Great Expectations: The Case of Horatio Nelson and the Role of Confidence in Military Genius

Charles Dickens fans should note that this article is not about one of your favorite Victorian novels. Rather, it examines the case of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Baron of the Nile, and how his expectations of what his military operations might accomplish often matched the results. Secondarily, this characteristic of great expectations aligns nicely with attributes in Carl von Clausewitz’s exposition of military genius in On War.[1] Finally, both Nelson’s approach, and Clausewitzian examination of the concept of military genius have a direct bearing on how officers command at sea.

A firm belief in a high payoff is not unique to either Nelson or Clausewitz’s ideal of the military genius. Instead, this belief can be found in all great commanders at the operational level and higher (although most of these commanders were proficient, if not brilliant, at the tactical level as well). One can posit that great self-expectations are critical to those who will lead the U.S. military of the 21st century and beyond as they support the national interests of the United States.

Sir Horatio Nelson as a Rear Admiral painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott (Wikimedia)

First one must begin by examining what Clausewitz meant in referring to military genius in his famous treatise, then turn to Nelson, and lastly, the implications for naval commandership in the 21st century. Clausewitz addresses the issue of military genius in Chapter 3 of Book 1 of On War. One might retitle this chapter “On the Impact of Individual Genius on War,” or alternatively “The Attributes of Genius Required for War.” Such titles better describe what is going on in this chapter and the general template for Clausewitz’s discussion is not Nelson, but rather his land-lubbing opposite number—Napoleon Bonaparte. Clausewitz’s first point is that the military genius resides in “a harmonious combination of elements, in which one or the other ability may predominate, but none may be in conflict.” He then turns to an exposition of these elements, the first being “general intellectual development.”[2] Here he is referring to the society more than the person, suggesting the military genius in question (if he or she can so be named) must come from a society—or in the case of the U.S. military a culture—that prizes learning and education.

In Nelson’s case, he was born as the son of an English rector in late 18th century England, at the time one of the more literate places on the planet. As the son of a rector, he almost certainly was already schooled in the classical curricula for boys whose fathers were themselves well-educated. Nelson’s subsequent education in the Royal Navy began at a very young age—he went to sea as a 12-year old, one year older than Clausewitz when that he entered the Prussian Army. Nelson’s education included a rigorous program of study in mathematics, navigation, and the rules and customs of the Royal Navy. He thus went from one intellectual context into a narrower and more constrained one, but one still requiring mastery of intellectual and not purely physical skills.[3]

However, it is Clausewitz’s second element, courage (or fortitude as the Romans called it), that pertains most directly to this discussion. For Clausewitz, courage is composed of two elements—physical and moral courage.[4] It is well attested Nelson had a form of physical courage that can best be described as fearless; the danger of battle did not seem to diminish his physical bravery, but to rather bring it out and enhance it. In other words, he seemed to lack the natural fear of death that most men have when faced with grave danger, and gave many indications to those around him that he intended to die in battle—which, in fact, he did.[5] Interestingly, though, it is Clausewitz’s second component of courage—the moral aspect—where one finds the source of Nelson’s supreme confidence in the great results he intended to achieve in all his operations and engagements at sea. Clausewitz described this component against the context of how a military genius deals with the uncertainty, friction, and the fog of war:

If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect, that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.[6]

Clausewitz names this second component of moral courage determination; in Nelson we might call it confident or unwavering determination.

Returning to the context within which Nelson fought, he came from a group of men who earned advancement to higher rank by merit in the harsh crucible of life at sea. Even when not in combat, these mariners fought against horrible weather, boredom, sickness, and even starvation in an age where sailing between the continents on the great oceans could still end in catastrophe—whether one’s ship met an adversary in combat or not. By the time Nelson had become an admiral, the Royal Navy was very much England’s Navy—a people’s fleet—and Nelson acknowledged as much when he sent his famous signal at the beginning of the Battle of Trafalgar reminding his sailors that “England expects every man to do his duty.” One can be sure King George III expected as much, but Nelson did not mention him. Nelson’s duty, as he saw it, was to smash any French fleet that might be unlucky enough to come near to him and his squadrons.[7]

One scholar recently suggested Nelson did not have this absolute goal—annihilating his adversary’s fleet—in mind at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.[8] In every major battle, however, Nelson always sought to annihilate his adversary’s force when he engaged in battle. Clausewitz attributed the approach of complete destruction of an enemy’s military in his own study to Napoleon and the French Revolution, but it also captures Nelson’s unlimited approach to war. He had the confident determination that he would do so in all cases. One Nelson biographer, Roger Knight, alludes to this confidence, writing about Nelson’s first great public feat of arms at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797): “Nelson now made the move that made his name—unorthodox yet correct, beyond the confidence and powers of any of his contemporaries.”[9] Knight opens that same biography with Nelson's signals at the Nile, in all their complexity, and he does that for a reason, not just as an impressive vignette. Nelson fully expected to find the French and fully expected to destroy them, to cut off Napoleon Bonaparte and his Army from France, and then have the Turkish Army or a British Army land and defeat them in detail. Those sound like operational, even strategic, ends—great expectations, indeed.

