Thursday, May 10, 2018

Admiral-in-Chief: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Invasion of Norfolk, Part 2

By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Cheered on by Confederate soldiers manning the batteries at Craney Island at the western side of the mouth of the Elizabeth River, the casemate ironclad Virginia steams north into Hampton Roads with her escorts to take on the U.S. Navy ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Although this illustration probably depicts Virginia's first wildly successful foray into Hampton Roads in March 1862, later attempts by the former Merrimack to disrupt the operations of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron were much less dramatic, and the Confederate warship would ultimately meet her end off Craney Island in May. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
With the dust settling from the Navy’s bombardment of Sewells Point in May 1862, President Abraham Lincoln watched as a curl of black smoke appeared from around the bend of the Elizabeth River. Someone on the ramparts shouted “There comes the Merrimac!” The former U.S. Navy vessel, now the pride of the small Confederate Navy under the name CSS Virginia, was coming to strike a powerful blow to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, just as it had done in March of 1862. However, just as before, the U.S. Navy had USS Monitor to counter the iron monster.

As Lincoln departed Fort Wool with members of his cabinet to wisely retreat to the stronger Fort Monroe, Monitor advanced to protect the vulnerable wooden ships of the squadron with the experimental ironclad USRC (United States Revenue Cutter) E.A. Stevens. Also awaiting the Confederate ironclad was the powerful USS Vanderbilt, donated by the American railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, which was equipped with a ram designed to pierce the armor of Virginia's armor. They advanced towards the lumbering Virginia with only an empty sheet of water separating them. The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron had once again accepted the Virginia’s challenge.

USS Vanderbilt (1862-1873) in a period engraving by G. Parsons as published in Harper's Weekly, 1862. This former flagship of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's North Atlantic Mail Steamship Line was turned over to the U.S. Navy on March 24, 1862 and fitted with a heavy battery of 15 guns. (
As Lincoln, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton retreated from Fort Wool, they watched the unfolding drama as Monitor and Vanderbilt stared down CSS Virginia. For a few moments, nothing happened.  Then, as suddenly as a ship of such displacement could, Virginia turned and retreated back up the Elizabeth River. Lincoln’s strategic intuition had been sound; American naval supremacy in the area was enough to both silence Confederate batteries and turn back counterattacks from their mightiest ship. With their objectives completed, the ships returned to the shelter of Fort Monroe, but Lincoln was far from done.

Looking south, this 1862 print shows Fort Monroe's commanding view from Old Point Comfort in what is now Hampton. Named for President James Monroe, this, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, was constructed for coastal defense and was never taken by the Confederacy, serving as a key base of operations in Virginia. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division)
Lincoln immediately wanted to continue striking the enemy in Norfolk.  The next day, he ordered the Monitor, this time without Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough’s input, to confirm the silencing of the rebel batteries. In addition, Lincoln consulted with General John Wool, the commander of Fort Monroe and the U.S. Army forces in the area, on how to best launch an amphibious invasion of Norfolk. Wool was initially hesitant as he believed there was no suitable landing site, but Lincoln was insistent that a reconnaissance should be conducted and, should a landing site be found, an invasion force launched from Hampton.

General John E. Wool, then 78, was the oldest general to serve on either side of the American Civil War. The fort Lincoln watched the bombardment of Sewells Point from, originally known as Fort Calhoun, was renamed Fort Wool in honor of the old general who was in command of Fort Monroe. (Southworth & Hawes)

Lincoln sent Chase on the initial reconnaissance missions of May 8 to act as a direct liaison to Lincoln. Chase reported that he and Wool had indeed discovered a suitable landing point which was sheltered from any potential intervention by CSS Virginia. The President, wanting to see the landing site for himself, boarded a small tug with Secretaries Stanton and Chase, accompanied by a small party of soldiers from Fort Wool, to conduct an evening reconnaissance of the site. Thus, the  Commander-in-Chief, one with no military experience, personally led a reconnaissance mission of an enemy shore.  Confederate cavalry arrived on the beach to investigate the approaching vessels but Lincoln ordered that they not be fired upon.  Satisfied that the landing site was suitable, Lincoln returned to U.S. lines, and General Wool agreed to launch the amphibious invasion on May 10.

Salmon P. Chase was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and he accompanied the President, along with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, to Hampton Roads in May 1862. A former senator and governor, Chase played an active role in the military operations which led to Norfolk’s capture and is the only sitting Secretary of the Treasury to personally 
participate in an amphibious invasion.

The level of micromanagement Lincoln displayed in Hampton Roads may seem unusual, but it is important to recognize that Lincoln exercised such personal control over American forces out of what he believed was certain necessity. Lincoln was already frustrated with the lethargic progress of General McClellan’s 100,000-strong Army of the Potomac and he detected much of the same lethargy from Goldsborough and Wool.  Lincoln was perfectly willing to defer, delegate, and take a hands-off approach with military affairs and he frequently did so during the war with various Union commanders such as General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral David G. Farragut.

