The Emergence of Horatio Nelson: Lessons for Leaders

February 14, 2017

Over 200 Valentine’s Days ago in 1797, a British fleet of 15 ships of the line under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis met a Spanish force of nearly twice its size off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal. By nightfall, the British had cut the Spanish line in two and brought the stronger part to close combat, resulting in the capture of four Spanish ships. The Times (London) editorial page crowed:

Convinced of the impossibility of opposing us by sea, [the French, the senior partner in alliance with Spain] may feel the necessity of humbling their sanguinary sceptre before the triumphant flag of a free people, who wield without a rival the trident of Neptune.

In reality, it was a rather unremarkable victory in a war that had started four years earlier and would continue with only brief interruption for another 18 years. It was not a Nile (1798) or a Midway (1942) — decisive victories that arguably turned the course of wars on land — nor yet a Trafalgar (1805), that quintessential naval battle in which Vice Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson met his glorious end while crushing the last real challenge to Britain’s maritime dominance for a century. Seen in the rear-view mirror of history, Cape St. Vincent is notable mainly as the stage upon which Nelson first came to the notice of the British public.

What, then, can we hope to learn in the missile age from a marginal sea fight that took place more than two centuries ago between wooden ships firing smoothbore cannons at pistol-shot range? The campaign offers few points of strategic interest. The deterrent effect promised by The Times failed to yield negotiations, though the newspaper would argue that the victory prevented a combined French and Spanish fleet from supporting a feared invasion of Britain. There are certainly no tactical lessons to be had for the 21stcentury. Nobody reading these words will ever sail stolidly forward through a hail of cannon shot to break the enemy’s line of battle or lead a boarding party to carry the enemy’s quarterdeck. But all the same, there are lessons to be learned for the modern officer — naval or otherwise — about leadership and decision-making. Three key events in the battle provide insights into mission command, training as a force multiplier, and the importance of leading from the front.

And apart from that, it’s just a great story.

Fleet Combat in the Age of Sail

Because the vast majority of an 18th century ship’s armament was mounted in its broadside, fleets typically formed into a single line ahead in preparation for battle. This simplified command and control — each ship could simply follow the ship in front — and enabled the fleet to uniformly arrange its firepower along a continuous formation with no weak spots. The line was sometimes divided into van (forward), center, and rear divisions under subordinate commanders. Maintenance of a continuous, unbroken line was important. If the enemy was able to position directly ahead or behind a friendly ship, he would be comparatively safe from attack (as only a handful of guns fired directly ahead or astern) and could concentrate his broadside against the weakest parts of his target — the lightly constructed bow and stern. For this reason, fleet battles often resolved into two parallel lines of ships edging towards each other with each ship indecisively facing its opposite. More aggressive admirals sought ways to overcome this tactical stalemate, concentrating their force against a smaller portion of the enemy by breaking the line.

Firing began once the fleets closed within range. At the extreme, cannon shot might reach the enemy at ranges up to a mile, but British commanders often held their fire until the ships had closed to only a few hundred yards, or even less. The adversaries would then pour fire into one another, shattering hulls, masts, rigging, and men with heavy cannon shot. Individual ships might surrender by hauling down (“striking”) their colors when disabled by damage or casualties. As a last resort, a ship might be forced to surrender through boarding. Battle usually continued until one side disengaged or the sun set — though a number of battles were fought partly or entirely in the dark.

The wind was, of course, a critical factor in warfare during the age of sail and there is a certain amount of wind-related jargon that simply cannot be avoided when trying to discuss an 18th century battle at sea. The compass by which sailors describe directions is divided into 32 points: north, north by northeast, north-northeast, northeast by north, northeast, northeast by east, east-northeast, east by north, east… and so on. A square-rigged sailing ship, like those at Cape St. Vincent, was not obliged to simply sail away from the wind. It could adjust to many different points of sailing but could typically approach no closer than six points from the direction of the wind. For example, if the wind was from the west, a vessel could choose a course from north-northwest to south-southwest. A position closer to the direction from which the wind is blowing is “windward,” and its converse is “leeward.” In an engagement, the windward position was thought to be stronger as it allowed a fleet to choose whether and when to close the enemy — but the fleet to leeward could choose to avoid battle by running before the wind, if so inclined.

The Battle

A number of sources contain excellent and detailed recountings of the battle. I rely most heavily here on Michael Palmer’s “Sir John’s Victory: The Battle of Cape St. Vincent Reconsidered,” Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain, and John Sugden’s Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758-1797.