For a final example, at least in the case of Nelson, one can turn to his own words as he explained his plans to annihilate the combined Franco-Spanish fleet should it venture forth from its safe haven in Cadiz prior to the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson wrote to his mistress, Emma Hamilton, after meeting with his captains aboard the Victory, “…[I] laid before [them] the plan I had previously arranged for attacking the enemy...and when I came to explain to them the Nelson touch, it was like an electric shock...all approved, it was new, it was singular, it was simple.”[10] This heartfelt outpouring breathed a confidence in the surety of his ultimate victory. In follow-on written instructions to his captains he wrote, “The Second in Command [Admiral Collingwood] will…have the entire direction of his line to make the attack upon the Enemy, and to follow up the blow until they are captured or destroyed.”[11] Nelson’s choice of words here is important, he does not use “if,” but rather “until,” indicating a sense not of probability but of certainty. Neither does he not modify “captured and destroyed,” which indicates his expectation to capture and destroy all the enemy’s warships.

Nelson, like other great commanders throughout history, held the conviction of the rightness of his judgments and that their result would have lasting, significant results on the war in which he was engaged. Narcissistic? Yes. Overly impressed with what he could do? Perhaps. In the case of the Nile, though, he proved right. It was almost Napoleon's complete undoing, and only the shortage of British frigates at the time prevented Nelson from capping his victory by capturing Napoleon, who eluded the loose blockade in 1799 and fled Egypt for France. Nelson followed this stunning achievement with victories requiring similar displays of determination, recklessness, and confidence at Copenhagen in 1801 and, most famously, Trafalgar in 1805.[12] His confidence at Trafalgar was perhaps the most stunning of all, for he was serene in that confidence even after being mortally wounded in the opening of the battle, staying alive, as it were, only so he could comprehend the scale of his victory rather than its certainty.[13,14]

"The Death of Nelson" painted by Daniel Maclise (Wikimedia)

This is perhaps why great commanders often irritate some people. They feel they are absolutely right, and when they prove the correctness of their confidence they often make their detractors only angrier or more jealous. The great commander feels he or she will be fabulously successful, and that success will justify his or her actions and judgments. Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander—and in the American case, George Washington, U.S. Grant, and Ernest King—all shared such self-perceptions and were all similar in their expectations and determination.[15] The implications for the would-be operational and strategic commanders of today are clear. Two things are required, and they may not result in recognition as a military genius, but they will lead to a better commander and decision maker.

First, mastery of the fundamentals of one’s profession is essential. That mastery can only be achieved by dedication and a curiosity to challenge oneself to learn more. It must not narrowly confine itself just to tactics, techniques, and procedures. It must include intellectual development through a close study of war and leadership on as broad a scale as possible. Secondly, determination, or stick-to-it-ness, is crucial. Often this simply means not giving up when things get difficult, dangerous, or hard. This is not so easy, but one must follow some inner light. Success will come, perhaps not as fabulously as it did with Nelson, but with every small victory born of studied determination will come confidence. And confidence underwrites maturity and judgment. One must follow that inner light to achieve one’s great expectations. In doing so others’ expectations, especially those of the nation, will also be met.

The great self-expectations of the United States’ military leadership cadre, both junior and senior, can underwrite American excellence in command. In other words, superior leadership remains essential to a superior military. Or as the venerable Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote more than a century ago: “To effect this end in a sphere of moral action, there must be introduced a moral agent....not with the unconscious forces of external nature, but with the wills of intelligent beings.”[16]

John T. Kuehn is a Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He authored Agents of Innovation, A Military History of Japan:From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century, and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater with D.M. Giangreco. His latest book is America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "The Battle of the Nile," depicted in an 1801 painting by Thomas Luny (Wikimedia)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), see Book 1, Chapter 3.

[2] Clausewitz, On War, 100.

[3] John T. Kuehn, “Warrior of the Waves: Nelson’s Legacy to Naval Commandership,” in Great Commanders, eds. Christopher Gabel and James Willbanks (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2012), 98.

[4] Clausewitz, 101.

[5] Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 34-35.

[6] Clausewitz, 102.

[7] Kuehn, 97.

[8] The scholar was a colleague who works in the same institution as the author of this piece.

[9] Knight, 222.

[10] Cited in Captain Peter Hore, The Habit of Victory: The Story of the Royal Navy: 1545 to 1945 (Greenwich, UK: National Maritime Museum, 2004), 176.

[11] Cited in Ibid.,177.

[12] John T. Kuehn, Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (Denver, CO: Praeger, 2015), 76-89.

[13] Knight, 517-519.

[14] Clausewitz, On War, 102.

[15] Perhaps the best evidence for this is the writing of U.S. Grant himself, in The Civil War Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant , ed. Brian M. Thomsen (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2002 reprint), 37.

[16] A.T. Mahan, 1903 commencement address at Dartmouth College, cited in Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Vol. III, eds. Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 609.