoured with a monument at St Paul’s Cathedral as a result of a subscription from his fellow Nile officers.

Nelson described Miller as the only truly virtuous man he knew, and Edward Brenton stated that he had a rare talent and amiable manners. He was certainly a fine officer, sharp, charming, honourable, imaginative, sound, judicious, active, bright, determined, and a humane captain who was seen as the ‘coming man’. Someone with the patience to be a friend of Sir William Sidney Smith was indeed a man of rare qualities, although unlike Smith he ‘detested the French and their atrocities’. He often drew sketches and painted scenes of naval activity that he despatched home with the regular letters to his wife.