One of the key premises in the art of leadership is that one person can make a difference. In a complicated world, with forces for change coming at us from seemingly all directions, it is easy to feel small and incapable. It is easy to shrug off our highest aspirations and think, “What’s the use?” This becomes doubly tempting when meeting challenges, and when our best intentions turn out to be more difficult, and more work than we expected. At that point it is more critical than ever to realize that we as an individual have enormous power to not only influence the course of events around us, but to have a major and lasting effect on the impact of those events.
In the long rich history of the age of fighting sail, when complicated wooden warships plied the oceans, privateers were civilian sailing vessels that had been given governmental approval to make war at will upon enemy shipping. Privateers could thus both claim patriotism and wealth while inflicting pain on an enemy country. Privateering was very popular and very effective; in a way, it was the nautical version of today’s guerilla warfare, with a little bit of mercenary flavor thrown in.
In the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the infantile United States, a war many called the second war of independence, American privateers wreaked havoc upon the mighty British. As a matter of fact, their efforts against the crown were far more successful than those of the relatively small American navy. Author John Lehman wrote, “During the War there were 513 registered privateers and they took about 2,300 British merchant ships compared to 165 taken by the Navy.” That means that the average American privateer captured or destroyed more than four enemy ships each.
One of these privateers was captained by Samuel C. Reid. His story provides a compelling snapshot from history that supports the premise that one individual can make a difference. In fact, Reid’s story makes the case that one man’s efforts can have a staggering impact, with ramifications that are unforeseen at the time.
Reid was captain of the General Armstrong, a schooner mounting only nine guns and having a crew of about ninety men. Reid and his crew were able to break out of the British blockade of New York in a dead calm by pumping water on the sails to capture all possible wind, and by towing the ship with row boats. He sailed to Fayal harbor in the Azores, and arrived just before a British squadron of three battle ships of varying size and armament. The squadron was on its way to New Orleans with British troops to assist in the attack on the city. First, however, seeing the General Armstrong in Fayal, the squadron decided to violate Portuguese neutrality and attack the American privateer.
The first wave of attack was several small boats from the British squadron. When they failed to take the General Armstrong, the next attack went in at midnight with fourteen boats and 600 men. Many of these attackers were successful in climbing aboard the General Armstrong. The battle was fierce hand-to-hand combat and casualties were high, and Reid himself killed the commander of the raid. Once again, the British attack was repulsed. Expecting another attempt, Reid moved his ship closer to the shore so he could use the guns from both sides of his ship on one side. He cut new gun ports in the hull and aimed his full complement of weapons seaward. In the early morning the smallest of the three ships in the British squadron attacked, primarily because it could come in closest to shore without running aground. In a raging battle of the cannon from both ships, the British ship was forced to back off. At this point the British had had enough. They next maneuvered their largest battleship in the squadron, a full 78 gun man-of-war, into position to bombard the tiny American privateer. Reid countered by setting fire to his own ship and sinking her rather than letting the enemy capture her. His men escaped to safety ashore. In the entirety of the engagement, some four distinct skirmishes, the British suffered 34 killed and 68 wounded, with the Americans 2 killed and only 7 wounded. The little ship had held out remarkably well against superior fire power and numbers. In a gesture illustrative of the chivalry between officers occasionally found in wars in those times, the British Consulate on shore invited Captain Reid to tea where he was given three cheers by the surviving British officers for his bravery and gallantry in the battle.
Reid was only doing his duty. He took responsibility to command his tiny schooner to the best of his ability and put up a stiff resistance to a fierce enemy under hopeless odds. His crew fought viciously and creatively in a complicated warship under dangerous conditions; proof of good leadership and unity. As a leader, Captain Reid did was what required, when it was required, to the best of his ability.
What Captain Reid could not have foreseen, however, as is true with many in leadership, is the enormous ramifications of his gallant stand at the Battle of Fayal. According to John Lehman, “Reid had delayed the British expedition against New Orleans for ten days.” The extra time allowed General Andrew Jackson to arrive on scene in New Orleans, take martial control of the panicked town, assemble his patch-work army of pirates, militia, and escaped slaves, and prepare his defenses. What resulted was the most lop-sided battle of the entire war as the British were badly defeated, and a peace that brought the hostility between the United States and her former motherland to an end forever. The Battle of New Orleans could have ended differently. Andrew Jackson later told Captain Reid himself, “If there had been no Battle of Fayal, there would have been no Battle of New Orleans.” Had that happened, the tentative treaty that had been signed to end the war most likely would have been revoked or at least amended less favorably to the United States, keeping the door open to future hostility. Instead, it sealed the deal on a lasting peace between the two nations.
The story of Captain Reid and his stand at the Battle of Fayal clearly illustrates the difference that one person can make. How easy would it have been for Reid to simply flee from the enemy in his tiny, much faster ship? How easily could he have fired a few shots in defense, as was customary in hopeless situations, and then “haul down his colors” and surrender? Or, he could have simply abandoned his ship and escaped to shore. But Reid chose to stand and fight, and his men with him. That simple decision, and their gallant execution of it, made a huge difference on the world’s stage. That is the kind of far-reaching affect that one person can have. That is the difference leadership makes. If Reid hadn’t stood, if his men hadn’t fought, if they hadn’t delayed the British, then General Jackson might not have been ready, the British may have prevailed in the Battle of New Orleans, and all of Western history would be different. But they stood. Reid led. And it made all the difference.
This article was originally posted at https://chrisbrady.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/10/historical-exam.html.