Photographer Matthew Brady captured the audacity of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, who was the naval antithesis of George McClellan. He aggressively commanded several fleets throughout the Civil War and consistently won victory after victory for the Union by striking directly at the enemy. Farragut famously ran past the forts which protected New Orleans on April 29, 1862, capturing the Confederacy’s largest city with only a minimal loss of life. (National Archives & Records Administration)
These men had what Goldsborough, Wool, and McClellan lacked; they aggressively and willingly took the fight to the enemy. Lincoln detested the timidity and over cautiousness of many Union commanders and was resolved that the best way to win the war was to take the fight to the enemy and strike them simultaneously at multiple points, as the Anaconda Plan called for, in order to best leverage the Union numerical superiority. Thus, when Lincoln believed it was necessary, the Commander-in-Chief personally intervened on many occasions to ensure that the U.S. Military was constantly striking the Confederacy in multiple places all at once.
This eyewitness sketch shows Union troops boarding transports on the wharf of Fort Monroe in order to invade Norfolk. Notice Lincoln, bottom center, participating in the preparations. (Library of Congress)
In the early morning hours of May 10, approximately 5,000 soldiers from Hampton and Newport News boarded ships to embark on the invasion of Norfolk. On the wharf of Fort Monroe, Lincoln, Chase, and Stanton stood at the heart of the action as Lincoln was, according to an observer, “…rushing about, hollering to someone on the wharf.” Lincoln was determined that the invasion he had ordered, planned, and personally reconnoitered be successful.
This print by C. Bohn shows the area around Camp Butler in Newport News, where many of the troops that participated in the invasion of Norfolk embarked.  (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division)
 As the rays of the morning sun began to shine with more intensity, Lincoln watched from aboard a tug as thousands of U.S. Army soldiers, personally led by Wool, landed unopposed near what is now known as Ocean View.  Navy Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge accompanied Lincoln on the tug and recalled that, “He was very much preoccupied. He sat out on deck, aloof from everyone else, and appeared extremely tired, careworn, and weighted down with responsibility.”

Brigadier General Egbert L. Viele in 1860. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The invasion was initially botched as the Union forces were disorganized but Chase, who had gone ashore with the troops while Lincoln stayed on ship, sprang into action and ordered Brig. Gen. Egbert Ludovicus Viele, who had accompanied Lincoln to Hampton Roads as a guest of the cabinet, to take command of the landing force “…in the name of the President of the United States.” With Viele in command, the Army quickly organized and made rapid progress towards Norfolk. With Confederates abandoning their positions before them, they surged forward until they were met a few miles outside of the city by the Mayor of Norfolk, who promptly surrendered the city. This was likely to buy time for the retreating Confederates, who were sabotaging the Gosport Naval Yard before completing their retreat. 
This illustration from Harper’s Weekly shows the surrender of Norfolk by Mayor William Lamb, whose son was a Confederate colonel serving in North Carolina. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Lincoln was overjoyed to hear the news of the victory and the icy and aloof demeanor Selfridge had observed seemed to melt away as Lincoln offered everyone his congratulations and even hugged General Wool. What Lincoln and the others did not know was that the Confederates had planned to abandon Norfolk eventually, yet Lincoln surely had forced their hand by compelling them to abandon Norfolk far sooner than they had wanted. The ultimate proof of this came the next morning as Goldsbourough reported to Lincoln the destruction of CSS Virginia at the hands of her own crew off Craney Island. The workers at the Gosport Naval Yard had been hard at work trying to lighten the Confederate vessel to reduce her draft to less than 18 feet, enough to get her over the shoals of the James River safely to Richmond. With the Union now in possession of Norfolk, the Confederates had run out of time and were forced to destroy their most powerful naval asset. Virginia had survived the might of three North Atlantic Blockading Squadron frigates, the Monitor, and battery fire, yet in the end she was destroyed as a result of the pragmatic and aggressive posture of the Commander-in-Chief.
This Currier and Ives lithograph shows the final moment of CSS Virginia off of Craney Island on May 11 where the fires set by her crew ignited the powder magazine, resulting in a massive explosion. The Confederacy would never again contest the U.S. Navy's supremacy in Hampton Roads. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Lincoln departed Hampton Roads on May 11, and perhaps his worth during his week in Hampton Roads is best summed up by those who were there. Chase wrote of the President’s conduct, “I think it quite certain if he had not come down Norfolk would still have been in possession of the enemy.” He later added, “So ended a brilliant week's campaign by the President.” A reporter for the Washington Star added, “The sailors all unite in saying he is a ‘trump’ and they also express the opinion that the success of the movement is due to the energy infused into it by ‘Uncle Abe.’” Lincoln, in the eyes of many Sailors, was an inspiring figure.
Scholars and enthusiasts alike believe this portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken on November 8, 1863, eleven days before his famed Gettysburg Address, to be the best photograph of him ever taken. Lincoln’s character was notoriously difficult to capture in pictures, but Alexander Gardner’s close-up portrait, quite innovative in contrast to the typical full-length portrait style commonly used by Matthew Brady, comes closest to preserving the expressive contours of Lincoln’s face and his penetrating gaze. (Scewing/ Wikimedia Commons)
Lincoln’s qualities as a commander-in chief were on full display during his week in Hampton Roads. Though he possessed no military experience nor was he a navalist by training, Lincoln nevertheless immediately and aggressively rallied his naval assets to strike at Sewells Point, stare down the vaunted Virginia, reconnoiter a hostile coast, and land an amphibious force to take Norfolk. Lincoln was a natural and intuitive naval strategist who essentially acted as a commanding flag officer who successfully took the fight to the enemy despite the trepidation of both Goldsborough and Wool. Perhaps, if the circumstances of his life had gone much differently, Lincoln would have been a capable admiral.

Editor's note: For more on President Abraham Lincoln's relationship with, and management of, the United States Navy, check out Craig Symonds' Lincoln and his Admirals (Oxford University Press, 2008)

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