At daybreak on February 14, 1797, Jervis’s frigates sighted the Spanish Grand Fleet emerging from a fog. Consisting of 25 ships of the line, 11 frigates, and four mercury-laden urcas, the Spanish were straggling east-southeast toward Cadiz in three disorganized groups before a light west-by-north wind. The British were to their east, heading generally southerly in two columns. The Spanish commander-in-chief, Teniente General Don José de Córdoba, ordered a maneuver to the north in an attempt to keep to windward and thereby prevent a direct British attack. In the course of this turn, his force became strung out in a rough north-south line with a distinct gap in the center. Jervis, spying the gap, elected to drive his line through the two divisions, splitting them and enabling him to choose one to defeat in detail. Just before 11 am, he brought his fleet into a single line ahead and bore up for the gap in the Spanish line. Half an hour later, he gave the general signal to pass through the enemy line. The lead ship, Culloden, sailed through the gap shortly thereafter, definitively separating the eight ships of the Spanish leeward division from the 17 ships of the windward division, now bearing away to the north-northwest. The British ships continued on this course for another half-hour, ensuring the Spanish leeward division could not weather the line to re-join their fellows to the north.

At 12.08 pm, Jervis ordered his line to “tack in succession” with the intention of drawing up the weather side of the Spanish line to engage. This maneuver called for each ship to turn through the wind in the same place as its leader, settling on a northerly course. The Spanish lee division was not content to bear away to the southeast, however. As Jervis’s line tacked, these Spanish ships made an attempt to move around the windward side of the British line to rejoin the main body before turning away under fire. Around the same time, the wind shifted four points to west-southwest. Between the attack and the wind, the British van became quite separated from the center, which had yet to make its turn. As Victory, Jervis’s flagship, tacked, a gap of nearly two miles separated her from the five ships of British forward division, which was closing, unsupported, on the rear of the 17-ship Spanish windward formation.

The Spanish windward division then bore up towards the east, turning to pass astern of the British rear — as the line continued its stately progress away from the enemy, toward the turning point far to their southwest — and either re-join the leeward division or to flee for Cadiz. The British van, still coming up at the rear of the Spanish windward line, could not prevent this and, as a result of the wind shift, would soon be isolated against an enemy who outnumbered them three to one. About ten minutes before 1 pm, Victory hoisted two signals, one after another: number 80, “to tack [in succession]”, to Britannia, the flagship and leader of the rear division; and number 41, general, “to take suitable stations and engage as arrive up in succession.” Britannia did nothing, likely missing the signal through gun smoke and confusion on deck. Captain, third from the end of the line, in which Nelson was embarked as commodore, acted: Wearing (turning with the stern through the wind rather than the bow, as when tacking) out of line, the ship turned more than 180 degrees, cutting back through the line between Diadem (second-to-last) and Excellent (last) and bearing down on the giant Spanish three-deckers, obliging them to quit their attempt to pass astern of the British line like “dogs turning a flock of sheep.”

Nelson’s maneuver initiated the critical phase of the battle. For about a half an hour, Captain fought alone against several heavy Spanish ships, though she was soon enough joined by the British van and eventually the center and rear divisions in their turns. Along with Captain Thomas Troubridge’s Culloden and Captain Cuthbert Collingwood’s Excellent, Nelson and Captain were in the thick of the fighting. After his ship had sustained heavy damage from the fire of not less than five enemy vessels, Nelson ordered Captain to be crashed alongside the nearest, the San Nicolás, and personally led the boarding parties — the first British flag officer to do so since the 16th century — with a cry of “Westminster Abbey or glorious victory!” A second Spanish first-rate ship, the San Josef, had become entangled on the other side of San Nicolás, and no sooner had Nelson received the surrender of the surviving officers of the first ship than he led his men from its quarterdeck to board the second. San Josef quickly surrendered and, as Nelson himself vividly recounted,

[O]n the quarter-deck of a Spanish First-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the Swords of vanquished Spaniards; which, as I received, I gave to William Fearney, one of my bargemen, who put them with the greatest sangfroid under his arm.

Two other Spanish ships had surrendered, shattered by British gunnery, and Jervis chose to content himself with these four prizes as night came on and the weather worsened. The Spanish fleet continued into Cadiz, where they soon found themselves blockaded by Jervis, and declined to attempt a breakout to pursue the planned junction with the French fleet.

Brilliant Disobedience or Informed Initiative?

The first point of particular interest is Nelson’s decision to wear Captain out of line absent any specific order to do so. Historians’ descriptions of the maneuver can be divided into two broad groups. Adherents of the first group — that is, almost every historian who wrote on the topic until the 1990s — explained Nelson’s action as Mahan did: a “spontaneous and sudden act, for which he had no authority, by signal or otherwise, except his own judgment and quick perceptions.” This characterization emerged immediately following the battle and appeared in the earliest biographies. Robert Southey, in his 1813 Life of Nelson, reported that Nelson “disobeyed the signal [to tack in succession] without a moment’s hesitation, and ordered his ship to be wore.” It remained almost the exclusive explanation through the 19th century and can be found in Sir Nicholas Henry Nicolas’s comments on Nelson’s letters and dispatches, in Mahan’s Life of Nelson, and in annotations to Thomas Sturges Jackson’s edited volume of logs of the ships present at Cape St. Vincent. Unchallenged through most of the 20th century, the “brilliant disobedience” thesis continues to pop up since the turn of the 21st century in popular histories and the occasional biography.

