First Honorable Mention, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Charles Stewart’s 62-year naval career—including his famous defeat of the Levant and Cyane as commander of the Constitution in 1815—has much to teach current leaders about bravery, skill, competence, and humility.
The U.S. Navy has a 200-year history of officers and enlisted who truly can be called "leaders." Most of those leaders are not as well-known as the Barrys, Farraguts, Deweys, or Halseys. Displayed high in the Naval Academy's Memorial Hall is a portrait of one of these largely unsung leaders.
Commodore Charles Stewart's career as a naval officer spanned 62 years. When Stewart was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1798, he was part of the new generation of early U.S. Navy officers who eventually would lead the young nation to its victories in the War of 1812. When he left active duty in December 1860, the country was at the dawn of civil war. Theodore Roosevelt called Stewart "one of the bravest and most skilful [sic] captains of our navy."
It was more than bravery and skill, however, that established Stewart as a naval leader. Ten lessons from Stewart's career transcend the age of sail to provide guidance for today and the future.
1. Be staunch.
During the Barbary War, the Commodore of the U.S. squadron in the Mediterranean, Edward Preble, commanded some of the earliest heroes of the Navy. It was here that Stephen Decatur would make his name with the assault against the captured U.S. frigate Philadelphia. It was here that Richard Somers earned posthumous recognition for valor. Both of those officers not only were junior to Lieutenant Charles Stewart, but they also were his childhood friends from Philadelphia and fellow wardroom officers on the United States in 1798. The names Preble, Decatur, and Somers are remembered, but Preble referred to Stewart as his most staunch and dependable officer.
Stewart's staunchness carried him as he became a naval advisor to presidents from James Madison to Abraham Lincoln. Commanding sloops, frigates, ships-of-the-line, and entire squadrons, Stewart's career proved that leaders cannot do the big jobs unless they can be relied on to do the little ones.
2. When you are right, stand your ground and be tenacious.
Policies and regulations often can appear to be obstacles to getting a job done, but leaders find a way to overcome them. Instead of "making the world safe for democracy," naval leaders sometimes might be called to "make the country and sailors safe from bureaucracy."
In the summer of 1800, Stewart had just taken command of the USS Experiment, a small 16-gun sloop of war, and was replenishing on the island of Dominica. An impressed American seaman on one of two nearby British 20-gun sloops of war got a letter to Stewart and begged his assistance. Stewart first demanded the release of the American through a letter then visited the senior commander on board the British ship. The British had no inclination to release the sailor, particularly as they outgunned the American sloop. Stewart, however, argued diplomatically and with such logic, persuasiveness, and skill that the British commander freed the sailor.
Stewart proved his tenacity again 12 years later. In 1812, President James Madison, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, and the rest of the cabinet decided that all U.S. Navy warships were to proceed to New York City should war break out with the British. Gallatin had convinced them that their few ships were too important to sacrifice in confrontation with the British fleet. Captains Stewart and William Bainbridge disagreed.
Stewart and Bainbridge argued that if the U.S. Navy ships were kept in harbor, the lack of confidence would affect the Navy and the country's morale and lead to a missed opportunity to "pluck trophies" from the British. As two of the most senior officers, Stewart and Bainbridge went to the White House and convinced President Madison to take the fight to sea.
President Madison remembered their perseverance. After the defeat of HMS Macedonian, one senator toasted at a Navy Ball aboard the Constellation at the Washington Navy Yard that "it is to Captains Bainbridge and Stewart you owe your naval victory." The colors of the Macedonian were borne by Stewart and Bainbridge and presented to Mrs. Madison.
3. Be adaptable.
Too often in ages of transformation there are managers who rely on previously fought wars—both military and administrative—to direct the course of current and future battles. Too often we hear that "we can't change that because it's always been done this way." Transformation's biggest enemy can be managers, not technologies.
Stewart was not immune to the currents of change, but neither was he inflexible. He learned his trade on the sea beginning as a 12-year-old cabin boy on a merchant ship. When a formal Naval Academy was proposed, Stewart was one of its most vocal opponents, believing that the best training was on-the-job. Stewart, however, eventually became one of the Academy's strongest proponents and would command at least three of its eventual superintendents.
