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                            Naval War College Review
	2017
Autumn 2017 Full Issue
	The U.S. Naval War College
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Naval War College Review
Volume 70
Number 4 Autumn

Article 23

2017

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Page 2

Autumn 2017

Volume 70, Number 4

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Naval War College: Autumn 2017 Full Issue

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Page 85

British Naval Decision Making at the Outbreak of the War of 1812

Kevin D. McCranie

Kevin D. McCranie is a professor of strategy and
policy at the Naval War College. He is the author of
Admiral Lord Keith and the Naval War against Na-
poleon (University Press of Florida, 2006) and Ut-
most Gallantry: The U�S� and Royal Navies at Sea in
the War of 1812 (Naval Institute Press, 2011).

© 2017 by Kevin D� McCranie
Naval War College Review, Autumn 2017, Vol. 70, No. 4

CONFRONTING UNCERTAINTY WITH
DECENTRALIZED COMMAND

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain� Although the dec-laration hardly could be described as unexpected, given years of strained re-
lations, the United States did obtain a degree of surprise�1 This was inevitable given
the distance between the two countries and the nature of period communications
—it took weeks to transmit information between the United States and Britain�
The slowness of communications created a window of vulnerability for British
naval forces in North American waters�

Events in Britain only exacerbated the exposure of its naval forces� On June 8,
ten days before the American declaration of war, a new government formed in
London� One of its first acts constituted an attempt to ameliorate a major point
of conflict with the United States: it suspended the restrictions on American
commerce delineated in previous orders in council� Through late June and most
of July, British leaders in London hoped their conciliatory gesture would lead to
a favorable response� Little did they know that the Americans had declared war
five days prior to Britain’s repeal of the orders�2

Only in late July did news of the American war reach London� British decision
makers then had to consider whether the Americans, given the suspension of

the orders in council, would back away from hos-
tilities� The uncertainty contributed to additional
delays, and it was not until September 26 that new
instructions and leadership reached Halifax, Nova
Scotia�3

Between the June 18 declaration of war and
the arrival of new instructions and leadership on

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Page 86

M C C R A N I E 7 9

CONFRONTING UNCERTAINTY WITH
DECENTRALIZED COMMAND

September 26, British naval leaders in North American waters faced tremendous
uncertainty� Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commander of the North American
station and the senior officer at Halifax, served as the theater commander for
an area of operations that spanned southward from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence
in the north, past Halifax and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, to the
northern edge of the Bahamas; Sawyer’s command stretched eastward to include
Bermuda as well�4

Sawyer had to go to war with the force he had, not necessarily the warships
he needed� He had to execute operations relying on old instructions and his
understanding of British strategic priorities and intent� In an uncertain envi-
ronment, he had to lead British naval operations in theater while providing his
political leaders with assessments of American intentions� Captain Philip Broke,
commanding the thirty-eight-gun frigate Shannon, was the second key British
naval decision maker in North American waters�5 He oversaw Sawyer’s principal
strike force� Broke’s primary mission involved mitigating the threat the U�S� Navy
posed� This article assesses how Sawyer and Broke made decisions, executed
operations, managed risk, and dealt with uncertainty at the outbreak of the War
of 1812�6

Royal Navy (RN) operations during the opening months of the War of 1812
underscore the complexity of naval decision making at the campaign level� This is
a subject that all too often is lost between descriptions of naval battles and general
narratives of naval war� Yet a study in naval decision making aids in understand-
ing the relationship among governmental leaders, their theater commanders, and
operational elements at sea�

THE WORLD SITUATION
Much of what Sawyer and Broke encountered at the outbreak of the War of 1812
was expected� Naval leaders in the age of sail operated in an environment in
which communications were slow, so officers had to be agile enough to deal with
evolving circumstances, from minor incidents to acts of war� Naval officers had
to be aware of government intent so their actions could fulfill broader objectives�

Yet the specific circumstances that Sawyer and Broke encountered were
unique� Britain already was engaged in a protracted, multitheater war against
Napoleonic France, with the Royal Navy operating in the role of the dominant
naval power� The War of 1812 originated on the periphery of the larger conflict,
meaning the isolation Sawyer and Broke faced was more extreme than their peers
faced in European waters� This was not a new theater in an existing war against a
familiar naval foe, but a new opponent in a geographically distant region fought
in parallel with the ongoing Napoleonic struggle� For Britain, the existential
threat was France, not the United States�

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R E F L E C T I O N S O N R E A D I N G 1 6 3

REFLECTIONS ON READING

evident in our actions�” Deckplate education provides skill development through
hardscrabble work and the satisfaction of knowing a job has been done well� A
classroom, even if that classroom is a berthing space or barracks room, provides
space for intellectual growth that supplements and strengthens the person and
the organization�

The CNO-PRP provides a list of books that discuss core attributes of a profes-
sional identity� Books on leadership, management, philosophy, ethics, learning,
perseverance, and teamwork—all terms familiar to sailors—blend stories of suc-
cess and failure that shape the world in which we live and the nation and Navy we
serve� Reading others’ stories, theories, and philosophies entertains and educates,
but it also allows us to grapple with ideas that are not our own� We learn by fus-
ing the lessons of history with our own knowledge, beliefs, and values� The core
attributes are foundational in our professional lives, but we must dedicate time
and effort to reflecting on why they are important� In doing so, we permanently
embed these attributes in the foundation of our Navy for the current and future
generations of sailors�

Thankfully, we have some resources to guide us�

• Integrity—upright and honorable conduct—requires conscious decisions in
tough situations� Consistent adherence to our core values defines who we
are as individuals and builds trust among people� In the CNO-PRP, Joseph J�
Ellis’s book His Excellency: George Washington and The Road to Character by
David Brooks offer testimony on the worth of personal integrity�

• Accountability—holding each other to objective standards—keeps us focused
on the mission� Often we bemoan the repetition of general quarters and
man-overboard drills, but when the time comes we must be able to stand
shoulder to shoulder, with the understanding that everyone knows how to
do the job� General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams and Simon Sinek’s
Leaders Eat Last are powerful tomes that argue that we are better in groups
than as individuals acting alone�

• Initiative—approaching situations with open minds and ownership—pro-
motes a willingness to challenge the status quo, but always with the mission
in mind� “Ship, shipmate, self�” Leadership on the Line by Ronald A� Heifetz
and Marty Linsky and The Rules of the Game by Andrew Gordon illustrate
the importance of accountability�

• Books such as The Conquering Tide by Ian W� Toll and Matterhorn by Karl
Marlantes illustrate the importance of toughness� Resilience in combat and
an ability to carry the fight to the enemy despite overwhelming odds are
hallmarks of our service� We “Don’t give up the ship�”

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1 6 4 NAVA L WA R C O L L E G E R E V I E W

These examples found under the Core Attributes section of the CNO-PRP
website are complemented by many other titles, many available in e-book or
audiobook format� We encourage all sailors to visit the website or social media
pages of the CNO-PRP and the Navy General Library Program� The resources are
free of charge to sailors and are an essential part of the self-education so critical
to the future of our Navy�

CAPTAIN TIMOTHY URBAN, USN, DEPUTY PROGRAM MANAGER, CNO-PRP

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