But a second, more compelling explanation is that Nelson acted in keeping with the spirit of Jervis’s signals, or at least his intentions. William James, in his The Naval History of Great Britain, first proffered a justification of this kind in 1826, postulating that Nelson seized on the 12:51 pm signal number 41—“to take up stations for mutual support, and engage the Enemy, as coming up in succession”—as justification to act against the Spanish weather division’s movement. A century and a half later, Palmer adopted a similar line of reasoning. He noted that, immediately before the 12:51 pm signal number 41, Jervis had ordered Britannia to tack (number 80), with the expectation that she would lead the rear division up to support the van, where they would merge into a single line against the Spanish column in compliance with number 41. Britannia took no action, neither tacking herself nor passing any signals to her following ships. Seeing this, Nelson — who had positioned Captain slightly to windward of the line and, thus, could more easily see signals from flagship — acted:

As Nelson’s own account makes clear, he saw in Sir John’s manoeuvres some “well arranged” design with which he thought his own manoeuvre fit … [Jervis] wished to move by his rear to support the van. Nelson responded with a manoeuvre that fitted the bill, whatever the intentions of the Spaniards.

Certainly, there is no argument that Nelson acted on a specific order that told him to do what he did. Every historian must acknowledge that, at least in some sense, he was literally violating his orders.  The question that arises, then, is how well Nelson would have been acquainted with Jervis’s plans and “commander’s intent” for executing the battle. Sugden asserted that the maneuver must be viewed in light of Nelson’s “close relationship with Admiral Jervis” and that “if Nelson acted against the strict letter of Jervis’s orders he most assuredly remained within their spirit.” He also pointed out that Nelson may in fact have had detailed tactical discussions with Jervis about “secret instructions” the senior man had promulgated which highlighted “the value of rearmost ships occasionally wearing out of line to support an embattled van.”

Many authors have keyed on Nelson’s embrace of a “mission command” construct as commander-in-chief. He skilfully mentored his “band of brothers” in advance of the Nile and Trafalgar and fought both battles essentially without signals, relying instead on “the Nelson touch” — his early and frequent communication of his aims, intentions, and tactical mindset to his subordinate captains — to simplify command and control when faced with the inevitable fog of war. This process of communication and “centering” has often been simplified to that famous excerpt from Nelson’s pre-Trafalgar memorandum to his captains: “in case Signals can neither be seen, nor perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” But in fact it was more than just this, as can be seen from his subordinate commanders’ willingness to adapt to circumstances on the spot in keeping with Nelson’s overall plan. This sort of tactical synchronization does not happen by accident. It is very likely that Nelson’s experience at Cape St. Vincent reinforced for him the importance of an ongoing conversation up and down the chain of command and a clear and thoroughly “chalk-talked” commander’s intent.

Training, Combat Effectiveness, and Confidence

Having seen his commander-in-chief’s “well arranged design” and Britannia’s failure to act, and recognizing the importance of heading off the Spanish maneuver, Nelson acted. But he could have had no real expectation that any of his fellows would follow. This would leave Captain isolated, separated from the remaining British ships, and facing down the 17 ships of the Spanish windward division alone and apparently unafraid until help could arrive. He acknowledged after the battle that he recognized this disparity of forces, calling it an “apparently, but not in reality, unequal contest.” A firm understanding of the superior training and capability of his men gave him the confidence to pit his ship, soon joined by Culloden, against the massive first-rates comprising the heart of the Spanish fleet.

The British navy was the best-manned organization of its type in the world at this time. For over a century, the navy had been in a state of on-and-off war and had expanded its capacity and capability so that, by 1797, it was manning over a hundred ships of the line (and many more frigates and smaller vessels) and operating them all over the world. Thanks to a system of manning (volunteer and pressed) that used the nation’s significant population of civilian mariners as a “surge volume” to meet wartime demand, Britain’s warships were able to maintain a core of trained seamen much larger than that of their enemies. At Cape St. Vincent (as later at Trafalgar), the Spanish ships contained a tiny proportion of able seamen —the 900-man crew of the massive Santíssima Trinidad had just 60. This was evident to several British officers from the Spanish ships’ poor handling in the early stages of the engagement.

Apart from simple seamanship, the British were more capable fighters. Admiralty orders obliged British captains to regularly drill their crews in handling and firing the guns, and this produced a marked difference in combat effectiveness. Some observers reported that British crews fired as much as twice or three times faster than their French and Spanish counterparts. British tactics called for positioning at very close range, where the guns literally could not miss, and aiming for the enemy hull. In contrast, Continental navies preferred to aim for masts and rigging from long range. British crews were accustomed to and experienced in the close-in fight and were psychologically prepared for it — and hence boasted superior morale and fighting spirit.