Stewart was less opposed to the Navy's transformation from sail to steam. As commander of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during a 20-year period, Stewart oversaw construction of the largest U.S. ship-of-the-line, the 120-gun USS Pennsylvania, and the progression of the steam sloops-of-war. Leaders have the ability and foresight to adapt. Those who cannot adapt are simply managing stewards.
4. Be a diplomat.
The Navy and its sailors always have been in a unique position to represent the best of the United States in foreign lands. Therefore, it is imperative that personal diplomacy be practiced.
As a commander, Stewart expected the utmost propriety from his sailors when visiting ports. In 1821, when he commanded what would be the Pacific Squadron, his ships made port in Rio de Janeiro. According to Midshipman (later Rear Admiral) Charles Wilkes, some of the officers did not represent themselves or the country well. Because of their actions, Stewart relieved them and had them returned to the United States while the squadron proceeded to the Pacific.
On a greater scale, Stewart was relied on for his diplomatic skills. In an age when the U.S. squadrons were at best a few months from communication with Washington, commodores were expected to represent the best interests of the United States, protect commerce, and maintain neutrality if possible.
Stewart was asked to serve in this role twice—as Commodore of the Mediterranean Squadron from 1818 to 1820 and as the first Commodore of the Pacific Squadron from 1821 to 1824. It was the latter assignment that would most test his skills as a diplomat. The west coast of South America was fighting for independence from the Spanish Empire, European nations were seeking regional influence, and the Monroe Doctrine was formalized only halfway through his tour. Stewart maintained U.S. neutrality despite the hostile environment.
5. Know the law.
In addition to his skills in combat and diplomacy, Stewart's understanding of the laws of the sea and country gave him an advantage over other senior naval officers.
After peace with Tripoli, the United States faced another potential war in North Africa with Tunis, which had begun seizing American merchantmen in 1805. Commodore John Rodgers's squadron arrived on scene ready for battle. A council of the squadron's officers discussed the situation on the flagship. Despite his courage in several battles in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, Stewart understood that "there was no power under the Constitution which authorized hostilities and war on others, but that which was lodged exclusively with Congress; that the President could not exercise this power without the action and authority of Congress, much less the Commander of an American squadron. . . . When President Jefferson received from our consul general a copy of that opinion as delivered in the council, he expressed to his cabinet the high satisfaction he felt at having an officer in the squadron who comprehended the international law, the constitution of his country and the policy of his government."
In 1823, Stewart exhibited the same understanding when, off the coast of Peru, he responded to the Patriot government's harbor blockade that had captured U.S. merchant ships. Stewart's letter to General Antonio Jose de Sucre was so persuasive that the Peruvian government freed the ships. When he read the letter, U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall called it "the best statement of the principles of blockade that he had ever seen."
6. Know your job.
In addition to the law, diplomacy, and combat, Stewart was one of the most skillful sailors. This expertise was as necessary to leadership in the age of sail as it is for a commander of an aircraft carrier to be qualified in air warfare or for the commander of a submarine to be qualified as a nuclear engineer today. Stewart's knowledge very likely saved the sloop Syren in 1802 and Franklin in 1824 in the face of imminent dangers. As a tactical officer he was practically second to none. When he commanded the USS Constitution during what has been called her "finest fight" in February 1815, he managed to "back the ship" to give her a better position in the fight.
7. Take calculated risks.
When Stewart's Constitution simultaneously took on two British ships in that February 1815 battle, he demonstrated less audacity than calculated risk. Although the ships were smaller than his own, they out-gunned him. Stewart's understanding of his ship's maneuvering capability and the capability of the British ships led him to believe he could be victorious.
This sense was confirmed only a few weeks later when the Constitution and her two prizes were surprised by four British ships-of-the-line and frigates. Stewart understood that he was at a tactical disadvantage and managed to escape the squadron with one of his prizes, thus denying the British the ultimate war prize of "Old Ironsides."
8. Educate, do not castigate or berate.
Stewart would have argued that the training of sailors and officers was the most important aspect of the Navy. Unlike some of his fellow captains who continued to practice severe punishment on ships, Stewart was not the kind of disciplinarian who required the lash to enforce the rules. He was an early advocate against such punishment, but he expected the rules to be followed.
