- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

LINCOLN AND HIS ADMIRALS
By Craig L. Symonds
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 366 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY ROBERT F. DUNN

The prospective reader must not be misled by the title of this outstanding work.

Yes, it is about Abraham Lincoln, and, yes, it’s about admirals in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, but it’s about much more as well. There’s no way to tell the story of Lincoln and his admirals without setting the context: the politics, the strategies, the land and naval campaigns, foreign relations, economics and the state of the nation as a whole. Craig L. Symonds takes all those threads and weaves them into a well-written and informative narrative, leaving the reader far more knowledgeable than at the beginning but satisfied at having had a good read as well.

At the outset of his presidency, Lincoln was prone to defer on military matters to the generals he had inherited. But there were no admirals. The highest Navy grade was captain, and there was no uniformed naval leader to match the Army experience of Gen. Winfield Scott and several others. Thus, when one of the first naval crises of his new administration arose, the Southern pressure on Fort Sumter, Lincoln turned to what advisers he had at hand, the newly appointed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and his soon-to-be Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox.

Though the expedition they put together to relieve Fort Sumter arrived too late, it marked the debut of a soon-to-be expert team. They and Lincoln would still have to navigate the myriad misunderstandings and jealousies among the politicians surrounding the president, between the Army and the Navy, the intra-Navy jealousies among senior naval officers and the loss of about 40 percent of Navy officers to the Southern cause.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy of 1861 in fact possessed a fleet of modern steam-powered screw frigates well suited to the blockade of Southern ports, the first step in the attempt to strangle Confederate commerce. In fact, early Navy victories capturing Cape Hatteras and Port Royal not only facilitated the blockade but countered to some extent the string of Army losses elsewhere.

Yet, except for perhaps Samuel Francis DuPont, who commanded the Atlantic Coast blockade and scored some successes early in the war, there was no readily identifiable and experienced top Navy leadership. More important, there were no shallow-draft vessels for extending the blockade into the West, along rivers such as the Cumberland, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

It was Lincoln himself — who as a young man had floated cargo from New Salem, Ill., to New Orleans — who encouraged the construction of shallow-draft, flat-deck, mortar-firing vessels for river use. It was Lincoln who spent long hours at the Washington Navy Yard learning about new technologies and witnessing tests. It was the president, upon receiving a visit from a representative of inventor John Ericsson, who gave a personal push to the building of the Monitor, the ironclad ship that performed so well in its famous duel with the Merrimack in Hampton Roads. Lincoln said at the time, “It strikes me there’s something in it.”

Though frequently distracted by Army misfortune and lethargic leadership, Lincoln had to deal with a Navy problem or two. For example, Charles Wilkes, headstrong captain of the USS San Jacinto patrolling off the island of Cuba, saw fit to stop the British packet steamer Trent and take into custody two Southern representatives sailing for Europe. The incident almost caused war with Britain.

In many ways, Wilkes was typical of naval officers of the era. They had long years of working at foreign stations, generally with few instructions from home, enduring slow promotion rates and becoming jealous of rank. They were never required to work with the Army. It’s a small miracle that Welles and Lincoln, with assists on occasion from other Cabinet officers, were able to sort out the attitudes they had inherited and organize a Navy that did much to win the war.

Some of the early good news came when Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, in coordination with the Army, notably then-Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, helped capture Forts Henry and Donelson along with other strong points on the western front. David Glasgow Farragut steamed fearlessly past defending forts and captured New Orleans, and still later, Flag Officer David Porter cooperated with Grant in the capture of Vicksburg in 1863, splitting the Confederacy.

In 1864, Farragut damned the torpedoes and went full speed ahead to close Mobile Bay to Confederate raiders. All these victories brought joy to the North and to the president, and at times they were the only cheerful news on the military front. Yet it was the president’s personal involvement in strategy that underlay almost very operation.

All didn’t always go perfectly, however. As late as 1865, Porter, by then in command of naval forces on the James River, would not follow directions, or even requests, from Grant in the siege of Richmond. Worse, there was no one below the rank of president to adjudicate disputes or allocate forces. Lincoln did not shrink from the task. That the United States had such a president at such a time was fortunate indeed.

Lincoln came to the presidency claiming he did not know much about ships or the sea, but he learned quickly. With the possible exception of the Roosevelts, no president has ever been as influential in identifying important technologies and applying the nation’s sea power as Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln and His Admirals” does an outstanding job of telling that story and much more. The references and bibliography are top-notch. The writing skills match. For anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War or the Navy, this is a must read.

Story Continues →