This morale could only have been strengthened by the experience of 200 years of nearly unbroken victory over the Spanish at sea. From at least the defeat of the Armada in 1588, the British nation had constructed a self-image that positioned “the Dons” as the feeble, tyrannical, Catholic other to their powerful, free, Protestantism. This image was heavily bound up in victories at sea. They had quite simply made a habit of victory. This is evident in Jervis’s response to the numerical odds facing his fleet that Valentine’s Day. As the enemy force slowly emerged from the mist, a nearby officer reported the rising number of ships in sight. After a series of terse acknowledgements, the commander-in-chief finally snapped: “Enough, Sir, no more of that: the die is cast; and if there are fifty sail, I will go through them.” The captain of his flagship heartily agreed, clapping him on the back and exclaiming: “That’s right, Sir John; that’s right; by God we shall give them a damned good licking!”

Nelson had the weight of this history behind him, as well as the confidence borne of knowing his men were well trained and ready for the fight. That knowledge equipped him to launch his ship against fearsome odds, confident of victory.

Courage and Decisiveness

Finally, Nelson’s bold decision to use his shattered ship in the most effective way left to it — by boarding — and to lead the boarding parties himself reinforces a lesson most officers will have had since their earliest formative years:  The best officers lead from the front. Mahan saw this inclination in Nelson as part of the same character that enabled his decision to maneuver out of line:

[T]he same qualities which led him to the quarter-deck of the San Josef had led him but an hour before from the rear of the fleet to the van to save the fight — the same quickness to seize opportunity, the same promptness to seize it, the same audacity to control it.

These qualities he no doubt had in abundance, and they were critical to his success here and at other points in his career. But it is impossible to ignore the great physical courage that his actions required as well. He leapt from his ship through the stern gallery windows of an adjacent ship to face enemy sailors with pistols, pikes, and swords. Then he did it again.

And all of this while he was wounded: earlier in the battle, he was struck so hard by a splinter (a misleadingly mild term for a wood fragment blasted from the hull or rigging by cannon fire) that he fell into the arms of another officer and his abdominal wall split. This courage to lead from the front was not uncharacteristic of Nelson. Over the course of his career, he lost the sight of his right eye and had his right arm amputated above the elbow as a result of battle wounds sustained in operations ashore. He was beloved by his men and followed without question; when he called for boarders into San Nicolás, they responded “with an alacrity which will ever do them credit.” There can be no doubt that their faith in their chief resulted in part from his courage under fire and leadership by example.

Cape St. Vincent and the 21st Century Leader

This is far from the first suggestion that Horatio Nelson’s career offers insights for the modern-day leader.  It is often difficult, though, to identify the relevance of a sailing ship admiral to today’s service, which often feels technologically driven and distant from the “wooden ships and iron men” of old. But the battle of Cape St. Vincent highlights three key leadership lessons that are as relevant today as they were off Portugal 220 years ago. Strong, open communication up and down the chain of command and a clear discussion of commander’s intent enables subordinate commanders to make good decisions that adapt to shifting circumstances. Frequent, realistic training that improves combat effectiveness gives leaders the opportunity to make bold, aggressive decisions in the face of the enemy. And physical courage, coupled with unflinching decisiveness, inspires and empowers subordinates.


Ryan Mewett is an active duty submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. His opinions and assertions are offered in a private capacity and should not be construed as official or reflecting the views of the U.S. Navy or any U.S. government entity.

Image: Artist – Salvador del Mundo; Photographer – Robert Clevely, Public Domain

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One thought on “The Emergence of Horatio Nelson: Lessons for Leaders

  1. Excellent article that gets to the heart of why Nelson was the closest thing a Protestant England had to a Saint during a period when iconoclasticism was forbidden. This is well written and gives the best overall effect and true worth of Nelson’s effect. As a naval battle, Trafalgar was an “unbalanced fight”, the Spaniards were inept and uncommitted and the French knew they were sailing towards certain defeat. The fight was bitter and Nelson deserves credit, but it was a fight between unequal combatants. Trafalgar also was completely unnecessary as Napoleon had already turned his army eastward and given up any thought of invading. I might have missed it, but little if any mention is made of the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and the famous Nelson response to his Flag Captain Thomas Foley. Admiral Graves had signaled a retreat, which Nelson ignored and when asked by Foley, Nelson’s response “I have only one eye, I have the right to be blind sometimes” as he held the telescope to his blind eye. Copenhagen was in my humble estimation, a more significant tactical and strategic victory then either Trafalgar or the Nile. While Nelson deserves the credit for the victory, he certainly can not be highly praised for ignoring a direct order.