Stewart also exhibited level-headedness. Sometimes senior officers can be prone to berating others. Long ago, a master chief told me to praise in public but criticize in private. This lesson is not universally applied, but it is one of the distinguishing features of leaders.
9. Recognize and cultivate rising talent.
One of Stewart's greatest accomplishments as a naval leader was the high number of quality officers he trained. Perhaps more than any other officer, he influenced the future of the U.S. Navy through the sheer numbers of leaders that had once served under him. (See Table 1.)
Two officers in particular deserve recognition. While commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, Stewart was impressed by an 18-year-old midshipman and promoted him to lieutenant ahead of other officers. David Farragut later became commander of the Union Navy and one of the most celebrated names in the U.S. Navy's history. During the same period, Stewart was forced to confront bigotry in the ranks as ships in his squadron tried to pass off an officer to each other simply because he was Jewish. Stewart's subsequent orders to his captains in support of the young and able officer would result in Uriah Levy becoming the first Jewish commodore in the U.S. Navy.
Part of cultivating talent is to build a strong team. Stewart strongly opposed the practice of dueling, believing that it served no useful purpose. He never fought in a duel and banned the practice among the members of his wardrooms. In the Pacific, when he learned that two of his officers had rowed to an island to duel, he had them recalled and held under ship's arrest until the matter could be resolved peacefully.
Stewart's responsibility and leadership allowed him to train the naval leaders of two wars. In contrast, his contemporary Stephen Decatur had no such legacy but his own exploits.
10. Practice humility, not hubris.
Some of the most famous names in U.S. military history seem to be as well known for their egos as for their military accomplishments. Stewart's lifelong friend Decatur was known for his bravado and hubris. It was the latter quality that led him to duels and eventually to his needless death in Bladensburg.
One mark of an individual's sense of self is his epitaph. For example, at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello burial site is a stone with the words "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, Father of the University of Virginia." He left out his many other accomplishments, including having been the third President of the United States.
Similarly, the stones of Stewart and the Porter family only a hundred yards apart at Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia are in marked contrast to one another. The Porters, both of whom served under Stewart, h ave extensive lists of accomplishments on their stones. By his own direction, on Stewart's is simply written: "Charles Stewart, U.S.N." He was a sailor throughout his life.
Perhaps the finest example of Stewart's sense of self-worth was in the Mediterranean as part of Preble's squadron. Both he and Decatur were to volunteer for the mission to burn the captured Philadelphia. Decatur arrived at Preble's flagship two minutes before Stewart. Preble offered what would be a glorious task to Decatur, but he gave operational command of the mission to Stewart. As a result of the mission, Decatur was vaulted to the rank of captain. Stewart would have to wait two more years for his own promotion. By all accounts, Stewart never held any animosity toward Decatur.
If Decatur was to the early U.S. Navy what Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton were to World War II, then Stewart was a "sailor's sailor" analogous to World War II's General Omar Bradley, who was known as the "soldier's soldier." Stewart and Bradley proved that real leaders do not need to be flashy to be effective. They also have principles and work for a cause greater than themselves and are not interested simply in their own reputations.
Table 1: Navy Captains, Commodores, and Admirals Who Served under Charles Stewart
War of 1812 Captains
Captain David Porter Jr.: Commander, USS Essex
Captain Stephen Decatur: Commander, USS President
Captain Charles Wilkes: Commander, Exploring Expedition, 1838-42
Mexican-American War Commanders
Commodore David Corner: Commander, Home Squadron and Gulf Fleet
Commodore John D. Sloat: Commander, Pacific Squadron
Commodore Robert Field Stockton: 2nd Commander, Pacific Squadron
Commodore Uriah Levy: fought to abolish flogging
Civil War Commanders
Rear Admiral Franklin Buchman: Commander, Confederate Navy
Vice Admiral David Farragut: Commander, Union Navy
Vice Admiral David Dixon Porter: Commander, Mississippi River Blockading Squadron
Rear Admiral Louis Goldsborough: Commander, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron
Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont: Commander, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron
Rear Admiral Joshua Sands: Commander, Brazilian Squadron
Lieutenant Berube is the coauthor of a forthcoming biography of Charles Stewart to be published by Brassey’s.