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Benedict Arnold set the stage for the American victory at Saratoga. (National Archives)

Alfonso de Albuquerque, Portuguese, early 1500s
Considered the father of naval strategy
From 1506 to 1515, Albuquerque led a series of conquests from Portugal to India and then on to the Malacca and Malay Peninsulas, giving Portugal a monopoly on the spice trade. Though later done in by royal intrigue, Albuquerque through his boldness was one of the first to demonstrate that naval might is more than just an adjunct to land forces, and he used it to project power well beyond his nation’s borders.

Yi Sun-sin, Korean, late 1500s
The Horatio Nelson of Korea
In 1592 and 1593, commanding a turtle-shaped, dragon-headed, ironclad flagship, Yi held off a much larger Japanese fleet in a series of battles that rendered Japan’s invasion of Korea unsustainable. Yi was arrested, thanks to court politics, but was reinstated when his replacement’s incompetence nearly cost Korea its fleet. In 1597 he again routed a superior Japanese fleet, but died in battle near the moment of triumph.

Charles Howard, English, 1588
Engineered defeat of Spanish Armada
When one thinks of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the names Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher leap to mind. But Lord Howard of Effingham was Lord High Admiral, the man in charge of the English naval defenses and commander of the fleet. He personally supervised the preparations and, taking advantage of the relative nimbleness of his ships, created a brilliant hit-and-run strategy. “[We] pluck their feathers little by little,” he wrote; the battered Spanish fleet was forced to retreat north around Scotland, where the North Sea and the rotten English weather did the rest.

Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter, Dutch, 1652 to 1674
Masterminded defeats of English and French
In today’s navy, de Ruyter would be called a “mustang”—someone who rises from common sailor to admiral of the fleet.
De Ruyter led the Dutch navy during the endless succession of 17th-century Anglo-Dutch wars. He racked up several victories against English and French fleets, but his boldest exploit was the 1667 raid on the English port of Chatham, when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames to the city’s dockyards, burning and capturing a number of English men-of-war.

Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, French, 1700s
The other French naval hero of the Revolutionary War
Everyone has heard of the commanders of the British navy during the 18th century, but who can name a victorious French admiral, beyond perhaps François Joseph Paul de Grasse, who defeated the British fleet in the Chesapeake in 1781? After France came in on the American side during the Revolutionary War, Suffren was sent as squadron leader to the Indian Ocean. He surprised and defeated a British squadron at the Cape Verde Islands and carried on a protracted, 18-month struggle against the Royal Navy, engaging in five battles and capturing the British base of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

Benedict Arnold, American, Revolutionary War
Lost lake battle that set stage for win at Saratoga
In the summer of 1776, Arnold supervised the construction of an American fleet at Skenesville (now Whitehall), New York, at the south end of Lake Champlain. In October his little fleet engaged the much superior British force at the Battle of Valcour Island. The battle lasted three days and Arnold and his fleet were all but wiped out. But the gutsy delaying action allowed colonists to defeat British general John Burgoyne at Saratoga the following year, and ultimately triumph in the war.

Isaac Chauncey, American, War of 1812
The brains behind victory on the Great Lakes
Oliver Hazard Perry is considered the naval hero of the Great Lakes, but his success at the three-hour Battle of Lake Erie would not have been possible without Chauncey’s labors as naval commander on the lakes and superhuman effort to create and man the fleets on Ontario and Erie. Aware that the loss of his own fleet on Lake Ontario could well mean the end of the American war in Canada, Chauncey never risked a major action unless conditions were just right. His British opponent, James Yeo, felt the same, so Chauncey was denied the glory that came Perry’s way, but Perry’s resounding victory was only possible because of Chauncey’s leadership and hard work.


James L. Nelson, born and raised in Maine, ran away to sea after college to work aboard sailing ships. The author of more than a dozen books related to the age of sail, he is writing a history of naval action on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.

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